The Waiting Game; or, The Missing Years
Oft-told tales celebrate figures in American literature whose readership hovered between slim and none for years and years and in some cases arrived posthumously, though sometimes these stories aren’t factually very accurate. Melville, for example, actually had some early success with lesser work, then watched it dwindle away and saw his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, underwhelm the public almost completely. When he died in 1891, all his books had been out of print for fifteen years, and Billy Budd lingered unpublished until 1924, when the so-called Melville Revival kicked into gear. [For the best account of the author of the indisputable Great American Novel, see Andrew Delbanco’s incomparable biography.] Faulkner, too, comes up in this conversation, having published by my count thirteen novels — including his greatest, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom, in an incredible burst between 1929 and 1936 — before his Nobel Prize in 1949 made it possible for him to live off his royalties; in the early Forties, he’d had to abscond to Hollywood in hopes of paying his bills.
More contemporary instances of this failure to connect are every bit as compelling. Take Don DeLillo, for instance, who wrote seven novels and waited fourteen years before White Noise (1985) allowed him to slip off the cloak of cult author. Or Cormac McCarthy — who after twenty-seven years and five novels, including the essential Suttree and Blood Meridian — finally got to hang his up in 1992, with the publication of All the Pretty Horses; the rest, as they say, is history.
This leads me to wonder what can trigger such a “discovery” of a writer already accomplished and acclaimed and yet somehow off the radar of serious readers. One such example is Ted Mooney, whose The Same River Twice we recently published. Other than a casual friendship I really didn’t have much to do with Ted since his first novel, the still semi-famous Easy Travel to Other Planets, appeared in 1981 (when precious little new fiction was on any radar but the most selective) and helped to usher in a more receptive mood toward serious writers who weren’t already famous. It won the prestigious Sue Kauffman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was translated widely and, as I say, is still a title many people recall fondly. How, then, could his very sound subsequent novels — Traffic and Laughter (1990) and Singing into the Piano (1998) — have failed to widen his readership? I dunno. He was for thirty years a senior editor of Art in America, a good way of learning a lot about different sorts of art and making ends meet, but that’s now over, and my current hope is that his fourth novel, The Same River Twice, might turn his fortunes around and make it possible for him to continue what Sam Tannenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, recently called “one of the most interesting and ambitious literary careers of the modern period.”
The book got glowing advance comments that clearly established its achievement. From Jayne Anne Phillips: “A smart page-turning thriller that doubles as a darkly luminous literary jewel.” From Oscar Hijuelos: “A superbly written and wonderfully paced novel that succeeds as both a page-turner and a work of literary fiction.” From Jay McInerney: “That very rare beast — a literary thriller….Patricia Highsmith couldn’t have done it better.” And the sometimes bitchy Kirkus called it “a rich, multilayered, powerfully unsettling novel [that] succeeds on a number of different levels: as a page-turning mystery in which conceptual art meets the scientific vanguard of stem-cell research and as a meditation on the trusts and betrayals of marriage, on truth and illusion and the relation of each to artistic creativity…equally surprising, disturbing and inevitable.” Ditto a host of other reviews.
Now, that “a literary thriller” is — like “a brilliant debut” — something publishers find highly desirable is a truism that just happens to be true. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is an excellent case in point, and her novel’s enduring popularity continues to encourage editors to find and herald new instances of this phenomenon. A really good and serious book that can sell a lot of copies? It doesn’t happen all that often, largely because this claim is frequently made falsely, but when it’s genuine, everybody wins: the reader, the publisher and, most deserving of all, the writer.
This sort of success is exactly what Ted should enjoy with The Same River Twice, because it fulfills that very promise. And it’s what his career needs in order for him to go forward and deliver further surprises and revelations that only he can offer. While I’ve learned as a publisher that patience is perhaps the most essential characteristic, I’m frankly tired of waiting for a wide readership to discover his accomplishment, of seeing pretenders and hacks prosper while he does not, of having to shrug and say (as I often have) that virtue is its own reward. It is, of course, but it’s also a rather empty reward if it doesn’t enable a remarkable writer to continue to produce remarkable books. The business I’m in bears some responsibility for this truly disgusting phenomenon, but so do critics and booksellers and readers — all of us people whose lives have been transformed by books, all of us always looking for the next chance to be transformed once again, all of us in debt to the writers who perform this miracle.
So please help honor that obligation by giving yourself the enormous pleasure of reading The Same River Twice. Danielle Trussoni, in reviewing it for the TBR, addressed the differences between so-called commercial fiction and so-called literary fiction before concluding: “A joy to discover….Mooney proves in his nuanced literary thriller [that] it is perfectly possible to find a novel that has it all.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.