One of my favorite writers is the sorely under-read, brilliant, monstrously talented Joseph McElroy. Author of eight novels (and a book of short stories, forthcoming from Dalkey Archive), there’s probably never been a time in his career when all of his books have been in print once. Two of his books have never been issued in paperback, languishing unread on behind-the-register bookcases with triple-digit price tags on them. (I was once in a bookstore which had eleven copies of Hind’s Kidnap, priced to move at $110 each.)
He’s the least known of the authors in the Pynchon/Gaddis/Gass/Coover sphere–fairly difficult writers who are known for their lengthy books–but he’s the most difficult of all of them all. Some people recommend the slim The Letter Left to Me (1989) as a good entry point, but I say start at the beginning with A Smuggler’s Bible (1966) and then see where that takes you . . .
Few American writers, outside of maybe Evan Dara or William T. Vollmann, write with more singleminded intensity than McElroy. You can tell a McElroy work from one sentence, disembodied from the rest of the text, like this one I’m picking at random from Women and Men (though some of the really awesome sentences go on like this for five or six pages):
And years later Jim found what he wanted to connect the habit to–the movements or motions you felt overall, in an apartment house, that were less from people doing things than from what was left of them after they went out to work or away on business or vacation, athough it might be the elevator or the edifice responding to the wake of a truck passing in the street.
(“Spare” is not a word to describe his writing, luckily.)
He’s written “thrillers” (Lookout Cartridge (1974), Hind’s Kidnap (1969)), “sci-fi” (the phenomenally difficult Plus (1977), about a disembodied brain/computer orbiting the Earth), little “dramas” (Ancient History (1971), The Letter Left to Me (1989), and his most recent novel, the stunning Actress in the House (2003)), to big, brutal, backbreaking “postmodern” bricks (the 1192-page Women and Men (1987), a towering masterpiece). The genres noted above are in quotes because though McElroy’s books get pigeonholed with those labels for lack of any other way to describe them, they’re nothing close to what you usually expect from those descriptors.
I’ve finally picked up the final hardcover I needed to complete my collection, the first edition of A Smuggler’s Bible, and thought I would share a few pictures, because many of these are not common books.
Hind’s Kidnap and Ancient History: A Paraphase have never been reprinted after their initial hardcover runs. Carroll & Graf did reprints of a number of McElroys in the 80’s, but they’re out of print now. Overlook reprinted a few of these, but the only McElroy title that Amazon’s listing as still in print is the incredible Actress in the House. (The fact that only one of his books is in print is a fucking shame.) But if you are the type of reader who likes to be challenged and who doesn’t mind meandering and slow-moving narratives, who likes to be completely consumed by the beauty of the language and the brilliance of the writing, it’s worth spending time tracking down everything you can.
My copy of The Letter Left to Me is the review copy sent to “Woody Hochswender” at Harper’s Bazaar. This copy of Hind’s Kidnap is inscribed by McElroy to “John Higgins” (I don’t think it’s the same guy who colored Watchmen, though). Also in the picture is the issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction dedicated to McElroy’s work.
The galleys for Women and Men were so massive that Knopf issued them in two volumes. I’ve heard that there are second hardcover printings, though I’ve never seen one; finding a copy, first or second printing, without a remainder mark, is tough. And it wasn’t issued in paperback until Dalkey got the rights. Also: I love these comments regarding Women and Men from various booksellers on abe.com:
*”There was just a short first print run of what is reputed to be the most remaindered major work of contemporary fiction (only this copy is NOT remaindered but is close to being in Gift condition). 1192pp. Will require increase in S/H due to its sizeable bulk; probably weighs 4 to 6 lbs!”
*”Because of the massive bulk of this novel, copies tend to be found quite worn, despite its recent vintage; this is a handsome exception.”
He’s also published a book of essays, titled Exponential, in Italy, and he’s been working on a new novel, Cannonball, for a long time now. Whether you’re reading mint first editions or beat-up paperbacks, or something in between, if you’ve never read McElroy, you’re in for a real treat–he’s a monumentally important writer.