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Monday, June 21, 2010


For those who don't know it, it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of one of America's greatest novels, To Kill a Mocking Bird.

In Reno, Nevada, small press publisher Jacqueline Church Simonds of BEAGLEBAY BOOKS was interviewed by a local paper for comments on the enduring success of the American classic.  I was very interested in her observation that Harper Lee appeared to have only one book in her, though one that turned out to be one of the greatest modern novels written.

It reminded me of another American writer, Richard McKenna, who produced just one great book, The Sand Pebbles, and (in my opinion) just one great story, "Casey Agonistes."

Both appealed to me because of their gritty, authentic maritime content.  McKenna, unable to afford university fees because of the Great Depression, joined the US Navy, and served in the Far East as a machinist's mate.  While the story of The Sand Pebbles takes place in 1920, ten years before his service began, life in the engine room of the rusty river boat San Pueblo rings with truth, partly because McKenna listened to the salty tales old shipmates told him, and he had a very good ear.  It comes as no surprise to learn that the book won the 1963 Harper Prize.

"Casey Agonistes" reflects the same lingo and philosophies of the lower deck, with characters that leap off the page. A handful of sailors and soldiers in the isolation ward of a servicemen's hospital fight death and depression with the help of an ape ... an imaginary ape?  Hit the title (above), read the story, and make up your mind for yourself.

Critics compared these, McKenna's earliest publications, to Melville and Hemingway. However, while a story, The Secret Place (published posthumously), won a Nebula Award, McKenna is seldom remembered now.

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