ONE OF THE BEST WRITERS AND NEARLY FORGOTTEN
by Z.J. Czupor
Not that long ago, this author was considered by literary critics to be one of the truly great American writers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his name doesn’t easily come to mind or roll off the tongue when we think of the litany of successful mystery/thriller writers who caught the brass ring.
Most of his major works were written in the 1970s and his master noir novel— Cutter and Bone (Little, Brown 1976) set in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the author lived for many years—sadly isn’t even recognized by most bookstore employees there, let alone his name.
His name is Newton Thornburg. His novels and film rights to his novels brought him good money but when he died in 2011, his books were out of print and he was nearly forgotten. For in the last fifteen years of his life since his last book was published, he disappeared from the radar of publishers and critics.
Sam Jordison, writing in The Guardian upon Thornburg’s death, compared his writing to crime noir legend Ross MacDonald. “As well as the sparkling one-liners and snappy dialogue you’d expect from a quality noir writer, Thornburg has a mastery of human comedy,” (June 23, 2011).
Newton Kendall Thornburg (1929-2011) was born in Harvey, Illinois and grew up in Chicago. While at Illinois Wesleyan College he began writing and won a prize for a story published in “Motive,” a Methodist progressive magazine. Later, he transferred to the University of Iowa and earned a degree in fine arts. He then enrolled in the university’s graduate writer’s workshop but says he “got bored with it.”
At that time, Thornburg gravitated more toward art than writing and subsequently soured on the art world when New York City galleries wanted to show his more realistic work rather than the abstract paintings he preferred. Disillusioned, he returned to Illinois where he worked on his brother-in-law’s cattle ranch and his father’s wholesale candy business. Then, over the next ten years, he moved to Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Santa Barbara, working as an advertising copywriter for three different agencies. It’s also when he started writing fiction in his free time.
His first novel, Gentleman Born (Fawcett, 1967), about corrupt fathers and family conflicts, was followed by Knockover (Fawcett,1968) a caper novel which sold as a film option. With money in his pocket, he started writing full time. His third novel did even better. To Die in California (Little Brown, 1973) was about a Midwestern cattle farmer who travels to Hollywood to investigate his 19-year-old son’s apparent suicide. The novel’s Avon edition sold over 300,000 copies. Film rights were sold for $100,000 but the film was never made. Thornburg used the money to buy a ranch in the Missouri Ozarks.
The Best Novel of its Kind
His fourth novel, Cutter and Bone (Little Brown, 1976) is his best and most memorable. The story tracks Richard Bone, a wayward lothario, who sees a man one rainy night dump a body in a trashcan. When his buddy Alex Cutter, a disabled and bitter Vietnam veteran, learns of this, he sets out to blackmail the man they think is the killer. More so, the novel explores the themes of war, socioeconomics, and class. The New York Times called it a “classy, big-league act and the best novel of its kind for ten years.”
Consider this line of sad noir from Cutter and Bone:
“For human beings finally were each as alone as dead stars and no
amount of toil or love or litany could alter by a centimeter the
terrible precision of their journeys.”
Detective author George Pelecanos said the novel “best captures America in the last years of the Vietnam War. Thornburg wrote many novels, but this is the one for which he will be remembered.” Chip Smith, a UK blogger, called the novel “…a superb book—a downbeat seventies hangover that twists and turns all the way to the final sentence.”
Without giving away the novel’s end, that last sentence is worth finding and reading. It’s redolent of the end of the movie Easy Rider (1969). But this sentence sneaks up on the reader with literary panache and a finality that is chilling.
Bill Ott, (Booklist), said, “There is a peculiar kind of despair that sinks into the bone marrow of damaged war survivors—film noir was born out of that despair in the post-WWII era—and Thornburg nails the Vietnam version. The ending is pure Chinatown, with a dose of Easy Rider, and it leaves us reeling.”
