Tom McHale And Obscurity In Spite Of Success

"The angry sunset provide elaborate background for Principato and Malatesta on this cruelest of Sundays in the oiled-down lot between the merry-go-round and miniature train as they attempted to clarify with flailing fists and crude polemics an important theological question. Not the first two friends in history, certainly."

When my brother-in-law recommended Tom McHale's Principato to me, I'd never even heard of him. I was not alone in this as no local bookstores carried any of his books. In fact, Amazon only carried him through third parties overseas. Given the breadth of the selection available through Amazon, essentially "everything which could be considered 'still in print' by the most generous of standards," you'd have to say it's a pretty obscure book.

What's curious is that McHale was highly acclaimed in the 1970s. The dust jacket has enthusiastic blurbs from presumably enthusiastic reviews published in the Wall Street JournalTime, and The New York Times Book Review. These and other reviews compared him (sometimes favorably) to Evelyn Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, John Updike, and Philip Roth. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and he was writer-in-residence at Monmouth University. 

McHale was, by many measure, a tremendous success as a novelist.* You'd think he'd have left more of an imprint on popular culture, or at the very least on my narrow view of it. I can't explain why he's so throughly evaporated from the public consciousness. I don't have a critic's eyes for quality, but I found Principato both literary and enjoyable to read, and you can't ask for much more than that. It's a funny, earthy novel that makes its points without getting preachy. It's certainly one of the better books I've read over the last couple of years.

So I don't get it. Maybe it's that none of his novels were made into films or television shows. It could be that the Catholic themes limit the audience. Perhaps contemporary reviews aren't a good indicator of lasting impact (ok, I think I can take the "perhaps" off of that one). I don't know. The arc of his career is hardly encouraging to anyone who immortality through their art. 

I've just started William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch and it's going to be a difficult one. Just forty-ish pages in, I can't tell if Burroughs is a stylistic acrobat whose brave, timeless prose continues to challenge a half century after he wrote it, or if he's just a writer whose stylistic tics and use of slang are so "of their time" that they lose clarity over time. It's probably a little of both. Scratch that: It's almost certainly a whole lot of both.


* And yet, if you search Google for "Tom McHale book", this McHale's books start at number six on the list after five guides by the gun-enthusiast of the same name.