The Iconoclastic Mr. Connell : Best-Selling Writers Court Fame. The Author of the ‘Bridge’ Books and ‘Son of the Morning Star’ Avoids It.

<i> Barry Siegel, a Times national correspondent, is the author of "A Death in White Bear Lake" (Bantam</i> )

STANDING IN THE LOBBY OF THE GREER GARSON THEATRE AT THE COLLEGE OF Santa Fe, Evan S. Connell studies the disorderly scene before him with muted consternation. This is not an environment he enjoys. More than 100 people are jammed together in a serpentine line that winds up and down through the lobby, aimed toward a single ticket window. “Is this the end of the line?” a newcomer calls out. “Is there a line?” another peals. Connell betrays no emotion, but his hands are shoved into his pockets and his eyes are swinging back and forth. His dress is informal--wrinkled cotton pants, a flannel shirt, a jacket, rubber-soled walking shoes--but there is something in his courtly presence and the sweep of his exceptional, hooded eyes that gives him the intimidating look of a Mongolian warlord. Those few willing to venture a greeting address him as Mr. Connell.

“You’d think they’d have more than one ticket seller,” he finally murmurs, his mouth barely opening. “I don’t understand. I’m mystified by such things.” The line inches forward. Bodies begin to press against each other. “They do, by God, have two people at the window now,” he reports with approval. Finally, Connell reaches the window, buys a ticket, and breaks through the crowd. “Quite a struggle,” he shudders.

Lured this night from his normal solitary routine to hear a reading by his friend, author Peter Matthiessen, Connell is already entertaining second thoughts. His aversion to crowds goes beyond the problem of physical jostling. Exposure to lots of people requires him to listen to conversations and watch behavior he’d rather avoid. The bland and the boring, the glad-handers and the chatterers encourage him to flee. “Nothing infuriates me more than stupidity,” he says.

This instinct for insularity is revealed in the trajectory of his writing career. At 66, Connell can claim one of the most varied and accomplished bodies of work in the contemporary literary world. He’s written short stories, novels, poetry, historical essays and nonfiction on topics ranging from Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s ill-fated mission (“Son of the Morning Star”) to the compulsive lure of pre-Columbian art (“The Connoisseur”), from the blandly provincial upper-middle-class of Kansas City (“Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge”) to a psychological portrait of evil (“Diary of a Rapist”). He’s had both critical and commercial success: His two bestsellers, “Mrs. Bridge” and “Son of the Morning Star,” are regarded as classics. He was honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987, and he’s twice been nominated for a National Book Award. He is widely admired by his peers: “One of our most interesting and intelligent American writers,” says Joyce Carol Oates. To the general public, though, he has remained virtually anonymous, and that is largely a result of his own predilections.


Connell won’t do book tours, author signings or television interviews. He doesn’t give readings or talks. A consummate Westerner who lived for 35 years in the Bay Area before moving to Santa Fe in 1989, he makes a point of avoiding New York and its publishing circle. Above all, though, Connell is not much inclined to consider readers’ expectations. This reluctance, and his refusal to be pigeonholed, at times has appeared perversely willful. After his first novel, “Mrs. Bridge,” became a bestseller in 1959, and again after the success of “Mr. Bridge” a decade later, Connell followed with distinctly different and less accessible books. Readers expecting triumphs of realist fiction found themselves instead thumbing through “Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel” or “Points for a Compass Rose,” highly regarded but obscure book-length prose poems involving the disembodied voices of prophetic, visionary voyagers.

Despite himself, though, Connell now finds that he is drawing wide attention. The November, 1990, release of the feature film “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge"--starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and based on his two early novels--and the broadcast by ABC last February of the miniseries “Son of the Morning Star” have made him a recognizable if not brand-name author. “Flirting With Fame” proclaimed one newspaper headline. There have been photograph sessions, feature spreads and predictions of gathering momentum. “He certainly is going to be well-known now,” says his long-time literary agent, Elizabeth McKee.

Maybe, but if it happens, it won’t be because Connell is lunging for the spotlight. He is, rather, once again ducking into a corner. Turning down a mainstream publisher’s potentially lucrative invitation to write the biography of a 19th-Century mountain man, he has instead stuck with his small West Coast publisher and tackled something more esoteric.

