I knew a guy who lost his mind reading Evan S. Connell. This happened in graduate school. I was 23. He was maybe 25. I wanted to be a poet. He wanted to be, I don’t know, Claude Levi-Strauss, Lyotard, Baudrillard. We had nothing in common; his using literature to make leaps into pseudo-science and psuedo-philosophy seemed all wrong to me. He often laughed at my mushy-gushy “free-verse-ness,” as he called it. And yet we liked each other, talked endlessly, late into the night, arguing, laughing, taking opposite, rigid stances on everything, then insisting on paying for the next round with our paltry fellowship cash.
The last conversation I had with him was about Connell’s underground classic, “Diary of a Rapist,” which I had not read. On the bar table between us was a dog-eared Ecco Press paperback copy. He had written all through it. The semester seminar he was taking, if I remember correctly, was “Lacan and the Problem of Language.” He took these seminars seriously. Tonight he was on edge, more so than usual, giving me the dark summary of the novel. But then, without taking a breath, he was talking about his dreams and lowered sex drive, his loss of juissance, and a lack of signification and some sort of inability to ever achieve a solid cognitive structure that could incorporate a master signifier, a first cause, that was not God.
He told me more about the novel: individual scenes, the terse language, the relentless delusions of the narrator/diarist, how it just gets darker and darker and more spiritually desperate until the guy presumably (it’s up for debate) kills himself because of guilt, remorse and self-loathing — and then, wham, suddenly he was babbling again about wanting to devise the first truly atheistic discourse. That was his real goal in life, he’d realized: to kill God once and for all, theoretically speaking.
I wrote the whole thing off to him fucking with me, some kind of performance. Shortly after this, however, he left school and moved back in with his parents in a Texas suburb for “rest.” Then I started reading Connell, figuring that if someone lost it reading one of his books they had to contain something, some dangerous magic, that most novels didn’t.
I begin with this anecdote because A) it was my first experience with Connell and B) I believe it illustrates — perhaps overillustrates — a truth about Connell’s work, about its perfectly controlled savagery, its relentlessly contrarian stance and its ability to flip the known world on its head, all the while almost affectlessly easing you into it. If you read Connell closely, you see that he is perhaps our most subversive writer, one who does not mistake irony or a hip knowingness about this particular cultural instant — or even a straight formal subversion of literary convention (which usually just reminds the intelligent reader of convention) — for originality. He may actually be that rarest of things: dangerous.
“Diary of a Rapist” belongs to what I would call the modern, domestic part of the extraordinarily daring, varied, brooding and original Connell oeuvre, an oeuvre filled with violence and people losing it, one that Roger Shattuck once referred to in the New York Review of Books as fiction in extremis.
Connell wrote “Diary” at the age of 40. It was his third critically acclaimed novel and his sixth book. However, at the time, despite the accolades and already having published the bestselling “Mrs. Bridge” seven years earlier, he was working as an interviewer in a San Francisco unemployment office. After spending time as a student at Dartmouth, the University of Kansas and Columbia University, then as a pilot in the Air Force, then living in Europe in the early ’50s, he settled in San Francisco to live a bachelor’s life and write full-time. He remained there for 35 years until he moved to Santa Fe, N.M., in 1989, where (having never married) he continues to reside. However, as any “full-time” writer can attest, it’s not so much the writing as the subsisting that can be tough, particularly through those long middle stretches of projects when the last check is way back in the past and the next one can’t even be seen on the horizon. Connell has always expressed a distaste for teaching and lecturing, even giving readings. So he did what the writer Hilary Masters once told me to do: Take the most mindless, insipid, mechanized, soulless job you can find; be a drone so you can save all of your energy for writing. Thus the San Francisco unemployment office in the tumultuous ’60s: drone city. The job, however, proved to be a wellspring of dark inspirations.
