Jennings, Gary 1928-1999 (Gary Gayne Jennings, Gabriel Quyth)
Jennings, Gary 1928-1999 (Gary Gayne Jennings, Gabriel Quyth)
Born September 20, 1928, in Buena Vista, VA; died of heart failure, February 13, 1999, in Pompton Lakes, NJ; son of Glen Edward (a printer) and Vaughnye May Jennings; married and divorced three times; children: (first marriage) Jesse. Ethnicity: "Hillbilly." Education: Studied with New York Art Students League, 1949-51.
Copywriter and account executive for advertising agencies, New York, NY, 1947-58; newspaper reporter in CA and VA, 1958-61; managing editor, Dude and Gent, 1962-63. Military service: U.S. Army, Infantry, 1952-54; served as correspondent in Korea; awarded Bronze Star, citation from Republic of Korea Ministry of Information.
YOUNG ADULT; NONFICTION EXCEPT AS NOTED
March of the Robots, Dial (New York, NY), 1962.
The Movie Book, Dial (New York, NY), 1963.
Black Magic, White Magic, Dial (New York, NY), 1964.
Parades!, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1966.
The Killer Storms: Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Tornadoes, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1970.
The Teenager's Realistic Guide to Astrology, Association Press (New York, NY), 1971.
The Shrinking Outdoors, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1972.
The Earth Book, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1974.
March of the Heroes, Association Press (New York, NY), 1975.
March of the Gods, Association Press (New York, NY), 1976.
The Rope in the Jungle (novel), Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1976.
March of the Demons, Association Press (New York, NY), 1977.
Aztec, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.
Aztec Autumn, Forge (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Robert Gleason and Junius Podrug) Aztec Blood, Forge (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Robert Gleason and Junius Podrug) Aztec Rage, Forge (New York, NY), 2006.
(With Robert Gleason and Junius Podrug) Aztec Fire, Forge (New York, NY), 2008.
Personalities of Language, Crowell (New York, NY), 1965, revised edition published as World of Words: The Personalities of Language, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
The Treasure of the Superstition Mountains (nonfiction), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1973.
The Terrible Teague Bunch (novel), W.W. Norton, 1975.
Sow the Seeds of Hemp (novel), W.W. Norton, 1976.
The Journeyer (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
Spangle (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987, reprinted as three volumes titled Road Show, The Center Ring, and Grand Promenade, 1999.
(Under pseudonym Gabriel Quyth) The Lively Lives of Crispin Mobey (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.
Raptor (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Cowriter of a stage production based on the life of labor organizer Joe Hill; contributor to numerous anthologies and textbooks. Contributor of articles, short stories, and essays to periodicals, including American Heritage, Cosmopolitan, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Harper's, National Geographic, New York Times Book Review, Reader's Digest, Redbook, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Jennings's manuscript collection is held by Boston University.
Gary Jennings was a well-known author of epic historical novels, each one set in a different period but all sharing the theme of survival by wit and chance in violent times. First a writer for young adults, Jennings usually structured his historical novels around a narrator who comes of age in the vicissitudes of the story and then takes his or her life lessons into an adulthood fraught with danger and sexual escapade. Carefully researched and possessing a wealth of period detail, Jennings's novels earned him praise as "a historical novelist of the first order," according to Christian H. Moe in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers.
One of Jennings's best-known historicals is Aztec, a multilayered story about the native response to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. "In rubbing the myths of each race to their common bones, Gary Jennings has produced in Aztec a monumental novel," noted Nicholas Shakespeare in the London Times. Jennings unfolded the story of the overthrow of the Native Mexicans through the voice of an amiable but wry Aztec adventurer named Mixtli. Judith Matloff observed in the Saturday Review: "In picaresque fashion, Mixtli travels the length and breadth of Mexico, working as scribe, merchant, warrior, and ambassador to Montezuma," thus becoming involved in various aspects of the war against the conquistadors. In addition, the novel contains an abundance of details about the Aztecs—their culture, their religion, their customs, and their daily life.
