On first looking into Dos Passos’ USA

Dos PassosAll this talk about Historical Fiction and I realize that I recently finished reading the first part of John Dos Passos’ excellent U. S. A. trilogy, The 49th Parallel. It’s so good and compelling that I can’t believe I didn’t read it years ago. Of course, my true but oft repeated excuse is that I was trained to eschew American literature and have only tried to catch-up in my waning years. My work was always Keats, Joyce, Wycherley, and Milton; who knew there was great writing in America? … and Dos Passos is a great writer. Reading his fiction makes writers like Hemingway even more disappointing.

Continue reading

The Picaresque

If you study literature you will come across the narrative form called the Picaresque. These episodic, usually naughty yet humorous works of extended prose started in Spain in the 16th century. The name comes from the “picaro” who was the hero, or anti-hero of the work. The picaro was a bit of a rogue, in and out of adventures, petty larceny, loose or easily won-over women, and always with a sense of humor and a salty tongue. Don Quixote is really a picaresque that got out of hand and turned itself into something new … or novel.

In more contemprary literature we have Saul Bellow’s Augie March as probably the best example of a modern picaresque, but there are many others (how about Tom Jones?). Back in the ’60s Maxwell Kenton (nom de smut of Terry Southern) wrote a delightful little picaresque that was very popular, especially in the more liberal colleges; it was called Candy.  Read it? I remember thinking at the time how so much depravity could be so much innocent fun (Little Annie Fanny is another good choice, but it was a graphic story).

While reading Iceland by Jim Krusoe I jumped back a few years and dredged up comparisons with Candy.
Continue reading