There is a new contender in the reprint business for those of us who like Bison Books, Virago, NYRB, Academy Chicago Review, and Capuchin Classics.
Actually, the great thing about reprint publishers is that they’re not in competition with one another.
Book Lust Discoveries, a series of reprints of books chosen by Nancy Pearl, the famous librarian and author of the Book Lust books, is off to a flying start. Despite criticisms that she shouldn’t have signed with Amazon–apparently she should have gone with another Gigantic Corporation–the series has received a lot of publicity. Her first pick, Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound, is an audacious pageturner that misses “classic” status but is worth reading.
I had never heard of Merle Miller, a writer, editor, and gay activist, but I was interested in the fact that he grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa. Marshalltown has a reputation for riding its successful native sons and daughters out of town on a rail. After the actress, Jean Seberg, also from Marshalltown, was persecuted by the FBI for giving money to the Black Panthers, lost her baby, and then committed suicide, some citizens of Marshalltown said it served her right. (But last year they had a Jean Seberg film festival, so maybe that’s redemption.) Miller’s searing portrait of New Athens (i.e., Marshalltown), Iowa, in A Gay and Melancholy Sound, implies that he wasn’t running back there any time soon.
The narrator of Miller’s brittle, sad, funny, satirical novel is Joshua Bland, a former quiz kid from New Athens, Iowa, a town so hypocritical that it makes Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie look pristine. When Joshua failed to win a national quiz competition at nine, he had a nervous breakdown; then he is forced by his histrionic mother and greedy stepfather to participate on a weekly radio quiz show in Chicago. He is taken out of his elementary school, where some teachers hate him for being intelligent, to attend an ineptly-run experimental school associated with the town’s college; then he graduates from the not very good college in New Athens at 15. After he obtains a London University scholarship by forging recommendations (he worried that his mother wouldn’t let him go if she found out he’d applied), he alienates his best friend, which is the pattern for the rest of his life.
The novel begins with drinking and misery: think Revolutionary Road meets Something Happened and Main Street. In the late 1950s, Joshua, now a successful Broadway producer, is on the verge of suicide, shattered because his wife Charley has left him, worn out by his hysteria and jealousy. He finds a tape recorder in the closet, and dictates his story over a period of days, going back and forth between the present and the past, incisively describing what it mean to live in hollow, materialistic America in the aftermath of two World Wars and a Depression.
In London, he discovers theater, but he doesn’t think much of it. Joshua skewers every profession you can think of: theater, journalism, writing. He is very funny:
This theater-as-a-shrine stuff is mostly spread by sentimental liars who write highly successful autobiographies that are about as dependable as a Ouija board. Of course, actors, not one of whom has an I.Q. of above eighty, get all weepy when they talk about The Theater, but then we all know that actors shouldn’t be allowed out when they’re not on stage.”
It is only later, during World War II, that he decides to produce a play by a brilliant soldier who shows up in his tent. What Joshua discovers is that everybody–not just himself–is corrupted if he succeeds. The writer becomes arrogant and starts wearing llama-skin shoes.
Joshua’s relationships with women are poisoned. His first girlfriend, Letty, an abusive, lying social climber from Cedar Rapids, goes to New York on a fashion magazine scholarship and tells Joshua she intends to steal somebody’s job. She is the worst friend possible for Joshua, but she’s the only girl who pays attention to him in college, drawn by his brilliance and potential. She arranges for a collection of his funny letters about the Army to be published, in which he made up a group of characters and their antics, because he couldn’t face writing the truth to Letty. Joshua becomes a famous writer and millionaire. The marriage doesn’t last, nor does his writing career.
I very much enjoyed this novel. Not a classic, okay, but very good, and probably important to the understanding of post-war American literature. It’s good to read an American reprint. British literature is my favorite, but the U.S. has definitely been behind on reissuing out-of-print American literature.
I have no idea if Pearl’s picks will all be American, but the first two are.
By the way, I’ve never been to Marshalltown.