Nova, Craig 1945-
NOVA, Craig 1945-
PERSONAL: Born July 5, 1945, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Karl and Elizabeth (Sinclair) Nova; married Christina Barnes, July 2, 1977; children: Abigail, Tate. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A. (with honors), 1967; Columbia University, M.F.A. (with distinction), 1969.
CAREER: Writer. Has held jobs as farm hand, truck driver, computer salesman, editor, real estate manager, painter, reporter, proofreader, and gas station attendant.
AWARDS, HONORS: Harper-Saxton Prize, 1971, for Turkey Hash; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1973 and 1975; New York State Council on the Arts fellowship, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985.
Turkey Hash, Harper (New York, NY), 1972.
The Geek, Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
Incandescence, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
The Good Son, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1982.
The Congressman's Daughter, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1986.
Tornado Alley, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989.
Trombone, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1992.
The Book of Dreams, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1994.
The Universal Donor, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
Brook Trout and the Writing Life (memoir), Lyons Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Wetware, Shaye Areheart (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Craig Nova's writing career began in the days of the counterculture, but his dark vision of American life knows no particular time period. John Domini wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Nova's themes "do not merely live; they burn. . . . Nova has proved that nothing gives off sparks like hard living struck against surfaces even harder: the passing of time and our relentless struggle to make it stop." William O'Rourke in the Village Voice described Nova as "one of the finest writers of his generation (post World War II) and, more importantly, one of the few in possession of an entirely unique voice." Booklist correspondent Donna Seaman noted that the author "walks a fine line between noir and straight-ahead fiction in his taut, moody, and piercing novels." Perhaps due to their subject matter, Nova's novels have appealed more often to literary readers than the general public. Dorman T. Shindler in the Denver Post observed: "Craig Nova . . . is one of those critically acclaimed, consistently great writers who for unknown reasons have failed to grab a wide readership. This is a shame, because in addition to being highly entertaining, his novels have explored a wide range of social interests, from music to fishing, to politics and medical research."
As a young writer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nova was influenced by the tenor of the times. His early novels feature surrealistic characters, unusual dialogue, and a sense of social and personal alienation. In Turkey Hash, for instance, the central character loses his sanity amidst other social outcasts in urban Los Angeles. In his review of Turkey Hash, Martin Levin wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the book is filled with "mental defectives, maimed drifters who think with their appetites, geek material, random assassins and their victims—these float in and out of Craig Nova's harsh spotlight. The center of attention is Niles Cabro, an L.A. youth whom the publisher bills as [borderline] psychotic. Tut. Anyone whose idea of fun is to be beaten nearly senseless in an offal orgy is hardly [borderline]." Saturday Review contributor Jerry G. Bowles wrote that Nova "is a fine writer. His style is telegraphic and minimal, yet strangely evocative of landscape. His characters appear both real and surreal as they act out strange rituals and plot insane acts. His handling of pace and dialogue is superb, and the writing in general has the feel of a polished hand. Despite its ultimate coldness, [Turkey Hash] is a remarkably accomplished first novel."
Nova's second novel, The Geek, observes a group of misfits on a Greek island. Once again the central character is a rootless American whose plight worsens as he gradually loses grip on his humanity while working with a traveling carnival. New York Review of Books critic Michael Wood felt that "there is something too cryptic about a lot of the novel's transactions, a suggestion of dialogue out of Henry James shifted to a dusty taverna, and . . . the writing keeps reaching for effects that are more than a little lurid. But the blending of emblematic and literal truth . . . is remarkable. The specificity of the island landscape, the clear characters and past history of th e individual islanders . . . all help to pitch The Geek somewhere between reality and nightmare." New York Times Book Review writer C. D. B. Bryan noted that "there is no point in summarizing this plot; it isn't what happens that makes this book so strong. In fact, I find it difficult to articulate where exactly Craig Nova's genius lies. I know only that it has been a long time—a very long time—since I have come across a novel so gripping, a talent so exciting, so immense and so pure that I am ashamed I have not read him before. This book is so powerful, so alive, it is a wonder that turning its pages doesn't somehow burn one's hands."
In Incandescence, Nova again deals with assorted drifters and lowlifes; central among them is a formerly brilliant inventor named Stargell, now barely eking out a living as a New York City cab driver. Under pressure from his loan shark, Stargell seeks a solution to his financial woes but only makes matters worse in a surreal trip through Manhattan's underbelly. Saturday Review correspondent Tim O'Brien found the novel's style "brisk and often funny." The critic added: "Stargell's hip cynicism, though grating after a time, produces some very witty lines. And why not? His after all, is an incandescent wit. Studded throughout the book, in counterpoint to the comic aspects, there are several entirely uncomic and even tragic scenes that convey the terrors that can befall a man who can neither understand nor escape his own disintegration."
