Monday, September 27, 2010

Vance Bourjaily RIP

Just got the news from Chad at Mallard of Discontent that novelist Vance Bourjaily is dead at 87.

Bourjaily was considered one of the best of the postwar novelists and then just faded from popularity-- I don't know why, as I considered his best as good as any and better than most. He was unapologetically interested in bird hunting but was also an academic and teacher; perhaps his interests and characters were from too broad a range of classes, professions, and non- coastal places to appeal to mega- publishing conglomerates. He continued to teach, but the publishers stopped buying.

Chad quoted the Post obit and added some pungent observations of his own:

"Now that's a scene I would have loved to see: Vance Bourjaily with Kurt Vonnegut (one of my all-time favorite authors but a man who despised firearms) smoking his ever-present Pall Malls while sitting in a duck blind or roaming the Iowa fields in search of pheasants. I'd love to hear those conversations...

"It's not surprising that Bourjaily - whose son Phil is the shotguns editors at Field & Stream and a damn good writer himself - is best known for his novels. He was a fairly major literary figure back in the day when that meant something more than a bunch of semi-clever assholes tweeting their way to pop-schlock book deals.

"But he was also a wonderful writer on hunting - bird hunting, mostly - and I think it's a shame the obit didn't mention his book on the subject, The Unnatural Enemy: Essays On Hunting. It was first published in 1963 (I think) and re-published in 1984 with a new forward by Edward Abbey. Yep, that Edward Abbey".

I will repeat what I said in the comments as a sort of very minimal primer:

"The greatest uncelebrated novelist left. For sports people: the Unnatural Enemy absolutely. Plus the opening scene of Brill Among the Ruins where the protagonist shoots a duck with a 28 gauge Model 21 and nearly drowns.

"And for everyone the bawdy innovative sprawl of Now Playing at Canterbury, about staging an opera in Iowa, with many voices and a horror story about cats and a Purdey hidden in an insurance scam...

"Then all the others. All on Amazon cheap, still. I'm lifting a drink to him tonight.

"I believe Philip wrote recently about him in the early 60's, flying with a Beretta in a case under his seat, wearing a tie, showing the "stewardess" his gun, not getting arrested..."

My condolences to Philip, who blogs with Dave Petzal at Gun Nut Blog.

Update: Matt reminds me that the introductory chapter has a funny falconry scene, and that the same chapter (I think) features shooting barn pigeons with a Darne shotgun--!


Matt Mullenix said...

A couple semi-personal associations: Bourjaily was an important figure at LSU, a Boyd Professor Emeritus (school's highest mark of distinction) and the first director of a our MFA creative writing program. I have The Unnatural Enemy at home, purchased from a small bookstore years before coming to LSU after a quick browse discovered it contains a very funny story with a falconry focus.

Here another LSU prof. emeritus manages to make his Bourjaily rememberance seem mostly about himself...

It's a little depressing to read about another under-appreciated genius gone to the great McArthur Foundation in the sky. Makes you wonder if literary aspiration makes any sense? Maybe bird hunting is a better avocation after all.

Steve Bodio said...

Matt- I am going to add an update on that chapter-- actually intro-- because in addition to falconry it features a Darne shotgun!

Chad Love said...

The last time I read Unnatural Enemy was in college at OU and I think I had to get it from the Norman public library through ILL because there were no copies in the used bookshops around Norman.

Now I've got copies of five Bourjaily books in transit to my house, all bought for a pittance while sitting on my ass in front of the monitor.

Sometimes this Internet thingy's not too bad...but it does makes you wonder why some deserving authors fade while other completely forgettable ones endure.

Reid Farmer said...

Sad news. I always much enjoyed his "Brill Among the Ruins" much of which is set in an archaeological research project in Mexico. Bourjaily had done his homework on the archaeology