In May of 2011, one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century died and no one cared enough to notice. A handful (if that) of obituaries for Newton Thornburg appeared online, and it took me almost an entire year to stumble upon news of his passing at the age of 81. By the time of his death, Thornburg had been long gone from the literary world, courtesy of a stroke that paralyzed his entire left side, but he hadn’t gone unread and unloved throughout his career. He was immensely popular during the ‘70s, the decade which produced most of his major works. He was a writer who was appreciated and acclaimed, yet nobody now knows who he is.
Thornburg is best defined by his 1976 masterpiece Cutter and Bone. It is a tragic, despairing novel about a mysterious murder that hits you over and over again right up to the last sentence. Thornburg’s prose has always been sharper than an ice pick, and he maintained a grim sense of humour that would make Morrissey look chirpy. Like all great crime fiction writers, he wrote blistering dialogue. The one-liners shattered over your head like a beer bottle.
As with so much of the art that came out of America in the 1970s, Thornburg’s books are bleak, disillusioned and cynical. Vietnam was at the heart of Cutter and Bone. It brought the disastrous conflict home to sandy Californian shores, where, as idealism faded in a mist of political assassinations and brutal wars, total oblivion seemed like a very real possibility. With its panicked paranoia, Cutter and Bone remains a book of its time, and an important one at that.
By the time the ‘80s rolled around with all their bluster, Thornburg was on top of the world. He had a multi-book deal and had made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling film rights alone. But after 1983’s Dreamland, a thriller with the poisonous flashing lights of Hollywood and familiar themes of corruption, Thornburg’s publisher, Little Brown, didn’t renew his contract. He didn’t stop writing until the stroke crippled him, but he was never again the same writer. To cap off a tumultuous few years, his wife died in 1986 and his writing seemed to disintegrate from then. He could never quite find his form again. His later work was incomparable to his heyday, and he even wrote a happy ending for his penultimate book, A Man’s Game. His last novel, Eve’s Men, was released in 1998, the same year as his paralyzing stroke, and he never put pen to paper again. He spent his final years in a retirement home in Seattle, wheelchair bound, struggling to do even the simplest of tasks.
Today, Thornburg’s books are a rare treasure, impossible to buy new and still difficult to find used. Despite the noble efforts of publisher Serpent’s Tale, all of his books are now out of print. No new generation is likely to read Thornburg.
He started writing in his spare time after becoming disillusioned with the art world. He grew to be a spectacularly successful author before a series of unfortunate events left him unable to continue his craft. Now, with him dead in the ground, he has been long forgotten. Newton Thornburg lived a life as tragic as any of his characters.