Monday, April 2, 2018

Whither, Irwin Shaw?

It astonishes me that the works of Irwin Shaw have gone out of print.

Shaw, once among the most famous of contemporary American authors, was an inspiration to me even before I knew I'd ever write a novel. His books took in large casts of characters, included big, life-changing events and never really ended the way the most optimistic reader would hope they might.

He was a storyteller before all else, and the peerless screenwriter/novelist William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) once told me Shaw was his idol before he knew he'd ever write a novel.

Shaw's most famous work, Rich Man, Poor Man was turned into a television miniseries that became something of a phenomenon and launched the career of Nick Nolte, for better or worse. It spawned a sequel (Beggarman, Thief) and cemented Shaw on the top of the 1970s bestseller lists.

I knew his novels because my mother never missed a Shaw book and I read them when she had finished. He never wrote about the kind of people or events I would end up using in my stories, but his style was direct and he never got flowery. Some writers never met an adjective they didn't like; Shaw told you what was happening and shoehorned in description so quietly it never announced itself to the reader.

Because there are some Shaw books I've never read I checked around online for copies and was amazed to discover that pretty much all his works are no longer in print. A search on Audible indicates that there are two Shaw books recorded on audio; they're both translated into Russian. Which doesn't help me much.

It's a sign that although books last forever, only a tiny fraction of authors are remembered much longer than their careers last. Perhaps that is a testament to those whose names we can recall decades or centuries after their deaths. But maybe it's also an indictment of a society that lets some of the best storytellers vanish with their times.

Above is the cover of one of my favorite Irwin Shaw novels. If you can find a copy in a used bookstore, I urge you to try it out. If not, I urge you to try one of mine. I'm not totally altruistic.