The recent death of Charles Portis — famously press-averse author of “True Grit,” whose sparse but distinctive fictional oeuvre earned a cultish fanbase of champions — has had the bittersweet virtue of at least returning his name to the forefront of conversation and perhaps enticing would-be readers to investigate his works.
Obviously “True Grit,” in which a firebrand spinster recounts the time she, at age 14, set out to avenge her father’s murder with the help of a drunken, irascible one-eyed lawman, is the most prominent title to bear his name (the first film adaptation won John Wayne his only Academy Award). But, having read all five of the man’s novels, I must proclaim “Masters of Atlantis,” his 1985 penultimate offering, as my personal fave.
Seriously though, they all merit your time.
The flurry of press surrounding his passing, however, got me thinking about a few other authors in need of a cultural signal boost, names I’m regularly forcing onto friends who make the mistake (?) of asking me for reading recommendations.
Here, then, are my five picks for writers who deserve to be rediscovered. Remember, a good book never goes out of style, and it’s still not too late to join the fan club.
1 Joan Samson (1937-1976)
Samson exploded onto the scene in 1975 with her first and only novel “The Auctioneer,” which, after a brief period as a bestseller, quickly vanished and was all but forgotten. She died of cancer shortly thereafter, while supposedly working on a second book.
That we will never read that one, or any others she might have penned, is a legitimate pop-culture tragedy because “The Auctioneer” is flawless — a tale of authority, community, conformity, and a harsh rebuttal to the back-to-the-country movement of the day that’s equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King, told in a style reminiscent of the precise, immaculate language of Shirley Jackson.
In it, the rural farming town of Harlowe begins a slow and insidious metamorphosis beneath the rule of the titular newcomer. Warning the local yokel sheriff about the crimes of the modern world going on just outside the town limits, he organizes a weekly auction to raise money for deputies, an ambulance, some small municipal improvements. Everyone in town is happy to kick in unwanted stuff and gets a chuckle out of selling their junk to naive city folks for more than it’s worth.
It goes so well the Auctioneer prepares another sale.
Every week, the sheriff and his new, heavily armed deputies come around with a truck seeking “donations.” The won’t take no for an answer.
I think the term unputdownable is silly and overused, but this book (now once more available in paperback thanks to Valancourt Books) is absolutely unputdownable.
2 John O’Brien (1960–1994)
His most famous novel, 1990’s “Leaving Las Vegas,” later adapted into a movie of the same name (starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue) was his first — and also the only one published in his lifetime. The story of a resigned alcoholic on a suicidal bender was sadly autobiographical, and O’Brien killed himself shortly after learning his book would be made into a movie (his father called it his suicide note).
Subsequently, three additional novels (one completed by his sister) and a long short story were released, of which my personal fave is 1996’s “The Assault on Tony’s,” which follows a group of upper middle class L.A. alcoholics who barricade themselves inside their favorite bar, intent on waiting out the race riots ravaging the city as intoxicated as possible. But then the power goes out. And they start running low on booze.
It’s a timely, claustrophobic tale of prejudice, loyalty, and addiction that exemplifies the best of O’Brien’s gritty, realist style.
3 Harry Crews (1935-2012)
A razor-sharp, authentic voice speaking from hard-earned experience about life on the fringe of America, this guy lived his literature, much of which is now sadly out of print and rather hard to find.
Crews’ life and writings have righty become synonymous with so-called “Grit Lit” movement, stories generally focused on the hardscrabble lives of blue-collar or working-class people in rural places, and draws heavily from Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah (though he supposedly did not like to be labeled as a “Southern writer”).
He’s a seedier Larry Brown, the trailer park’s answer to William Faulkner.
I recommend 1972’s “Car” (in which a man arranges to incrementally eat an entire car in a fame-seeking publicity stunt and as a way to symbolically escape his family, who own the largest auto wrecking yard in the state) or 1998’s “Celebration” (which sees a vivacious young woman become a kind of domineering messiah to the geriatric residents of a sleepy retirement community).
4 Karl Edward Wagner (1945–1994)
Best remembered as the tireless and boundary-pushing editor of the genre-defining “Year’s Best Horror Stories” series for DAW Books, co-founder of the Carcosa publishing imprint (which brought the works of Manly Wade Wellman to a larger audience), and creator of a series of stories featuring the immortal Conan-esque swordsman Kane, it is Wagner’s short horror fiction that inspires my awe.
He originally trained as a psychiatrist before turning to writing full time, and it shows in his complex (but accessible) and layered stories, populated by vivid, authentic characters. In his work there is a simultaneous feeling of the extemporaneous and the inevitable.
Primarily, his non-“sword and sorcery” (a term he reportedly hated) stories take place in contemporary settings, the most often reprinted being the H.P. Lovecraft homage “Sticks,” which provided the inspiration for the lattice-type structures used in “The Blair Witch Project” and the first season of “True Detective.”
Most of his work is out of print and criminally hard to find, but if you can acquire a copy of either of his solo collections (1983’s “In A Lonely Place” and “Why Not You and I?” from 1987) it would be an unforgivable mistake to not give it a read.
5 Joel Lane (1963–2013)
A British novelist, short story writer, poet, critic and anthology editor, Lane’s work lives in two worlds. His short fiction is dark urban fantasy with touches of the surreal, his two novels are solidly mainstream: a portrait of a disturbed rock musician, a survivor in the aftermath of a disfiguring attack.
All of it is highly recommended.
His prose is haunting, scenes and characters sketched with a poet’s eye for detail and language, an incongruously keen sense of humor. His writings return again and again to the inherent isolation of urban living, delusions, illness, hauntings real and imagined, addiction and injustice.
In terms of short stories, I highly recommend “The Lost District and Other Stories” from 2006 and 2012’s “Where Furnaces Burn” (which won the World Fantasy Award for best collection). His first novel, “From Blue to Black” (2000), is a very different but equally powerful experience.