The highest compliment you can give an author is to hand a book to a friend and say:
Your friend will say, “What is it?”
And you say, “Shut up and read it.”
novelist Jon Hassler, I’ve had that conversation — or variations thereof — with
friends dozens of times. I still remember coming across a new paperback copy of Hassler’s
Staggerford, on the “local
authors” table at a bookstore in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport while
heading home from covering the World Series. (I remember the incident vividly, but don’t know
it was 1987 or 1991.) At the time, I had
no idea who Hassler was, but the book looked interesting to
me, as did the “blurb” on the cover from a Los Angeles Times review that proclaimed Hassler
author “good enough to restore your
faith in fiction.”
Staggerford was published as a hardback in
1978 and had disappointing sales, even after being the
rare first novel to get a New York Times review — and from Joyce Carol Oates, no less, who did the
public a great disservice with
her lukewarm review that delayed Hassler’s acceptance as a great novelist.
Believe me, I understand how a soundbite quote from one lukewarm review, the one
reviews from journalists, fellow writers and the general public, can haunt an author.
devoured Staggerford and loved it for its subtlety, sardonic humor and human touch. I’ve given away
perhaps 20 copies of Staggerford, whether a rare
copy of the hardback or paperback copies I’ve bought
at St. Vincent de Paul for 25 cents. I’ve recommended it to many others. I’ve hooked family and friends
on Hassler. Since buying that first copy of
Staggerford, I first filled in my collection of his works up to that
time, and then bought every one of his later books when they came out.
Staggerford became such a cult favorite, Hassler a few years ago published his journal
from the time as,
Journal. It is a must read for every would-be or new author. The end of the book,
he finds remainder copies of the hardback at a store for something like $1 apiece, gathers them
up and then attempts to write a check to pay for them, brings a smile. The hardback
now is very,
Years before any of my books were published, I wrote him a fan letter. I was astounded when I
got a note back, and he said he was familiar with my work
in The Sporting News, where I was
at the time. He even mentioned a story I had written. He might have done some quick
research and was just being nice, but I still was flattered. We stayed in touch, not
intermittently and casually
as he split time between Minnesota and Florida, and he even tried to
get his publisher and editor to consider publishing my novel, The Witch’s Season.
The novel remained
unpublished for many years
for a lot of reasons, some of them complicated, although it drew initial
movie interest when the manuscript was
being passed around. The screenplay version I was commissioned
to write still is floating around, along with two others I'v done.
Boy, do I have stories…
I attended a Hassler appearance at the Tattered Cover in
1995 (for Rookery Blues) and and we had a
talk. During the question-and-answer session, I had the nerve to ask what anyone who has read
Staggerford wants to know: Why did he end it the way he did? I figured anyone
at the Rookery Blues
signing had read
He sent me the above postcard in 1995 shortly after the TC
signing. Eventually, of course, I turned to
— and got published. And I eventually was able to branch out into fiction with The Witch's
Season and what I consider my best book, Olympic Affair. Each
time I've done signings and presentations
at the Tattered
Cover -- I believe I'm up to seven now -- I’ve always
thought of Hassler. I still have the
sent me congratulating me on the publication of Horns, Hogs, and Nixon
Coming. He was ill
by then and couldn’t
I keep reading (and re-reading) Hassler’s books. I’m probably up to 10 times
I filled out a hardback
collection. I’ve come to decide that Simon’s Night, his second book, is
at least on a par with Staggerford. (It takes a mature outlook to truly appreciate
it.) I loved the
trilogy, which also included A Green Journey and Dear James. Whenever
I visit a bookstore, whether a chain or an independent, I check the fiction section
to see if it has
a copy of Staggerford,
either the mass market paperback or trade paperback. Not all good stores
always have it; but all stores that have it are good stores. Unfortunately, more stores
his later Staggerford sequels,
The Staggerford Flood, The Staggerford Murders and (the best of
the three) The New Woman. There’s nothing wrong with them, but the earlier
books are far better
vehicles for being introduced
to Hassler and provide context and background for the final sequels.
Thanks, Mr. Hassler.
Hassler died in 2008, and the
news left me shaken. Here’s the obituary.
Author Jon Hassler dies
By JEFF BAENEN
Associated Press Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) —
Author Jon Hassler, who chronicled the foibles of small-town life in
“Staggerford,” “Grand Opening” and other novels after starting his career late in life, has
died. He was 74.
who suffered from a longtime neurological disorder, died early Thursday at Methodist
Hospital in St. Louis Park, said family friend Nick Hayes. Hassler had been in home hospice
care since the holidays and entered the hospital on Monday, Hayes said.
Despite his deteriorating
health, Hassler continued work on a book, “Jay O’Malley,”
until his death, Hayes said.
In a 1995 interview, Hassler told The Associated Press that he liked writing about
misfits. “You can’t write a novel about somebody who’s
perfectly happy,” he said.
Hassler was born in Minneapolis in March 30, 1933, and grew up in the small
north-central Minnesota town of Staples, where his father owned a grocery store.
He graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1955 before receiving
master’s from the University of North Dakota. He spent
years teaching before launching
his writing career at 37. He didn’t
publish his first novel, “Staggerford,” a semi-autobiographical
about a high school teacher in a small town, until seven years later. Hassler’s other
works include “Simon’s Night,” 1979; “The Love Hunter,” 1981; “A Green Journey,”
“Grand Opening,” 1987; “North of Hope,”
1990; and “Dear James,” 1993.
"Favorites" Bookshelf also includes...
All writers have a "favorites"
bookshelf or two. Mine are here in my den.
Other books -- very good books, books I love -- are in other shelves, or
storage bins, or boxes. These are the fiction authors whose books
and re-read. In
addition to the works of the writers above, the authors
on my "favorites" shelves include:
-- Terry Kay. Among them, To Dance With the White Dog, Shadow Song,
Taking Lottie Home, The
Book of Marie and the non-fiction essays of
Special Kay. A former newspaper sportswriter and theater critic, he also
has written the wonderful screenplay adaptation
of White Dog, and the
starred Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Esther Rolle. I've been an
admirer of his thoughtful fiction for many, many years. I met him when
both appeared at the Arkansas
Literary Festival in 2004. I most recently
caught up with his list and read his terrific The Book of Marie, which while
not a sequel is an outgrowth of his earlier book, The
Runaway. I found
right back through it a second time to check for what I "missed"
and to have the perspective of knowing how it turned out without having
cheated. It especially
resonated with me because its characters, major and
minor, often reminded me of folks in my past. And for those of you who
have read it: I'm convinced Marie
knew that was Cole at The Fantasticks.
-- Pat Conroy. (My favorite
always will be The Great Santini.)
-- Mark Harris. (The "Author" Wiggen baseball novels.)
-- Damon Runyon.
-- Herman Wouk (the World War II novels).
-- Joseph Heller. (My father, the WWII pilot, annually read
Catch-22. I'm up to about five times.)
-- Roy MacGregor, for The Last Season, the greatest hockey novel of all