Roger Sale is a critic and journalist. Until 1999, he was Professor of English at the University of Washington. His books include Modern Heroism: Essays on D. H. Lawrence, William Empson and J.R.R. Tolkien and On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic.

Two-Eyed Jacks

It is the spring of 1951, and I am in the basement of a college dorm playing in an all-night poker game. At the end of a five-card-stud hand I have an ace, a queen, and the low cards showing, and I have a ten in the hole. My only …

Our Town

Cities and towns in the dry West always look as if they have dropped there arbitrarily. The landscape is so big, and often so barren, that human activity seems messy, aimless, marginal. Plains, mountains, endless wind, huge sky, and then—Butte, or Denver, or Casper seems wrongly placed even after one …

Life With Father

While reading William Wharton’s wonderful novel, Dad, I could not help imagining, as many will, the circumstances of its composition. It has the tone of intense personal quest that leads the reader to such speculations. I ended up with this: Wharton (a pseudonym) spent some months five years ago in …

Golden Gaits

When the long sections of Laughing in the Hills appeared in The New Yorker, I was delighted and envious. I have myself written about Longacres, the race track in Seattle, trying to say what it is to be a bettor and absorbed onlooker. Bill Barich spent the spring of 1978 …

Stranger than Nonfiction

Fantasy, children’s literature, and science fiction—alternatives to the realistic novel—are becoming more common, not just as popular literature but as subjects for academics to teach. The fictional techniques of Malory, Dumas, Conan Doyle, of tale tellers sitting around the fire, all are much discussed and adapted. Leslie Fiedler, in his …

Stubborn Steinbeck

John Steinbeck went to Stanford University in the fall of 1919 saying he wanted to be a writer. At seventeen, he had written little, none of it promising, but he knew the power that the writing of others held over him, and he longed for some of that power himself.

Love and War

There must be a way to write a good novel about Americans in the Vietnam war, but the authors of the three or four I have read have not found it. The sad fact about Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers is that its way of failing isn’t very interesting. If any …

Portrait of the Artist

Most schinck fiction in the last decade or so has been voycuristic—glimpses in to Hollywood, rock musicians, the jet set, corrupt politicians, replete with drugs, kinky sex, casual violence, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, of which more copies than the Bible have been in print during the last five years, lets …

Picking Up the Pieces

Two first novels by very young writers, two others by veterans, all raise in different ways the problem of arbitrariness. In each of them I find myself reading about this person or these circumstances, then read about a quite different person or different circumstances. Why so long here, so short …

Hurled into Vietnam

While in Vietnam Herr preferred to say he was a writer rather than a reporter. The soldiers could not have cared less about such a distinction since they knew that anyone who was in Vietnam by choice was mad. It mattered to Herr, though. His assignment was indefinite, he never had to listen to press briefings or trace down the lies of the generals, he did not have to file daily or weekly stories, to stay in one place, or to go where some editor, listening to the lies, told him to go.

In Hardy Country

On the Ridgeway, a broad grass path on the northern edge of the Berkshire downs, there is a lonely spot of great beauty near where the road from Wantage, in the Vale of the White Horse below, crosses the path on its way over the downs to Hungerford, fourteen miles …

Hostages

One can say much in the first person, and during the last twenty years or so many American novelists have imagined they could say virtually anything. But the “I” presents problems, limits, unwonted consequences, too: I was born right here in Clarion; I grew up in that big brown turreted …

A Family Matter

In The Lardners we look—to use a phrase of John Ford’s—not upon the ruins of a man but upon the ruins of those ruins. Ring Lardner’s third and only living son has written a book which means to be sweet but in fact is maddeningly without any flavor at all.

Hooked!

“Old man,” says a character in Wright Morris’s The Huge Season, “a book can have Chicago in it, and not be about Chicago. It can have a tennis player in it without being about a tennis player.” He then points to a book of Hemingway’s: “There’s a prizefighter in it, …

Murder, she says.

Agatha Christie died early this year at the age of eighty-five, the author of as many books as she had years and the most widely read writer in the world. At least 400 million copies of her works have been sold, and The Mousetrap may well run longer than any …

Fathers & Fathers & Sons

Is it possible to read The Sun Also Rises too often? Sad and charming and funny, young in just the right way, unbesmirched by, what makes so much other Hemingway foolish or wrong, it retains its magic the tenth time through. Yet Tim O’Brien has read it too often, let …

From Ragtime to Riches

The leading characters in E. L. Doctorow’s very splashy Ragtime are a family, called by name Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and “the boy,” plus Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K. Thaw, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Baron Ashkenazy and his daughter, …

Typing It Up

Early in A Fan’s Notes, the first of Frederick Exley’s books about himself, he says that while others might inherit from their fathers a head for figures or a gold watch, he “acquired this need to have my name whispered in reverential tones.” A curse indeed, as we shall see.

Bringing the News

Dog Soldiers is a truly grim book, relentless in a way that makes other books claiming to look at the dark side of American life seem at least slightly deflecting or palliative in their final effect. Robert Stone’s publishers say he offers a “vision of our predicament,” but if that …

The Hammett Case

In the early Fifties, when I first read Dashiell Hammett, he seemed to fit perfectly an image my friends and I had then of a writer who had made being a writer into a romantic occupation. He had lived in “the real world,” he had suffered years of obscurity and …

Winter’s Tales

One takes one’s chances with Iris Murdoch. I read her first ten novels as they appeared, but gradually realized that both success and failure with her seemed like accidental results of her need to keep writing, and so missed a few after that. Bruno’s Dream has some good moments, and …

The Way We Live Now

Truman Capote, on the back of The War Between the Tates, says Jane Austen would enjoy this novel; the author, Alison Lurie, is called the Queen Herod of modern fiction by Gore Vidal, and the wisest woman in America by James Merrill. Which is the kind of press Lurie has …

The Dangers of Nostalgia

Carol Hill’s Let’s Fall in Love has such a bad title that one quickly feels driven to invent others. Like Let’s Get Away from It All. On page 3 we are in “Zurich: 1:22 P.M.,” on page 4 in “Leeds: 4:01 P.M.,” on page 6, “Rome: 4:17 P.M.,” and, still …

Wrestling With Fiction

Yes, the bright book of life indeed, not just the novel, as Lawrence said, but the American novel of the last thirty years, as Alfred Kazin now says. It has all the necessary qualities of a great form gaining and sustaining its energy in an historical period, like the Elizabethan …

General Practitioners

The servile specialist, eloquently ignorant of any department of thought but his own, and therefore fundamentally ignorant of essential relationships in his own field, was undoubtedly a product of the Brown Decades: but it is our own fault, not that of the earlier period, that he has become a chronic …

A Dirty Dean and a Brazen Head

The State Farm Insurance Company runs an ad on television that depicts the morning walk of Bob Warnke, State Farm agent in Cozad, Nebraska. It is predictable fantasy about a small town where the old values still hold true, where insurance men are good neighbors and not crooks, and where …

Playboys and a Working Woman

Dan Jenkins is just playing around in Semi-Tough, his novel about a New York Giant running back and his friends during the week before a Super Bowl. He has written not a real novel, but a pretty good book of jokes. Here is Billy Clyde Puckett, hero-narrator, when asked what …

Plunging into Life

By all rights, John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman should have been much worse than it is. Its method is documentary, its aim is consciousness raising, not the loftiest of fictional ways and goals. Williams has, apparently, gone over every inch of ground where, at any time in American history, black …