Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

In our last, very exciting episode, I began the saga of Run-DMSteve’s Big Fat 2014 Reading Theme. I told you about the four biographies I read that had their moments but never reached escape velocity. Today we’re going to leave Earth orbit with the five best biographies of the year.

I should note that I like to read about the lives of people I could imagine myself being; for example, famous writers and editors or the occasional magician or Arctic explorer. I’ve never imagined myself to be the queen of Egypt, but I was mesmerized by Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (2010).

Cleopatra may have been one of the most influential leaders in the formation of the Western world, but her story has never been her own to tell. We’ve been suckered by 2,000 years of anti-Cleopatra propaganda. We’re not even sure what she looks like.

Schiff sweeps aside centuries of lies and does a brilliant job of revealing the smart, daring woman who led her kingdom in an era as dangerous as Europe before World War I. Sadly, she backed the wrong man in the war that created the Roman Empire. Mark Antony wasn’t good boyfriend material after all. Octavian took “Emperor” as his new job title, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt became a Roman province.

Cleopatra: A Life (which won Schiff her second Pulitzer) reminds me of another superlative book, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984). Connell pulls off the same trick, wading through the myths to find the truth about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Cleopatra Fun Fact: Cleopatra had about as much Egyptian DNA as Elizabeth Taylor.

Bonus Cleopatra Fun Fact: Egypt is so old that when the action in this book begins, the Sphinx had just had a face-lift…1,000 years before.

Extra Innings Cleopatra Fun Fact: When Cleopatra needed some muscle, she hired Jewish mercenaries from Judea.

Back to the dead white guys. (My people!) Next up is A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978). Max Perkins was the first to publish F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. By the standards of his time, Perkins took a risk with all three. All three were fascinating characters, though I found Wolfe’s behavior intolerable. I couldn’t wait for him to die and get the hell out of the book, but I have to admit, he stole the show.

This seems appropriate for a man who never stopped writing. If you asked him to cut 10,000 words, he’d come back a week later with an extra 20,000. Actually, he wouldn’t come back, you’d have to go get him. The day that Perkins went to Wolfe’s apartment and informed him that Of Time and the River was done, just put the pages in order and surrender it, is one of the classic moments in U.S. literature.

Berg demonstrates the gifts Perkins brought to his work and shows why everyone loved him, where his sense of duty came from, and why he was always so damn unhappy (see sense of duty). I enjoyed reading about all the writers who were Perkins’ boys and girls (to the Big Three you can add James Jones and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings). Afterwards I felt as if I had lived all the decades I’d just read about.

Max Perkins Fun Fact: Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe were father and son, teacher and student, guardian and rebel, and finally adversaries (Wolfe’s choice). Wolfe died in 1938. The last thing he wrote was a letter to Perkins. Perkins died in 1947. The last thing he edited was an introduction to a collection of Wolfe’s papers at Harvard.

Now let’s ride the elephant in the room: the 6’6” Thomas Wolfe. (He was the same height as Michael Jordan and one inch taller than Chuck Connors.) David Herbert Donald, who won a Pulitzer for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1989), favors the idea that Wolfe was a genius. He believes that Wolfe’s editors put a strait-jacket on his prose to make it fit into conventional books.

But he also makes it clear that Wolfe had all the stability of the San Andreas Fault. John Dos Passos called Wolfe a “gigantic baby.” A psychologist who met Wolfe on a train and had dinner with him said that he “ate somewhat the way he talked [continuously], except that things were going the other way.” Inviting this guy over to your house was asking for trouble.

Wolfe never held a job, never learned to type or drive, never had a successful relationship. He couldn’t manage any device more complicated than a zipper – which was handy, because after he became famous, he was thrilled to find that he no longer had to pay for sex.

Somehow, Wolfe attracted many devoted friends, male and female. Fitzgerald said that of all the writers of their generation, Wolfe had the “deepest culture.” Maxwell Perkins tried to teach him how to write novels, his agent Elizabeth Nowell tried to teach him how to write short stories, and his women friends tried to teach him how to be a man. None of them got very far. And yet as gross as Wolfe was, this book is engrossing.

Thomas Wolfe Fun Fact: It was Wolfe who figured out why most protagonists in fiction are young: no one lives long enough to know how to write old characters.