Whatever else might be said about his new novel, “The Alchymist’s Journal,” published by North Point Press in May, it clearly is going to puzzle many readers newly drawn to him by the recent attention or by the splendid storytelling of the Custer history. Once again, Connell serves up disembodied voices--this time, the imagined diaries of seven pre-Renaissance alchemists. North Point, admiring but anxious, thought it wise to craft a 31-page “reader’s guide” to go with the book. Even with the guide, early reviews in industry journals sound perplexed: Phrases such as “verbally breathtaking . . . moments of great beauty” are mixed with complaints such as “narratively almost inert . . . a failed alchemical experiment.”


Connell shrugs as he reads those words. When he first started work on “The Alchymist’s Journal” six years ago, he casually told an interviewer that it would “lose money” for whoever published it. Now, because of the publicity he’s received and a suggestion from his publisher to cool such talk, he’s revised his estimate--he thinks it will break even. “It can’t be helped,” he says. “I do care about readers and sales; after a book’s out, I hope it sells like gangbusters. I’m just not going to manufacture something, though. Once in a while I do something that corresponds with popular interest, but I don’t want to mechanically repeat myself.”

AS WE TALK, WE’RE SITTING AT THE COUNTER in the San Francisco Street Bar & Grill in downtown Santa Fe, having fled the reception following Matthiessen’s reading. There are plenty of empty tables, but Connell, displaying the habit of a man accustomed to eating and drinking alone, has headed directly to a bar stool, explaining that the “acoustics” at the tables bother him. Without a spoken request or eye contact, the bartender promptly brings him a gin martini.

Attending this evening’s reading had not proved entirely worth the effort. Matthiessen had read only briefly from his book “The Snow Leopard” before the stage was taken over by someone speaking in support of Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist presently incarcerated for the murder of two FBI agents. Public affairs matter to Connell, but he is not a joiner of groups or causes. Worse yet, to Connell’s ears the talker had sounded rambling, his words unfocused. Then, at the reception, he’d endured an effusive woman who very much wanted him to agree that the evening had been fascinating.

“Was it?” he had finally replied mildly, arching his eyebrows and bowing slightly.


The moment recalled what Connell’s friend, Gus Blaisdell, proprietor of the Living Batch Bookstore in Albuquerque, had told me on the telephone: “I’ve never seen Evan be insulting or rude. He doesn’t suffer fools, but I think his presence keeps fools away from him.”

“It’s not just that Connell lives a solitary life,” is the way his editor at North Point Press, Jack Shoemaker, puts it. “He lives a satisfied solitary life.”

A lifelong bachelor, Connell cultivates a private, unchanging routine. Up at 7:30 a.m., he strolls down the hill from his two-bedroom condominium to breakfast at the Burrito Company, just off Santa Fe’s historic plaza. He’s at his desk by 9 a.m. He stops work at 7 or 7:30 p.m. and hikes back down the hill for drinks and dinner at one of several regular hangouts.

Connell’s barriers block not just most people but also much of the modern world. Connell favors the stately harmony of 18th-Century chamber music to rock or jazz. He walks out on most movies he attends, the record for brevity of endurance being a film he left when the opening credits were still rolling: “It was set in Egypt, can’t remember the title, but a guy in a sword fight stopped to smile at a woman.” He didn’t own a telephone until he was 50. He won’t read the New York Times on Sunday because “I don’t want to look at the bestseller list and see Dean Koontz or whatever on top.” He offers blank stares when I refer to the “I Love Lucy” show, for he’s never seen it; his TV set comes out of the closet only for football games. “The television set is a machine,” he explains. “I don’t like the look of it.”


Connell does have a network of friends, though, some going back to his days in the early ‘50s living on the Left Bank of Paris, others from his long tenure in the Bay Area, where he often drank steam beer and played chess at the No Name Bar in Sausalito. His friends describe a person different from the aloof, reserved author Connell often seems to be.

“He’s not withdrawn or reclusive,” says Santa Fe writer and photographer Nancy Wood. “He is a very shy man who lives inside himself, who lives inside his own mind. He is a gentleman of the old school, an anachronism, a 19th-Century man.”

“Evan wants two things--writing and freedom--and enjoys both,” says writer, actress and singer Gale Garnett, his longtime friend and former lover. “Evan’s mouth doesn’t move much, but he does talk. He burns bright, just not noisy, and people want him to make noise. He won’t do conspicuous things. Evan is what they used to call a very old soul.”

