Thursday, May 22, 2008
Forgotten Book Friday
Forgotten Books Friday is a great idea and I want to start by thanking Patti Abbott for asking me to be a part of it. As soon as she did, I thought of one of my favourite novels that’s not exactly forgotten but certainly not as well known as it should be. Newton Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone from 1976.
I have a friend who’s an excellent cartoonist – so good, in fact, that his biggest fans are other cartoonists. That’s kind of Cutter and Bone – Time Magazine said at the time it was published that it pointed, “to the future of crime fiction.” If it has, it’s because it’s influenced a lot of crime fiction writers – like George Pelecanos who wrote the introduction for the book’s later reissue. Not exactly forgotten, Cutter and Bone certainly isn’t as recognized as it should be.
The story of Cutter, a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed Vietnam vet and, Bone, his good-looking gigolo buddy starts in California and ends in Missouri, is simple; late one night Bone sees a man cram something into a garbage can. When that something turns out to be a dead teen-aged girl, Cutter realizes the man Bone saw ‘could be’ J.J. Wolfe a “cornpone millionaire” from Missouri and justice must be done. But not through messy legal avenues, no, that never works on millionaires. Cutter wants to blackmail the man.
The biggest influence on the crime genre was taking the mystery out of it and concentrating almost entirely on character and theme. Certainly throughout Cutter and Bone, the issue of Wolfe’s guilt is in dispute, it also quickly becomes beside the point. Solving the ‘mystery’ isn’t what the book is about at all. Thornburg has admitted that his pessimistic view of the world caused him to reject the crime genre, with its detectives and its neat resolutions.
Instead he wrote a book George Pelecanos says is about, "America's festering wound in the wake of Vietnam," with no neat resolution.
It’s a festering wound seen through the eyes of a very wounded Cutter and a very disaffected Bone. Wolfe represents the corporate culture that destroyed Cutter's body in a brutal war: "it's never their ass they lay on the line, man, never theirs, but ours, mine."
In many ways it’s exactly the same way many people feel today in the face of another foreign war. In Cutter and Bone, Wolfe’s men in Missouri are described as, “lean and sunburnt and improbably pleased with themselves.” They’re never going to be the victims of the war, never going to lay their own asses on the line.
As relevant today as it was in 1976.
The movie, Cutter’s Way, based on the book is okay. Thornburg hated it, and certainly he’s right the ending is much better in the book.
Here’s a good article about Newton Thornburg
And the review from Time Magazine in 1976 (isn’t the internet great?).