Friday, July 04, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Cutter and
Bone,” by Newton Thornburg

(Editor’s note: Consider this Rap Sheet bonus day. Rather than presenting just one new installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books, you’re getting a twofer. The first selection--and the 10th entry in our series--comes from Kirk Russell, the San Francisco-area author of three tense eco-thrillers: Shell Games [2003], Night Game [2004], and Deadgame [2005]).

There was a film, Cutter’s Way (1981), so it’s not as though Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel, Cutter and Bone, completely fell through the cracks. And there was a reissue in 2001 with an introduction by George Pelecanos, but I wonder how many of those were sold. Cutter and Bone seems to have faded into that other century and stuff that happened once; yet I don’t think anyone I’ve read before or since caught a moment in time so well. Thornburg nailed something about a California I knew post Vietnam, a place with an empty, angry angst in some of the guys coming home. He wrote to something irretrievable.

At the story’s center there’s Richard Bone, a former ad man who has abandoned his family and career and moved to California, where he can live along the distant borders of ever having to care about anything ever again. He gets drunk. He gets high. He’s still narcissistic enough to keep his body intact, so he can get by as a gigolo. And then there’s Alex Cutter, seriously injured by a Claymore mine in Vietnam as well as by the subsequent reconstructions of his body. Pelecanos quoted Thornburg’s memorable description of Cutter in his 2001 intro:
What a sight the man made, what a celebration of the grotesque: the thinning Raggedy Ann hair, the wild hawk face glowing with the scar tissue of too many plastic surgeries, the black eye over the missing eye and the perennial apache dancer’s costume of tight black pants and black turtleneck sweater with the left sleeve knotted below the elbow, not pinned up or sewed but knotted, an advertisement, spit in your eye.
One night, Bone witnesses a young woman’s body being dumped into a trash can; and later, looking at a newspaper photo of a corporate magnate, he thinks he recognizes a similarity to the man whose silhouette he saw in darkness and from a distance, throwing away what he thought at the time might have been golf clubs. Even after blurting, “It’s him,” Bone would have blown it off and purposefully forgotten the girl. But for Cutter, just the similarity to the corporate magnate in that newspaper photo--the “cornpone millionaire” J.J. Wolfe of Missouri--is enough, and even Bone’s backtracking doesn’t change things. As Cutter puts it,
“Look, man, I know you. I was there, remember? The second you saw that picture, it was all over your mug--that first split second before you had time to think, to sickly the thing o’er with the pale cast of apathy.”
Cutter and Bone go back and forth on whether it was Wolfe that Bone saw. They read that the murder victim was a high-school girl, popular, a cheerleader. But this isn’t about the victim. It’s about what happened to Cutter in Vietnam and to the country he knew. It’s hatred of all the J.J. Wolfes in the world and all the people who got America into Vietnam and what Cutter sees in their corrupt impunity. He asks Bone,
“Are we going to do something about it?”

“Not me. What would a man like that be doing with a cheerleader?”

“What else?”
However, Bone still wants no part of this trouble, and Cutter is not exactly saying they ought to bring Wolfe to justice. Cutter and Bone is not a book about a crime and the restoration of social order. Cutter wants revenge against a thing he knows he’ll never really reach. He says to Bone,
“I just want to know, that’s all. If it was him.”

“Why him?”

“Cause I don’t like him, that’s why.”
So they investigate and a crime gets solved. What doesn’t get solved is what’s irreversibly lost, and so hauntingly written about by Thornburg. And then there’s the last paragraph of the novel, maybe one of the all time greats in crime fiction.

Next Friday, San Francisco author Louise Ure will have the pleasurable task of choosing her own “forgotten book” for this page. I’m always drawn in by Ure’s protagonists. They never feel fake. They’re fiercely independent, but the real hook and a very compelling one in her writing is an underlying humanity. It radiates from Forcing Amaryllis (2005) and The Fault Tree (2008), her first two novels, and I’m sure it’ll also be there in Liars Anonymous, her third.

READ MORE:Newton Thornburg’s Novel Cutter and Bone Is Published on September 13, 1976,” by Phil Dougherty (HistoryLink); “When Adaptations Go Bad--Cutter’s Way,” by Chip Smith (Unfit for Print); “Friend and Foil,” by Philip Herrera (Time); “Cutter’s Way (1981),” by Andrew Nette (Film Noir of the Week).

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think that's the second time Cutter and Bone has been chosen. Have to run that one down.