In preparing to write the novel, Jennings lived for twelve years in Mexico while conducting research on Aztec culture and the Spanish conquest. He had read accounts of the wars but found many of them biased against the Indians. Jennings told John F. Baker in a Publishers Weekly interview: "I began to study the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, and it shows them as people who had a sense of the bawdy, and who had all sorts of human reactions. I wanted to bring them alive as flesh-and-blood people." The author had traveled about the country, seeking primary sources and "trying to get a sense, from living Indians, of their legendary past," recounted Baker. Jennings's research paid off, for the voice of his narrator Mixtli is filled with the resonance of the Nahuatl speech. Times Literary Supplement contributor Gordon Brotherston commented: "Much of the novel's power stems from Nahua sources transcribed into the alphabet after the Spanish invasion, not just the direct quotations from Nahua poems and of set pieces … but the whole range of devices used by Mixtli to keep his audience alert."
"Historical novels are most often praised or dismissed as novels," observed Thomas M. Disch in Washington Post Book World, "but surely it is their power as narrative history that is their main strength, the power to evoke the feel of ages lost to memory…. So it is with Gary Jennings' Aztec." The novel "has everything that makes a story vulgarly appealing, in the best sense of the phrase," remarked Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. "It has sex—my goodness, does it have sex! … and it has violence." While these elements may be appealing, "the violence usually serves a constructive storytelling purpose … and the sexual passages almost always relate to the book's most fascinating and subtle aspect, which is the way the hero, Mixtli, unconsciously re-enacts the life of the Indian god Quetzalcoatl," continued Lehmann-Haupt. "It is this particular dimension of Aztec which raises it above the level of a mere historical potboiler."
In The Journeyer, Jennings relates the "other half" of Marco Polo's adventures, the half the famous explorer supposedly withheld so as not to offend European sensibilities. The author recreated much of Polo's route for his research, traveling through Italy, the Middle East, and central and southeast Asia by various modes of transport—including camel and elephant. "Thus he enlivens his picaresque story with wonderfully detailed descriptions of the landscape, climate, flora and fauna Polo encountered along the way," wrote Gene Lyons in Newsweek. "As Jennings did for pre-Hispanic Mexico in Aztec," commented Grover Sales in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "he has enriched The Journeyer with an anthropologist's knowledge of diverse lands and cultures." The critic added: "Jennings combines inexhaustible research with the yarn-spinner's art, drawing indelible portraits of Marco and his companions on the long journey." "Every page crackles with high adventure, much of it sexual," proclaimed a Washington Post Book World reviewer.
Chicago Tribune Book World contributor Jack Dierks similarly found The Journeyer engrossing, explaining that, "employing both great sweep and meticulous detail, Jennings has produced an impressively learned gem of the astounding and the titillating. As pure travelogue it is impeccable, and the adventures that befall our heroes come like tales spun out by some erudite and prurient Scheherazade, heaping wonder onto oddity." Lehmann-Haupt, however, expressed some reservations about the work: "For all the wonders of The Journeyer—its sweep, its humor, its vivid scenery, its sustained narrative drive—I found it ever so faintly disappointing after the brilliance of Aztec. Part of the problem may be the predictability of the novel, for many of the deeper patterns of Aztec are repeated in The Journeyer." Sales, by contrast, offered the opinion that "with astonishing speed and consummate skill, novelist Gary Jennings has capped his 1980 Aztec." Dierks considered the book an "even more compelling work of derring-do."
For Spangle, his third major historical work, Jennings traveled with nine different circuses in America and Europe. The novel follows the adventures of "Florian's Flourishing Florilegium," a nineteenth-century performing troupe, and Zachary Edge, a Southern Civil War veteran who joins it after the war. Like the author's previous works, Spangle contains the same elements of spectacle, sex, violence, and detail that mark most of his historical fiction. "Yet for Gary Jennings," noted Lehmann-Haupt, "the formula seems to work uniquely. There is something mesmerizing about the world he creates." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor MacDonald Harris felt that Spangle "is impressive in its sheer mass and richness, in the enthusiasm and energy of its telling, in the obvious pleasure the author takes in the work." This enthusiasm, asserted Harris, "is contagious. Before the novel is over we develop, along with the characters, a contempt for non-circus people and a conviction that the only sensible and reasonable thing to do … is to run away and join a circus."
