Bravo to Jim Lewis for an enthusiastic and bracing New York Times Book Review front cover piece that begins like this:
Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and “Tree of Smoke” is a tremendous book …
Since the New York Times’ daily book critic Michiko “The Ax” Kakutani gave Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a rare rave just this past Friday, and since I recently began this book and found the opening scene featuring a jungle, a gun and a poor little monkey absolutely stunning, I’m guessing Tree of Smoke is on the world’s shortlist for Hot Book of Autumn 2007 and will probably end up winning the National Book Award for fiction and placing near the top of the Morning News Tournament of Books in 2008, among many other accolades.
This harrowing Vietnam War novel’s acclaim is assured, and it seems poised to capture America’s heart — except for one problem. With a stiff price tag of $27, the novel will barely penetrate the youth/collegiate and alternative markets where it could possibly break through to a wide audience. Once again, our publishing industry insists on a sales approach that ignores everything music publishers and movie studios know about creating buzz. Has Farrar, Straus and Giroux ever contemplated the fact the hottest new hiphop CD’s are routinely sold at steep discounts in their first weeks, so as to ensure that they hit the streets and get people talking? Or that movie studios have long ago abandoned the practice of opening new movies only in select theaters in big cities, opting instead for wide distribution and sensational opening weekends to generate massive word of mouth?
Ah, but Tree of Smoke could never be as popular as a hiphop CD or a hit movie, right? Bullshit. It can’t as long as Farrar, Straus and Giroux think $27 is the right price point for the book, though. Tough luck, eager readers of America. You’re not in the target market for this book. And I’m having trouble figuring out who is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to the NYTBR.
I love Jim Lewis’s passionate review, and I also love Paul Sahre’s charcoal sketch of Denis Johnson looking like a visionary Ernest Borgnine on the cover. We’re off to a good start, and the final New York Times Book Review of the summer is a satisfying one, also featuring the surprising (to me, anyway) news that there was a 19th Century Portugese writer named Jose Maria Eca de Quieros who may be, in Alan Riding’s words, “Portugal’s Flaubert”. His The Maias has been newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and I’m certainly going to check out this book and see what all the fuss is about.
Kathryn Harrison weighs Chelsea Cain’s ultraviolent Heartsick against its apparent role model, Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, and Nancy Kline dismisses Doris Lessing’s latest experiment The Cleft as “not very interesting” despite the fact that it tells of a proto-human past in which parthenogenic women called “clefts” ruled the world, then lost their gender purity to a new life form known as “squirts” (and it was all downhill from there). This book sure sounds interesting, despite Kline’s verdict, and I’ll always give a new Doris Lessing experiment a look.
There are only a few missteps in this week’s publication. Liesl Schillinger completely confuses me in her article on Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields; I read her review forwards and backwards and I still can’t figure out what this book is supposed to be. An endpaper in which Pagan Kennedy explores MySpace for literary content is an absolute groaner — a writer who was hip ten years ago telling us about a social networking site that was hip two years ago. Facebook is where writers are congregating now, folks.