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A Tribute to the late Jon Hassler
 

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The highest compliment you can give an author is to hand a book to a friend and say: “Read this.”

 

Your friend will say, “What is it?”

 

And you say, “Shut up and read it.”

 

Since discovering 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 novel,

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 if

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 an

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 exception among

otherwise rave reviews from journalists, fellow writers and the general public, can haunt an author.

 

I 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,

My Staggerford Journal. It is a must read for every would-be or new author. The end of the book,

where 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,

very valuable.

 

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

working 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 frequently, but

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

nice 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 Staggerford.

 

He sent me the above postcard in 1995 shortly after the TC signing. Eventually, of course, I turned to

non-fiction — 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

note he sent me congratulating me on the publication of Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming. He was ill

by then and couldn’t write longhand.

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I keep reading (and re-reading) Hassler’s books. I’m probably up to 10 times for Staggerford.

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

original Staggerford 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 now stock

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.

 

Start with Staggerford.

 

Read it.

 

You’ll thank me.

 

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.

 

Hassler, 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 a

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

story 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,” 1986;

“Grand Opening,” 1987; “North of Hope,” 1990; and “Dear James,” 1993.

 

My "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 I love

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

film 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 we

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

myself going 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.) 

 

-- Garrison Keillor.

 

-- 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.)

 

-- Richard Russo.

 

-- Roy MacGregor, for The Last Season, the greatest hockey novel of all time.