Julie Phillips did a noteworthy job in James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006). Tiptree was an acclaimed science-fiction writer of the 1970s and ’80s. I knew nothing about him, except that he was actually a woman and that she and her husband committed suicide when they were old and her husband was sick.

Now I am stunned by her life. Alice Sheldon, who was born in 1915, started out as a spoiled rich kid. She was headed for a debutante’s ball and an early marriage into wealth. Instead, she became a bohemian painter, a WWII photo interpreter for the Air Force, a CIA bureaucrat, a psychologist, and finally a trail-blazing, feminist writer. This doesn’t count her youthful sideline as a sexual hellcat.

She was probably bisexual, but she had no knowledge or even a vocabulary for what she wanted from women. She came to believe she was an “alien artifact” in a woman’s body; she was a woman who could only write about women by becoming a man. She was so isolated socially that she once claimed she had never held a baby.

Even if Tiptree’s fiction is not the sort of fiction you like to read, this is the kind of life you should read about. Of all the biographies I read last year, her life was the most strange, and yet her soul was the most…human.

James Tiptree Fun Fact: I’ve met some of the writers who corresponded with Tiptree. This gave me the chance to be nosy and read their correspondence.

Finally, my favorite book of the year: Updike, by Adam Begley (2014). John Updike was my writer hero, and after his death in 2009 I was eager to read the first biography. I was not disappointed. This is not just a book, this is an event.

I used to think that the gap between me and John Updike was about the size of the Grand Canyon. I was wrong. It’s from here to the Moon.

I can’t write objectively about Updike or this awesome biography. Instead I’ll just quote from Orhan Pamuk’s review in The New York Times: “This book’s overall effect on me is a desire to sit down at my desk and work harder and write more.”

John Updike Fun Fact: Lots of children have imaginary friends, but how many adults write 179-page books about their imaginary friend? That’s what Nicholson Baker did in U and I: A True Story. Almost nothing in this true story is true, and yet everything is true, and it was all inspired by Baker’s love for Updike, “a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!” Possibly the weirdest book on my lifetime reading list, not counting Baker’s other books.

Thanks for reading along, even those of you who clicked away in the first sentence and the rest of you who never scroll down. I am caught up with 2014. Back to the music!

 

We’ve just returned from a week in Utah, where Special D and I visited Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and various roadside attractions.

The hiking in Capitol Reef is beyond belief. In this hot, arid, wind-sculpted, high-altitude wonderland I felt that I had invaded an ancient Egyptian city. The silent domes and cliffs and hieroglyphs suggest unimaginable chasms of time.

CR 3

Bryce Canyon, which was new to me, is filled with spooky stone towers called hoodoos. (This makes me think of comic-relief characters in old novels who were constantly fending off the heebie-jeebies, the jim-jams, and the dipsy-doodles.) Some of the hoodoos look like the terra cotta soldiers buried with Chinese emperors; some look like Hindu gods. If I were a little less awed, I’d say they all look like candle drippings on a Chianti bottle.

Bryce 3a

The canyonlands were well-stocked with Brits and Germans in rented RVs, followed by the French, the Japanese, and the Australians. Are Australians always happy, or are they just happy to be anywhere but Australia? Are all Germans over 30 depressed, or do their faces just naturally do that?

Kudos to the state of Utah. Of all the states I’ve traveled in, Utah has the most highway signs that haven’t been aerated by gun slobs.

Chow time
We found something good to eat almost everywhere we went. The last time I hiked in Capitol Reef was about 25 years ago, and back then the best you could hope for for dinner was barbecued iguana. Plus you had to run it down yourself.

Capitol Reef Inn & Café was just up the road from our cabin in Torrey. Ooh-la-la! If this restaurant were in downtown Portland, it would be so popular that no one would go there anymore.

At the Burr Trail Grill, the tattooed staff not only serves up a first-class burger, they also produce the best apple pie I have ever eaten, and that includes my wife’s, and it’s safe for me to say this because she said it first. We took some pie back to our cabin for breakfast. Later that morning I did a solo hike with no more fuel than that pie. Sure, on this hike I was lost for about an hour, but was I hungry and lacking in energy? Heck no!

