A pederastic priest, the one-eyed head of the Japanese secret police and a Russian anarchist pornographer: the best of Edward Whittemore
You hope life is fair. You hope that, at some point, your hard work will pay off. You know life is not, but you hope all the same. You know about the bum rush. Had your fair share of whatever the opposite of luck is (would go so far as to say that base camp has been set, from time to time, mid way up the torturous slopes of both Mount Down at Heel and Mount Sucks). But, still, you hope that the kinds of people who believe in fate and karma aren’t as stupid as they look. You read about people like Ray Carver – wrote his whole life, suffered alcoholism, bad marriages, shitty luck, met the great woman of his life, discovered he had lung cancer and a brain tumour, was told he had six months to live and lived five years. Ups and downs, to be sure. You’re given six months, you get five years (five years in which to love, five years in which to write the best of your words). You read about people like John Kennedy Toole – wrote a great book, was on his own in believing that to be the case (at least according to the huge number of agents who rejected the damn thing), took his life (fed a pipe from the exhaust to the driver’s side window) – and then was honoured with terrific posthumous success when his mother (the indignity) got the book published, got the book awarded a goddamn Pulitzer Prize, got the book loved and cherished by anyone with half a brain the world over. You read about these people and you think – okay: life can be pretty fucking bad, but – there is usually an upside to every petty tale of woe.
Let’s talk about Edward Whittemore, shall we? The man Publisher’s Weekly called “our best unknown novelist.” Think Richard Yates to the power of 3 (or 10). Here is a man who wrote 5 books – 5 books that recieved glowing or better reviews, 5 books that sold diddly. 5 books – each of which sold less than its immediate predecessor. And yet, for all that, 5 books that publishers of the time (we’re talking late 70s, early 80s here – Whittemore would have great difficulty being published today – the horse and pony set that is much of contemporary publishing would just not GET him) – 5 books that publishers of the time were willing to publish because it proved they had taste. Whittemore was evidence of taste, erudition, accomplishment. Many things. Plus you get the man himself. Born in 1933, Whittemore did not publish until 1974 (his first published novel – Quin’s Shanghai Circus – a real roundhouse of a book featuring a pederastic priest, the one-eyed head of the Japanese secret police and a Russian anarchist pornographer (all this and a first sentence that reads: “Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue.”)) on the grounds that he spent the first and greatest part of his life as a CIA agent in the Middle East – a Middle East that was to play a larger part in Whittemore’s most significant work – The Jerusalem Quartet:Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows and Jericho Mosaic. Characters flit in and out from one book to the next – Haj Harun, the 3000 year old warrior guarding Jerusalem from attack, Plantagenet Strongbow, an English-born adventurer, O’Sullivan Beare, an Irishman from the Isle of Arran out to smuggle guns and play poker for ownership of the Holy Land. Along the way (as The New York Times kindly observes) you get “mysteries, truths, untruths, idiot savants, necrophiliacs, magicians, dwarfs, circus masters, secret agents . . . a marvellous recasting of history in our century.”
Whittemore often found himself compared to Vonnegut (“Whittemore is to Vonnegut what a tapestry is to a cat’s cradle” – Rhoda Lerman) and Pynchon (there’s some truth in the comparison with Vonnegut – Whittemore isn’t for idiots but – saying that – he doesn’t require a degree in some abstract quantum physics like Pynchon can at times) and Tom Robbins (again, some truth – Whittemore is, however, more ambitious than Robbins – Robbins is writing pop songs, Whittemore is scoring some grandiloquent symphony). There are also similarities with David Foster Wallace (the combination of erudition and anarchy) and Jeff VanderMeer (himself a huge fan of Whittemore).
The thing, however, is this. Mostly unread in his lifetime, Whittemore’s books have been out of print for the better part of twenty years (he was the Holy Grail of the Second Hand Bookstore dealer). Nobody read his books when he was alive. Then he got cancer and died (which you would think would start him along the road to posthumous rediscovery by the intelligentsia but – not so). Nothing. Not read in life, not read in death. Zip. Bad luck all round. Still. Things may be on the mend. Thanks to Old Earth Books in Baltimore, Maryland, you can get your hands on all five books again – everything he published in his lifetime (there are maybe three others – early works and one unfinished novel about Billy the Kid – that may be – may be – coming out in the next year or two – you read these five books, you’ll want to read the others, believe you me). So now you can catch up with a true lost great. Scratch that. You can now catch up with a never-found genius, claim him for your own, preach like a wild-eyed zealout – you won’t be far wrong. This is a guy you can clutch to your busom safe in the knowledge that – as of yet – you’re in a very select company indeed. But let’s hope the reissue changes all that . . .
You can order copies of Quin’s Shanghai Circus, Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows and Jericho Mosaic direct from Old Earth Books at www.oldearthbooks.com
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- April 15, 2009 / 11:10 am