In The Good Son Nova leaves the seedy milieu of his earlier novels to tell the story of an upper-middle-class father and son in conflict. The story is narrated by a number of different characters as the novel progresses, including two parents, the son of the title, two women in the son's life, and a chauffeur. Nevertheless, the narrative flows consistently as the wealthy family patriarch discovers that his son is an independent individual. While Library Journal reviewer Carol L. Cardozo called the book "a well-written work," she found, "the Faulknerian obliqueness and unrelieved atmosphere of menace are sometimes overdone." Hermione Lee in the Observer wrote that The Good Son "reads as though Faulkner had been cloned with the script-writer for 'Dynasty.'" But novelist John Irving, in the New York Times Book Review, noted The Good Son "is not only Mr. Nova's best novel; it is the richest and most expert novel in my recent reading by any writer now under forty." Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Charles Trueheart likewise described the novel as "a dark and affecting exploration of how families inexorably transform love into pain and self-esteem into self-destruction—and somehow survive to endure the wreckage." In the Kenyon Review, Dave Smith concluded: "I cannot imagine a reader who would find The Good Son anything less than a totally satisfying piece of work. Its prose is as intensely beautiful as a fine poem, and its structure is as precise as a Bach fugue. Yet it is mostly the power with which Nova is able to engage and set free the myth of love that impresses . . . The Good Son is a portrait of ourselves, rich and poor, and a good one."
Where The Good Son focuses on the relationship between a father and son, The Congressman's Daughter examines the relationship between a father and daughter. When her controlling father dies, Alexandra Pearson discovers that she is bound by strict codicils in her father's will. These restrictions limit the scope of her life for the next twenty years, driving her finally into a love affair to escape the husband chosen for her by her late father. "A dry, credible bitterness pervades this latest novel by [Nova]," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic. New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called The Congressman's Daughter an "unlikely yet strangely plausible tale" and "a penetrating comment on American life."
In Tornado Alley Nova focuses his attention on small-town American life, telling the story of two doomed lovers. The "first two-thirds" of the book, according to Paul Stuewe in Quill & Quire, tells "an engrossing tale of mainstream American life, firmly grounded in an understanding of small-town mores and big-time dreams." Stuewe found the novel's violent ending less than credible, however. Andrei Codrescu, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised the realism of the novel's setting. "Its world is painstakingly needlepointed in every detail," Codrescu noted. Nevertheless, the critic considered the plot ultimately unbelievable, although he pointed out "splendid moments that in themselves would have made beautiful small books." A critic for Publishers Weekly concluded that Tornado Alley is a "riveting American tragedy comparable to that of Dreiser or Cain."
With Trombone Nova returns to an examination of a father and son relationship, this time between a minor hoodlum who works as an arsonist for the mob and his teenaged son, "two of the most vivid, appealing and surprising characters to appear in recent American fiction," wrote Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World. Trombone is set in California and Nevada, and Chicago Tribune Books writer Bruce Cook wrote that it is written with "an aridity that is altogether consistent with the setting . . . and with [the] characters, who seem as dry and emotionally withered as the landscapes in which they move." Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, found Trombone fascinatingly unpredictable, if not wholly successful: "You get the feeling . . . that with just a few more twists and a good hard shake, its pieces could fall into place to form something completely original," he observed. But New York Times Book Review critic George State believed Nova "manages his imagery, his plot and his characters, pathetic or vicious or both, with impressive skill."
Nova writes of Hollywood in The Book of Dreams, a work that follows Warren Hodges, a film producer, Marta Brooks, his girlfriend, and Victor Shaw, an excon turned blackmailer. When Brooks accidentally kills a man who attacks her, Shaw uses the incident to force her into squeezing money from Hodges. Although Lawrence Thornton in the New York Times Book Review felt The Book of Dreams to be "a trip down a noirish memory lane" and "far too familiar," a critic for Publishers Weekly believed that Nova "deftly interweaves a glitzy Hollywood background with some good noir atmosphere." Washington Post reviewer Carolyn See found the book unconvincing and excessively imitative of Hollywood chronicles by other authors, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West. But Lehmann-Haupt concluded that The Book of Dreams is "a powerful if ultimately comic nightmare."
The Universal Donor offers another noir plotline, again set in Southern California. The book opens amidst the Los Angeles riots, as Dr. Terry McKechnie struggles to come to grips with the many grievous gunshot wounds he is expected to treat in the emergency room. Finding himself unraveling, Terry steps back from the abyss when he meets Virginia Lee, a herpetologist who goes through with her loveless wedding even though she has fallen in love with Terry. When Virginia is bitten by a rare poisonous snake, Terry must exert all his powers to save her life, even as the jilted husband seeks revenge. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that in this story of a desperate love triangle, Nova "does a convincing job of showing that while love may conquer all, the conquest isn't always pretty." Booklist correspondent Joanne Wilkinson felt that the nightmarish aspects of the plot "add up to a haunting tale."
