For well over 30 years I’ve taught at universities (Hofstra, Rutgers, and since 1991, Virginia Commonwealth University), but I’ve never felt entirely comfortable calling myself a “professor,” and I’ve never defined myself as such. I’m a “writer.” Writing is my profession and a writer is what I “am.” More specifically, and despite the fact that I’ve published hundreds of book reviews, a bit of reportage, and more than a smattering of essays, usually on cartoonists and American comic strips, I consider myself a fiction writer, or a novelist. I always wanted to write more ambitious non-fiction, but because of a nightmarish misadventure back in the 1980s, I steered clear of doing it for more than two decades.
The nightmarish misadventure? Oy. Not long after my novel Funny Papers was published in 1985, I was contacted by an editor at a prestigious publisher of art books (not Abrams, and no longer in business) and asked to write a fairly short (25,000 words) narrative about the early 20th century realist painters known as “The Eight” for a big juicy coffee table book–shiny paper, color plates, the whole megillah. (Funny Papers, set in the late 1890s, early 1900s, was primarily about the first generation of American newspaper cartoonists, but it also contained fictionalized, and renamed, versions of most of the eight painters who famously exhibited together in February 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City: Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies.) I jumped at the opportunity to try something different, but the challenge proved more daunting than I’d imagined.
The research and writing took longer than I’d anticipated it would (nothing new, either at the time, or ever since), and while I didn’t make up anything, or manufacture dialog (which I desperately wanted to do), in that era before non-fiction became “creative,” I did take some unforgiveable liberties; one that I still can recall: I “dressed” George Luks in an orange buffalo-plaid suit to attend a specific meeting of the artists, when, of course, there was no “documentation” that he wore such a suit on that particular evening. (Luks often wore an orange buffalo-plaid suit, however.) It was this kind of thing, this kind of novelist’s detailing, small bits of business like that, which got me into such hot water once I handed in the manuscript titled “Painters in Winter” (and not a bad title, if I do say so myself).
The famous art historian who was culling all of the pictures for the book, getting permissions, etc., went through the proverbial roof, to put it mildly; one of the names I remember being called was “idiot.” Yeah, that stung. My editor was more civil, but he hated the manuscript too. I agreed to rewrite it, and spent several months doing so, but then (my nemesis) the famous art historian, who shall remain nameless, became seriously ill and withdrew from the project. At that point the fiasco was complete, and the project, which had consumed over two years of my life, was cancelled. The only positive thing to come out of the ordeal was this: I didn’t have to return the part of the advance I’d been given upon signing the contract. (It really was a fiasco, all the way down the line: during one move or another, I lost the manuscript. But maybe that’s good. Maybe it was even worse than I remember.)
Anyhow. After all of that I refrained from tackling non-fiction for a long, long time. Until, following the publication of It’s Superman! in 2005, I was invited by Yale University Press to write a book-length essay about Superman for its Icons of America series. I was flattered by the invitation, but nervous as hell saying “yes.” However, I figured I should at least give non-fiction another try, which I did, and although it took me twice as long to write the short book (50,000 words) as my contract stipulated, the manuscript came out–to my way of thinking, at least–really well. So well, in fact, that I’ve wanted another opportunity, or opportunities, to write more things like it, especially since I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction (biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs, mostly) over the last several years.
Which is what this BOOKS section is all about.
Taking my cue from Bob Dylan’s wonderful and (naturally) eccentric Chronicles Volume 1, in which he pegged each of the book’s rambling, free-associating sections to a specific album that he made, I’ll be writing, and posting here, a series of essays/memoirs pegged to the novels and books I’ve published, beginning with Freaks’ Amour (1979) and continuing through Our Hero (2011). I don’t exactly know what they’re going to be like (obviously), but I want to use each of the books as a starting point and just see what happens; I expect the essays will recount not only how the novels came to be, and the strategies I used to write them (I am a creative-writing professor, after all–even if I don’t like to admit it), but also I expect they’ll deal with what was going on in my life, and in the world, at the time I wrote each of them, and the people I met and knew and worked with.
I don’t intend to tackle the essays in the chronological order that the books were published.
I’ll try to be as accurate as possible, but memory is faulty, and tends to conflate, and if I say I sat down at my desk one morning in an orange buffalo-plaid suit, well, what the hell. Believe it or not.
