Friday, July 19, 2019

Donald Newlove, Blindfolded before the Firing Squad

"Writers without peanut butter are fucked." That's a line from this book that I just wanted to note.

Newlove has become a bit more well-known these days--noting, of course, that the phrase "relatively speaking" has never applied more relatively--thanks to the Tough Poets republication of Sweet Adversity and, just this week, the first-ever publication of The Wolf Who Swallowed the Sun (which I look forward to reading soon). Still, at least some people were/are familiar with his other published works: principally, the novels The Painter Gabriel (1970), Eternal Life (1979), and Currane Trueheart (1986); the memoir Those Drinking Days (1989); and three books about writing, First Paragraphs (1993), Painted Paragraphs (1993), and Invented Voices (1994). Not bad, for an author more or less laboring in obscurity!  And that right there is the most comprehensive listing of his output you'll find on the internet.

And yet...that is not all. It's not even close to all, and now we move on to the latter, massively less well-known part of Newlove's not-that-well-known career. By which I mean, that part of it consisting of books that, it's entirely possible, literally no one has ever read. He might not have been able to get his material published, but he was still writing. Oh yes. In 2014, he published a few books with this somewhat mysterious, now-defunct thing called Otego Publishing, and just last year, he self-published a whole bunch more through amazon's createspace thing. It's very difficult to fully enumerate this output, but it includes--in addition to the present volume under consideration--the novels 101 Proof Perfection, The Goddess Clarissa, Downpour, Between Lives, The Welles Requiem, Archie, and Together at Last. Also various miscellaneous plays and writing handbooks ("you've certainly been, hm, prolific in your obscurity," a character here remarks). And, I'm not kidding, this stuff is just completely unknown: none of it has any reviews on amazon or goodreads, and until now, no one's even written a post on an obscure blog about any of it that I can tell. I couldn't say when the present text was written, exactly, for obvious reasons, but it's definitely a twenty-first-century novel; 9/11 is a major piece of background, and it must be said, Newlove is more comfortable writing about contemporary technology than most writers his age.

If you wanted to push a point, you could sorta-kinda describe this as a follow-up to Sweet Adversity. Our protagonists are septuagenarian twins, one or the other of whom may be imaginary, Fyodor and Rogo Kirkmaus. "In past time," they note near the beginning, "we wrote our life story as the Siamese twins and horn-playing drunks Rogo and Fyodor" (compare that to the title of Newlove's actual book, Leo and Theodore--there's even a part that includes a condensed version of parts of that book, recounting their younger years). The concerns here are rather different than the ones in the earlier novel, though. The two of them are unsuccessful novelists who have big boxes of their remaindered books-- like Eternal Life and The Painter Gabriel--lying around their apartment, along with loads of unpublished manuscripts, notably The Welles Requiem. They live with Fyodor's wife, Nastasya (who may also be a conduit for the spirit of Ayn Rand), another frustrated writer who for the last forty years has been working on a massive novel about Friedrich Nietzsche, and they eke out a precarious living writing endless book reviews for Kirkus (kirk mice, you see). Then there's Alexander Sugarman, a Hungarian magnate who has just bought up most of the world's publishing concerns and who is clearly actually Satan; he casually refers to his business dealings hundred and thousands of years ago, and all the relics that he keeps in a warehouse in Memphis (because why not?). He signs writers to contracts that continue beyond the grave (where do you think all those posthumous Robert Ludlum books come from?), and he ropes in the twins when Rogo signs for the publication of their in-progress memoir, Blindfolded before the Firing Squad, as well as The Welles Requiem. He also wants them to ghostwrite his autobiography. There are a lot of cool fabulist touches and sundry old reviews of well-known and obscure books and writers, but that's basically it.

There was a certain cognitive dissonance to my reading experience: this is SO GOOD! How is it possible that possibly-literally NO ONE else has read it? There must be some trick. I felt a little like the first reviewers who read the self-published version of A Naked Singularity must have felt--although with all love to Sergio de la Pava, Newlove is a better writer. The whole thing is wonderfully capacious and wildly creative. It's obvious that large parts of it are autobiographical, but if you think that being what some would call a failed writer might have embittered him, you should think again. He looks to have more a sort of wry bemusement at the absurd vicissitudes of the publishing industry and life in general, and it's really enthralling. The seven hundred pages (in the ebook version) seemed to fly by.

Still, depending on your sensibilities, there might be a few things here that you wish were different. Mainly, you might wish for a little more narrative movement. The second half of the book, you will at some point realize, consists entirely of a dinner party at the Kirkmaus' place, and the lengthy conversations, which are extremely multifarious but a lot of which involves a stolen first-edition copy of Ulysses. And then it ends somewhat indeterminately. Hey, I basically liked it fine, but there was definitely a part of me that was disappointed that there wasn't more. Better than being disappointed that there wasn't less, however!

Actually, though, when I said that the dinner party takes up the whole of the back half, I was kind of lying: in a Tristram-Shandy-esque move, Newlove has relocated chapter five--a hundred-odd pages--to the end: "WARNING," he writes, complete with two little skulls and crossboneses, "CHAPTER FIVE STUFFED WITH DEADLY BORING BOOK REVIEWS MOVED TO CHAPTER SIXTEEN AS AN APPENDIX!!!" And it is indeed mostly, though not entirely, short book reviews, with occasional commentary from the twins. Characters comment on multiple occasions elsewhere that no reader is going to be willing or able to slog through them all. Well, at least one reader was and did, and I found them entertaining, though I concede that your enjoyment will strongly hinge on how much interest in/tolerance for you have for publishing minutiae and bibliophilia. I thought it was pretty great. These are all (I think all) actual factual reviews that were published back in the day; I would assume that most of them were written by Newlove himself (although some clearly aren't and aren't meant to be). Is this all very self-indulgent? Well...kind of, in part, but there's a certain serious intent behind it. Let me quote the ending (apart from a few codas), which seems to sum it up:

Once a manuscript has been revised, edited by a house, proofed by a copy editor and proofed again by the author, and perhaps reread by the wife or husband, the writing tends to shape up and have some cunning of art or at least the gloss of craft. Some value, however molecular, even if only as heart-pumping Southern romance and nightly sleeping pill. And yet, like garbage dumped from scows into the blue waters off Havana harbor that Hemingway draws for us in The Green Hills of Africa, . . . they all go off into the dark, hardcover and reprint, sternly sewn university press edition or yellowing and bent-spine side leaner--they are the tons of pitchblende we sift for a gram of radium, as Rogo said of Hemingway's early reporting. So maybe that's what we do with galleys, sift for a metal radioactive with spirit and proof against darkness as we wrap our bare bones in light on the radium-bed of great language.

Is Newlove's writing destined to "go off into the dark?" It's pretty obvious why he would identify with these forgotten writers, but he definitely deserves serious attention. On the one hand, reading a book that absolutely no one else has makes me feel like the ultimate hipster, which is kind of fun, but on the other hand...get on it, people. "It's vastly serious I take and it almost means something but at heart is a huge patchwork entertainment without much point," speculates Sugarman re Blindfolded before the Firing Squad. We can argue about the degree to which there's a point, but "huge patchwork entertainment?" AND HOW. This is very much worthy of your time and consideration.


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