Best known, to the extent that he's known at all, for his linked novels "Mrs. Bridge" (1959) and "Mr. Bridge" (1969) — a pair of pointed and pointilist portraits of the circumscribed lives of a well-to-do and narrowminded suburban family in Kansas City not dissimilar to the one he was raised in — author Evan S. Connell (1924-2013) has long remained an elusive and under-recognized figure.
Elegantly able to shift among historical pathos, philosophical seriousness and droll humor and irony at the absurdity of the human condition, Connell's gorgeously researched narrative nonfiction work "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn," for instance, is not only one of the best and most nuanced books on that subject, but also a model for writing lively, humane accounts of messy tragedies.
His range, deftly executing everything from the deeply interior and unsettling first-person novel "Diary of a Rapist" (1966) to the almost zany blood-soaked account of the Crusades, "Deus Lo Volt!," is astonishing.
If anything, Connell's "always unpredictable and uncommonly varied" literary output kept him from being easily branded and therefore from being a consistent commercial success. Moreover, because he never taught, he lacks any protégés to keep the fire of his memory burning.
At last, in "Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell," journalist, biographer and Kansas City resident Steve Paul has constructed a meticulous, intriguing, and long-overdue appraisal of a talent deserving of wider attention. Paul — author of 2017's "Hemingway at 18: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend" — draws from letters, archives and interviews with Connell's friends to deliver "a reclamation project" of a writer who "mainly wanted to write what captured his interest" and "chose a creative path in which to perform a nonstop, absorbing project of literary alchemy."
Disciplined and taciturn, a "suave looking dude" and a lover of women but who never married or had children, Connell was a man whose "life was his work." Paul reveals the almost heroic and unbelievable extent to which Connell did all he could to eliminate any distraction or obligation that might tear him from his vocation. One of Connell's few close friends, American writer Max Steele, with whom he became acquainted in Paris in the 1950s, distilled him succinctly: "He's a strange, silent, extremely lonesome person who can write like no one else."
Always reluctant to do publicity appearances of any kind, Connell seemed happiest when he was pursuing his own curiosity. Uninterested in "repeating himself or becoming comfortably understood in a heartless publishing world that thrived on meeting expectations," Connell spent his decades-long career reading, researching and writing, all in solitude — a boon to his output, but not to securing his legacy.
Paul concludes by pointing out that Connell's centenary approaches: 2024. Perhaps "that will spark new interest among readers, critics, and scholars," he says. For now, Paul's biography sheds plenty of much-needed light on a reticent, dignified and forgivingly comic artist who, while he "may only have written for himself ... also wrote for the ages."
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell
By: Steve Paul.
Publisher: University of Missouri Press, 416 pages, $45.