What most fascinates those who know him is the way in which he both incorporates and is repelled by the bland, restrained, provincial Kansas City world of his youth, so precisely captured in the two “Bridge” novels. In his wariness of excess, his courtly manners, his ordered existence, some friends see echoes of the joyless, passionless Walter Bridge himself, who was modeled after Connell’s father. On the other hand, Connell delights in eccentric individuals and has a reputation as a man whom women find attractive. Stories abound in San Francisco about his relationships with a Broadway showgirl, various emotionally erratic ladies and women he’s met at the No Name Bar. He also is a wanderer, having twice traveled the world alone for months at a time by bus, train and tramp freighter. There is, in other words, a duality to Connell. “Evan is both Kansas and Dostoevski” is how his friend Gus Blaisdell puts it.


“Evan is one of the great quiet eccentrics,” says Garnett, who met him in the No Name Bar when she was 16 and he was 42. “But yes, he’s also perhaps 20% Mr. Bridge. He’s a sensualist who can’t go as far as he would like with that. . . .” Garnett hesitates, debating whether to tell a story, then continues: “When we were together, I sensed something, a wildness in his face. That is a very sybaritic face. I kept pushing him to wilder-ness. And one night I got tired of pushing. I bit his lip. A bloodlet formed on his lower lip. He looked at me; he said, ‘I can’t. I can’t go there.’ A week later, I left. I was 18. I needed to go and test the boundaries of everything. And Evan very gently but very immovably made it quite clear that there was a fairly vast set of boundaries he wasn’t interested in exploring. It’s an interesting thing about a person with seeming control: They’re not sure there’s any range between Off and Broil.”

At the San Francisco Street Bar & Grill counter, the bartender refills Connell’s empty martini glass, once again without being asked. Connell has been telling an outlandish story about a rickshaw operator pursuing him maniacally through the muddy streets of Calcutta, insisting that he accept a ride; Connell is clearly both enraged by and drawn to this tormented image of obsession. Now he looks up and nods warmly to the bartender. “One reason I like this saloon is Reece is always the same,” Connell says. “Friendly, happy and good-natured.”

THE NEXT MORNING I HIKE UP THE HILL from Santa Fe’s plaza to Connell’s condominium, part of a low-density development that lacks charm but is a distinct upgrade, I’m told, from the bare, cramped, three-room apartments he occupied for years in the Bay Area. From his balcony, Connell proudly points out the grand views of vast rolling plains rising to the Jemez Mountains on the west and the Sandia Crest on the south. Inside there are painted white-brick walls, a burnt-orange carpet and basic apartment-quality furniture inherited from the previous owner. A chandelier hangs low over an empty alcove where a dining table is supposed to be. The second bedroom, outfitted as his office, holds six small bookcases, a low table and a 30-year-old manual Olympia portable typewriter.

That’s all--except for the dozens of pieces of invaluable pre-Columbian pottery and figurines placed casu ally throughout the apartment. On a narrow bookshelf in the study there’s a Xochipala Olmec seated figure with crossed legs, from the 13th Century BC. On the living room coffee table sits a 2,000-year-old joined dual figure from Jalisco. Elsewhere in the living room are Casa Grande anthropomorphic bowls, Maya bowls, New Mexico pueblo bowls and ivory Eskimo carvings. “My only indulgence,” he explains, picking up one piece. “I shook this one once and a pebble fell out through a hole. I couldn’t help but think--no one has seen this pebble for 800 years.”


There are few books. When I ask what contemporary 20th-Century authors intrigue him, his answer is short: “I pick up Hemingway once in a while to be reminded of the clarity of the prose. As a student I was much taken with Sherwood Anderson. Janet Lewis’ historical novels are marvelous.”

I wait, pen poised, while Connell searches for a contemporary writer he can praise. Bellow bores him. He can’t read Faulkner--"something about the rhythms.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez “has a Salvador Dali surface” that doesn’t stick with him. “I like Styron,” he finally offers. “He’s never trashy. . . .” Connell shakes his head. “But I couldn’t get through ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ . . .”

It’s the 19th-Century Russians who truly fascinate him, especially Chekhov. The affinity is apparent in Connell’s tendency to write graceful, restrained, oblique stories of mood and innuendo that lack a traditional narrative or great climactic events. On a shelf in Connell’s study sits a volume of Chekhov’s short stories. In the margins of one of them, “Dream"--a haunting tale of three men contemplating the free, happy lives they’ve imagined but never known--there are penciled notes that resemble reminders scribbled by a beginning composition student: “Setting” . . . “Description” . . . “Conversation” . . . “Empathy.” The comments are Connell’s, written in 1954.