On our way into Utah, we stopped at a town called Payson, and not because Footloose was filmed there. We didn’t know that. All we knew was that we wanted lunch. We found a terrific Mexican place: Mi Rancherito. Good town to walk around in, but it was Sunday and we couldn’t get into the Peteetneet Museum and Cultural Arts Center, a Victorian extravaganza named for a Ute Indian chief.

On our way out of Utah, we stopped in tiny Snowville. At Mollie’s Café, where the staff is friendly even though the building looks as if it wants to fall down and take a rest already, we split a superb cinnamon roll.

In Idaho we stopped for a late dinner in the desolation of downtown Mountain Home. Frankie’s Burgers was empty on a Saturday night and I can’t understand why, because I don’t know where in Idaho you’re going to get a better burger.

In Baker City, Oregon, we breakfasted in the 19th-century splendor of the Geiser Grand Hotel, and then, in the only non-food shout-out in this section, we spent a pleasant hour at Betty’s Books. I have never seen an independent book store with so many new books from traditional publishers and so many small-press regional histories and indie press fiction and memoir. They even had used books:

Betty's Books b

I’m home. Next week we return to Prince and my usual hailstorm of unlikely opinions.

Song of the Day and Bonus Song of the Day
“Bring It to Jerome,” on Bo Diddley (1957)
We stayed one night in a hotel in Jerome, Idaho, which whacked this song into my head. Bo Diddley didn’t write “Bring It to Jerome” because he stayed in the Comfort Inn and he liked the scented soap. He wrote it for his maracas player, Jerome Green.

In 1959, Bo and Jerome collaborated on “Say Man,” which is three minutes of them trash-talking each other and slinging bad jokes while the guitar and piano play. (“Where you from?” “South America.” “What part?” “South Texas.”) “Say Man” was Bo Diddley’s only trip to the Top 20. That ain’t right.

Bo Diddley is an important step forward for rock ’n’ roll. But like most stuff from the ’50s, it sounds dated, and a lot of it sounds the same. Chuck Berry has the same problem. But “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” and “Who Do You Love?” are all on Bo Diddley. Give it a listen.

Book of the Day and Bonus Books of the Day
Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story (1991)
This is the story of Nick Baker’s friendship with John Updike…which he made up. Lots of children have imaginary friends, but how many adults write 179-page books about one? Baker’s impossibly convuluted sentences gallop on for days, including one startling specimen about Updike being “so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder” which began on page 43 and collapsed, all passion spent, on page 45. Possibly the weirdest book on my lifetime reading list, not counting Baker’s other books that I’ve read, musings by various French existentialists and Irish nihilists that I was forced to march through in college, and the Bible.

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker (2006), and
The Rejection Collection: The Cream of the Crap (2007)
Cartoons rejected by The New Yorker. Any questions? Vol. 1 is funnier than vol. 2. Each chapter begins with an artist responding to the editor’s ridiculous questionnaire. Paul Noth, who led off vol. 2, has two of the best answers. Where do his ideas come from: “From a magical place called Boredom.” What would be a terrible pizza topping: “Mike Wallace.”

 

When I moved to Seattle in 1980 I lived in the Jensen Block on Eastlake Avenue, in a neighborhood of aging wooden houses, aging people, and industries that made things that few people wanted anymore, like rubber stamps that said JOB COMPLETED, READY TO BILL and kits to install your own seatbelts. The building was brick and flat-topped and even today, decked out with shiny glass storefronts at curbside, it looks tired. The Jensen Block has been standing at the corner of Eastlake and Mercer, downhill from the freeway, since before there was a freeway. Or cars. It needs time off.

I dwelled with my typewriter and books in a furnished room with a shared bath above a tavern. The Store Room? I can’t send away to the 1980s for an answer. They had a jukebox, but I could only hear the bass lines of the songs. I couldn’t tell what the songs were. The shifting, muffled thump was the background to my life in that building, where people came and went but a hard core of hard-luck cases lived on year after year.