Wetware finds Nova in new territory: that of science fiction. Set in the near future, the novel describes a world in which human clones are engineered to perform dirty and demeaning work mindlessly. A rogue clone designer named Hal Briggs, called in to create more intelligent, assassin clones, programs two of his creations—Kay and Jack—with higher human attributes such as the power to love and a feel for music. Kay and Jack escape, and it is only then that Briggs discovers that others have been inserting programming into the two clones as well—with possibly deadly results. Library Journal contributor Devon Thomas observed that the novel "hints at a grim civilization in decline" as it offers "a particularly chilling read." A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "a seductive and intelligent novel about love and freedom set in a dreamlike near future." The critic concluded that the work is "odd and oddly moving, with a strange mix of platonic shadow and human detail giving it a lingering power." Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda praised Wetware as "a haunting, heart-stoppingly exciting, brilliantly structured novel of suspense, ideas and subtle characterization."
In addition to his fiction, Nova has penned a slight memoir, Brook Trout and the Writing Life, that links his profession to his avocation—fishing for fresh-water trout. The author reveals how fishing has sustained him through his bouts of writing and how it has provided ease and pleasure to him throughout his life. In Booklist, John Rowen praised the way in which Nova writes about his fishing experiences "in a most genuine, convincing, and never contrived manner." Steve Raymond in Fly Fisherman summed up the book in a way that might well describe all of Nova's writing career. Nova, Raymond concluded, "sees things in a unique and personal way and his gift as a writer is an ability to relate them in clear, often memorable prose."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 31, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985, pp. 296-300.
Booklist, June 1, 1997, Norma Seaman, review of The Universal Donor, p. 1663; September 1, 1999, John Rowen, review of Brook Trout and the Writing Life, p. 61; June 1, 2001, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Universal Donor, p. 1836; December 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Wetware, p. 630.
Book World, November 14, 1999, review of Brook Trout and the Writing Life, p. 9.
Chicago Tribune Book World, February 25, 1979.
Fly Fisherman, May, 2000, Steve Raymond, review of Brook Trout and the Writing Life, p. 20.
Kenyon Review, winter, 1984, Dave Smith, "Myths of Love: New American Fiction," pp. 121-134.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1997, review of The Universal Donor, p. 494; August 1, 1999, review of Brook Trout and the Writing Life, p. 1205; October 15, 2001, review of Wetware, p. 1448.
Library Journal, July, 1982, p. 1346; April 15, 1986, p. 96; September 1, 1999, Will Hepfer, review of Brook Trout and the Writing Life, p. 200; November 15, 2001, Devon Thomas, review of Wetware, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1994, p. E6.
New Leader, April 23, 1979, Randall Rothenberg, "Batting in the Dark," p. 20.
New York Review of Books, June 10, 1976, Michael Wood, "Crying for Attention," p. 8.
New York Times, February 21, 1979; April 24, 1986, p. C21; July 23, 1992, p. C21; April 28, 1994, p. C22.
New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1972; December 21, 1973; February 11, 1979; October 3, 1982, John Irving, "Desire, Ambition, and Father," p. 3; May 25, 1986, p. 6; July 23, 1989, pp. 7, 9; July 12, 1992, p. 10; June 5, 1994, p. 41; June 29, 1997, review of The Universal Donor, p. 13; December 20, 1998, review of The Universal Donor, p. 28.
Observer (London, England), February 6, 1983, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 1986, p. 70; March 17, 1989, p. 77; June 22, 1992, pp. 42-43; March 14, 1994, p. 61; March 31, 1997, review of The Universal Donor, p. 59; January 21, 2002, review of Wetware, p. 69.
Punch, February 16, 1983, p. 41.
Quill & Quire, December, 1982, p. 30; July, 1989, p. 47.
Saturday Review, September 23, 1972; February 17, 1979, Tim O'Brien, "Falling Star," pp. 53-54.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 21, 1992, p. 7.
Village Voice, November 3, 1975; summer, 1997, review of The Universal Donor, p. 7.
Washington Post, April 7, 1979; April 29, 1994, p. C2.
Washington Post Book World, June 28, 1992, p. 3.
Denver Post Online,http://www.denverpost.com/ (February 3, 2002), Dorman T. Shindler, "Nova Deserves Wider Audience."
Washington Post Online,http://www.washingtonpost.com/ (January 20, 2002), Michael Dirda, review of Wetware.*