A Country for Old Men

America — contra Yeats, Cormac McCarthy, and the Coens — is a country for old men or, at least, for old male novelists.  Octogenarian Philip Roth decided to retire in 2012, but in 2013 Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Joseph McElroy, Norman Rush, and Robert Stone published new novels.  In early 2014 we have novels by E. L. Doctorow and Jerome Charyn, and forthcoming next month a massive novel by Robert Coover.  Peter Matthiessen has a Holocaust novel coming in the spring, and for all I know Don DeLillo, John Barth, and Cormac McCarthy will publish novels any day now.  All these writers are over 75 and eight are in their eighties. 

That’s not to overlook women writers of the same generation, but with one exception, they didn’t happen to be as well represented in this recent stretch of months.  Of the twelve female novelists that the feminist critic Elaine Showalter has identified as America’s best, five were born before 1940 — Toni Morrison, Cynthia Ozick, Diane Johnson, Annie Proulx, and Joyce Carol Oates.  Ozick published Foreign Bodies in 2010, and Morrison just missed this wonder year for octogenarian writers with Home in 2012, but only Oates published in this period, two novels in 2013 and one in January of this year.

With increased awareness of the dangers of alcohol — the bane of  some earlier writers who might otherwise have delivered late-life masterpieces –, it may not be surprising that male writers who made their reputations forty or more years ago continue to write and publish.  What is surprising is how surprising most of their new works are, how much each departs from the writer’s comfort zone in earlier fictions or displays youthful energies to extend, deepen, or even surpass earlier work.   And most importantly, how good these novels are.  It is not so surprising that the consistently productive Oates would publish a thriller, Daddy Love, and a Gothic, The Accursed, in the same year, but the latter is remarkable for its scale and cultural criticism.  (Her new and new-departure novel dealing with the Iraq war, Carthage, was recently reviewed in this publication.)

You might expect a novelist eligible for Social Security to write about an old person looking back, as Don DeLillo did in Point Omega, or to collect earlier stories, as DeLillo did in The Angel Esmeralda, or to arrange his own letters or publish a memoir, both of which Paul Auster did in 2013.  You might also expect late-life novels would employ the stripped “late style” described by Edward Said and illustrated by, for example, Roth’s Everyman.  But all of the books I discuss below are new work, all but one are not about old people or other dying animals, and none are  self-importantly autobiographical or sappily nostalgic.  The novels feature vigorous characters engaging with contemporary life, are frequently exuberant in style, and comic more often than tragic. The writers are neither elders providing distilled wisdom nor, like the speaker in Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” giving voice to a “tattered coat upon a stick” seeking transcendence.  Many of the male novelists are angry old men who show us why young and old, men and women, should rage against the dying of American virtues or American soldiers abroad.  Oates is just as angry about the racism and sexism of males in high American offices.

If these golden age writers are padding their retirement funds, some sure choose risky methods, confuting the expectations or testing the patience of readers who have bought their books and supported their “brand” in the past.  Mischief is sometimes afoot, novelists soliciting readers into one kind of book and changing it midway through, long-serious and ever-earnest writers having bucket-list fun and possibly making fun of critics’ obsession with a figure-in-the-carpet oeuvre.  The playful writers are closer to Yeats’s wrinkled “Crazy Jane” than to his speaker in “Byzantium,” for Jane says, “Nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent.”  Oates is the “crazy Joyce” who rends early twentieth-century life with supernatural horror in The Accursed.

As a reviewer who too seldom has an occasion to praise, I’m pleased to round up and celebrate this geriatric group.  And, I’ll freely admit, as a septuagenarian, I find the publication of these novels comforting and inspiring.  When I began writing about American fiction in the late 1960s, Gaddis, Pynchon, McElroy, Coover, and DeLillo were the male novelists I most admired.  Four are still alive and publishing!  Even Gaddis, who described himself as already “posthumous” after The Recognitions sunk upon publication, made an appearance in 2013 with Steven Moore’s edition of his letters.  Since in my experience a large percentage of those who read literary fiction are baby boomers or older, they may also be heartened by this gang of geezers. 