On Friday and Saturday nights the bar stayed open until 2am, with plenty of people and music, all of which sounded like a roomful of bass players to the guy upstairs pounding out another science fiction story on his Smith Corona typewriter. I usually fell into bed, exhausted, around 1am. Around 2:30, after half an hour of silence, the jukebox came on again. It was louder than before, possibly because the music was no longer being soaked up by all those drinkers. The jukebox played one song. Someone, probably the guy who’d been hired to swab out the place and was in there alone, yelled “Whooooooh!” about 20 seconds in. The bass and the “Whooooooh!” always woke me up. Five minutes later, the song ended, silence reigned, and I went back to sleep. It was comforting, I guess because I’d embarked on a new life and this was one of my few routines. Whatever “it” was.

One night the tavern closed at 2am and when it did the music was over. Like those of us who could, the cleaning man had moved on. Soon I did too. Although I made some friends there, I don’t know where anyone went or what happened to the people who stayed until the ’90s when the building was closed and remodeled and reopened. I’d like to know more about the men who formed a band that summer and called themselves The Mars Dodgers. They all wore baseball jerseys. I never heard them play.

A year or two later, at a dance, the dj put a record on the table and a familiar bass line spilled into the room and I was so surprised that I laughed: The cleaning man’s favorite song was “Emotional Rescue” by The Rolling Stones. I hadn’t known that Mick had a speaking part near the end. I hadn’t known anything at all except that the beat went one-two, THREE-four, five-six, SEVEN-eight. When I mentioned this song in my post last week, the Jensen Block came back to me. I’m happy I don’t live on that treeless street anymore.

If there’s any point to this story, it’s that time travel is not a theory and that music is a vehicle. Or maybe the point is just that I can sleep through anything.

I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true
I’ll come to your emotional rescue

“Emotional Rescue” – the only song in the English language that includes the words “pet Pekingese.”

Random Pick of the Day
The Clash, London Calling (1980)
In 1980, I thought The Clash were going to replace the Stones. I also thought that Microsoft was a bizarre office-supply company that had gotten lost in the woods beyond Lake Washington.

The Clash obviously didn’t replace the Stones, and after this album they stage-dived into the dumpster of history (with a last gasp at Combat Rock), but London Calling is one of the few albums that can give the Stones of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street a run for their money. A phenomenal record from a bunch of heroin addicts.

Random Pan of the Day
Joni Mitchell, Shadows and Light (1980)
Joni Mitchell is the John Updike of pop music. Both made big splashes early on, were prolific and experimental, and both seem to have faded from view. We should erect statues to these people! Joni pioneered the role of the confessional singer-songwriter. She achieved commercial success with Court and Spark (1974), plunged into world music 10 years before Paul Simon discovered it, experimented extensively with jazz, and played with artists as divergent as Charles Mingus and Billy FN Idol. Mick Jagger could only dream of being as perceptive and literate. Plus she posed naked (from behind) on the inside cover of For the Roses, which, if you were a teenage boy in 1972, was significant.

The ONLY reason this record gets a Pan instead of a Pick is because these are live versions of her studio albums and the studio albums are superior, especially The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975).

 

When I was visiting my parents in July, I spent some hours tunneling through decades of debris in the old family mansion. My assistant was my 12-year-old nephew, Jared. We had hard hats, headlamps, rope, pickaxes, specimen bottles – everything you need when dealing with your parents’ lifetime store of stuff. My main goal was to not lose Jared back in the 1950s.

Jared wasn’t impressed by most of what we found that afternoon. I think he was hoping for something that had fallen off a passing comet and that Dad had trapped in the back yard and boxed up in the basement. About the only thing that interested him was an electric, plug-in calculator that only printed on one side of a roll of paper tape. Jared, who lives in a wholly digital world, thought it was cool that a machine could leave a printed record of its work. Either that or he just thought it was cool that I let him take it apart.

But I found something I thought was cool: Pencils.

Toward the end of our expedition we uncovered Dad’s buried office-supply ammunition dump. Among the billions of staples and petrified erasers and rubber bands that no longer band and gummed labels to label things that no longer exist, were unopened boxes of pencils he’s been accumulating since World War II:

Bygone pencils
In case you’re wondering, an old pencil’s value on eBay is approximately one dollar in U.S. money.

I was thrilled to find these, though I couldn’t say for sure why. When I don’t have a computer in front of me, I have a pen in my hand. But there’s something about pencils, and their fragrance, that makes you happy. Like skipping. You can’t skip and not be happy. You can’t open a box of pencils and not feel happy looking at all that unsharpened potential.

