Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best for last

Jack Matthews
Many writers do their best work early in their careers, people like Joseph Heller or Thomas Wolfe, for example. Others don't strike gold until middle age. Consider Vladimir Nabokov, who was in his mid-50s when Lolita was published. You can read a fascinating account of why some artists peak early and some later in life in the "Late Bloomers" chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw. But what do you make of a writer like Jack Matthews?

I took two creative writing classes taught by Matthews when I was a journalism student at Ohio University in the mid-1960s. He was about 40 then and had a book of short stories, Bitter Knowledge, and a book of poetry, An Almanac for Twilight, under his belt. Soon he was turning out novels like Hanger Stout, Awake!, Beyond the Bridge and The Charisma Campaigns, a favorite of mine. These were good novels, but not great, and despite a nomination for a National Book Award (for The Charisma Campaigns), he never achieved the literary big time. After 1983, although he continued to write both fiction and nonfiction books, these were published mostly by small presses and university presses.

Matthews died three years ago at the age of 88. His last novel, The Gambler's Nephew (Etruscan Press) was published in 2011, just two years before his death. So I didn't expect much when I started reading it a few days ago,  yet I was blown away. This is an incredible novel that deserves more attention than it probably will ever receive.

The story begins in the 1850s in the Ohio River town of Brackenport, where a businessman named Nehemiah Dawes has such strong views about slavery and grave robbery that people tend to avoid him even if they agree with him. One day Dawes sees two men force a runaway slave into a boat to take him back to the other side of the river. Dawes has his gun with him and decides to back up his big talk by shooting one of the slavers. Instead he kills the young black man, yet doesn't receive as much as a stern talking to for his act. But when Dawes himself is found murdered, authorities are quick to hang a former employee, despite scant evidence of guilt.

Who is the protagonist in this novel? Matthews keeps us guessing. Until his death, it seems to be Nehemiah Dawes. Then the focus switches to his brother, to a young doctor and on and on to others, as main characters fade into the background. Much later we realize that the runaway slave, the "gambler's nephew" of the title, is the true protagonist, even though we never actually meet him in the story. Everything revolves around him, even when it doesn't seem to.

The novel, because of the voice of the mysterious narrator, seems lighter than it really is. We are tempted to read it with a smile, then may feel a trifle guilty when we realize where Matthews is taking us.

Whether or not The Gambler's Nephew is Jack Matthews's masterpiece, I will leave to the literary experts, if any of them bother to consider the question. But I will say that for a man in his 80s to produce a novel of such depth, power and grace is something amazing.

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