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Vance (Nye) Bourjaily Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Cleveland, Ohio, 1922. Education: Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, B.A. 1947. Military Service: Served in the American Field Service, 1942-44, and in the United States Army, 1944-46. Career: Instructor at the Writers Workshop, 1957-58, and associate professor, 1960-64, 1966-67, 1971-72, University of Iowa, Iowa City; visiting professor, 1977-78, and professor, 1980-85, University of Arizona, Tucson. Member, United States Department of State mission to South America, 1959. Distinguished Visiting Professor, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Summer 1968. Awards: American Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1993. D. Litt, Bowdoin College, 1993. Agent: William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The End of My Life. New York, Scribner, 1947; London, W.H. Allen, 1963.

The Hound of Earth. New York, Scribner, 1955; London, Secker andWarburg, 1956.

The Violated. New York, Dial Press, 1958; London, W.H. Allen, 1962.

Confessions of a Spent Youth. New York, Dial Press, 1960; London, W.H. Allen, 1961.

The Man Who Knew Kennedy. New York, Dial Press, and London, W.H. Allen, 1967.

Brill among the Ruins. New York, Dial Press, 1970; London, W.H. Allen, 1971.

Now Playing in Canterbury. New York, Dial Press, 1976.

A Game Men Play. New York, Dial Press, 1980.

The Great Fake Book. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.

Old Soldier. New York, Fine, 1990.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Poozle Dreamers," in Dial (New York), Fall 1959.

"Fractional Man," in New Yorker, 6 August 1960.

"Goose Pits," in New Yorker, 25 November 1961.

"Varieties of Religious Experience," in The Esquire Reader, edited by Arnold Gingrich and others. New York, Dial Press, 1967.

"A Lover's Mask," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 6 May1967.

"The Amish Farmer," in Great Esquire Fiction, edited by L. RustHills. New York, Viking Press, 1983.

"The Duchess," in Stand One, edited by Michael Blackburn, JonSilkin, and Lorna Tracy. London, Gollancz, 1984.

Plays

$4000: An Opera in Five Scenes, music by Tom Turner (producedIowa City, 1969). Published in North American Review (Cedar Falls, Iowa), Winter 1969.

Other

The Girl in the Abstract Bed (text for cartoons). New York, TiberPress, 1954.

The Unnatural Enemy (on hunting). New York, Dial Press, 1963.

Country Matters: Collected Reports from the Fields and Streams of Iowa and Other Places. New York, Dial Press, 1973.

Fishing by Mail: The Outdoor Life of a Father and Son, with PhilipBourjaily. New York, Atlantic Monthly, 1993.

Editor, Discovery 1-6. New York, Pocket Books, 6 vols., 1953-1955.

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Manuscript Collection:

Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

Critical Studies:

After the Lost Generation by John W. Aldridge, New York, McGraw Hill, 1951, London, Vision Press, 1959; by Bourjaily in Afterwords edited by Thomas McCormack, New York, Harper, 1969; The Shaken Realist by John M. Muste, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1970.

* * *

Vance Bourjaily's first three novels trace the effects of World War II on his generation of Americans, people who were undergraduates at the time of Munich and Benny Goodman's rendition of "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." In the looser structure of his fourth book, Confessions of a Spent Youth, the war becomes one of several stages in the narrator's growing up, and Bourjaily attempts moods, situations, humor, and introspection that had not entered his more rigid earlier work. The novels that have followed this pivotal book have displayed a remarkable variety of subject and technique without gaining for Bourjaily the popularity or critical recognition that many have thought his due over the past 35 years.

The End of My Life recalls another slender novel of wartime ambulance service, Dos Passos's One Man's Initiation—1917. Skinner Galt, Bourjaily's hero, is another young man who believes in a few friends; any larger society or more complex idea repels him. He accounts for this emptiness by sifting through his slight reading and slighter experience to understand why he has "no principles, no truths, no ethics, no standards." The Hound of Earth is a parable of American responsibility for nuclear power, which describes the last days of the seven-year flight of an atomic scientist, who has left his work and family because these ties constantly remind him of the people he has helped to kill. In his reduced fugitive existence, he is run down by a "hound of earth," a nagging humanitarian impulse that makes him perform small acts of kindness to everyone he meets. The Violated, a far more ambitious novel, shows how four characters violate those whom they would love, and are, in turn, violated in the emptiness of their rapacious lives. The child of one of them (or perhaps two of them) plays the lead and directs other children in her own production of Hamlet before the parents, who sit as so many kings and queens stupefied or weary until when "frightened with false fire," a Claudius rises to end the show. This most sustained and complicated of Bourjaily's early plots thus ends with his first striking outburst of fictional invention.

Confessions of a Spent Youth is a retelling of The End of My Life that relieves the narrator, Quincy Quince, of the burden of philosophical exposition and allows him to reminisce easily about his young life; friendships, drinking, brushes with drugs, his loves, and his war service. The autobiographical element, admitted by Bourjaily, is clearest in Quincy's statement that "to recall is a pleasure," for these stories show the writer let loose with craft he had begun to tap with the children's play in The Violated.

In The Man Who Knew Kennedy Bourjaily examines the crises that overtake two friends in the months following the President's assassination. The connection between history and private lives is not altogether clear. Kennedy, according to the narrator, was killed by the psychotic force of someone writhing out of an abyss of frustration. A generation's illusions of invulnerability were smashed on impact. The gifted, graceful victim of this novel is, on the other hand, destroyed by his inexplicable ties to a woman as depraved as she is helpless. The man had traded on his talent instead of developing it, while the surviving friend realizes that he is the stronger of the two for such reasons as his "making necessary items out of wood—not fibreglass." Brill among the Ruins is Bourjaily's richest novel, and Brill, a middle-aged lawyer from a small town in southern Illinois, is his most fully realized character. He stands among two kinds of ruins, the hard bargain of his life and the archaeological sites of Oaxaca, developing on that line an understanding of himself that finally arrests his flight from responsibility. The accounts of digging are superb, surpassed only by the hunting scene where Brill alone "sculls" for ducks along the banks of the Mississippi before dawn.

A Game Men Play concerns yet another combat veteran, this one a poetic, reflective man trained as a killer and conditioned as a victim. Is there anything at all that I can do? he wires an old friend and tormentor upon learning of a family catastrophe. What he could or could not do to help is lost in the novel's (perhaps deliberate) loose ends, although the last glimpse of him in exile is utterly clear, recalling an incident decades before when he helped free the inmates of a German death camp and confronted their ragged warden: "'bitte …' He was the last man Chink killed in the Second World War. Chink did not stop to wonder if the man was asking for his life or for his death." If not Bourjaily's great novel, A Game Men Play is closer than the others to his summing up.

Bourjaily, always devoted to jazz, moved to New Orleans in the mid-1980s when he wrote widely read articles and further sharpened the already distinctive language of his fiction. Old Soldier, a novella, celebrates a bond between brothers, the title character and his AIDS-ridden sibling, against a background of jazz argot and a few piped Highland melodies. The Great Fake Book, another story of a young man's search for his father, takes its title and particular inspiration from "Songs for Professional Musicians," which is explained to the hero, thus: "Now if you know you chords, you kin fake 'bout any song you'd ever want to play from just this one book here." Most of the narrative moves through sketches by the father bearing the titles of old standards, transitions aided by the son's notes. At its best, the novel is the "working book of magic spells" the father and son took their fake book to be.

—David Sanders

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