Crayons
I’ll use these extra-thick crayons when I write to emphasize my characters’ emotional traumas.

I brought some boxes home in my luggage and vowed to try writing with pencils. Why not? Two writers who have meant a lot to me, Thomas Wolfe and John Updike, used pencils.

Thomas Wolfe holds two important records in American letters:

  1. Most posthumous novels: 2 (The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again)
  2. Most bad writing from a great writer: I figure it’s about 50-50.

Wolfe, who was six and a half feet tall, used the top of a refrigerator as his desk. He wrote with a pencil almost as thick as a crayon to scrawl 20 or 25 words on a page. He then swept the page off the fridge and started on the next. Then there’s Updike, who wrote Couples and three of the four Rabbit books with a pencil. So who am I to argue?

“Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.” (G.K. Chesterton)
The first thing I noticed about writing with a pencil is that the physical process is exhilarating. The feel of the pencil in your grip, the paper under the point, the lead wearing down, your words spooling out from under your hand. Some of these pencils were of a diameter that no longer fits inside modern electric pencil sharpeners, and I don’t have one of those crank models with the different aperture sizes. I had to whip out my pocketknife and whittle these guys to a point.

The second thing I noticed about writing with a pencil is that it’s goddamned slow. We are not accustomed anymore to slow. We live in a world where our computers occasionally ask us if we want to “disable add-ons and speed up browsing.” Some of those add-ons are adding an extra 0.2 seconds to our browser load times. Accursed add-on! From Hell’s dark heart I stab at thee!

However, I do love revising, and writing with a pencil reminded me of writing with a pen and, when I got the story off the ground, moving to my typewriter. Later I wrote with a pen and moved to my computer, and for years now the computer is where I’ve started.

But this pencil thing was interesting, and not just from nostalgia. A couple of pencils and a pad of paper work better for me on a plane because the airlines have taken away all the space I once had to write with my laptop. Pencil and paper works better for me at my favorite coffee spot. And if you love to revise, you’ll love pencils, because what you just wrote with a pencil is in no way ready for public viewing.

You can also doodle with a pencil. Try that in Word.

I’m not going to replace my computer with pencils, but they’re a welcome change-up. As for my nephew, a retired gentleman in his hometown has been teaching Jared how to whittle. Cool is not reserved for what’s online.

Random Pick of the Day
Fitz and The Tantrums, More Than Just a Dream (2013)
1960s soul meets alternative rock, assuming anyone can define “alternative.” If you love whistling (and I know you do), you’ll love “The Walker.” The album’s closer, “MerryGoRound,” is a throwback to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

Random Pan of the Day
Prince, Controversy (1981)
Coming off the success of Dirty Mind, I would’ve expected better. The title track is a towering inferno, offering an inescapable dance groove and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. C’mon, isn’t that what you want to hear at a club? But musically, the rest of this album lies down and stays put.

These songs are about sex or social protest, or sex and social protest. When Prince sticks to sex he’s on surer ground, particularly on “Jack U Off,” in which he volunteers to help sexually frustrated females: “I only do it for a worthy cause/virginity or menopause.” After side trips to “the movie show,” a restaurant, and “your momma’s car,” he demonstrates his egalitarian nature:

If you ain’t chicken baby, come here
If you’re good, I’ll even let you steer
As a matter of fact, you can jack me off

Unlike Springsteen, who hit his stride with his third album and didn’t falter until he released Lucky Town and Human Touch in 1992, Prince’s fourth album doesn’t sound good after Dirty Mind. But on his next album he parties like it’s 1999. Until then.

Random Wife of the Day
This weekend, Special D is touring the gritty, industrial, culturally backward wasteland that is Seattle. Hope she can find a decent cup of coffee. In case you’re reading this: I have conquered the wisteria.

Random Video of the Day
If you haven’t visited my video yet, please do! True, it’s one minute and 11 seconds of your life that you’ll never get back, but what were you going to do with that time except watch cute animal videos? (Many thanks to Loyal Reader and Southern Industrialist Corncobb for the link.)

