By Dick Cummins
Here’s what you get for poking the word bears.
When I used to hear the term “Great American Novel,” I just thought somebody was being facetious—as in there is no such thing, just a bunch of good books by good American writers with readers choosing to taste.
But just in case there is a GAN, here are two books not mentioned that maybe great, maybe not—the eye of the beholder obtaining.
Of the literary testosterone variety, I’d try Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement. This due to its universal American theme: “I must do something better than what I have done so far,” our culture’s obsession with chasing Maslow’s horizon-like hierarchy I suppose.
Story: Our second generation Greek protagonist is a financially successful advertising exec but doesn’t feel he’s really accomplished much. To liberate himself he risks domestic destruction with serial mistresses; begins having life-threatening car accidents that look a lot like attempted suicide. The book is 500 pages of humor, moral pratfalls and stilt-walking redemption. Finally Evangelos becomes the annealed image of himself he wants others to see.
All well and good and the book was highly acclaimed in 1967. And there is the film too, which helps the case for a GAN nomination—nominally. But there’s a dark side here as Kazan claims he became disillusioned with leftist politics—Stalin’s totalitarian purges of the time may have had to do with this—but he did then collaborate with McCarthy and HUAC; he named names that got friends and colleagues blacklisted in the ‘50s. More than a few contemporaries never forgave him, his begging redemptive themes be damned. Don’t think it can get any more “American” than this.
On the distaff author side, Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear of Flying pops to mind. Isadora is a 20-something, highly educated woman of means who narrates with lots of ideas and humor while questing for the purpose of her life—“life” as experienced in the interesting jet-set leisure class of course. She is hypersensitive and illuminates the conflicts faced by a modern woman, balancing femininity, work, love, sex and the need for independence, (just not too independent), and to the author’s credit, Isadora is often held back by fear and insecurity.
But the author’s real contribution to American literature is of course the “zipless fuck,” an unapologetically no-strings-attached, purely sexual experience—an ideal.
“The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving.’ No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is . . .. And I have never had one,” Jong says.
Pretty good. So I am putting Fear of Flying up as a GAN candidate because, well, I am a poor victim of my ideals and always look for books with at least one good one in them.
“. . . I suspect that if there was ever a time we needed a new Great American Novel, or at least someone to take a stab at one, it’s now,” Eric says.
I am going to go out on a GAN limb here. How about the recent best-selling novel, Cutting for Stone? It is about a young physician who comes to America to practice medicine—a 650 page odyssey that starts in Ethiopia with the birth of twins to a brilliant surgeon and a nun no less; then it follows these fascinating characters through a bloody civil war in Addis Ababa and it ends in America following one of the twins through his medical internship. It is in America that many of the characters we first met in east Africa come together in an emotionally intense dénouement.
And sure, full disclosure here, the author—“Doc Abe”—Abraham Verghese, M.D., took time away from his medical career to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, graduating in 1991. So there is a WW2BW connection that might question my impartiality. I don’t care. I’ve read all three of Verghese’s books—two non-fiction, My Own Country, A Doctor’s Story and The Tennis Partner, as well as the novel. And because I love reading all things medical, these books are feasts for me, gourmet menus with no prices.
I think Doc Abe is a literary Samaritan, a doctor who has seen the randomness of life’s sorrows and writes about them with the skill of a poet.
I understand of course that this nomination might raise a few purist literary eyebrows because Doc Abe is actually a 1.5 generation immigrant here, as they say, (child of first generation foreign-born parents). But then he first came to America with his parents from Ethiopia in the early ‘70s, so it isn’t like he just got off the boat! Think Joseph Conrad, born in the Ukraine, and he didn’t even write in English for the first half of his life, but was eventually offered a knighthood as a bard of English letters.
Anyway, if we wanted to get totally Puritanical about it, probably the first and last laurel of GAN should go to Pulitzer winning N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa-Cherokee for his House of Dawn, an original American writer with some real street cred.