“This is going to sound conceited,” he says, “but I can see what a writer is doing in a few pages when I pick up a book in the bookstore. I don’t read for pleasure. I come across stuff and think, How did he do it? Why do I like it? How can I steal it? I can’t do that with this Chekhov story, though. Nothing ever happens, but it’s terrific. I read it and can’t figure out how it works.”


What most fundamentally unites Connell’s own body of work is the motif of the obsessed individual--an alchemist, a rapist, a collector, Gen. Custer--embarked on a searching, improbable journey. Even the stolid, inexpressive Muhlbach (a recurring character in his short stories and the novel “The Connoisseur,” unabashedly derived from Thomas Mann’s stuffy Prof. Cornelius) is drawn by desire into unconventional experiences. Connell’s is an indignant argument against man’s folly and blunted sensibilities, a quest for something beyond the banal and venal. But all this is well-seasoned by an understated, droll, wry humor.

“A new image of man--I think that’s exactly what Evan is up to,” says Gus Blaisdell. “There is too much humor merely to be blackly prophetic. Humor is the form hope takes. He’s not just pissing anger. He doesn’t belittle, though he may chide and scold. We reform ourself out of what we already are, he says.”

“Evan refuses to violate his characters’ dignity,” says Gale Garnett. “Because that’s the point where his characters and he meet.”

Connell just squirms when I try to talk to him about such theories of his work. He’d rather discuss his abiding fascination with the arcane, which also permeates all his writing. He relishes the fragmentary, the enigmatic, the extraordinary, the ironic. An Indian chief who loved to hear Mendelssohn’s music, Indian warriors who vomited while scalping soldiers, a man cut in two and sewn back together--these are the subjects that make him garrulous and take him to his typewriter.


“Sewn back together,” he says with delight. “Now, what is that all about?”

WHAT IT IS NOT ABOUT, OF COURSE, IS HIS blandly provincial Kansas City roots. Connell’s determined escape from that milieu took a number of turns.

There was, to begin, two reluctant years at Dartmouth, then service as a cadet in the Naval Air Corps, followed by study of creative writing at the University of Kansas, Stanford (under Wallace Stegner) and Columbia. Living first in New York and then Los Angeles, he wrote dozens of short stories that were regularly returned with printed rejection slips--he stopped counting after collecting 236.

In 1952 he moved to Paris, installed himself in a $8-a-month hotel and loitered on the Left Bank, making friends with a Paris Review crowd that included George Plimpton and Max Steele. By the next year he was enjoying life on the Left Bank so much that he felt obliged to leave. “Those nurtured in the Protestant Midwest of America will understand this,” he says. “Otherwise it cannot possibly be explained, because it makes no sense.”


He moved to Barcelona, where he knew no one. His closest friend was a waiter with whom he never spoke. “I’d go for hot chocolate each morning, and after several weeks, I noticed a flicker of expression when I came in. I was so pleased. I looked forward to that.” At night he took to shading that day’s block on his calendar--either light or dark gray, depending on the depths of his depression at the moment. “It was the worst emotional state I’ve ever been in,” he recalls. “I thought I didn’t mind being alone, but I was 28; you feel things more then.” He stayed because “I just had a feeling that you were not supposed to quit what you started. Just like with writing stories.” When he finally left after six months, he felt ready to meet the demands of the writer’s life he envisioned. “If I hadn’t fallen into a gibbering mess then,” he says, “I knew I never would.”

The success of “Mrs. Bridge” came six years later, in 1959, but Connell, experimenting with unpredictable writing forms, continued to live in Spartan surroundings. Once he refused to let a men’s magazine publish a short story he’d written (“Marine”) because the editors didn’t really like it. Occasionally he found it necessary to take such jobs as gas-meter reader and unemployment office counselor. “A woman supervisor would stand behind your shoulder saying, ‘What we are trying to achieve here, Mr. Connell, is a machine-like rapidity.’ ” Not until “Son of the Morning Star” proved a surprise bestseller in 1984--after rejections by several publishers--did Connell again truly prosper. In May of 1989, with Hollywood’s cash in hand from the sale of the “Custer” and “Bridge” books and an increasing intolerance for San Francisco’s crowds and traffic, he loaded his belongings into his Honda Civic, drove to Santa Fe and bought the first property he’s ever owned.