FREAKS’ AMOUR (1979)
In De Haven’s nightmarish America, the survivors of a nuclear blast – twisted by radiation and the contempt of the human population – try to raise money for surgeries any way they can. For brothers Grinner and Flour, that means everything from grotesque traveling sex shows for the normals to the ultimate drug – mutant goldfish eggs!
JERSEY LUCK (1980)
A moving, unpredictable, and morose look into the life of aimless young man in late 70’s New Jersey. Period details from the casinos and the boardwalk make for a nostalgic read as well (goodreads.com).
FUNNY PAPERS (1985)
Funny Papers chronicles cartoon icon Derby Dugan’s beginnings in the rough-and-tumble world of yellow journalism in turn-of-the-century New York, when Hearst and Pulitzer owned tabloid America. The aptly named Georgie Wreckage, a sketch artist for Pulitzer’s daily World, rockets to fame as the creator of what becomes a hugely successful cartoon franchise in this, the first book in Tom De Haven’s epic trilogy of twentieth-century pop-culture America.
U.S.S.A: BOOK ONE (1987)
High-school student Eddie Ludlow is just trying to get on with his own life under the new United Secure States of America, a police state in which rock music is available only on the black market and where teachers who encourage thinking disappear. The increasing repression coupled with his girlfriend’s father’s involvement in secret weaponry make Eddie a ready candidate for a growing underground resistance movement (School Library Journal).
SUNBURN LAKE (1988)
Sunburn Lake, 1936: A traveling salesman, used to being a fainthearted pushover, discovers with the help of his moody nephew and a blowzy two-hundred-pound former singer, that life can be different if he pushes back just a little…
Sunburn Lake, sometime in the 1980s: Franny Tolentino, a real estate entrepreneur, reminisces about the heady days of the 1960s and her fame as a girl-group singing star; but as she tries to reclaim the past, she discovers shadows as well as glories.
Sunburn Lake, 2028: In a chilling, post-apocalyptic landscape, fifteen-year-old Joy finds her own voice in the face of death as she recounts the terrible price that must be paid for survival.
These three very different tales of memory and of love all vibrate with Tom De Haven’s astonishingly supple touch. Together they form a comic, moving, and frightening anthem to American life.
JOE GOSH (1988)
Joe Gosh is the future. A 20-year-old husky blond who resembles the perfect lifeguard, Gosh lives in Wonder City, where credit is the thing that makes the world go round. Gosh’s world is a world where money has become meaningless because everyone owes so much. A disposable lighter costs $49, discounted classic movies on tape go for $1,000, and there is a $19 billion lottery winner. So much for inflation. When his credit runs out, Gosh is in danger of being sent to Mars to work as a miner. But Gosh is nothing if not ingenious. When he gets some junk mail delivered through a teleporter that also makes the transported objects super strong, he gets an idea. He will become a super hero. Joe Gosh provides plenty of chuckles and plenty to reflect upon. This is a book for the sophisticated teen, who appreciates a subtle combination of fact and fantasy (Orlando Sentinel).
Continue to read Author’s Note on Joe Gosh →
Case was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway–jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, soaring through tactile lattices of data and logic, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way–and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the meat of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance–and a cure–for a price (amazon.com).
PIXIE MEAT (1990)
A hand-assembled letterpress graphic novel featuring collaborative art by Burns and Gary Panter. The book is 12″ x 15″, hand-bound and packaged in a velcro-sealed black folder. Every spread has a red cellophane sheet laid in to give the book more of a retro feel. Features an epic fold-out page in the back that is signed by all three contributors (Oxen of the Sun blog).
WALKER OF WORLDS:
CHRONICLE OF THE KING’S TRAMP, BOOK ONE (1990)
This first book of what promises to be an exciting trilogy by the author of Funny Papers introduces four “moments” or worlds. De Haven weaves a complex tale of “intermoment” intrigue involving the birth of a monster and the imminent destruction of the universe. As strange characters and events begin to appear on Earth (the human world in the Moment of Kemolo) journalist Peter Musik recovers his memory and recalls his vendetta with the pharmaceuticals billionaire and the evil retired major who stole his mind with their “idiot drugs.” But now strange voices are appearing in Peter’s head–the voice of Jack the Walker who is visiting from the world of Lostwithal, and of Geeb, his earthly companion. De Haven’s exuberant imagination conjures such characters as the dread Mage of Manse Seloc, whose face teems with crawling slugs; and Lita, a witch who turns into a wasp, stings her subject and brings that person’s knowledge and memories to her master. All the characters are given life–even those cameos who meet quick, gruesome deaths. Horror, humor and a passel of plot twists spice up the inventive tale (Publishers Weekly).