While some critics have considered the amount of detail and breadth of scope in Jennings's work enriching, Donna Olendorf found it distracting. Writing in the Detroit Free Press, Olendorf remarked that "if only Jennings had restricted his focus to the performing arena, Spangle might have shone. Instead, Jennings changes gears as the caravan rumbles along, shifting from history into romantic tragedy…. This tangled tale has more contortions than the Florilegium's acrobat." Lehmann-Haupt pointed out that one "disappointment about Spangle is that, like The Journeyer, it lacks the multiple layers of meaning that made Aztec, with its reenactment by the hero of the life of the god Quetzalcoatl, so unusual." Harris thought that the setting, more contemporary than Jennings's previous work, makes it "a realistic novel, not a romance…. It is also the great strength of Spangle and its superiority over his first two books." Similarly, H.J. Kirchhoff wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail that the protagonists "are picaresque triumphs, and the supporting cast … is strong from top to bottom." Kirchhoff concluded by commenting that any faults "that blemished the earlier books seem to have been overcome; Spangle is simply excellent."
For Raptor, Jennings pressed further into the past than ever before. Set in the fifth century A.D.—and framed by Theodoric the Great's conquest of Rome—Raptor tells the story of a wily hermaphrodite named Thorn and his/her adventures in Theodoric's employ. Styling the work "a ripping yarn," New York Times Book Review contributor Joe Queenan noted: "In Raptor, Mr. Jennings successfully demonstrates that a person who could make a very fine living in Las Vegas in the 20th century really had to have both his and her wits about him and her if he and she wanted to survive in the sixth." Thorn's response to his/her situation is to become a predator—a raptor like the hawk he/she has tamed—in order to protect himself/herself and his/her interests. "Thorn is a memorable character, and unique outside of science fiction," wrote Judith Tarr in Washington Post Book World. "Raptor is a splendid entertainment: a historical novel of the old school, impressively researched and remarkably accurate—and above all, a roaring good read." In the New York Times Lehmann-Haupt declared that Jennings's "latest boisterously imaginative historical extravaganza … recaptures some of the magic of Aztec." The critic concluded: "If you loved Aztec, then you'll at least enjoy Raptor. And if you haven't read Aztec, then prepare yourself for astonishment."
Following Raptor, Jennings published Aztec Autumn, a "fascinating if often gory novel … guided by exhaustive research into practically every facet of life in 16th century Mexico," according to Charles Salzberg in the New York Times Book Review. In this sequel to Jennings's highly acclaimed historical novel Aztec, Tenamaxtli, the son of Mixtli, seeks revenge on the Spaniards for the murder of his father. A Kirkus Reviews contributor, faulting the story for its "relentlessly talky narrative" and "too many trite plot devices," judged Aztec Autumn to be an "uneven … bumpy, meandering, wryly tragic tale, graced with delightful moments of passion and insight into the ancient culture that still haunts (and influences) modern Mexico." "For the first third of Aztec Autumn, the magic of the earlier book seems back, that beguiling combination of innocence and obscenity that somehow suits the violent sweetness of the ancient Aztec world," assessed Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. After that, the critic noted, "Jennings seems to lose his inspiration…. True, there are moments when the plot comes to life again…. But increasingly as Tenamaxtli's adventures proceed, Mr. Jennings appears merely to be going through the motions of inventing a new story. Even the sex and violence begin to seem routine and lacking the fearful imaginativeness of Aztec."
