Friday, August 28, 2015

The Livingston Period

Almost half a century ago, various novelists and actors discovered the small Montana town of Livingston, north of Yellowstone Park, and settled here. Through the seventies and eighties, and into the nineties, Livingston was a unique locale. That was so long ago that generations have passed that have barely heard of the period and what happened here, and Livingston's reputation has largely faded away.

These people did not arrive all at once, but drifted in and out, finding a camaraderie here that created friendships among people who had little in common. I was among the last to arrive, and least connected to the main interests of others. My own background is pulp and genre fiction, not literature. Even so, I was warmly welcomed by people with larger ambitions and abilities.

Among those who came here and made literary or film careers out of their lives here, one of the earliest was Tom McGuane, from Michigan. He writes comedies of manners, New Yorker short stories, and nonfiction about our trout fishing and country life. His brother-in-law, Jimmy Buffett, visited here and wrote a memorable song, Livingston Saturday Night. Jim Harrison, also from Michigan arrived, and produced fine novels, some of them celebrated abroad. His daughter, Jamie, wrote numerous novels using a fictional Livingston as the setting. William Hjortsberg showed up, wrote various novels and screenplays and a biography of his friend Richard Brautigan, who also moved here and spent a large part of his later life in Paradise  Valley, south of town. Diane Smith arrived, and wrote some fine Viking historical novels. Walter Kirn showed up, and continues to write fiction that is good fodder for Hollywood filmmakers. Doug and Andrea Peacock arrived, and added formidable nonfiction to the literature erupting from this place. Peter Bowen, gifted satirist of the old West, found a home here. Tim Cahill arrived, and began writing his famed travel and adventure stories for Outside magazine. Maryanne Vollers and her husband Bill Campbell have greatly expanded the nonfiction literary and TV output on Livingston. She has authored or coauthored notable books, including one of Hillary Clinton's, while he has photographed PBS documentaries.

Movie people settled in, including Peter and Becky Fonda, Jeff and Susan Bridges, Margot Kidder, and director Sam Peckinpah. but there were many others, including Warren Oates and Dennis Quaid, who bought Sam Peckinpah's ranch. Harve Presnell made a home in Paradise Valley. Another was Michael Keaton, who bought a ranch nearby. Some stay on. Artist Russell Chatham arrived, produced stunning lithographs, and eventually became not only an artist but a publisher and restaurateur. His Livingston Bar and Grille  became a gathering place for authors from all over the world, including Carl Hiaasen, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Matthiessen.

In recent times, Livingston has also attracted musicians and a few rock stars. 

For everyone I've named here, there were a dozen more, who showed up occasionally and helped turn Livingston into an absorbing literary town. These people are largely gone now, but a few have made this northern outpost their home. If there is one thing in common about these literary people, it is that they made their entire living from writing. Maybe that is why Livingston has not yet caught the attention of academics.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Craig Lancaster's Triumph

I've finished Craig Lancaster's new novel, This Is What I Want. It follows a family in a small eastern Montana town, Grandview, that is impacted by the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. In particular, it follows the Kelvig family, rooted for generations in the empty prairies of the north, living on tradition and habit, and diminished dreams.

There is an undertone of sadness in the story as characters work out their destinies from their limited perspectives deep in a world little changed for generations, at least until the man-camps and drilling rigs showed up across the state line. But the sadness is mitigated by hope and occasional moments of tenderness, even cheer, as the characters live according to their lights, in moments of great beauty.

Mr. Lancaster is a gifted novelist, one who would long since have won national recognition but for the strange, fragmented, and chaotic condition of American publishing. Part of the chaos is simply the result of digital publishing. Whatever the case, it is startling that a novelist of Mr. Lancaster's ability is not a nationally celebrated figure, or even well known in the established publishing world centered around New York. Mr. Lancaster's own publisher, Lake Union, is a literary imprint of Amazon.

Mr. Lancaster writes with rich command of language, metaphor, and an empathetic understanding of his characters and how they work out their destinies. He may well be the finest prose stylist writing in these times. His choice of words, his expression of ideas, his nuanced description of feelings, are unmatched by anything I've read in recent years. He understands the human condition. One comes to the end of this novel with a sense of gratitude, of reward, of lingering thoughts about the characters and their fate.

