The “American” Novel

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I realized recently that I have been reading a great many novels by British writers lately. This includes, of course, novels by immigrants to the UK, or by indigenous British peoples who have been marginalized by the Anglo-Saxon colonizers of those islands, such as the Irish, who recently concluded an eight-hundred-year war of resistance with an agreement that may not survive Brexit. From Ulysses to Milkman, from The Remains of the Day to The Nothing…I seem to be finding more satisfaction in Commonwealth writers than those from my own adopted culture. (I also read a great many novels from non-anglophone countries, primarily Japan and France.)

And while I do read novels by US writers, I have not found myself particularly satisfied by the offerings on hand, be they written by what the Fascist right calls “real ‘Muricans,” or presented by first- or second-generation immigrant writers. (I must note there that, as a native of Argentina, I take a dim view of the way the US has expropriated the word “American,” which rightly refers to two continents and thirty-five nations.)

One exception is writing from the Black experience in the US, the result of a four-hundred year grinding horror that has refined it to a gleaming edge. But of course most US critics work hard to keep Black writing out of the conceptual mainstream. Although it is more “American” that most White folks’ work, since Black folk have been viewing the US from inside the gearbox, as it were, since 1630, it is all too often considered “atypical.”

Yet the American novel begins with an observation of the Black experience: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. This is the story of a homeless White boy who was raised as a racist, as all White children were in the South (and most of the US) at that time. He may have been poor as stray cat, the son of a violent drunkard, an ignorant and careless lout in many way, but he had been told throughout his life that he was superior to any Black person of any condition. In the course of the story, he decides, even though he has been taught he will burn in hell for doing so, to help a Black slave he knows escape to freedom. (The precipitating incidents of this decision belong in a review of the book, not here.) In the end, after many complications, he decides that civilization as he knows it is not something he finds valuable, and he leaves for the frontier.

This is a complex, powerful, and highly political story, probably mirroring the evolution of Twain’s own social views.

What do we find predominating in the US literature in the years following Word War Two? I am going to oversimplify the situation and narrow it down to two novel typologies.

  • The American novel type 1: Let’s get jobs as professors and leave our wives for cute students who actually can’t stand us.
  • The American novel type 2: Let’s find some poor people and pretend we like them for a while, then go back home.

That may be why I gravitated to the mystery form for my first few novels: in the mystery, also a quintessentially “American” form, though one generally discounted by critics, you find a proletarian literature that is generally divorced from polemic. The great works of Raymond Chandler, the very good works of Ross MacDonald and others, the early masterpieces of Walter Mosley, show workaday people facing off against currents of oligarchical domination and underclass despair. There is a vigor and honesty in them that neither academic literature nor the slumming of privileged youth can approach. And so I have chosen to use the mystery form, and take it beyond structural formula to explore the way relationships develop in a world where leisure does not exist in great quantity, and life must be wedged into the moments of respite allowed the characters by late-stage capitalism. Without even mentioning politics; focusing mostly on love, friendship, loyalty, and disappointment.

Whether I have succeeded or not is up to you to judge. And this isn’t a sales pitch, or at least not a pure one: you can request that your library order in my books. I won’t make as much money that way as I would were you to order them directly, but I don’t care. I’m trying to figure out how we can make real lives for ourselves in the place that calls itself America. And that’s what the American novel, great or otherwise, should address. (And short stories too, while we’re at it.) My first two novels are available now. Two more are in the pipeline. After that, we’ll see how it goes. I do have plans….

Rick Risemberg