Jennings died in 1999, but his "Aztec" series was continued by his editor, Robert Gleason, and writer and attorney Junius Podrug. The first of these new books is Aztec Blood, a continuation of the story of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs have been vanquished by the Spanish conquistadors and have become slaves. Some, like Cristo, are the product of a union between an Aztec mother and Spanish father. The bastard mestizo boy is despised by both the indios and the Invaders and is tortured by clerics of the Spanish Inquisition who demand that he write his confession. At the same time, he is writing a secret journal with disappearing ink, milk given to him by the lactating woman in the next cell. He is raised by Antonio, a defrocked friar who teaches him the classics and to read and write in many languages at the risk of his own life during the period of the Inquisition, when such activities are forbidden. An Aztec visionary and healer leads Cristo on a quest to discover his roots, which takes him across Mexico and then to Spain to learn the truth, relying on his wiles as a thief and a beggar to reach his goal, and by doing so he evades Spanish grandee Don Ramon who wants to kill him.
Booklist contributor Margaret Flanagan concluded her review of Aztec Blood by writing: "This lush, exotic page-turner fairly crackles with intrigue, romance, and adventure." "Readers will lose themselves in this long, absorbing novel," wrote Library Journal reviewer Fred M. Gervat.
The protagonist of Aztec Rage, another story of the domination of peoples and Catholic repression is Don Juan de Zavata, a swashbuckling swordsman who leaves the Aztec civilization that has been reduced to ruin to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. As a little boy, he was nicknamed El Azteca Chico, or the Little Aztec. He is an able fighter and lover. A Kirkus Reviews contributor considered the book to be "soft porn wrapped in swashbuckling garb." Booklist contributor Brad Hooper called it "a beautifully detailed novel for historical fiction."
Jennings's ghostwriters continue the series with Aztec Fire, which features Juan Martez, orphaned during the Aztec uprising of 1810. Juan is sentenced to hang but is saved by a Spanish gunsmith who wishes to take advantage of the talented young man's work with gunpowder and munitions. Juan keeps a low profile and works with the Mexican underground, providing black powder and guns to guerrilla forces fighting for independence. He falls in love with revolutionary Maria Volza, but she believes him to be loyal to the Spaniards and rejects him. The truth about his life is revealed, however, when Juan leads the revolutionaries against the Spaniards.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), third edition, 1994.
Atlantic, February, 1985, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of World of Words: The Personalities of Language, p. 101.
Booklist, August, 2001, Margaret Flanagan, review of Aztec Blood, p. 2051; March 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of Aztec Rage, p. 5.
Chicago Tribune Book World, March 25, 1984, Jack Dierks, review of The Journeyer.
Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1988, Donna Olendorf, review of Spangle.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 16, 1988, H.J. Kirchhoff, review of Spangle.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997, review of Aztec Autumn, p. 825; August 15, 2001, review of Aztec Blood, p. 1152; April 15, 2006, review of Aztec Rage, p. 369.
Library Journal, August, 2001, Fred M. Gervat, review of Aztec Blood, p. 161.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 29, 1984, Grover Sales, review of The Journeyer, p. B1; November 1, 1987, MacDonald Harris, review of Spangle.
Newsweek, January 9, 1984, Gene Lyons, review of The Journeyer, p. 85.
New York Times, February 5, 1981, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Aztec, p. 15; January 10, 1984, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Journeyer, p. 23; November 16, 1987, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Spangle, p. 17; July 17, 1997, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Aztec Autumn, p. B7.
New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1992, Joe Queenan, review of Raptor, p. 15; September 7, 1997, Charles Salzberg, review of Aztec Autumn, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, December 12, 1980, John F. Baker, interview, pp. 6-7.
Saturday Review, November, 1980, Judith Matloff, review of Aztec, p. 72.
School Library Journal, December, 2002, review of Aztec Blood, p. 51.
Times (London, England), July 9, 1981, Nicholas Shakespeare, review of Aztec.
Times Literary Supplement, July 24, 1981, Gordon Brotherston, review of Aztec.
Washington Post Book World, November 30, 1980, Thomas M. Disch, review of Aztec; December 30, 1984, review of The Journeyer, p. 12; May 24, 1992, Judith Tarr, review of Raptor, p. 6.
Gary Jennings Home Page,http://www.garyjennings.com (June 12, 2008).
Los Angeles Times, February 19. 1999, p. A22.
New York Times, February 18, 1999, p. C23.