Michael Dirda on American Fiction


Survey the literature of the United States and one emblematic figure occurs again and again: the loner. Deep down, every American male would like to be Clint Eastwood, standing quietly on a dusty street, serape flapping in the wind, a Colt six-gun strapped to his hip. At the same time, there is no one Americans fear more than the stranger who comes to town.

For all our lip-service to democracy and egalitarianism, Americans are obsessed with the alienated, the isolato, the solitary – all those who don’t fit in or who abide by their own codes of honour, impervious to the siren calls of the conformist culture around them. Nonetheless, that tough, frontier sensibility is more ideal than reality. Americans may imagine themselves as omnicompetent survivalists, but we actually live lives of quiet desperation, like the broken-down men and women in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritansto Paul Auster’s postmodern detectives, the protagonists are haunted men and women, burdened by the past or hostage to their sense of self. Dashiell Hammett’s private eye Sam Spade must live without trusting or loving anyone; Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim can never wholly escape from the fire-bombing of Dresden; James M. Cain’s adulterous couple will slowly tear each other to pieces.

These great novels, through their hard, unflinching visions of life’s darkness, also remind us, yet again, that violence – to ourselves as much as to others – is as American as cherry pie. As we read these books, they unfold to us our own past histories, our own dashed hopes. Not merely exhilarating works of art, they lay bare the American psyche in all its loneliness.