Wednesday, September 22, 2010
I discovered today - quite by accident - while perusing Scott Bowen's excellent Beaufinn that the ranks of men who write or have written beautifully, intelligently and honestly about hunting (a category that was never large to begin with and continues to get smaller and smaller with each passing year) was recently reduced by one.
From the obituary in the Washington Post....
Vance Bourjaily, 87, a professor of writing and a prolific novelist who explored the complex lives of contemporary Americans in reticently unadorned prose, died Aug. 31 in Greenbrae, Calif. He died of complications from a fall, said his wife, Yasmin Mogul. An enduring presence in American literature, Mr. Bourjaily was considered one of the eminent young novelists of the World War II generation. Critics put him in the same rank as postwar writers Norman Mailer and James Jones.
Mr. Bourjaily's first novel, "The End Of My Life" (1947), was influenced by his unsettling experiences as a soldier and ambulance driver in World War II. Literary critic John W. Aldridge wrote that "no book since [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] 'This Side of Paradise' has caught so well the flavor of youth in wartime, and no book since [Ernest Hemingway's] 'A Farewell to Arms' has contained so complete a record of the loss of that youth in war." Of the 1958 novel "The Violated," a critic noted that Mr. Bourjaily is "one of that select band of writers equipped with antenna-like perception enabling them to project the heart and pulse of their generation."
In his long and varied career, Mr. Bourjaily was a playwright, a long-form journalist and a Broadway critic for the Village Voice. In the early 1950s, he was the co-editor of Discovery, a literary journal that a critic called one of the "liveliest and most buoyantly pugnacious of all the little magazines." After teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Mr. Bourjaily became the first director of Louisiana State University's post-graduate creative writing program in 1985. He retired in the late 1990s.
He was an avocational jazz trumpeter, fly fisherman and game hunter and was known to pluck details from his experiences that made their way into his writing. His book "of a Spent Youth" (1960) was an explicitly autobiographical account of his youthful sexual exploits and dabbling in excessive drinking and illicit drugs.
Another of his popular works, "The Man Who Knew Kennedy" (1967), takes place shortly after the president's assassination in Dallas in 1963 and focuses on the life of a man who had briefly met the future commander in chief while recuperating in a military hospital. Mr. Bourjaily's last novel, "Old Soldier" (1990), concerned an Army sergeant on a fishing trip with his homosexual brother who is dying of AIDS.
An entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography said Mr. Bourjaily's "reputation rests on his ability to tell wonderful stories with vivid surprising details. . . . [His] novels depict the common man struggling -- often heroically, often paradoxically -- to live with the contradictions that define society."
...From 1957 to 1980, Mr. Bourjaily taught at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop alongside his friends Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut, whom he called among "the half dozen people I like best in the world." In Iowa, Mr. Bourjaily rolled his own cigarettes and roamed his property in a pickup truck to check on his sheep, horses and cattle. Students such as John Irving and T.C. Boyle attended pig roasts at Mr. Bourjaily's farm 10 miles outside Iowa City.
He hunted pheasant and wild duck with "Invisible Man" author Ralph Ellison, who borrowed Mr. Bourjaily's camouflage for the outings. Mr. Bourjaily once gave another of his hunting partners, Vonnegut, this sage advice: "The bigger the game, the more corrupted the soul of the hunter."
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. Apparently good writers gravitate toward each other. He also edited and penned the forward to a wonderful anthology of essays entitled Seasons of the Hunter.
I discovered The Unnatural Enemy in college, during a time when I was obsessively seeking out such writing, and I've been a fan ever since. Although most, if not all of his books are (I think) out of print, if you get a chance they're worth digging around for.
Posted by Chad Love at 12:58 PM