The most surprising work is 83-year-old E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain.  Radically unlike the cinematic historical novels for which he is known, the new novel is claustrophobic and contemporary, the dialogue of a cognitive scientist and his psychiatrist about Andrew’s life as a victim of accidents that include killing his own child, losing the mother of his second child on 9/11, and being “adopted” as George W. Bush’s advisor on neurology, a position that may or may not put Andrew in a rendition facility where the person he addresses as a “shrink” may or may not be a CIA interrogator.  In fact, there is a lot of “may or may not” in this unreliable narration by a character who says the brain’s essential function is fooling the body into believing in fictions called “mind” and “soul.”  Although a little over 200 pages, the novel seemed — thankfully–twice as long because it is so full of internal surprises. I read it a second time, fascinated by the game of Andrew’s self-negating confessions and self-aggrandizing rationalizations.  In his previous work, Doctorow mixed fictions and facts to question received history and to comment on past politics.  In Andrew’s Brain he uses fictions within fictions to dramatize the facts of neurology and comment directly on recent politics: in some absurd scenes in Bush’s White House the mischievous fun of Doctorow’s narration turns into righteous anger.  When I’m bored in the future by straightforward novels from the hearts of young workshop-trained writers, I’ll go back to brainy Andrew’s Brain for a third reading and may then be able to decide if it was daring for Doctorow to write such an uncharacteristically enigmatic novel or if he was so secure in his career that he could compose a cognitively dissonant jeu d’esprit.  In a recent interview, Doctorow said he often stops reading a book because he sees “too well what the author is up to.”  In Andrew’s Brain he makes sure his readers don’t do the same.

Norman Rush’s changes of scale and orientation from his earlier novels to Subtle Bodies are similar to Doctorow’s.  Unlike Rush’s long idea-saturated novels set in Africa, Subtle Bodies compresses a personal story into a few days in upstate New York, where characters gather for a funeral of their college friend from the 1970s.  One of Rush’s narrators, Ned, is organizing a march against the impending invasion of Iraq.  The other narrator is his wife Nina who, desperate to get pregnant and ovulating, follows Ned from San Francisco to New York.  Like Doctorow’s schizoid storytelling , Rush’s dual narration keeps readers wondering who will have the best and truest lines–the idealistic, slightly bedraggled husband or the hyper, garrulous, occasionally ditzy wife.  Rush favors Nina who sees through Ned’s pretentious friends (including the dead one), understands the surviving family, encourages Ned to assert his anti-war views, and moves along Rush’s modest plot.  What initially appears to be a comedy of middle-class and middle-aged manners becomes a satire of apolitical dilettantes and, like Andrew’s Brain, a critique of the Bush administration.  In its politics, Subtle Bodies is more subtle and less angry than Doctorow’s novel, largely because, dedicated to Rush’s wife Elsa, it is an homage (femmage?) to the woman he has suggested in interviews is the co-creator of his novels.  I have seen the two of them in a social setting: Norman can appear to be a grumpy old man, while Elsa exudes good humor and lively talk.  Doctorow may have been risking his readers.  Rush in Subtle Bodies is praising his first and most important reader, the model (at a much younger age) for Nina.  But the novel is not benedictory.  Nina is pregnant at the end, implying, I hope, that readers can look forward to more fictions from Norman and Elsa Rush.  What better surprise from an octogenarian novelist than a double love story of characters and creators?

Joseph McElroy’s Cannonball is more explicitly about the war in Iraq than the first two and is therefore quite different in content from McElroy’s early long novels, which were often compared to Nabokov’s, and his middle work which took an epistemological inward turn.  McElroy’s unique stream of consciousness, unique because of the varied sources of information that bob in the flow, is still present and appropriate for this novel about a young Army recruit who becomes a mature amateur detective to gather information about his exploitation by politicians.  At the beginning, Zach is a high school diver from San Diego who befriends a young Chinese immigrant named Umo, and the novel appears to be an innocent coming-of-age story.  But under pressure from his father, Zach volunteers for the Army, receives training as a photographer, and goes to Iraq where Umo follows him and, too coincidentally for Zach to accept, dies in an insurgent attack on a swimming pool.  When Zach returns to the States, he investigates how he and Umo have been manipulated, and Cannonball becomes Pynchonian, asking readers to separate paranoia from well-founded fear.  If Doctorow and Rush are pulling in from the historical subjects and non-American settings of their earlier work, McElroy at 83 is pushing out with ancient-history invention (newly discovered or recently fabricated Dead Sea scrolls are a plot point) and a distant desert locale.  Doctorow and Rush create characters a generation younger than themselves; McElroy risks two generations and makes his youths believable.  His work has always been conceptually and stylistically audacious.  Cannonball manifests a new and unexpected kind of ambition — to intervene inventively but also accessibly in current politics.  As McElroy says in an interview, “Cannonball takes the mess afflicting its characters to a new stage and is clear about it.”

