Two timeless, Depression-era novels from Edward Anderson

Edward Anderson had a strange and sad career. He was born in Texas in 1905 and grew up in Oklahoma, serving his apprenticeship as a journalist on a small paper in Ardmore, Okla. Restless, he worked as a deckhand on a freighter, plied his fists as a prizefighter, had some small success as a musician and, when the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, roamed the roads and rails, learning the life of the hobo. This crucial experience led to fiction, and to his first novel, “Hungry Men” (University of Oklahoma Press, currently out of print, but with plenty of copies available on Amazon), which in 1933 caused the Saturday Review of Literature to pronounce him the heir to Hemingway and Faulkner.

A famous second novel, “Thieves Like Us” (published by Prior, Disruptive Press and in the Library of America anthology “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s”), followed in 1937, and Anderson came out to Hollywood. The screenwriting didn’t work out, so he took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner, from which he was fired -- for anti-Semitism, according to one story -- in 1940. He drifted back to Texas, to alcoholism, to Swedenborgianism, and to the loopier fringes of the political right. He wrote a column for a local paper and died in 1969 in almost total obscurity. He was 63.

None of this is especially shocking, and it’s certainly not edifying, but the two novels remain. Both of them are terrific, in their very different ways, and speak with a particular resonance at a time when the U.S. economy looks like it’s falling apart. “Hungry Men” follows the travels of Acel Stecker, an out-of-work musician who drifts back and forth across America.

“How long have I been running around the country now?” he asks himself. “Two years. Damn near two years. It has been two years since I played in that Juarez cabaret. Godamighty. Two years I been on the bum. It would have scared me to death then if somebody had said: ‘You won’t even have a job two years from now.’ I didn’t have any guts then, though.”

“Hungry Men” is written in the third person; but Anderson had instinctive gifts as a novelist, and the book takes us in and out of Acel’s mind without any seeming effort. Acel’s feelings have been beaten out of him, and his encounters in flop-houses, in freight cars, in court rooms, in a store trying to bum something to eat, are presented without inflection, combining the intimate with the deadpan to map out what Geoffrey O’Brien, writing in the Village Voice in 1983, called “the desolate geography of the book.” O’Brien wrote that the book recalled “Beckett as much as it does Walker Evans.”

The structure follows Acel’s adventures, so the book is shaped almost as a series of disjointed short stories but held together by tone and perception. Anderson, himself no radical, constantly glances in the direction of politics.

“ ‘I’m getting fed up on this kind of life,’ Bill said.

Acel nodded. ‘It’s pretty tough all right.’

‘I’d rob a bank if I thought I could get away with it.’ ”

“Thieves Like Us” takes up this theme and centers on three escaped convicts who, in their desperation, have forgotten how to be afraid and do nothing else but rob banks. At first they enjoy success. They buy better clothes, more guns, faster cars and read about their escapades in the papers. The central character, Bowie, who killed a guy when he was 16, falls in love with Keechie, a young girl who’s the cousin of one of his partners, establishing a narrative model -- love on the run -- that Hollywood followed countless times thereafter, notably in “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Natural Born Killers” and in two film versions of “Thieves Like Us” (made by Nicholas Ray and Robert Altman). Anderson’s second novel crackles with tension and has a very different mood from “Hungry Men” because the reader understands from the start that these characters are doomed. Hence their romance. The book lives best, not in its sometimes hard-boiled idiom, but in the moments between the action, when the characters are driving around Texas and Oklahoma, or holed up in a safe house or hotel:

“The green-shaded lamp in the kitchen of the Welcome Inn was burning, their signal that there had been no rumbles when he was gone, and now he closed the door quietly and the leaves on the walk crackled under his moving shoes. He lifted on the knob so the door would not scrape and went in. Pale coals studded the mound of dark ashes in the fireplace and then he saw Keechie sitting on the end of the cot by the shadowy radio.”

There’s a sense of tenderness and tentativeness toward life that corresponds to the constant anxiety that hovers somewhere right at the back of Bowie’s mind. This poetic, almost haunted quality summons the memory of James Agee as much as Dashiell Hammett, and can carry through even into the action writing. Here’s Anderson describing a car accident, a fulcrum moment that leads to the killing of two cops:

“Thrown from the sprung door of his car, Bowie rose from the parquet grass, feeling like a figure in a slow motion picture. He was on his feet now, a terrific weight on his back. Yonder was his car, the radiator caved in against a broken lamp-post and behind it was an old coupe, somebody inside of it groaning, its one lamp still burning.”

“Thieves Like Us” snaps shut like a trap on its characters, and I’d bet that Nicholas Ray, having filmed it, kept it in mind when he made his more famous picture of youthful disillusion and defiance, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Anderson himself never moved on anywhere, artistically, which is our loss because he made fiction that combined fluency of style with potency of form. But he did leave behind these two books, stories from the Depression, yet timeless, testaments to young people roaming the country, hungry and without prospects, sleeping rough or turning to crime. He’s a writer who deserves to be rediscovered.


“The Book of Chameleons” by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Scribner)

This novel is narrated by a gecko, that’s to say by a lizard, who also happens to be the reincarnated spirit of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Well: Some writers like to play for high stakes. From this conceit Agualusa weaves a gorgeous and intricate story about a man who trades in memories, selling people pasts to help reinvent their futures. Set in Angola, the tale darts to and fro with the swiftness of a step over by soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s a murder mystery here, and not only a meditation on the nature of memory. Agualusa’s deftness and lightness of touch means we buy into the strange setup with scarcely a blink. He’s a young master.