Film rights were sold for another $100,000 (equivalent to $301,000 today). The film was produced in 1981 starring Jeff Bridges as Bone and John Heard as Cutter. Today, the film is viewed as a cult neo-noir classic. However, the last half of the movie diverges greatly from the novel. The film was first released as “Cutter and Bone,” but it opened to negative reviews. The next week, Time, Newsweek and New York’s weekly newspapers wrote glowing reviews. The producers changed the title to “Cutter’s Way,” and started a new promotional campaign.
At Houston’s Third International Film Festival, “Cutter’s Way” won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor (John Heard) awards. In 1981, Jeffrey Alan Fiskin won an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. A year later, Fiskin was a nominee for Best Drama Adaptation from Another Medium by the Writers Guild of America.
While the novel was well reviewed it never caught traction with the public. Nevertheless, it earned Thornburg a multi-book contract. However, instead of writing another crime story, he wrote a noir, Black Angus (Little Brown, 1978), set in rural Missouri about a crumbling marriage. Next he wrote a doomsday sci-fi novel Valhalla (Little Brown, 1980); and Beautiful Kate (Little Brown, 1982) an uneasy story about brother-sister incest. The 2009 film version of Beautiful Kate was defined by Total Films as “Tennessee Williams with kangaroos.” The Australian film received mixed reviews but held the title for the largest opening weekend for an Australian film in 2009.
His last major novel, Dreamland (Little Brown, 1983) covers the lives of prodigal sons and corrupt politics. Dreamland was Thornburg’s literary jab at Southern California a result of his disappointment with the glitzy lifestyle. As a result, he moved to Seattle, Washington.
The Big Fade
In 1986, his wife of thirty-three years, Karin, died, leaving him depressed. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. One of the sons died to alcoholism. Soon after, he remarried but it didn’t last long. Critics said his next novel, Lion at the Door (Piatkus Books, 1990) “perhaps reflecting his turmoil, was arguably his least interesting.” Then his last two novels, A Man’s Game (Forge/Tor, 1996) and Eve’s Men (Tor Books, 1998), were much improved and consistent with his former literary standards.
Thornburg was sixty-seven when A Man’s Game was published. Along with Cutter and Bone, it is one of his best with heavy character development, robust pacing, and plotting. Jim Thomsen writing in the “Rap Sheet” blog pulled out all the stops calling the novel “a family drama, a police procedural, a legal thriller, a Hitchcockian suspense tale and a contemporary twisty thriller all at once, soaked in a sunshine-shattered darkness as deep as the well from which bottom-shelf-whiskey is poured.” (September 11, 2020).
Thornburg wrote eleven novels and while most critics pegged him a crime writer, he defined himself as a novelist. His writing style was also cynical and pessimistic and is a recurring theme in many of his books where an average person gets caught up in a crime. He said he never thought of himself as a pure crime writer. “Cutter and Bone is a straight novel, no matter how you look at it—strong characterizations, simple plot. I don’t like novels with private eyes you know, formula ones. I like crime stories, but I like them to be about ordinary people, not crime professionals.”
In 1996, Thornburg suffered a major stroke. He had started Eve’s Men and while the stroke paralyzed his left side, he was committed to finishing the novel and quipped, “A lot of old guys write one more book (referencing Norman Mailer) and they shouldn’t.” The novel was released two years later to mixed reviews.
Prior to his stroke, he had reached the pinnacle of his success, a writer of often bleak but majestic and thrilling prose. In his final years he didn’t write. The stroke ended his writing career. He was wheelchair bound, struggling to do simple tasks, living on government help, in a retirement center in the Seattle area. He said, “…it would have been a good time to die.”
In 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer and died on May 9, just shy of his 82nd birthday. At the time of his death, his books were out of print. His death got more news coverage in Great Britain than in the United States, due primarily because Serpent’s Tail, an independent publishing firm, re-released many of his books in Great Britain in his last years. In 2015, independent publisher Diversion Books reissued nine of his novels as e-books.
Thornburg’s major works were highly appreciated and reviewed in glowing terms. Critic Sam Moore said his prose was “sharper than an ice pick…his one liners shattered over your head like a beer bottle,” and “Thornburg lived a life as tragic as any of his characters.”
Have you read any of Newton Thornburg’s novels? Would you also be apt to classify him as a crime writer?