The narrator of “Diary,” Earl Summerfield, holds this same position as he slowly records his descent into delusion, mania, self-contempt and paranoia. It is not so much the diary of a rapist as the diary of a deteriorating soul in a chaotic, violent city in a chaotic, violent world: a person, like my old friend the theorist, increasingly unable to wring any sustainable meaning out of what he sees around him. And though it is undoubtedly the most disturbing of Connell’s early books — his longtime friend Gale Garnett called it “a gothic, worrying book”; Connell says, “People found it a very ugly book” — it is also quite representative, and not a bad one to start with, though it is perhaps more overtly transgressive than his other books and could sit on the same shelf as the novels of Celine, Genet, Henry Miller and even the contemporary works of Dennis Cooper or Bret Easton Ellis, with their assorted humpings and butcherings.
In the story “Saint Augustine’s Pigeon,” Muhlbach, a recurring character in this early work (the protagonist of two of Connell’s sadly overlooked novels, “The Connoisseur” and “Double Honeymoon,” as well as numerous stories), says, “Everywhere and always this theme recurs, spirit opposing flesh.” This describes a constant concern in Connell’s books — perhaps most notably in “Diary of a Rapist” and in the widely read novels “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge,” published in 1959 and ’69, respectively (later made into the 1990 Merchant-Ivory film, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward).
These semi-autobiographical novels — “with the emphasis on ‘semi,’” Connell has said — based on his mother and father and set in Kansas City in the ’30s and ’40s, along with “Diary” and a handful of genuinely brilliant short stories, are the best works from the early part of his career. The Bridge novels are portraits that barely resemble what one might consider conventional novels. No plot, very little actual drama, and an associative structure, with one short vignette leading to the next, some as short as a paragraph.
The novels, however, benefit from their dramatic diffusion. They are exquisite works perhaps because of this: by turns funny and harrowing, and always unexpected. Connell takes the mundane subject matter of secure, upper-middle-class folks going through nothing more than the common upheavals of everyday life in midcentury, middle America, and he shows us the characters’ longings, hopes, idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies, foolishnesses, often unexpressed love for each other, shame and so on from every angle. The novels proceed as a kind of slow stripping-away of pretense, leaving us with a sad, somewhat bleak but also delicate and moving human core. Instead of linear stories, with dramatic complication, we get stunning 360-degree portraits — like the scientific study of a specimen rendered through terse language, telling detail and episodic art. We see their lives unfold in representative moments, yet ultimately what Connell is after is the inner being of these deluded characters (whom he shows real compassion toward), how their spirits are all but crushed, without their knowing it, by their blind conformity to the world of the flesh, to institutionalized thinking.
This may sound familiar — in essence the same flaying of repressed suburban angst that fills the books of Richard Yates, John Cheever and up through Richard Ford, David Gates and A.M. Homes, to name only some of the most notable practitioners. But Connell was a trailblazer, a troubadour, one of the first to put the literary scalpel to the suburban skin, and at moments he seems as nasty as Homes without a hint of gratuitousness. And he was doing this as early as the late ’40s.
In the late ’70s he left the setting of contemporary America for the broader canvas of history, or how we got here, as opposed to where we are. In “Human, All Too Human,” Neitzsche wrote: “All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through an analysis of him. Everything the philosopher has declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers[.]” One gets the sense that Connell has taken the tenor of this statement to heart: To truly know ourselves, we need to go back, to trace our steps.
In 1979 and 1980, he published books of historical essays, “The Long Desire” and “The White Lantern.” These books, though fascinating on an informational level, covering both known and unknown explorers and adventurers throughout the centuries, have always seemed a bit aesthetically dry to me, particularly in relation to the Bridge novels and “Diary.” It’s as if he assumed that the information was so good — and at times it was — that he should subsume his writerly voice in an act of deference to the material.
But he was just catching his stride for what will perhaps become the book for which he is best remembered, “Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn,” possibly the most unique historical essay ever published.
“Son of the Morning Star” started as an entry for a third collection of historical essays. He had written a short piece about Billy the Kid. Then he began with Custer. Before he knew it, there were 100 or more pages and stacks of information. He decided it was a book and spent the next four years researching it.
