Writing a novel is a daunting prospect, and I know a few working writers who have attempted and maybe finished one or four of them. Usually, if they have any sense at all, they look at what they've done, shove it into an envelope, and hide it at the back of a drawer where they come back to it after a few years, after the amnesia has set in.
They read a little, and maybe they like some of what they read. But it all feels somehow unfinished. So they work on it some more. They sort of finish it again. Repeat.
The problem is they're not bad writers, or even bad novelists. The problem is they have excellent taste in novels. And having read excellent novels, they're more daunted by the prospect of trying to produce something that lives up to their own standards. It's like Thomas Mann said: "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
My ration of fiction to nonfiction is probably about four to one, and I read more novels than short story collections or poetry. Not that that makes me expert; the more you read the more you realize how much you don't know. But I can recognize novels written by people for whom writing is harder than it is for most people. I can recognize novels written by real writers.
I'm not casting aspersions on novels written by nonreal writers; they can be breezy and fun and entertaining and everything most people might want in a novel. Sometimes the best (and maybe only) way to actually write a novel is to give up on being a "real writer." (And there's something you should know about that Mann quote that a lot or writers who work relatively slowly like to use. It appears in Mann's 1903 novella "Tristan," which has a character called Detlev Spinell who fancies himself a "real writer." The book's omniscient narrator made the remark while commenting on Spinell's lack of productivity.)
Or, as Donald Harington once said, to actually commit something as ludicrous as literature, you've got to shout over all those better voices in your head. You have to pretend that you're good enough to deserve the reader's attention.
All this is prelude to thoughts on a rather remarkable novel that — and here's some inside baseball material for you — I'm still in the midst of reading: Tyrone Jaeger's "Radio Eldorado" (Braddock Avenue Books, $19.95). This column comes around (roughly) every two weeks, and I read only a little faster than I write. And sometimes I really sink in and savor a book. Sometimes I feel like I have to take one a page at a time to genuinely get it. I really like those sorts of books.
Jaeger's name was familiar; I realize now I've read his work in the Oxford American and I'd read his 2012 book "The Runaway Note," which felt on one level like a meta-fictional memoir and which I wish I had access to now. (Like so much, it was gone in the great book purge of 2018.) He's a professor at Hendrix College.
And "Radio Eldorado" is a wonderfully ambitious work of the imagination that recalls some of Tom Robbins' seriocomedies and some of Robbins' rambunctious, squirty sentences — soft flares streaking over a violet horizon.
It's set in Colorado in 1969, in the months after the Rocky Flats Mother Day's Fire, which — like the 1980 explosion at a Titan missile silo near Damascus — is one of those episodes in American history that you'd sleep better not knowing about. (Five kilograms of plutonium burnt up at the plant in Golden, near Denver, where triggers for hydrogen bombs were manufactured.)
Had the fire not been contained, a nuclear accident on the scale of Chernobyl could have occurred. As it was, clean-up took two years and accounts of the incident were suppressed and sanitized by the government.
The fire is incidental to the main action of "Radio Eldorado," which follows the progress of Cynthia Hutton, a young woman of privilege as she gradually becomes involved in the counter-culture at the curdling end of the 1960s.
The story is populated with exquisitely drawn portraits of musicians, hippies and working class hard-hats. As much a product of deep research as the imagination, it pulls at the disparate threads of the tapestry, a familiar yet strange portrait of an America where it felt like the center could not hold.
This is not some slapdash effort, and rewards time spent soaking in and thinking about it. I don't imagine it was written quickly or that it came easily to Jaeger. If it did, well, I'd just as soon not know it.