This novel gives me hope for American literature, which for too long has been strangled by orthodoxy. Read it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Doom of Literature

I have become alarmed by the decline of freedom of speech, especially on campuses, and the corresponding rise of sensitivity mandates issuing from administrations. I grew up in a time of robust freedom of speech, which was deemed to be crucial to ascertaining truth and defining desirable goals and values. That freedom has all but vanished in academic settings. The dominant ideal now is not to give offense, not even minor offense, hence the proliferation of rules requiring "trigger warnings" and the prohibition of "microaggressions." There are now academic sensitivity warnings against American classics, such as The Great Gatsby.

I have always regarded freedom of speech to enjoy constitutional protection, within limits well described by Justice Holmes when he said that yelling Fire! in a crowded theater is not protected by the constitution. I have also believed in civility; freedom of speech is most beneficial when those who practice robust debate remain civil and courteous to all opponents as well as allies.

Sad to say, the result of all this overprotection of students from all walks of life is to produce a generation of sissies, people so thin-skinned they can't function in the real world, and are so busy being wounded that their educations are worthless. Whole graduating classes are loaded with sissies, and they are going to have trouble competing with people who grew up in a tougher world, and are better able to handle the rough and tumble of non-academic life.

One of my favorite presidents, Harry Truman, memorably put it this way: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

And if you can't stand to read books that deal with the real world in a real way, then retreat to the nearest convent or monastery and stay there.

Friday, August 7, 2015


What a beautiful summer. I don't remember any other, in all my days, so gentle. The days are mild, and occasional showers green the Montana slopes, and lift the heart.  Everything's going my way.

A reporter from the local paper came to get a story about my induction into the Western Writers Hall of Fame, and I wondered if I could tell her how my literary roots differed from the other writers here, most of whom have fine credentials as masters of the literary arts. But my own roots go back to popular fiction, pulp fiction, writing for money, writing mass-market paperbacks, and not writing things that might win me literary prizes. She got it, and I was glad.

Macmillan contacted me about a large sum of royalties collecting since 2009 when they lost track of an early agent of mine. I was able to fill them in, and soon a substantial sum will arrive, and the heirs to the agency will get their fifteen percent as well.

I've proofread the pages of Anything Goes, and am pleased. The cover is on Amazon, and on my Macmillan author page. It is a historical novel, not a western, about vaudeville, in 1896, and I'm on fresh ground. It will be out in December. I like the story, and felt that my great age contributed to it.

And now I'm proofing the pages of a western that will be out a year from now in several formats, Brass in the Desert, and I am pleased to say it is my best western novel, with a streak of humor running through it I had forgotten about.

But mostly I am enjoying these sweet lazy days. I have a lovely new friend, Marian, who makes a good lunch companion. She has lived long and well.

I play strange songs, such as, How are Things in Glocca Morra, from Finian's Rainbow. All fantasy, gladness, joy in life, and dreams. It is good to reach my age, and find life utterly blessed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Coming in December

The Macmillan author page lists an old website of mine that has long since been hacked by Asians, and I would advise steering clear of it. I've alerted Macmillan.

Monday, July 27, 2015


One of the realities of age is that my thinking has slowed down. Rather than rehash stuff I've posted here again and again, I will simply take breaks. When I have something worth saying, I'll say it. My views are here, and in previous blogs. People ask me whether the brain troubles of last summer have affected me, and the answer is yes


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Struggling to Read a Book

On the rare occasions when I tackle what is called a literary novel, it usually goes something like this:

I admire the author's voice, the quality that makes him or her unique. In a good literary novel, that voice is present on every page. But after a few minutes of admiring the voice, my interest wanes.

So I read more, this time enjoying the complexity of the characters. In real life, characters are complicated and contradictory and hard to fathom, and the literary novelist, always seeking truth, is often able to capture these things. But after a while, my interest in them wanes.

So I read the literary novel to look for the truths about our social order buried in it. Truths and insights are what separate literary fiction from popular fiction, so I pay attention, wanting to understand the author's philosophy, approach to living, beliefs, and humor. But after a while this pales, and I turn to something else, usually the elegance of language employed by the author, the adroit phrase, the simile, the metaphor, the delicious play on words. But after a while, these pale on me.

In fact the darned literary novel is dead in the water because nothing much happens. What was missing all along was story. In literary fiction, story is a crime. We don't want to see page-turning tension or drama in a literary novel. We want insights and lofty understandings.

So I turn to popular fiction, where story is paramount, and we want tension, page-turning drama, and an eagerness to see what disaster will strike next. But the characters are so thin it is hard to believe they are real, and the drama is so pervasive that there is no meaning. Life is unexamined.  I grow bored. The story is there, in spades, but Scotch taped together, so I give up on popular fiction too, and turn to other things.

Mostly now I read nonfiction, biography and history. Those do capture my attention and admiration.