It is like nothing else written. It begins with Custer gone from sight. Then, structurally speaking, it moves forward, stops — stops — and spreads out into digression, rumination, speculation and little-known facts about the periphery of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the main, and not so main, players. The battle is the rock tossed into the center of the pond, if you will; Connell’s interest, his genius, is to trace the circular waves of energy spreading from it. In many ways he is up to the same thing that characterized his best-known, and best, early work: railing against our blunted sensibilities, our infuriating stupidity, against America’s folly, striving for a truth, however ugly, beyond the banal and the facile.
He points out along the way that the story of the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull and Custer is really a thousand or more little stories — Indian and white, brutal and bizarre, enigmatic and extraordinary — many of which are blatantly contradictory. Four hundred pages and a mind-boggling amount of cumulative, fascinating minutiae later, we catch up with Custer’s remains. Along the way we are treated to passages of scalpings, decapitations and castrations. Connell, obviously a bit perturbed, even indignant, with the American mythmaking apparatus, shows us the horror of battle blow-by-blow, the Indians vomiting as they scalp soldiers, the little Indian girls carrying home Custer’s favorite scout Bloody Knife’s head, “swinging it between them like a ball, each sister holding one of the dusty braids. In the village they mounted their trophy on a stick.”
“Son of the Morning Star,” a surprise bestseller and the basis for an ABC miniseries (it was rejected by several publishers before landing at the old San Francisco Northpoint Press presided over by Jack Shoemaker, longtime publisher of Connell), upset a lot of people and took a few knocks. This was 1984, after all, the dead center of the Moral Majority/Reagan ’80s. The Cold War rumbled on at its snail’s pace. Conservatives felt good about themselves and America, proud of its always moral and upright history. And here comes this crank liberal, sort of a Dee Brown or Peter Matthiessen with a mean streak, telling us that Custer probably didn’t have kids because of his gonorrhea, that he was a violator and not a hero, a narcissist hungry for fame and not a savvy warrior; making analogies between white-Indian relations and Nazi-Jewish relations, between the idiotic American selfishness and bravado of the Indian Wars and that of the Vietnam War.
Like each of his best books, though, it has aged well. Reading it now, it doesn’t seem like a liberal diatribe in the least, but rather a thoroughly researched, strange and unique panoramic view of a historical moment and its reverberations. Some reviewers, as they would a year later when Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” was published, criticized the “anti-American” sentiments, pointing out that Connell focused solely on the negative in regard to his own country. What Connell focuses on is all the stuff that had been blatantly, hegemonically, left out of previous accounts. Larry McMurtry, in the notes for his Penguin Lives biographical essay on Crazy Horse, recently said of the book: “Its topic may be Custer and the Little Bighorn, but its theme is the American character, as revealed in the struggle for the Great Plains.” That seems exactly right.
But there is such a thing as being too obscure, too contrary and concerned with minutiae, isn’t there? There is a point at which the extremes of an artist’s knowledge and interests translated into the art itself can seem insular, even hermetic. Connell has said, “I do care about readers and sales; after a book’s out, I hope it sells like gangbusters. I’m just not going to manufacture something. Once in a while I do something that corresponds to popular taste, but I don’t want to mechanically repeat myself.”
And it’s Connell’s ornery, uncompromising nature that gives him his status as literary cult hero. However, at times he has seemed to almost willfully defy readers — even readers like me who look forward to seeing what he’ll do next — to pick up his books. I’m talking about what Sven Birkets in the New York Times called, somewhat euphemistically, the “the more eccentric part of the Connell oeuvre.”
