XFX: Civilians run this man’s war

America’s best least-known author is arguably Joseph McElroy. I place him right behind William Gaddis and ahead of almost everyone else who has written fiction in the last fifty years or so. Well, I might just challenge this assertion myself—there is Rikki Ducornet, Kathy Acker, and William Burroughs—but I was only considering those more conventional authors such as Pynchon, Salinger, Roth, Updike, … Barth. They’re all good but McElroy is great.


Roth has retired now but McElroy, still going strong into his 80s, recently publishing his ninth novel, CannonballCannonball is a complicated narrative revolving around an inexperienced San Diego photographer who shoots government staged propaganda during the Iraq War. The people around the narrator are divers (on the swim team), an illegal immigrant from Mongolia, the narrator himself, his father, his sister, a spook from Sacramento, a Chaplain, a Russian, and on and on. Characters, like the narrator’s job, are often not what they seem to be. McElroy gives a good explanation of what it is all about:

So the Russian and the other one used Umo, and Storm used them in order to use me after Dad thought he was using Storm who used Dad to use me and even Em—”even you”—through me…


Along the way McElroy pops in telling phrases without expanding on the theme, but it becomes clear rather early on what the author’s view of the Iraq War and the Bush administration actually is. Some are obvious—”Secretary of War”—but my favorite is suggesting that George W. Bush would win the Nobel “No-Bid Peace Prize.”

McElroy is an exacting writer and is thus somewhat difficult to read. You have to pay attention to what is inevitably a tightly woven narrative where the sentences matter as much as the overall story. Cannonball may actually be a good McElroy novel to start with because it’s subject matter is still fresh, but hopefully you will crave more strong prose and intelligent writing, so go back and read all the earlier novels (I still have a few to go myself).Here is a list of the McElroy novels:

  • A Smuggler’s Bible, 1966
  • Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs, 1969
  • Ancient History: A Paraphase, 1971
  • Lookout Cartridge, 1974
  • Plus, 1977
  • Women and Men, 1987
  • The Letter Left to Me, 1988
  • Actress in the House, 2003
  • Cannonball, 2013.

Note: My earlier post on Plus by Joseph McElroy.

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