“Phantasmagoria” by Marina Warner (Oxford University Press)

Warner, a richly entertaining novelist and cultural historian, studies our obsession with the way things live on, our fascination with the idea that the dead may still be among us. The Victorians sought to apply scientific rigor to the investigation of the spiritual, leading to a field day for frauds and hysterics. But Warner argues that the liminal areas between life and death, between reality and illusion, have been human stock-in-trade pretty much since the beginning of time, and she explores the significance of souls, ectoplasm, replicants and doppelgängers in imaginative creators from Dante to Philip K. Dick and those who today invent role-playing computer games. The book is dense, and not always easy, but suggestive and inspiring.

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter (Vintage)

“Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds,” wrote American historian Richard Hofstadter in this classic study, in which he argues that the rational choosing of irrational anger and paranoia as a political position is a phenomenon that has existed throughout history, and throughout American history in particular. Hofstadter, who died in 1970 at 53, had a deep understanding of the lures and pathologies of politics, and these elegant, analytical essays seem uncannily relevant today. Newly introduced by Sean Wilentz.

“The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein (Picador)

Klein launches a highly polemical, and persuasive, assault on free-market fundamentalism. She rips into the big-business agenda to show how economic opportunists need and promote misery and disaster, challenging us to look at world-changing events -- Pinochet’s coup, Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hurricane Katrina -- from a whole other perspective. Not everybody’s going to agree with her, but this is reporting and history-writing in the tradition of Izzy Stone and Upton Sinclair. Klein upends assumptions and demands that we think -- her book is thrilling, troubling and very dark.

“How Novels Work” by John Mullan (Oxford University Press)

This book collects a series of columns that John Mullan has done for The Guardian in England, a mixture of lit crit and hands-on advice about the craft of novel-writing. He tackles character, genre, beginnings, endings, narrative technique and plot device, among other topics, drawing on examples from Daniel Defoe, Ali Smith, Donna Tartt and many others. “One clause detonates another in anguished repetition,” he writes, analyzing Philip Roth’s tightly controlled use of prose amplification in “The Human Stain,” and the “detonates” is spot-on. Readers and writers alike will finds this an excellent guide.

“Silence” by Thomas Perry (Harcourt)

Perry, who seems to have always been around and is not so well known as he should be, writes the best pursuit thrillers around. In “Silence” he sets up his game of cat-and-mouse with parallel narratives: In one, private investigator Jack Till, who helped Wendy Harper disappear six years ago, now has to find her again so he can save her; in the other, Wendy is tracked by an insanely smooth pair of tango-dancing assassins whose insecure marriage doesn’t prevent them from ratcheting up a high body-count. As villains, these two, the Turners, are delicious creations. Perry’s plotting is always smart, and he’s very good on what’s going on every day in L.A., including murder.

“Fer-de-Lance; The League of Frightened Men” by Rex Stout (Bantam)

Here, in one volume, are the earliest, and best, of Stout’s novels. The dialogue crackles, sidekick Archie dashes about, while Nero Wolfe -- possibly the best, and certainly the fattest and most eccentric, of detectives -- sits in his chair, too gross to cross his legs, tending his multitude of orchids in that brownstone on New York’s West 35th Street and effortlessly getting the job done, the crime solved. The plotting -- and plotting was never Stout’s strong point -- is tight here, and these two books remain peaks in the genre.

“Demons” by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Penguin)

“Demons,” which describes the activities of a group of political radicals and culminates in murder, is the most bamboozling of Dostoevsky’s novels -- and that’s saying something. Is “Demons” (previously translated as “The Devils” and “The Possessed”) social comedy, scathing political satire, depth psychology or an ultimately thrilling tale of violence? Actually, it’s all of the above, and the various styles of this glorious mess of a book are captured in this superb new version by Robert Maguire. Also included, as an appendix, is the famous chapter, at first banned and suppressed, in which the charismatic, and indeed demonic, Stravrogin confesses to the rape of a child who then kills herself.

“The Thief and the Dogs” by Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor)

A man, recently released from an Egyptian jail, seeks revenge on those who put him there -- his wife and former partner. The plot has elements of noir, or even Dostoevsky, but in the hands of Mahfouz becomes a bleak and irresistible existential tale. Mahfouz wrote this book in mid-career, when his spare style made for clarity of narrative. Said Mahran, the hero, is possessed by a searing will that only violence will snuff out. The novel will be featured as a “Big Read” selection for the National Endowment of the Arts.

“Selected Poems” by C.P. Cavafy (Penguin)

Cavafy, the great poet of Alexandria, was first introduced to an English readership by E.M. Forster and later championed by W.H. Auden. He was gay, and his charged erotic poems make no attempt to hide the fact. Other strands of his poetic output -- interior reflections on history and fate -- have proved perhaps even more influential, drawing admirers and followers, like Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. “Suddenly, around midnight, when you hear / an invisible troupe of players pass / with exquisite music and solemn voices -- / do not lament in vain your waning luck, the many deeds / undone, all of your life plans gone astray,” Cavafy writes in “The Gods Abandoning Antony.” Cavafy’s various tones -- whether mournful, ironic or sexual -- are made to feel indispensable in these new translations by Avi Sharon.

Richard Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at He is the author of several books, including “The Associates” and “The Devil’s Wind.”