Robert Stone’s books, from Dog Soldiers forward, have usually been big, crowded, and sometimes messy productions about Americans’ political involvements in foreign lands, so it’s surprising to find him writing a short and small-town college novel in Death of the Black-Haired Girl.  But it is not the conventional campus exposé it first seems.  Yes, Maud, the girl of the title, is having an affair with her writing professor, but how she dies catapults the novel from clichéd sociology and questions of political correctness into ethical and religious realms where everyone involved — the reckless Maud, her self-deluding lover, his jealous wife, an ineffectual therapist, an unsympathetic priest, and Maud’s dirty-cop father — shares some guilt which Stone asks the careful reader to apportion.  Because the novel is set in Massachusetts, contains several Hawthornian allusions, and has the stylistic simplicity of his allegorical “romances,” the reader finds Stone gradually upping the ante from guilt to sin.  At age 76, Stone writes more directly than ever before about the Catholicism he left behind — or thought he left behind — near the age when the girl of his title dies.  If the cultural complexities and spiraling plots of his earlier novels have shrunk, the moral ambiguities that replace those complications are profound.  And besides, it takes only a little extrapolation to see the expensive college where money seems to buy protection as Stone’s metaphor for an America that hopes to wall out the wider world he has usually written about.  Of all the novels I discuss, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is closest to Said’s “late style” because of Stone’s contracted methods, but the style serves to create an ethical exercise for readers rather than a summary statement for the author.

You might expect writers born in the 1930s to rant against the entitlement and superficiality of the young, the “whatever” generation of Facebook readers that publishers are increasingly (and sometimes desperately) soliciting.  But these first four novels do the opposite; they criticize what parents and other adults have done to the young.  Doctorow’s Andrew kills one child and gives away another.  The son of the dead man in Subtle Bodies is allowed to be a wild child living in the woods.  In Cannonball Zach’s father and his Army buddies sacrifice Umo and manipulate Zach.  The middle-aged professor’s affair with his student in Stone’s novel leads to her death.  The novelists are like engaged grandfathers censuring the generation of their sons for their parental negligence.  I don’t claim the four books are the writers’ best works, but the novels are admirable and responsible novelties in their distinguished careers.

If these novelists are writing shorter, perhaps because life is short, maybe because attention spans are, others in their cohort surprise by going longer, deeper, or finer than they have before, possibly to create capstones for their life’s work.  Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath — a sequel to his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, published in 1966 — is more than 1100 pages, twice as long as the original.  Coover has always been attracted to excess — emotional, behavioral, cultural, spiritual, and literary — and The Brunist Day of Wrath is excessive in just about every way.  About the revival of a millennial cult in a coal-mining town, the novel tracks scores of characters in multiple present-day plots while also incorporating their back stories from The Origin of the Brunists.  The new novel’s basic conflict is over use of a site where members of the Brunist cult believe a divine revelation occurred.  The cult breaks into factions, a banker and a mining baron get involved, civil authorities split into ethnic groups, and the original novel’s hysteria turns into apocalyptic violence led by Christian Hell’s Angels.  From this brief description, one might think the novel is a Swiftian satire of Christian fundamentalism run amok —  and it is.  But the anthropologically-oriented Coover also knows and dramatizes the binding and loosing value of “collective effervescence,” rituals that combine the profane and sacred.  In Coover’s story “The Hat Act,” a stage performer is goaded on by his audience to increasingly outrageous and ultimately self-destructive acts.  While readers of The Origin of the Brunists probably did not beg the 81-year-old Coover for a more expansive sequel, this new book of “excessive superfluity,” to quote one of his characters, follows to its logical (and absurd) end Coover’s belief — manifested in novels such as The Public Burning and Gerald’s Party — that nothing succeeds like excess.  His colleagues might agree: in Cannonball, the 300-pound Umo gets attention by making a huge splash in a diving pool. The splash of the heavyweight Brunist Day of Wrath will soak and alienate many readers, but its remarkable scale and social breadth shouldmake a lasting impression when it hits.  However reviewers and readers judge this encyclopedia of folly, the very existence of the novel is a tribute to artistic determination.  In an email, Coover told me that writing this sequel, begun in 2004, was like holding a tiger by the tail.  Like the tiger, the tale Coover gives us is a danger to himself, probably the riskiest novel yet by this long-time provocateur and performer of hat acts.

