Thornton, Lawrence

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THORNTON, Lawrence

Nationality: American. Born: Pomona, California, 14 October 1937. Education: University of California, Santa Barbara, B.A. 1960, M.A. 1967, Ph.D. 1973. Family: Married Toni Clark in 1969. Career: Assistant professor of English, Montana State University, Bozeman, 1974-79, associate professor of English, 1980-84; visiting associate professor at University of California, Los Angeles, and University of California, Santa Barbara, 1984-88; writer in residence at University of California, Irvine, 1990; writer, 1990. Awards: Ernest Hemingway Foundation award, 1988; best novel award (PEN Center USA West), 1988; silver medal (Commonwealth Club of California), 1988; Shirley Collier award (University of California, Los Angeles), 1988. Agent: Ned Leavitt, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A. Address: 603 West Eighth St., Claremont, California 91711, U.S.A.



Imagining Argentina. New York, Doubleday, 1987.

Under the Gypsy Moon. New York, Doubleday, 1990.

Marlow's Book. New York, Doubleday, 1991.

Ghost Woman. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1992.

Naming the Spirits. New York, Doubleday, 1995.

Tales from the Blue Archives. New York, Doubleday, 1997.


Unbodied Hope: Narcissism and the Modern Novel (criticism).Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1984.


Lawrence Thornton comments:

(2000) All the novels bear the stigmata of magic realism, though "The Argentina Trilogy" is probably my purest work in the form. Writing straight, realistic fiction goes against my natural bent to manipulate the continuum of time and space to reveal the impact of political reality on people's lives. I seek the language of exposure, condemnation, courage, love to shape the tales that come my way, voices that are unlimited by convention.

* * *

Imagining Argentina, Lawrence Thornton's first and most absorbing novel, is set in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s, a time when a brutal military regime silenced dissidents and even the most innocent by kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, and killing. Instead of merely presenting a repetitive description of such actions, Thornton ingeniously creates the narrative device of having a clairvoyant, Carlos Rueda, relate what has happened to many of the victims as their relatives come to sessions in his garden in the hope of learning some word of those who have suddenly disappeared. The story's narrator publishes an account of the atrocities in a French magazine and constantly interacts with Rueda. Rueda had run a Children's Theatre until it was closed by the authorities, and his interest in fancy and creation mingle effectively with his seemingly magical powers to see on some occasions past and present events otherwise unknown to the general public. Thornton's imaginative immersion in the material makes Rueda's revelations and insights convincing in the context. The novel possesses a strong narrative drive and a frequently poetic prose that adds a haunting aura to the stark, realistic content.

The musical flow in no way diminishes the horror involving los desaparecidos, those who mysteriously disappeared by the thousands. The monstrous brutality and viciousness of the generals is conveyed in all its terrifying results: sudden day and night seizures of people from their homes and even from the streets, detention camps, and the hidden killing fields. White-scarved women constantly parade in protest in the Plaza de Mayo seeking information about their lost families, although the majority of citizens go about their daily business totally unconcerned.

Naming the Spirits, the sequel to Imagining Argentina, begins with the mass killing of seized citizens in a remote grove in the pampas. One young teenage girl manages to escape and wanders speechless and uncertain of her identity because of shock and a gun wound. She is taken in by a couple whose own daughter has disappeared. Carlos Rueda explains what has doubtless happened to the silent and bewildered girl.

Thornton uses an especially clever technique of having the spirits from the mass grave speak in unison at various times hoping that the girl or some searching group can help locate their camouflaged graveyard. Short, set piecesin effect inter-chaptersof monologues are also added to focus on some of the dead who explain their backgrounds and lives before they were arrested and executed.

Argentina's military dictatorship has now collapsed, and the new government has official international and local organizations actively seeking the location of the graves of the disappeared. There is a particularly intense effort underway to locate not only the hidden graves, but also to find those babies and young children whom the generals did not execute but gave to their supporters. The birth parents are now determined to find their offspring.

Thornton handles with convincing effect the spirits speaking from the grave and their deep communion with the girl who was almost killed with them. He blends realism and imaginative threads in an often elegiac, lyrical prose that adds further dimension to the horrors that have occurred as the whole world comes to realize what the rulers of Argentina have long denied.

Tales from the Blue Archives, the final section of the trilogy, focuses on Dolores Masson, who never gives up the search for her two grandsons who disappeared years before when their mother was seized by the military. Earlier in the trilogy we have witnessed the Ponce family, who once worked for one of the powerful generals, move rapidly from place to place to avoid discovery, since as a childless couple they had longed for children and had been illegally given Dolores's grandsons. Justice is eventually achieved, but by an improbable and melodramatic plot twist when the Ponces commit suicide after killing the general who had originally given them the babies.

Tales from the Blue Archives, while realistically portraying the children's disappearance and other aspects of the fascist rulers' regime, is the weakest link in the trilogy. The prose is rarely lyrical as this melancholy (blue) era is described. Further, the novel is so overfurnished with details and description that the reader is pushed into a somnolent mood.

This pronounced tendency toward excessive detail also diminishes Thornton's other novels: Under the Gypsy Moon and Ghost Woman. While evincing some flashes of style and the imaginative fancy that distinguished the first two volumes of the Argentine trilogy, these books do not retain the intensity of narrative interest. The stories are excessively padded but would perhaps be more successful as novellas. It is not that Thornton did not include potentially successfully poetic materialas with the many forced references to Garcia-Lorca in Gypsy Moon and the more integrated Indian myths and legends in Ghost Woman but there is very little intriguing suspense.

There is also the issue of political overkill. One may understandably sympathize with Thornton's political views regarding Franco's Spain or the mistreatment suffered by Indian tribes in pioneering America, but more narrative force and presentation are needed to overcome what becomes, in Thornton's handling, overly obvious political tracts. Further, much of this material has been handled better by other writers. Think Hemingway, for example.

In Imagining Argentina, a decidedly memorable book, Thornton effectively blended imaginative details with stark realism while conveying a vital message. The medium and the message coalesced powerfully. When his message becomes over-labored in much of his other work, realism not only suffers but also narrative freshness and force.

Paul A. Doyle