CONNELL POINTS TOWARD DISTANT CLIFFS as he drives through the New Mexican high desert about 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, heading toward the Pecos National Historical Park, a pueblo abandoned in the 1830s. Connell, after a morning of enduring a formal interview, has suggested this escape. Now he is in his element. Over there are abandoned ruins. That way, bits of old pottery stick out of the hillside, thousands of them, an amazing thing. There’s the site of a Civil War battle in which the general was a real bastard.

There had been a halting conversation that morning about his new book. His attraction to alchemy obviously has much to do with its quality as a metaphor for transformation, but Connell, slumping in his chair, had only managed to choke out fragments of explanation before trailing off. “Paul Newman kept asking me for the galleys, wondering if there was a movie in this one, too,” he’d finally said dryly. “I told him it was not likely.”


Reaching the Pecos park, Connell happily provides a guided tour past the remnants of a 17th-Century church and a maze of low adobe walls, all that remains of a communal dwelling. What attracts Connell here--the antiquity and the notion of a vanished civilized people--has lured him into researching those mysterious Anasazi cliff dwellers who for more than 700 years inhabited elaborate stone cities in southwestern Colorado canyon walls before inexplicably disappearing in the late 1200s. He plans to write an essay on the topic and perhaps a book, although he’s not sure.

Even less certain than his next book’s topic is his publisher. Connell’s great supporter in recent years, North Point Press, will stop publishing new books in July, so Connell may have to turn to the more mainstream houses that were skeptical of his past work. That is risky, since Connell, not wanting to worry about what a publisher thinks, declines to sign contracts for books until he’s finished writing them. “I will miss North Point,” Connell laments as we walk along the narrow trail that encircles the ruins of Pecos Pueblo. “If they could only have sold six or seven thousand copies of each book they released, they could have survived, but they couldn’t even do that. I’m resigned to it. This is a TV culture. You can’t change that. . . .”

A solitary bird floating overhead interrupts Connell. He glances up wistfully. The world here is silent and still. “Just think, birds have been sailing over this spot for thousands of years. It’s like the center of the universe here. It must have been a beautiful place to live.”

Connell’s affinity for the distant past and dismay about modern times, particularly the debasing lust for fame and reverence for celebrities, were memorably combined in a decidedly idiosyncratic profile of Rita Hayworth he wrote for Esquire in 1965. Much of the piece focuses not on the famous actress but on Inscription Rock, a gigantic sandstone bluff in New Mexico where Zuni Indians, Spanish explorers and American frontier soldiers all have carved words about their deeds and destinations, so that they--like publicity-hungry celebrities--might be remembered.


“Esquire asked for the profile,” Connell recalls as he reluctantly turns from a sweeping vision of the Pecos River valley and heads back toward his car. “I countered with Kim Novak. Did you ever see her in ‘Picnic’?” (Here Connell pauses to shake his head with understandable yearning.) “Anyway, Esquire said no, so I go to see Rita, in a big Beverly Hills mansion. The PR man with her got very nervous because I wasn’t taking notes. I only spent two hours with her, just parlor chitchat. Esquire wanted 5,000 words, so I considered. I’d always wanted to write about Inscription Rock. My agent had shopped the idea around New York, but no one cared. I saw a way to link the two.”

“A Brief Essay on the Subject of Celebrity With Nu merous Digressions and Particular Attention to the Actress, Rita Hayworth,” was the title of the article Connell eventually wrote. It began: “West of Albuquerque a hundred miles or so there is a national monument nobody visits. . . . Surely nothing speaks from this dead land of Zuni Indians. . . .” Only after considering this topic for a good number of paragraphs does he make his connection: “Now, if you keep traveling west from Inscription Rock you come ultimately to California. . . .” By the time he has completed his wickedly rendered visit with Rita Hayworth and winds into his conclusion, Connell is roaring: “If the reign of a singular goddess is too soon ended, as it soon ends for the warehouseman with his rifle, for the Spanish foot soldier plodding through the dust of savage lands toward some far blue ocean . . . still each has contrived to make himself remembered. It seems necessary. Even the Zuni pictograph says that I was here, this is from my hand. I have watched two animals by a pool of water, yes, and a strange woman. It was I who saw these things. I was here. Behold me.”