Jerome Charyn, like Joyce Carol Oates, his former Princeton colleague, has been a very productive writer from an early age.  The author of more than thirty books, Charyn, now 76, is probably best known for his Isaac Sidel detective novel series and a variety of non-fiction works including a couple of memoirs.  In the last few years, he has published two entertaining novels featuring George Washington and Emily Dickinson, and I assumed his novel about Abraham Lincoln would continue the methods of these historical fictions.  But I Am Abraham has unanticipated and impressive depth — of knowledge about Lincoln’s times, of understanding of Lincoln the enigma, of sympathy for his mentally ill wife, and of feeling for Lincoln’s voice in which the novel is told.  Charyn hews very close to the facts of Lincoln’s life from his beginnings in Kentucky, through his embarrassing courtships and successful lawyering, to his political campaigns and tortured residency in the White House.  Although Charyn invents only several minor characters, he appears to invent unlikely and unpresidential episodes in Lincoln’s life — until the curious reader does some research and realizes Lincoln was not the saint that many of his biographers presented.  Lincoln loved jokes and dirty stories, and Charyn does not stint on these, but he excels at presenting Lincoln’s “hypos,” the melancholic episodes that drew Charyn to Lincoln because the author experienced similar depressions.  Perhaps this sharing of a serious affliction accounts for the unexpected profundity and scrupulous craft of I Am Abraham.  The title is a quotation from the young Lincoln’s notebook, but it reminds one of Flaubert’s remark about Emma Bovary: “C’est moi.”  In his spirit and bearing, Lincoln seemed aged to many who knew him as a young man.  The author as old man is able to “inhabit him like a golem or a ghost,” as Charyn says in an interview.  Of the many books by Charyn that I’ve read, I Am Abraham is his best.

Born in 1924, William Gass is the oldest of my gray crew, and the only one to write about someone near his age and former profession.  Born in the Second World War, Joseph Skizzen of Middle C becomes, like his creator, a professor at a Midwestern college.  Now near retirement, Skizzen thinks back on his life — his youthful desire to be a musician, his lack of talent and training, his stumbling into teaching music history and fumbling up the academic ladder.  Disappointed, bitter, and unhappy with his personal life (he lives with his mother), Skizzen resembles the defeated professor protagonist of Gass’s previous novel, the massive (and excessive) The TunnelMiddle C might have been a middling college novel except for three elements.  All thumbs as a musician, Skizzen may be a crafty fictionalizer of his own life.  Though not as obviously unreliable as Andrew’s Brain, Middle C has breaks in its third-person narration that suggest the whole book is told by Skizzen, making him an artful “autobiographer.”  He also secretly curates in his attic the “Inhumanity Museum,” a collection of news reports and photographs documenting worldwide atrocities.  This museum gives Middle C, like Cannonball, direct connection to politics, which Gass the self-described aesthete avoided in his earliest fiction.  The third and pervasive element is a stylistic virtuosity that takes every page above or below the register its title invokes.  At an age when most people need a grocery list for more than three items, Gass metes out metaphors and bends sounds and rattles sentences like an amphetamine-enabled youth.  Like the novels by Doctorow, Rush, McElroy, and Stone, Middle C is suffused with anger and is shorter than the work preceding it.  But with its new discipline of Gass’s stylistic gifts, Middle C is both a sophisticated and engaging portrait of a would-be artist as an old man.  Gass’s deceased friend Stanley Elkin said Gass wrote slowly because he thought he had “an infinite amount of time left to him.” At least enough to compose what I think is Gass’s finest novel.

You may be surprised to find that Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates, probably the most widely respected authors included here, are not the prime and first exhibits in my case for senior creativity.  Many reviewers of Bleeding Edge reveled in Pynchon’s return, and the novel  was a finalist for the National Book Award.  I enjoyed some of ‘its wacky humor, but ultimately I  see too much evidence of Pynchon’s satisfaction with self-imitation and his resignation to an avuncular authorial identity.  Like earlier Pynchon novels, Bleeding Edge impresses with the energy of its numerous characters in multiple plots and with its command of American vernaculars both educated and ignorant, but Pynchon lacks Coover’s — and Gass’s–passion.  The events of 9/11 in New York City and their consequences are described with odd detachment by the author of the sublimely passionate Gravity’s Rainbow.  His satire of dot-com schemes and Internet foolishness demonstrates that he probably knows how to program his VCR, but his depiction of the recent past seems more dated — less imaginative — than the distant pasts of his historical novels.  Pynchon focuses his narration through his protagonist Maxine Tornow, a fraud investigator with two small children and a wandering husband.  Her sensibility, seemingly tough but really tender, becomes increasingly identified with the author, who provides a cuddly family ending to the novel.  Perhaps I should respect my elder’s transition from difficult postmodernist to a kinder, gentler purveyor of Pynchon lite, and maybe I will when I’m as old as he, but for now the contrasts with the emotional rigors of  other writers treated here and their willingness to venture into new or demanding modes of fiction place Bleeding Edge down here at the bottom of my list.  From almost anyone else, the novel might well be a wonder.  But from Pynchon — even at 77 — I expect more than a work that too often beats with a bleeding heart.

