Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vance Bourjaily

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.


  1. I read "The Unnatural Enemy" in college, too. Thinking about it now, I don't recall seeing my copy when I packed up my books. Hope I didn't lend it out, then forget. Nice post- I hadn't realized how large a literary figure Bourjaily cast.

  2. Sad news indeed. I came to know the talents of the Bourjailys through "Fishing By Mail," a collection of back-and-forth letters between father and son. I too had no idea how connected he was to other literary icons.

  3. Mdmnm, I never actually owned a copy of it, i think I got it through interlibrary loan at the public library.

    No Amazon back then. Amazing we survived, isn't it?

    Scampwalker, as soon as I heard the news, I got on Amazon and bought copies of Unnnatural Enemy, Fishing by Mail and Country Matters. I've never read the last two. Look forward to it.

  4. 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. MDMN, any more you can think of? 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...

    1. Hello Mr. Bodio,
      How coincidental that I should read your remarks about Vance Bourjaily after just reading Tom Davis' comments in Pointing Dog Journal to read you! I've read most all the Bourjaily books and have been a passionate fan of his since the late 60's. I love my bird dogs (only one at a time) but there have been a few. I'll make it a point to get your "Sportsman's Library" book. Bourjaily suggested Ivan Turgenev's "Memoir's of a Sportsmen" (I've seen it in various titles and editions) in a column he did for Esquire in the 70's and I loved it. I visited Charley Waterman once and he signed a bunch of his books. What a great guy. I'm rambling, but thanks. Maybe will meet in a great CRP field some some day.
      Gregg Chance
      Traverse City, Michigan (late of Montana)

  5. Steve, it's the damndest thing how fame works, isn't it?

  6. I really like his pheasant hunting stories too! Another great writer has passed!