It was almost 40 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, prowling around the cramped and labyrinthine aisles of a bookstore on Clark Street in Chicago, a couple blocks south of Diversey Boulevard. And, there on one of the rows of paperback fiction, I saw a title that caught my eye, Now Playing at Canterbury.
It was by Vance Bourjaily, a major American writer whose star, by this time, was starting to set as literary fashions moved along to the Great Next. Now Playing at Canterbury was his wildly inventive modern version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I loved it.
Then, I came across The Violated, his 1958 book about four friends whose lives are twisted and snarled in the aftermath of World War II. It knocked me off my feet.
Over the years, I read everything I could of his. He was, and remains, my favorite author. I even had the chance to review his last published novel, Old Soldier, for the Chicago Tribune.
That was a quarter of a century ago, and, in the meantime, all of his books went out of print.
Finally, nearly five years after his death at the age of 87, four of his novels are again available to a new generation of readers.
They’re “in print,” and they’re not in print. Which is to say they are available as ebooks only, no printed versions. But I’m not complaining.
As much as I love my hardcover and paperback copies of his books, I know that ebooks have a growing audience, and I’m sure that any ebook reader today who loves good — even great — fiction will find reading Bourjaily a rich experience.
As a writer myself, I learned much from him — from his clear, direct, insistent prose. There are complicated jazz-like rhythms at work underneath his seemingly simple sentences.
Take this one from the opening of a chapter in Bourjaily’s 1970 book Brill Among the Ruins, one of the four novels that went on sale on April 28 from Open Road Integrated Media.
Given the kind of choice of animal abilities we sometimes offer children — would you rather be able to run like a deer, dig like a mole, or fly like an eagle? — Robert Brill would have chosen hibernation.
I have sought, in my own writing, to achieve the same lively interaction of words and ideas, the same cleanliness of line (with a minimum of adjectives) and the same explosions of delightful surprise that “hibernation” gives to that sentence.
More, though, I have always found in Bourjaily a man who was looking at the same world that I see.
It is a world that lacks the sureties of theory, a world in which, at times, the good do bad things, and the bad do good things. A world in which you and I do good and bad things. A world that we don’t control. It’s the world that 19th century English poet Matthew Arnold described at the end of “Dover Beach”: “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash at night.”
His characters live face to face with the bittersweetness of existence. The sea of life sweeps over them, but they endure. They make their choices and live with their choices. They confront the unanswerable questions with dignity.
I am so happy that these four books are again available.
Here are some excerpts from the other three novels:
From Confessions of a Spent Youth:
Two men are sitting on the porch of an isolated farmhouse in the Virginia hills, looking off towards Bailey’s Mountain. One is Cowboy Harris and the other is me.
I call myself a man, but it is only one of the courtesies with which an adolescent soothes himself, for I fail in every test of manhood used in this locality.
From The End of My Life:
The melancholia was over now, and the hangover, which was listlessness, set in. It seemed to Skinner, looking back over the past week, thinking of similar attacks of depression that had preceded this one, that it turned life into a sort of long distance swim.
From The Violated:
Look, in a condemned house in Brooklyn, some children are performing Hamlet.
It is a very serious, single performance. There are measure of brilliance in it, and also measures of monotony. The acting is at times self-conscious, but in general these children are absorbed in their roles to the point of abandon. There is an overall intensity in what they are doing which seems to derive from the fourteen year old girl who plays the title role and who has been the director.
Resuming the play
Those five sentences are the opening words of The Violated. Over the next few pages, Bourjaily describes the play and the acting and the children with such intensity that, when the performance is interrupted, you wait — you long — for it to resume.
It never does. It is a metaphor for the lives of those children and of the story of their adulthood.
After more than three decades, I’m still waiting for that play to resume.
Patrick T. Reardon