In 1962 and 1973, Connell published “Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel” and “Points for a Compass Rose” (his fourth and eighth books), two book-length poems concerned, again, with historical folly and violence. The books are not epics, but rather poetic meditations on the vast, violent history of the human race. They were his first forays into what would later become his main concerns, overlapping the more domestic/contemporary early subject matter. “Points for a Compass Rose,” the more sustained and readable of the two, is spoken by a disembodied, angry, God-like narrator who has literally seen it all. The book, even more so than “Diary” or “Son of the Morning Star,” is filled with bile, driven by it, yet is missing the broader dimensions, the depth and complexity, of those books. It is a recitation of the endless spectacle of inhumanity and the lies we tell ourselves to survive our own history, an investigation of denial on a cosmic scale. At one point, the narrator tells us — having gathered this from Talmudic scriptures — that before Adam had Eve he fondled beast. Later he guides the reader through the absurd hell of Vietnam, naming McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Melvin Laird and Richard Nixon as perpetrators of these horrors.
Like everything Connell has done, these books are interesting, at times fascinating, filled with apocrypha and a lyric imagination, but to my mind, they’re his weakest. They seem unfocused, too angry, gratuitous in a way his other works do not. One can’t help thinking: Christ, lighten up a little. I mean, were Christians all bad? Was there not a spark of nobility anywhere, in anyone, in Vietnam? They seem more like pamphlets at times than poems, piling up one atrocity after another, without giving us the sharp, focused view — the sadness, frankly, some evidence that the consciousness at work has been effected — of the tragedies before us, which is one of the great strengths of the Bridge books, “Diary” and “Son of the Morning Star.”
In 1991 came “The Alchemyst’s Journal.” I’m not even sure what to call it. A collection of stories in the form of seven philosophical meditations by an alchemist? A novel? It’s so dense, so packed with Latinisms, period English, the medieval mind-set and voices with no sense of personality, not to mention absolutely no concrete circumstances to pin down some sort of narrative, any sort of narrative, that I couldn’t get through it again. After reading this I had concluded, alas, that Connell had to be doing some kind of private experiment to see how few readers a book might get, or to see if he could guarantee never receiving another advance from a publisher.
The good news is that with “Deus Lo Volt!,” Connell’s new novel of the Christian Crusades, he seems to have found a way to take all that is great from his early work, even the obscure work, and turn it into a devastating novel. (“The Alchemyst’s Journal” now reads like an experimental warm-up to this much more successful effort.) The book is also in many ways a perfect summation of his career, taking all the early concerns and aesthetic shape-shifting and funneling them into what may be, if we’re still allowed to use such words without undercutting their authority in the next sentence, a masterpiece.
The title comes from Pope Urban’s 11th century battle cry, meaning, “God wills it!” The book is even more historically accurate than “Son of the Morning Star” (there is no speculation). What makes it a “novel,” in fact, is only Connell’s employment of the voice of the scribe Jean de Joinville. Joinville, utterly without anachronism, tells us the story of the 200-year crusades, when Christians set out to slaughter the “heathen Muslims.” Connell keeps the narrator confined within historical and conceptual limits, which shows the sharp contrast of morality then and now. Anecdotal asides show the murder of innocent Jews along the way (written with triumphant, disturbing braggadocio), and captured knights subjected to some seriously venal cruelties, including but not limited to being covered by excrement and led around by their entrails. The book, like “Son of the Morning Star,” is drenched in blood. And it can be a bit of a hard read at first, as it moves with such violent historical sweep at a rate of about a year every two pages. Yet once you settle into it, once you realize it is like no other novel written, its remarkable and subtle intelligence is awe-inspiring.
It’s no surprise that Connell is interested in this subject. After reading the book, his career, his art, made perfect sense to me. The roots of our civilization are soaked in blood. He didn’t make that up. Connell’s just obsessed with exploring it. Earl Summerfield, Muhlbach, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Custer, the explorers and adventurers of the essays, the alchemists and Jean de Joinville are all characters on the same time line, all sprung from the same ideological basis, for both better and worse. Connell has been on a quiet mission, as an artist, historian and, perhaps most of all, as a gloriously insidious philosopher of our true heritage, for more than 50 years. He’s produced five unexpected, wholly original American classics. Living American authors of his stature can be counted on one hand.