Friday, June 25, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“Tony and Susan,” by Austin Wright

(Editor’s note: This is the 99th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s reading selection comes from Maxim Jakubowski, the former London bookseller, prolific editor, author, and literary director of London’s Crime Scene Film Festival. Among Jakubowski’s forthcoming works are an erotic thriller, I Was Waiting for You, and Following the Detectives, a well-illustrated collection of essays about fictional sleuths and the cities they inhabit.)

Were you aware that Saul Bellow once blurbed a thriller?

This is what he said of Tony and Susan: “Marvelously written--the last thing you would expect in a story of blood and revenge. Beautiful.” Sadly, that rare encomium did not put this terribly neglected novel on the road to fame and fortune. It appeared in the USA in 1993, and enjoyed similar favorable reviews but like too many good books, it came and went, creating no significant ripples on the commercial publishing waters--not helped by the fact that it had been published by a now-defunct small house, Baskerville, with little sales and marketing clout to capitalize on the critical response to the book’s publication.

Tony and Susan was the fourth novel to be published by American writer and academic Austin McGiffert Wright (1922-2003). A Faulkner specialist who taught during most of his career at the University of Cincinnati, Wright’s main claim to literary posterity until this book’s appearance was the fact that he was a nephew of Austin Tappan Wright, the author of that utopian science-fiction classic Islandia. His other novels, equally forgotten, are Camden’s Eyes (1969), First Persons (1973), The Morley Mythology (1977), After Gregory (1994), Telling Time (1995), and Disciples (1997). A couple of these also have thriller elements, but none of his other books ever saw the light of day as mass-market paperbacks in his lifetime and enjoyed rather small print runs. Tony and Susan’s paperback incarnation in the States was also short-lived and a film sale for a substantial advance came to nothing.

Tony and Susan is a tough book to summarize without indulging in a variety of spoilers, which would detract from its reading and its often surprising twists. But let’s have a go. Many years before the book opens, Edward and Susan were childhood sweethearts who belatedly came together whilst at university and married. Edward has always thought of himself as a writer, and initially Susan doesn’t begrudge his lofty and impractical ambition. She supports the both of them as an assistant teacher while Edward seeks his muse, albeit in vain, until the time comes when Susan begins to resent his pursuit of the seemingly unattainable, and begins an affair with Arnold, a doctor who happens to live in the same building and offers her a better prospect of a bourgeois life. Edward and Susan part, with few bad feelings, divorce and go their separate ways. Later, Edward gives up on his writing and launches a career in the insurance business. Susan has children with Arnold, who has become a successful if sometimes philandering surgeon, and settles into a comfortable life in the suburbs.

Twenty-five years after their separation, out of the blue, Susan hears from Edward again. He has finally written a novel and is keen for her to comment on his manuscript. Surprised by this development, she reluctantly accepts and the book arrives in the post. For a week or so, Susan can’t get herself to open the package and begin reading, but the opportunity finally comes when Arnold leaves for a medical conference and interviews in New York City, where she suspects he will be accompanied by an old flame.

Edward’s novel is called Nocturnal Animals and we are invited to read it right alongside Susan. It takes her three evenings/sittings to finish, and as we follow the book’s plot together, we are offered her initial impressions and critiques, and the memories of her life before and with Edward begin flooding back to the surface, even though the novel doesn’t appear to have any autobiographical elements at all. But then, why did Edward send her the manuscript?

The novel we read, as Susan does, is about a professor of mathematics at a Cincinnati university, Tony Hastings. He is happily married to Laura, a painter, and they have a teenage daughter, Helen. As they do every summer, they embark on the long drive up to their summer house in Maine. At night, in the middle of nowhere, their car is rudely jostled by another driver and Tony reacts with sudden pique, as a result of which the occupants of the other vehicle react strongly, and soon Tony and his family are being held hostage by three unknown men. Then begins a long descent into horror and terrifying violence to body and soul, a calvary for the meekish man that Tony is. As the tale develops, Tony will descend to the very depths of bedazzlement, pain, and eventually stark revenge.

As Susan reads this book, it begins to put her life and beliefs into a new context, and a dialogue between writer and reader evolves, which questions the very fundamentals of fiction writing and human relationships. Lest this might sound like another meta-novel in which the author’s intent is paramount, let me reassure you this is not the fact. Tony and Susan (or more precisely, Nocturnal Animals) reads like a relentless, oppressive, and gripping thriller whose characters you take to heart and who keep on living in your imagination long after they have migrated from the page--not just Tony and Susan, but also the striking “baddies,” ambiguous policemen, and other bystanders, whether innocent or not. Unlike the often wonderful variations on meta-fiction by the likes of Paul Auster, Tony and Susan is first and foremost a book about people who are made of flesh and blood beyond the ruminations of their intellect.

It’s also a rather unique book, insofar as it doesn’t fit anywhere within the classical canon of thrillers or, say, the Everyman-in-peril subgenre that someone like Harlan Coben has recently made his own. Also, regrettably, it is a novel that’s been ignored and doesn’t appear to have inspired others. On one hand, it’s a stark meditation on violence and the way it affects us; on the other, it’s a truly remarkable book about reading, about how we read and how it can matter to us. Tony and Susan is a double whammy of a lost classic. As a bonus, the writing and style are seductive in the extreme. It’s witty in the way the author’s voice (Austin Wright? Edward? Susan even?) punctuates the colloquial dialogue with echoes of the seeming inarticulacy of the characters’ words and thoughts. And the descriptions of roads and forests at night, the way light falls onto the terrain and the sheer heaviness of the silence in which Tony struggles most of the time, are inspired. Wright writes like an angel.

And if you think my critical appreciation is prone to exaggeration, let me end with some other more recent comments about the book on the occasion of its recent reissue in the UK (it is still out of print in the USA):

“Absorbing, terrifying, beautiful and appalling. I loved it and became intensely involved in it. Parts of it shocked me and I am not easily shocked. It is easy to say that something one has read is unforgettable but this novel I know I shall never forget.”--Ruth Rendell

“A fucking masterpiece. I wish that Wright was still alive so I could tell him so, and so he could enjoy the revival of his book. It’s going to become a living, breathing, knock-out classic. In fact, I can’t believe how good this book is ... Tony and Susan is a masterpiece. Unequivocal. Unbelievable!”--Australian author M.J. Hyland

“Creepy, illuminating, quite wonderful.”--Donna Leon

“With its trapdoor narrative and its psychological sleight-of-hand, this is a novel of immense guile and unsettling velocity. Why Wright isn’t better known is a mystery to me. He’s brilliant.”--Rupert Thomson

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