THE END-OF-EVERYTHING MAN:
CHRONICLE OF THE KING’S TRAMP, BOOK TWO (1991)
This second installment in De Haven’s trilogy sustains the excitement begun in Walker of Worlds. The Epicene, an apocalyptic mud monster, threatens to mature and tear its way into the fourth “moment,” or universe, thus releasing the deadly Last Humans. The survival of the three known moments hangs in the balance. A small group from Kemolo (the moment in which PW readers reside) travels throughout Lostwithal (a moment in which people eat the insides of beetles as narcotics). Peter Musik, journalist from Kemolo, searches for his new love, Money Campbell–she’s been captured by the art-prince, who hideously transforms her as he paints. Jere Lee, a homeless woman, courts Master Squintik, Cold Mage and possible savior of the universe. While herky-jerky jumps and cliffhanger chapter endings are at times irritating, the complex plot never bogs down. Masterful comic relief and pacing, as well as strangely appealing characters, such as an albino midget in an Hawaiian shirt who occupies a game room in his “landlord’s” subconscious, lift the tale above the usual. New readers should plunge right in–an assortment of plot devices entertainingly recap the first book (Publishers Weekly).
THE LAST HUMAN: CHRONICLE OF THE KING’S TRAMP,
BOOK THREE (1992)
The stunning conclusion to the Locus bestsellers Walker of Worlds and The End-of-Everything Man, which were described by Orson Scott Card as “strange in all the best ways . . . intelligent, lively, contemporary fantasy” (amazon.com).
The Epicene has been destroyed and its creator defeated. Snatched from the battlefield by the shadowy Gray Men, Jack, the King’s Tramp, and his companions from Earth find themselves in a strange and treacherous labyrinth outside time. Here, in the Undermoment, the Gray Men have labored for millennia to tear down the fabrics separating the three human worlds and create a Utopia. However, there is an intruder among them who secretly plans to destroy the universe and everyone within it.
When the awful truth is revealed, Jack finds his sword, his magic, and his knack for happy coincidences are all useless, for in this final battle his nemesis is the Last Human: the Queen of noise, whose every shriek brings chaos… and death (goodreads.com).
GREEN CANDLES (1995)
Schoolteacher Grace Penny lives in terror. Each day the mail brings a photograph of a green candle slowly burning down, along with an implied threat: when the candle burns out, you’re dead. In recent psychotherapy sessions, she’s recovered suppressed memo ries of ritual satanic abuse–torture, sacrifice, and murder. Now Grace believes her childhood tormentor has returned to haunt her, perhaps ultimately kill her.
Graces only hope is private detective John Halting, who must figure out whether the threat is real or simply a product of his client’s tormented imagination. But as he plunges into a nightmarish world where desire obscures reality, fear colors the truth, and nothing is what it seems, Graces waking nightmares threaten to become his own…
DERBY DUGAN’S DEPRESSION FUNNIES (1996)
New York City, circa 1936: a legendary cartoonist is taken ill with a mysterious ailment. Though Walter Geebus is stricken, possibly forever, his popular comic strip about an orphan boy and his smart-aleck talking dog must go on. But who can “”ghost”” the Great Geebus and satisfy millions of avid “”Derby Dugan”” fans? At once a rollicking and bittersweet tale of ambition, temptation, and jealousy, De Haven’s novel is a tribute to the redemptive powers of love, imagination, and the well-chosen wisecrack.