 

 

 

 

 

Snoopy 2 rejections at once

There are 11 days left to go in the Write-a-thon and though I wrote again today I have to admit that my original goal of hitting 50,000 words by August 2 was just a wee bit optimistic. I’ll be lucky if I get to 30,000. I do wish I wrote fiction faster, but I don’t. Marketing writing – that I can do fast. Advertising, editorials, web copy – I’m a speed merchant. These blog posts? Warp factor 6! But when I have to invent characters and situations and see how they play out, I move one. step. at. a. time. Sort of like the way the first primitive Mariners played baseball.

My hero, John Updike, wrote that “There’s a kind of tautness that you should feel within yourself no matter how slow or fast you’re spinning out the reel,” and though I gave up fishing in 1967 when my brother took three bass and all I hooked was a lousy starfish, I take heart from these words.

Right now there’s a kind of tautness in the back of my brain, or a bubbling. All day long, and often just before I wake, something back there is working on this book. Objects and actions bubble to the surface, things I can use on a page I’ve already written or one I have yet to write, like a bird finding the right-shaped stick for its nest. (We saw an osprey nest on Cape Cod that looked as if the occupants had built it out of firewood.) I’m mixing my metaphors here but I’ll trust that you get what I’m driving at. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Esteban esta caliente, but I do feel kinda warm.

Random Pick of the Day
Paul Van Dyk, In Between (2007)
In my house we have this divide over anything that isn’t rock ’n’ roll. Trance (or techno), for example, is not only not Special D’s thing, she classes it with The Thing, The Thing From Another World, The Thing with Two Heads, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Thing. Despite the constant scorn I live with, I like this stuff. The dance-floor anthem on this disc is “Far Away.”

Random Pan of the Day
One Direction, Up All Night (2011)
Boy bands sure have deteriorated since The Beatles. Today they’re all strip-mined from the same barren earth. Bruce Springsteen could use One Direction for dental floss.

I’m going to start Randoming bands with numbers in their names. We’ll see which one becomes the first to move from Pan to Pick.

 

[Note: You’ll find the extended party remix of this post at The Nervous Breakdown. -Yours truly, RDMS]

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but I’d like to have a few words with you today about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”

I could stop right there and send you all home early, but 1971 was also the year that I learned how to drive. This knowledge was of considerable help to me in dealing with females of my species. But the point I am at last coming around to is this: In 1971, in my summer school English class, my favorite teacher suggested a way to read more books: Keep a list.

Roland had been keeping his own list of the books he’d read since the 1940s, and I’d like to think that the teacher who started Roland down this path had a list that stretched back to the 1920s, and that there was a teacher before him and one before him and so on and thenceforth until we’re back watching Gutenberg knock out his first bible.

Just when you thought no one could have this much fun
This year my list of all the books I’ve read celebrates its 40th anniversary, which will be duly recognized here at the Bureau with cake and ice cream. This milestone seems like the appropriate time to review some highlights from my reading history and see if we can learn what makes fiction worth staying up for till 2am. Fortunately, in the perpetual battle to decide who are the all-time greats in the heady world of novel-writing we have two useful yardsticks to work with:
1)      Music
2)      Sex

Applying these measures to my list uncovers questions that have long stumped the experts, so don’t expect any answers here. For example, why was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the Jazz Age, never chronicled jazz? How did John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara) sneak all that illicit sex past the censors of his era? Why do Franz Kafka’s characters invariably play the accordion?

How many writers are on my list, you ask?
I’m not about to answer this question. I don’t know the answer to this question. I was planning on another 40 years of reading before I added it all up. (And if you think I’ve gone over the top with this particular hobby, I refer you to the gentleman behind What I Have Read Since 1974.)

Rest assured I am not about to embark on a survey of the entire list, primarily because I’d have to explain my early infatuation with Andre Norton. For the purpose of this review I am restricting myself to the writers I loved so much that I’ve read more books by them than anyone else.

The results of my studies surprised me, as music and sex in literature appear to be mutually exclusive, unlike in real life, where it’s been my observation that music often makes sex appear. In literature the one seems to drive out the other, except in those sorry cases where they both evaporate. An incisive examination of the five writers at the head of the class will show you what I mean.

