How Do You Kill a Writer?

Every writer dreams, these days, of seeing her book turned into a movie. But I think she should also dread that the movie might completely replace the book. Who reads Cool Hand Luke? Who reads Breakfast at Tiffany's? Who, in the coming decades, will read The Remains of the Day?

I first discovered James Leo Herlihy when I gave myself this cute little assignment: read the books that have been replaced by their movies. I decided to read Midnight Cowboy, and I was shocked to discover that the book was out of print.

So it really had been replaced by the movie. Unlike my other examples, which are all still in print (if less widely bothered-with than the movies made from them), Midnight Cowboy actually had disappeared. And so had its author, James Leo Herlihy, who after three novels, two collections of short stories, and several plays, published in the 50s 60s and 70s, kind of disappeared. He spent the 80s teaching -- apparently teaching for a year at the University of Arkansas, where I earned my MFA -- and then, in 1993, he killed himself.

Discovering his suicide further stoked my anxieties. After all, this entire adventure is an anxiety-stoking exercise: authors want to believe there is something essential to their art. They do not want to believe that novels are just screenplays in need of reformatting. They need to believe that there is an essential and vital (ironically, ineffable) something in their words that cannot be reproduced on the screen. The movie isn't as good as the book. This is the sentence that keeps authors alive.

I read Midnight Cowboy, and I loved it. The second and last thirds of the book are what the movie used to make itself something good. The first third of the book is why books are better than movies: things that can only be half-hinted at in the movie are brought to full, terrifying flower there. If you've ever watched, then read, 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know what I mean. You watch that opening scene with the apes, and the images intrigue you, and you do follow the narrative, such as it is. But until you read the book, you have absolutely no idea what any of it means. That is how I feel about Midnight Cowboy.

But more than that, I just loved the book. It's a perfect novel. Not a word is unnecessary, or out of place. And nothing is glossed over. And there is no cheap stylistic razzmatazz where the truth of the story should be -- no, it's all just the truth of the story. So I looked for more of Herlihy's books -- all of them out of print -- and discovered that here is one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and he has been forgotten, he is out of print, no one knows his name, and his most remembered book is remembered not as his work, but the work of Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman.

His first collection of stories, The Sleep of Baby Filbertson and Other Stories, contains some of the best short stories I've read in my life. "Summer of the Dead" is a mini-novel, whose characters will live within me forever. His novel Season of the Witch so well-channels the voice of a teenage girl experimenting her way through 1969 that you have to remind yourself it was written by a middle-aged man. And you never really convince yourself. Witch Gliz (as she calls herself) lives. And I, who was born in 1975, feel like I was there.

His talent was enormous. His books both a pleasure and perfect art.

So what must have been going through the mind of James Leo Herlihy in 1993? I don't know why he killed himself, but his suicide brings all my anxieties to the edge: to have such incredible success (his books were wildly popular when they first came to print -- one wishes to add snarkily in spite of their merit), to write such perfect books, to have the honor of seeing your work turned into classic cinema, but be replaced by the cinema, and forgotten, cast aside, let slip out of print. Again, I don't know why he chose to leave this world, but this would drive me over the edge.

One of the most marvelous qualities to his writing is the way he, the authorial voice, slips beneath the surface unnoticed, and this lets the characters rise, rise up, and assume a multi-dimensionality, a reality, that is rare in art. He is surely always there, but he is never there -- it's like a creation itself. I admire his ability to restrain his ego so well -- but it's terrifying to me that in the end he completely undid himself, disappeared entirely, and left only his characters.

And that they too have been forgotten.

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