Novels That Were Right for Me at the Time
This post originated as a guest post during my November Book Tour with Innovative Online Book Tours. The stop was at Hooks and Book, a blog run by Erin Maurer. Rather than posting about my favorite books, I thought it might be more interesting to list books that , looking back to when I read them, seem to coincide with something that was going on in my life. Thanks to Erin for hosting me, and A Bridge to Treachery.
Battle Cry, a WWII novel is a story for its time. A group of young men join the Marines, endure basic training under the tutelage of a grizzled sergeant, deploy to the Pacific, say goodbye to their sweethearts, and go ashore at Guadalcanal. I was handed a tattered copy of the book as a sophomore in high school that was making the rounds of all my classmates at the time. It was the mid-fifties, and the Korean War had just ended. This is a book that introduced me to all manner of emotions and motivations of teenagers only three or four years older than me, who had a baptism of fire that I would never have to endure. The book is full of cliches, cardboard characters, and hot sex scenes. We talked about it endlessly, fantasized about it more, and filled the local theater when the movie came out.
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
This book was a favorite of American Lit professors. It was the basis for a seminar I attended at West Point, and later served the same purpose in a correspondence course I completed. While I didn’t think of it as such at the time, my life followed the pattern of narrator Nick Carroway who moved east from the midwest as a young man where he encountered Jay Gatsby. It is the first book I read in which the story delivers a commentary on the time and place it depicts. There are symbols everywhere. It’s a good book to have read and studied.
Preservation Hall – Scott Spencer
This is a book I found while wandering the stacks in the local library. I started reading and couldn’t put it down. Virgil Morgan is embarrassed by his eccentric father who he describes as a man given to wearing a goatee, a beret, and green velvet pants; and who is relentless in his pursuit of success as a composer of serious music. Virgil travels with his father from Chicago to New York where he meets and falls in love with Tracey. He and Tracey live and love well for a while but they can’t escape the ill fortune that seems to cling to Virgil’s father. A horrifying experience in a snowbound farm house in Maine bring events to a head. The writing is right on, most of the time. I’ve read this book a couple of times. The father-son relationship is faintly familiar to my own.
Deliverance – James Dickey
Four suburban men from the Atlanta area gather to take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before it is emasculated by the construction of a dam. It is a novel that is grounded in geography. The four encounter the poor inhabitants of the region, and soon the story begins to unfold as a metaphor for the brutal damming of the river seemingly without concern for the people whose lives will be altered by it forever. Two of the paddlers are assaulted by mountain men, an event that releases a torrent of moral implications. I read Deliverance when I was about the same age as the suburbanites, at a time when I was very much involved in meandering over deeply wooded areas of New York. These explorations were never the same after reading Deliverance.
Just before I galvanized myself for the writing of my debut novel A Bridge to Treachery, I studied several How to Write a Novel books, and the best one I could find was John Braine’s. John wrote A Room at the Top in the fifties, and it was an instant hit. Joe Lampton, comes to town with lots of ambition and even more desire. It’s a novel that captures the culture in the British Isles at the time, an extreme example of overbearing class consciousness. True to his advice about writing a novel, John eschews flashbacks and tells a straight forward story that is moving and tragic. I’ve read it a couple of times.
Killing Mr. Watson – Peter Matthiessen
My wife Jan and I used to travel from our home in Maine to Birmingham, Alabama to visit family by car once a year. We listened to audio books on the way down and back. One of the books we listened to was Killing Mr. Watson, a totally absorbing experience. The story takes place in the Florida Everglades in the early 1900s. It is a story based on Edgar J. Watson, an actual person who was a bigger than life character for all of his neighbors. Matthiessen tells the story through eye witness, first person reports from the people who knew Watson. The evocations of coastal Florida geography, wildlife, and the primitive living conditions are gripping. The story starts with Watson’s demise at the hands of his neighbors, and works backwards to tell the fascinating details of how he brought himself down.
Window on a War: An Anthropologist in the Vietnam Conflict – Gerald Cannon Hickey
My experience in the Vietnam War was as an advisor the 23rd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. My four man team was based with the Rangers in Plieku in the Central Highlands in the 1967-68 time period. The mission of the unit was to deploy anywhere within the Central Highlands we were needed. Twice, for a period of a month each time, we provided security to Edap Enang, a resettlement village. The American 4th Infantry Division had moved hundreds of indigenous Montagnard villagers who lived in bucolic thatched roof villages in the general vicinity of the Ia Drang Valley region. Their new quarters were tin roofed huts on stilts aligned in rows at Edap Enang a large, treeless hillside. At the time, I had no appreciation for how the Montagnards felt about this forced evacuation or for their living conditions at Edap Enang. Only decades later, when I read Window on a War, did I understand the injustice of the plight of the Montagnards, and the whole story of American involvement in Edap Enang. .
Airborne – A Sentimental Journey – William F. Buckley
While living in New Jersey, I became fascinated with the sensational Edgar Smith murder case. The investigation and trial filled the pages of the then fledgling newspaper The Bergen Record. Smith was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Through repeated appeals that Smith engineered from his cell, he avoided this fate, and drew the attention of William F. Buckley who was much impressed with Smith’s intelligence. Buckley helped Smith get his first degree murder conviction reduced to second degree whereupon he was released from jail, having served 13 years or so. On the eve of his release, Smith appeared on Buckley’s TV Show “The Firing Line”. For several years, Smith earned a living off his notoriety. He moved to California. There, he assaulted another woman and was sentenced to life in prison. I wrote a play entitled Transit of Venus the basis of which was this sordid Edgar Smith story. I researched the Buckley involvement partially by reading Airborne, a tale about a sailing adventure that Buckley, his son, and a couple of friends enjoyed. It’s a good read about privileged men who can afford to take a month or two to sail the Caribbean. In it, Buckley muses on the subject of loneliness at sea while taking his turn on watch. Loneliness is probably the only emotion he shared with his ill begotten friend Smith as he languishes to this day in prison.
First Blood – David Morrell
In the presss release for my debut novel A Bridge to Treachery, my publisher Brighton Publishing LLC draws a parallel between Lou Christopher the protagonist of my book and John Rambo, the main character of First Blood. I decided I should read it. Rambo, maybe the prototype for all the damaged Vietnam Vets populating books and movies of the era runs afoul of Teasle, the chief of police of a town he enters. He escapes jail, and begins a book long chase scene through the woods and caves of Kentucky. The motivations of Rambo and Teasle are reminders of the thinking of our political leaders during the Vietnam Conflict. The movie is a showcase for a beautified Sylvester Stallone, but the book bears no relation to this. It’s a compelling, fast paced story that stays with the reader long after he puts the book down.
Word of Honor – Nelson DeMille
After A Bridge to Treachery came out, a lawyer friend told me of a book he liked a lot called Word of Honor. I took it to be a suggestion of what he considered to be a good novel. He gave me his copy of the paper back. It’s a much longer book than mine, maybe three times as long in fact. It’s highly acclaimed as well it should be. Long after the war, Ben Tyson, a good man, is called back into military service as a lieutenant, to stand trial in a military court on a charge of murder. The story probes most of the emotions, and moral implications of charges of wartime atrocities. It captures a weariness of bearing the weight of events many years in the past. It’s a well written book.