My most read writer of all time: C.S. Forester
C. S. Forester was the creator of Captain Horatio Hornblower, The African Queen, and various other historical novels where something explodes, usually after being struck by a cannon ball. Capt. Hornblower could navigate a sloop through a monsoon with nothing more than a circus tent nailed to a broomstick and everyone on half rations and a spoonful of rum, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of music. He was tone deaf. Tone deafness is a terrible affliction that makes every song sound like Boney M’s “Rasputin.” This condition was not shared by Hornblower’s crew, who enjoyed a rousing hornpipe on their way into battle, just as I do on my way into a meeting.

With Forester’s musical credentials looking a bit thin you might hope instead for plenty of sex, but if you are I am withholding your rum. Hornblower and his girlfriend Lady Barbara are not my idea of a liaison dangereuse. The only sex scene I remember in the Forester books I’ve read appears in The African Queen, when Rosie and Mr. Allnut make love in a malarial swamp on a suicidal mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Only the most skilled writer can concoct an erotic scenario of such proportions.

While having sex, Rosie’s breasts grow bigger. I’d like to have a word with Forester about this.

2nd: Robert A. Heinlein
There’s no hiding it. Robert A. Heinlein’s books are a musical wasteland. I can confirm that there is a bad poet in “The Green Hills of Earth” who writes a syrupy little ballad called “The Green Hills of Earth” and then sings it. He is immediately killed by a blast of radiation from the Academy of American Poets.

However, when Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land he released his inner pornographer from the puritanical confinement of pulp fiction. From then on Heinlein’s books are fairly well swollen with sexual activity, and though most of it is only hinted at or happens off-stage or on the other side of the airlock I’m convinced that Bob blazed the trail for three other writers on my list: Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), Nicholson Baker (The Fermata), and Judy Blume (Forever).

3rd: Marge Piercy
Now we’re talking adult themes and situations. Marge Piercy wrote several novels set in the 1960s counterculture; the first three, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Going Down Fast, and Small Changes, were written while the counterculture was happening. These books are packed with hungrily copulating hippies, but her characters are not motivated, captivated, or levitated by music. There is, however, a bad poet who writes a clichéd little ballad about New Jersey and then sings it. It lacks the punch of “The Green Hills of Earth.”

Piercy deserves applause and a government grant for her sex scenes, and Small Changes is so good on every page that it zaps me right back to Boston in 1973. But I must reluctantly mark her down for missing or ignoring the Summer of Love, the flowering of soul, Woodstock, Let It Be, Sticky Fingers, and the birth of funk and metal. (The absence of country rock works for me.)

4th: John Updike
I find it difficult to assess John Updike with the objectivity for which Run-DMSteve is famous, as Uppy is the only writer who ever died and left a hole in my heart. However, we can safely conclude that Mr. Updike is not shy about sex. The first Rabbit book (1960) prominently featured a sex act that’s so common today they have rooms set aside for it at airports but back then could’ve gotten him lynched in your more conservative precincts. If you’re looking for angst-ridden WASPs tangling in the wrong bedrooms, Updike’s the writer for you.

But while his style is musical, his characters are not. They rarely even turn on the radio, though I remember one story where the grownups at a suburban house party put The Beatles on the turntable and danced in their socks. This is charming but this is not a rave.

Rounding out the fabulous 5: Isaac Asimov
I started this list when I was a teenager so you can stop laughing right now. Hands up – how many of you couple the word “sex” with the word “Asimov”? Well that’s just disgusting. Yes I know who you are.

Asimov’s book of dirty limericks doesn’t count because I never read it. Let’s take a gander instead at the original Foundation trilogy. I loved those books just as much as the next teenage boy, but upon reflection I have to ask: Where did those trillions of babies come from? Zappos? And what did they listen to, besides the narrator?

We don’t read Asimov for music and sex, we read him for rockets and robots.

Mission: Impossible?
The harmonious blending of music and sex within the pages of one novel is an elusive goal but I’m here to tell you it can be done.  Exhibits A and B: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). My more astute readers are probably wondering why I’m only mentioning them here at the end. There is a reason for this and it’s a simple one: I haven’t read them. I have however seen the movies and I even took Special D to a dance where the band from The Commitments played (“Do ye drink then? If ye don’t yer no good!”). Once I’ve finally bagged these two I’ll be able to determine if they are two of the best books ever written, not counting anything by Andre Norton.

Loyal Run-DMSteve readers are welcome to chime in with their own lists of music-and-sex books. Here at the Bureau we could always use some reading suggestions for the next 40 years!