Friday, January 13, 2012

A Writer Who Can Do It All

At in the Book Corner section, one of the denizens started a thread devoted to the question, "What are your top 5 books of all time?"

Normally, I hate that question, for a few reasons -- never been able to understand how anybody could actually rank his favorites in such a way to come up with an absolute top 5 of all time, never been able to understand why anybody could actually WANT to rank them that way, and (worst of all) never been able to NOT think about the question when it's asked.  So instead of goofing off, or working, or doing battle with the novel-in-progress, I found myself thinking about my top 5 books of all time.

No, I don't have a solid now-and-forever top 5.  Given enough time and skull sweat I might be able to come up with a top 10 list in a number of different categories: top 10 thrillers, top 10 science fiction and fantasy novels, top 10 horror novels, top 10 general/mainstream/literary/call-it-what-you-like.  But I don't have those lists and I'm not going to clutter up the evening trying to build them -- an hour after I did so, I'd be kicking myself for leaving off this title or that one and then I'd have to build the lists all over again.  That way lies madness.

But while thinking about the question, it did occur to me that there's someone who'd rank in the top 10 in multiple categories.  Fantasy, thriller, mystery and suspense, general/literary, non-fiction.  As far as novel-writing goes, he's fallen silent; he's devoted most of his time to screenwriting and script doctoring for quite a while now.

The writer is William Goldman.

You know his work.  Even if you don't recognize his name (unlikely), you're bound to have seen at least one of the movies he's written.  Adaptations of books by other writers (including Misery, Hearts in Atlantis, All the President's Men, Absolute Power, A Bridge Too Far), original scripts of his own (The Great Waldo Pepper, The Ghost and the Darkness, Year of the Comet, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and adaptations of his own books (Marathon Man, Magic, and The Princess Bride).

Goldman's novels include: The Temple of Gold; Boys and Girls Together; No Way to Treat a Lady; Soldier in the Rain; The Thing of It Is...; Marathon Man; Magic; The Princess Bride; Heat; Control; Tinsel; Brothers; The Color of Light.  And he's written non-fiction as well, including Adventures in the Screen Trade and Hype and Glory.

Look at that list (if you don't know the novels but only the movies look at the list of originals and adaptations of his own work) and think about the range of it.  The Princess Bride is a wonderful comic fantasy.  Marathon Man is, in my opinion, the finest thriller of the 70s.  Magic is a chilling psychological horror story.  Tinsel is a big Hollywood novel.  Control and Brothers (a sequel to Marathon Man) are both thrillers with science fiction elements woven in.  No Way to Treat a Lady is a nifty mystery/suspense story.  And the others, like The Temple of Gold and Boys and Girls Together -- non-genre fiction of a high order.

How high an order?  Let me put it this way: Salinger's Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye always struck me as too much of a literary construct; Goldman's Ray Trevitt from The Temple of Gold seemed far more real to me.  Goldman could take a character like Aaron Firestone in Boys and Girls Together, a character who gets less sympathetic with every scene he's in, and make you cry for him.  Goldman could write scenes that chill your blood and almost make you laugh out loud at the same time, in books like Marathon Man and Magic.  (And if there's a novelist anywhere who can handle scenes involving insecurity or humiliation better than Goldman, I don't know who it is.)  Some people said that some of his later novels didn't measure up to the earlier ones, and for me Heat and Brothers weren't in the same class as their predecessors -- but even those books were so engagingly written that I never once felt I hadn't gotten more than my money's worth (and I didn't wait for the paperbacks -- grabbed them in hardcover on the day of release).  Some of Goldman's books may not have been in the same league as others of his titles, but that's the way it works for every writer -- Budd Schulberg once likened a writer's work to a mountain range and noted that not every peak is Everest.  I can't recall ever reading a page of Goldman that I found dull; dull may just be the only thing Goldman can't write.

If you know William Goldman's work only from his screenwriting (dynamite though that is), treat yourself to some of his fiction.  You won't be disappointed.  You may find yourself with somebody to add to your own top 10 list.

UPDATE: Dec 20, 2012.  On January 8, three of Goldman's best novels, The Temple of Gold, Marathon Man, and Boys and Girls Together, will finally be released as ebooks in Amazon's Kindle store.  The ebook editions will be coming from Open Road Media, a house that tends to release all or most of its authors' available backlist -- here's hoping that the rest of Goldman's novels will soon follow.

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