These days, the scene is a familiar one: You pull a novel by a dead old white guy from the shelf at home or at a bookstore and then quickly, maybe even surreptitiously, place it back, and Google if the author ever threw a coffee table at someone or murdered his wife.
The easy remedy is to check out works by, you know, not dead old white guys. But also, not every dead old white guy is a shithead who should be ignored and/or forgotten (again, we think). And while a major lesson of #MeToo is that the “great guys” are also just as likely to be private shitheads, there are, by my count, at least three old white guys (all of whom are alive!) who are still “safe” to read (again, for now).
That’s not to say they, too, won’t one day be canceled or #MeToo’d. But their work stands the test of time — even in these times. It is, in other words, enlightened despite their era. So while it’s impossible to know about or vouche for their private lives, I’m confident enough in their work that it feels unlikely. Because it’s hard to read them and not believe their fiction belies a certain kindheartedness and thoughtful nature. (I know, I know, some white-haired lit professor is probably choking right now as he cries, “Biographical fallacy!”)
Old White Guy #1: Charles Portis
One of the craziest things about Portis is that he’s still alive. He only wrote a handful of novels between 1966 and 1991, many of them featuring arrogant chuds and losers alongside capable women who are trying to clean up all the dumb shit men do to other men and women. So, it makes sense that most of his work was out-of-print until the late 1990s. Googling him reveals a small but vocal fanbase often decrying his status as a “cult writer” and debating which of his five novels is the best.
Of the trio of writers on this list, he’s the funniest, but he can also lay claim to the best novel in the group, too: True Grit. The first movie adaptation starring famous racist John Wayne is definitely skippable, while the second, done by the Coen Brothers, is serviceable but still fails to capture just how damn near perfect the novel is. The narrator, 14-year old Mattie Ross, has this prim yet idiosyncratic voice that gets in your head and draws you closer to her, making it really hard not to feel empathy (instead of sympathy) as she sets off to avenge her father’s death. Portis, unlike many male writers, understands that a young woman in fiction doesn’t have to exhibit a hyperviolent, oversexed or devil-may-care attitude in order to be a protagonist the audience roots for.
Portis’ ability to portray the hollow bluster (and the ocean of sadness behind it) of men in novels like Norwood and The Dog of the South adds up to more than just humorous notes in comic masterpieces. They’re indictments of a tribe locked in a feedback loop of stupidity that’s aggravated by an inability or unwillingness to appear vulnerable and sensitive, or to just shut up and listen to what other people have to say.
His knack for dramatic irony also allows him to shuffle in implicit messages to readers who pay close attention. For example, in Dog of the South, the narrator’s wife, joined by an ex-boyfriend, has run off to Mexico with the narrator’s car, dog and credit card. For a moment we might feel sympathetic to his plight, but then we get this:
“For a long time I had a tape recording of [a] famous lecture on the Siege of Vicksburg, and I liked to play it in the morning while I was shaving. I also played it sometimes in the car when Norma and I went for drives. It was one of those performances — ‘bravura’ is the word for it — that never becomes stale. […] I say I ‘had’ the tape. It disappeared suddenly, and Norma denied that she had thrown it away.”
Ray, the narrator, is nice enough, but his inability to see that his wife might not want to listen to Civil War reenactment tapes while they’re driving tips us off to the true realities of their relationship and flips the script enough that we’re now dreading the moment when he finds her.
If you’re still on the fence about Portis, the first issue of The Believer ran a mammoth 7,000-word profile on him, written by Ed Park, that attests to Portis’ “situational Marxism.” Case in point: In the 1960s, he had Karl Marx’s old job working as the London bureau chief and reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. He recalled once telling his boss that the paper “might have saved us all a lot of grief if he had only paid Marx a little better.”
Old White Guy #2: Nicholson Baker
At well over six feet tall, Baker is the biggest and by far the horniest writer represented here. That some of his work, like House of Holes or Vox, which Monica Lewinsky allegedly gifted to Bill Clinton, manages to be both so horny (in a defanged and playful way indicative of his pacifist leanings) and obsessed with life minutia (and minute details), makes him the resident weirdo as well. For instance, the entirety of his debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes place over the course of the narrator’s trip up an escalator on his lunch break.
I won’t pretend that everything he’s written is excellent (the conceit of The Fermata is dicy at best) but his portrayal of men as caregivers, as introspective and as complete people allowed to be their own strange, imperfect selves and in possession of complicated interior worlds is a rare treat in a literary landscape stacked with scummy dudes who are all-too-often portrayed as “indictments” of masculinity but seem to glorify the very thing they’re ostensibly criticizing — sort of how we were supposed to believe Saving Private Ryan was an “anti-war” movie.
Admittedly, many of his novels, like Room Temperature, A Box of Matches and The Mezzanine, move slowly. But Baker is a master at zooming in, and then doing something unique to fiction: Time slows dramatically (or stops completely), allowing for an obsessive, enthralling cataloguing of thoughts and sensory details.
In my favorite, A Box of Matches, each chapter begins with the narrator, Emmett, waking up before dawn, lighting a fire and contemplating life. It’s a wonderful instance of an author turning nothing into something in a way that’s affecting as well as impressive from a formal standpoint. There’s no action, just an embrace of silence, an acknowledgement that when examined closely, there’s more than enough inner turmoil and tension going on inside our own minds to sustain a 178-page narrative.
Where most novels usually have something resembling a traditional climax, Baker writes in a scene full of “sucking,” “pushing” and “wonderful deep squirting noises.” With any other male writer, we’d be in the midst of some pseudo-psychologizing phallus worship, but Nicholson wants to describe, in the most acute way possible, Emmett’s struggle to clear a clogged drain in the bathtub. It’s silly and gross but totally delightful and even somehow life-affirming.
Old White Guy #3: Steven Millhauser
Millhauser is the head honcho of my gang of three, the lit daddy, if you will. He’s had a long career, publishing his first novel in 1972 at the almost-wunderkind age of 29. Like Baker, he’s obsessed with details, but the similarities end there as Millhauser has described maybe two sex scenes in his half-century long career. Instead, his work often explores the illusory and inexplicable.
More largely, often when old white guys win Pulitzers for their novels (as Millhauser did in 1997 for Martin Dressler), they do and say things like Robert Olen Butler did when he announced to his students via email that his wife Elizabeth was leaving him for Ted Turner, in part because she “has never been able to step out of the shadow of the Pulitzer.”
Millhauser couldn’t be more different. In an interview with Jim Shepard in BOMB, he says, “Prizes have always struck me as extremely arbitrary. The one you mentioned — what was it called again? — somehow appeared, but I could just as easily have been arrested and shot for the crime of fiction. As for teaching: the difficulty for me is that I’m essentially a person who likes silence, and teaching is talk. I now talk more — a bad sign, surely.”
Better yet, Jia Tolentino and Laura van den Berg agree Millhauser is great. Van den Berg recently tweeted a reading list for her “ghost class” that included the short story “The White Glove” by Millhauser. “It’s classic Millhauser in many ways — an eerie, suspenseful plot and impeccable sentences, at once smooth as glass and dense as a forest,” she responds when I ask why. “Millhauser finds an uncanny expression for a young man’s coming-of-age story, and at the same time, I see ‘The White Glove’ as being very much a story about power — about violation and consent, about who has a right to privacy in this world, who has a right to secrets.”
So don’t miss it. Just be sure to read van den Berg’s The Third Hotel first.