Re: RARA-AVIS: Newton Thornburg

From: John Williams (
Date: 21 Nov 2007

Terrill Lankford wrote:

Couldn't agree with you more, mrt. Thornburg is a true original. A terrific writer who appears to be nearly forgotten now. I know CUTTER AND BONE was reissued about a decade ago, but I think most of his other books are now out of print. Someone should come along and do trade paperbacks of all of them and get this guy the attention he deserves.

Um, actually at Serpent's Tail we have reissued Cutter & Bone, To Die In California and Dreamland, they're all readily available from Amazon on both sides of the pond. We've stopped at those three as, to my mind, they're his three noir classics. And, let's face it, we chickened out of reissuing either the future race-war novel Valhalla, or the incestuous romance, Beautiful Kate! Of the rest, his first novel Gentleman Born is an interesting autobiographical coming of age novel, Knockover is a decent heist novel and Black Angus a good but depressing book about farm failure. The Lion at The Door is an OK noir but anything after that I recall as disappointing, no doubt due to his failing health.

Ah I've just remembered I wrote Thornburg's entry for the St James encyclopedia. I've pasted it below if anyone's interested.



  Newton Thornburg is pretty much the definitive crime writer as outsider. Nine books in twenty-odd years obsessively work and rework the same themes. These are stories of loners with harsh, short names - Hook, Stone, Cutter, Bone, Crow, Cross - who have had their lives tipped out of their control, generally by fate, the government or both.

Thornburg's first novel _Gentleman Born_ marked out one of his major themes, the family tragedy. Brandon Kendall is the last remnant of an old money Midwestern family, his father killed himself, his cousins died in a boating accident when they were children together, and golden boy Brandon is intent on going to the bad just as fast and as far as he can. Gambling and women are his chosen route to oblivion and along the way he entangles himself in small town corruption. When the end comes it is bleak and bloody and no surprise

A relatively conventional caper novel, _The Knockover_, followed and Thornburg's subsequent literary career has tended to oscillate between these two poles. Family gone bad sagas like _Black Angus_ or _Beautiful Kate_ have alternated with seemingly more conventional crime novels like
_Cutter And Bone_ (his greatest success, filmed as Cutter's Way),
_Dreamland_, or his most recent work, _The Lion At The Door_.

However the contrast is superficial: all these books are driven by the same question of how one comes to terms with unbearable loss. Cutter in
_Cutter And Bone_ was crippled in Vietnam, Greg Kendall in _Beautiful Kate_ tries to come to terms with his sister's death following their incestuous relationship, Blanchard in _Black Angus_ is losing his dream, his farm in the Ozarks, Kohl in _The Lion At The Door_ has lost both farm and family. This theme of loss takes flight as an echo of the American mood post-Vietnam; a sense that the whole country is losing control, losing sight of its dream.

In his strangest novel, _Valhalla_, this connection is made all too explicit. It's an apocalyptic novel of a near future in which America is gripped by race war, and in it Thornburg's terminal pessimism as to the state of America leads him into territory uncomfortably close to that inhabited by the survivalist ultra-right..

 Thornburg's pessimism is far more effective in his crime-based novels like _Cutter And Bone_ and _Dreamland_ whose pace prevents melancholic wallowing and whose cynicism is all too appropriate to the task of exposing the corporate roots of American crime. In these two novels particularly, Thornburg stands as a defiantly individual voice within the crime canon, bleak and true.


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