From Joyce Carol Oates, I would like to expect less work of the kind represented by Daddy Love, which she calls a “suspense thriller” in an interview.  A five-year-old boy is abducted by a roving preacher who calls himself “Daddy Love.”  His perverted psychology affords some substance to the novel, but this sodomist is no Humbert Humbert.   Isolated and brainwashed, the boy is implausibly allowed to attend school and figures out other “sons” have disappeared before reaching puberty.  Not even Oates would keep the child imprisoned forever, so there’s not much suspense or thrill.  Daddy Love is creepy genre work seemingly “inhaled from the Internet” or influenced by the popularity of Emma Donoghue’s Room.  The surprise here is that an author as successful as Oates would still be doing this kind of melodramatic stuff at 75, a fact that suggests creativity might be as much obsession as inspiration.

The Accursed is also “genre work,” but it ambitiously smashes up several — biopic, campus novel, historical, Gothic, metafiction — to do cultural work.  Like The Brunist Day of Wrath, The Accursed had a long gestation (Oates first worked on it in the early 80’s), is long (669 pages), teems with characters, and is wrathful in its critique of Christianity, in this case the early-twentieth-century Protestant version that dominated American life.  In Oates’s telling, Princeton University was in 1905 a hothouse of Christian-sanctioned social injustice.  Like Doctorow of old, she brings real personages on stage to represent or attack elitism — Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain — but the most powerful forces against the Christian smugness of Princeton are not historical figures but Gothic inventions — demonic characters and fatal curses — that penetrate old families and restrictive ideologies.  Think Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables in New Jersey. 

Oates has said the Gothic strain of her fiction represents the “return of the repressed” — the unconscious, the sexual, the racial, and the lower class.  All make their appearance in The Accursed: Wilson’s psychosomatic illnesses, a runaway bride, children of mixed parentage, immigrant victims of bully capitalism.  The effect of Oates’s belated but comprehensive muckraking is vitiated, though, by her choice of a narrator, a chatty mid-twentieth-century “amateur historian” who produces “an excess of information” in the forms of journals, letters, footnotes, a sermon, and meta digressions.  A crossbreed or bastard child, The Accursed is thus itself a return of the kinds of fiction repressed by realism: the horror of Charles Brockden Brown, the anti-narrative of Tristram Shandy, the extravagances of Dickensian storytelling. 

I never thought I would have occasion to compare Oates to Pynchon, but in their seventies each has assembled a highly literary entertainment, a compendium of themes and devices from their previous fictions.  Knowledgeable, informative, well-intentioned, occasionally wondrous, sometimes laughable, the novels are too playful to gouge as their earlier works do.  Pynchon’s violence is distant, Oates’s is artificial.  Like Shakespeare’s late-career The Tempest, Bleeding Edge and The Accursed have frightening titles but turn out to be self-conscious comedies that end with family reunions.  For some readers, reliable revels are sufficient, their authors’ proof of life and show of vigor, but I value most those writers who risk the untried when creating the untrue.

I won’t be around in thirty years when biographies of these writers will explicate the sources of this generation’s creative longevity.  Perhaps the cognitive science to which Doctorow is drawn will have a physiological explanation.  Or genetics will precisely map the good genes Gass believes he has.  Stone credits the word processor for his long life: although he has emphysema, he gave up smoking only when he couldn’t rest his cigarette on the computer.  Several of the novelists have been married to the same, presumably supportive spouse for many decades; other writers had second families with sons now in their twenties — college tuition may be  a better source of vigor than vitamins.  Oates was newly married at the time she was completing The Accursed.  All but Pynchon have taught in universities; some critics have found that fact debilitating, but maybe continued contact with the young is enabling.  The digital revolution could get some credit.  While the Internet is a distraction for many authors, as well as readers, the Internet does make it easier to do the kind of research required for a novel such as Charyn’s I Am Abraham. And voice recognition software is a boon for arthritic fingers.     

I’d like to believe publishers’ loyalty to their writers kept them working, but the two most adventurous novelists — McElroy and Coover — have had to publish with a small, non-profit press.  In light of this last fact, I want to revise my opening sentence.  America happens to be the place where these old persons have invented ways to matter, to carve out their own little country of large minds within a multinational publishing industry that, to this codger, seems increasingly devoted to finding fresh flesh that can be glamour-shot, previewed on YouTube, promoted on social media, and sold as the Next New Thing.  Read and celebrate the old folks now before it’s too late.