Re: RARA-AVIS: Newton Thornburg

From: sonny (
Date: 22 Jan 2010

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    thanks.  will do.

    --- On Fri, 1/22/10, John Williams <> wrote:

    From: John Williams <> Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: Newton Thornburg To: Date: Friday, January 22, 2010, 1:07 PM

    sonny wrote:

    > i was disappointed with 'eve's men' by thornburg, tho the man can
    > write, no doubt about it and it's not without interest. but following
    > 'cutter and bone' it was a let down for me. perhaps every other book
    > by him will feel the same, which would be ashame. i will still be
    > reading more of him.
    The more recent Thornburgs are weaker than his early stuff. If you liked Cutter and Bone try Dreamland and To Die In California, not quite as good, but not too far off either. Meanwhile the success of The Road is making me consider re-reading Thornburg's end of civilization novel, Valhalla. I dimly recall that it was critiqued as neo-fascist at the time, though I even more dimly remember disagreeing.


    Oh, while I'm at it I've just dug out the entry on Thornburg I wrote for St James Encyclopedia, donkey's years ago.



    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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