“OH, GOOD, THIS IS THE FELLOW I LIKE,” Connell says, sitting in the Manana Bar at the Inn of the Governors, nodding at the piano player in the corner. After returning from Pecos in the early evening, he had suggested we walk the two blocks from Santa Fe’s plaza to what he promised would be a “a pretty good little saloon.” As usual, Connell has chosen a bar stool over a table but has asked for “a glass of red” instead of a martini. He rubs the bar’s copper surface appreciatively, points with pleasure at the cow skulls with Indian feathers hanging on the wall and reports with delight that the piano player’s name is Tucker Binkley. The room is dark, modern, insulating; flames dance in a wood-burning fireplace while Tucker Binkley plays “Moon River.” “It’s wallpaper music; it doesn’t assault me,” Connell explains. “And this place fills up last when there’s a crowd in town.”

There is only one problem with the Manana Bar these days--people look at him. Likewise at the Burrito Company. This is the result of the publicity spurred by the release of “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” “I hate to be recognized,” Connell says. “I want to be anonymous.”


The words are heartfelt but incomplete. He’s spent three days with me, after all. In truth, he knows things are going rather well for him just now. Most writers, particularly those who abhor crowds and disregard their readers, do not often find it necessary to fight off staring bar patrons. That he’s reached this position without once feeling he’s compromised himself is his chief satisfaction.

“Evan is one of those few people who lives life on his own terms,” says his friend Nancy Wood. Having offered that observation, though, Wood pauses. “Of course, he has no responsibilities,” she continues. “If he had a family, he couldn’t do this. Evan has tried to live a life without distraction, and he’s done it. He’s closed off from that part of himself that would take away from his work. He’s different, a true loner, one of those rare individuals who are entirely self-sufficient. I could not do that--I need others.”

It’s hard not to wonder how large a price Connell has had to pay for following such a path. Throughout my three-day visit, I’ve been looking for hints of an answer--some sign of regret or doubt or ennui as he retreats alone to his quarters to research “Prehistoric Astronomy of the Southwest” and peck out the early drafts of a book that will be considered a success if it sells all of 20,000 copies. The only evidence I can spot, though, involves his battle with a nagging cough, the aftermath of double pneumonia contracted three weeks before while jogging in the chill Santa Fe air. He’d ignored his ailment for a while, but while driving to San Francisco, en route to a North Point Press party, he’d ended up alone in a Phoenix motel room for two days with a 102-degree fever, swallowing outsized penicillin tablets. When he relates this experience, it seems to provide an insight; the image of him in that motel room, after all, is a little woeful.

Not to Connell, though. He describes the scene with relish--as if it’s an adventure, an accomplishment, not unlike surviving Barcelona. “Sure I get lonely,” he says. “You get accustomed to yourself as you go on, though. You don’t feel that piercing loneliness as you did when young. I couldn’t marry because then I’d have to support a wife and family, and I never wanted to have to take a job I hated. I always feared that. Sure, you miss something. Sure, you give up stuff. But I don’t like things hanging around my neck. I like always having time to myself.”


In the Manana Bar, Tucker Binkley has moved from “Moon River” to what sounds like “Send in the Clowns,” and Connell contentedly sips from a second glass of red. What he is talking about now, with great wonder, is not himself but a man named H. M. Tomlinson. Tomlinson was an altogether average London newspaper editor who, one rainy morning in the winter of 1909, quit his job at the London Morning Leader, kissed his wife and children goodby and boarded a tramp freighter bound for the upper reaches of the Amazon. Three years later, he published “The Sea and the Jungle,” a singularly evocative and wacky account of his adventures. Connell likes the book so much that he penned an introduction for a new edition published two years ago by Marlboro Press. But the author intrigues him even more than the book.

“I think (V. S.) Pritchett met Tomlinson a couple of times,” he says. “Said he was stumpy, had big ears sticking out, wore a bowler, looked like a shop foreman. What fascinates me most is that he was an obscure journalist, had a 9-to-5 job, quit and went off to do this book--then went straight back to his 9-to-5 job.” Connell’s hands draw a graph in the air by way of illustrating his point--a flat line that spikes high then returns to a flat line. “I don’t understand this,” he continues. “I’m baffled. He had broken the bonds. He must have known he was doing good. Then, after this most extraordinary adventure, he goes back to work in the same slot.”

Connell drains his glass of red, then leans forward, full of his question, utterly confounded. “Why did he go back?” he asks. “How is it possible?”