THE ORPHAN’S TENT (1996)
De Haven makes a quirky gang of New Jersey rock and rollers the unlikely heroes of this hilarious adventure. Ike, community college drop-out turned independent recording producer, isn’t a typical YA protagonist, but this twentysomething hard-luck case has traits to endear him to readers: a pessimistic outlook, protective cynicism, and, underneath it all, a desperate sense of isolation. Ike and his sister, Alice, who owns the local record store, meet Del, a pretty drifter bursting with raw talent as a rock singer. Ike’s plans for promoting Del abruptly end when she disappears right before a gig; Ike and Alice team up with pals Fletch and Bo to find the missing songbird. Some arguing and amateur sleuthing lead the quartet to the charismatic and sinister Jude Hayser; although he claims to have known Del only briefly, he is connected with the bizarre disappearance of a group of orphans back in the 1930s. Of course, Hayser knows that the orphans were teleported to another world, where he now plans to send Del and himself. The ensuing battle leaps from this world to the next in a burst of excitement, wise-cracking dialogue, and bonhomie. Bing’s few black-and-white illustrations add a sense of menace to the story, an incredible and entertaining adventure that never falters in its realistic portrayal of young people, with all their flaws and strengths in focus (Kirkus Reviews).
DUGAN UNDER GROUND (2001)
In 1967, the Summer of Love, Roy Looby, a gifted young cartoonist, deserts his mentor and joins the drop-outs of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. There Looby creates “The Imp Eugene,” a libidinous comic book character who is a far cry from his mentor’s signature figure, Derby Dugan–the cheerful icon of a more optimistic generation. Celebrated and vilified for his creation, Looby soon disappears, rumored to have lost his mind during the drug-fueled creation of a cartoon masterpiece, and it’s to his long-suffering brother, Nick, to find him. A long, strange trip across a wildly changing America, Dugan Under Ground is a rich, inventive tale celebrating the mythic qualities of American popular culture.
RAYMOND CHANDLER’S MARLOWE: “GOLDFISH” (2003)
Elegantly designed and packaged in a mix of full color and black and white comics, this trio of graphic novels includes Chandler’s classic final Marlowe adventure, “The Pencil,” “Goldfish,” and “Trouble is My Business.” None of this work has ever been published before and represents the first adaptations of these Chandler stories into comics (goodreads.com).
IT’S SUPERMAN! (2005)
Coming of age in rural 1930s America with X-ray vision, the power to stop bullets, and the ability to fly isn’t exactly every boy’s story. So just how did Clark Kent, a shy farmer’s son, grow up to be the Man of Steel? Follow young Clark’s whirlwind journey from Kansas to New York City’s Daily Planet–by way Hollywood. This ace reporter is not the only person leading a double life in a teeming metropolis, just the only one able to leap tall buildings in a single bound–a skill that comes in handy when battling powerful criminal masterminds like scheming Lex Luthor and fascist robots. But can Clark’s Midwestern charm save the day and win the heart of stunning, seen-it-all newspaperwoman Lois Lane? Or is it a job for Superman? Look deep into the soul of a pop-culture legend brilliantly reimagined in this novel, which is as inventive and thrilling as it is touching and wise.
LOVE BY LABOR LOST (2010)
A graphic novel that explores systemic and individual moral corruption in Technospan, a fictional executive team in trouble. David Kantor presents the roots of leaders’ behavior, how behavior shifts in high stakes crises, and how a high performance team can become trapped in the mechanisms of moral degradation. Love by Labor Lost is based on the decades of research, writing, and consulting of David Kantor, a clinical psychologist.
RICHMOND NOIR (2010)
The River City emerges as a hot spot for unseemly noir in this anthology of new short stories from Dean King, Laura Browder, Howard Owen, Yazmina Beverly, Tom De Haven, X.C. Atkins, Meagan J. Saunders, Anne Thomas Soffee, Clint McCown, Conrad Ashley Persons, Clay McLeod Chapman, Pir Rothenberg, David L. Robbins, Hermine Pinson, and Dennis Danvers.
OUR HERO: SUPERMAN ON EARTH (2011)
Since his first appearance in “Action Comics” Number One, published in late spring of 1938, Superman has represented the essence of American heroism. ‘Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound’, the Man of Steel has thrilled audiences across the globe, yet as life-long “Superman Guy” Tom De Haven argues in this highly entertaining book, his story is uniquely American. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the midst of the Great Depression, Superman is both a transcendent figure and, when posing as his alter-ego, reporter Clark Kent, a humble working-class citizen. An orphan and an immigrant, he shares a personal history with the many Americans who came to this country in search of a better life, and his amazing feats represent the wildest realization of the American dream. As De Haven reveals through behind-the-scenes vignettes, personal anecdotes, and lively interpretations of more than 70 years of comic books, radio programmes, TV shows, and Hollywood films, Superman’s legacy seems, like the Man of Steel himself, to be utterly invincible.