Am I the only American who’s heard of Rod Usher? I was hunting for a long-lost cousin on Facebook when this mysterious, acclaimed Australian novelist turned up with a novel about a schizophrenic who answers a Lonely Hearts ad, so I ordered the book from an overseas seller online, and fell so crazy in love with Rod’s prose and characters, I bought a second copy for a friend, Rhonda Kay, who tells me Rod is “all that and a bag of chips.”
Further hunting turned up another Usher fan, blogger Jennifer Cameron Smith (of Tasmania and Australia, not USA; I’m still searching for Rod’s American fan club and will create one myself when his books enter the market here).
Eventually, my mom found the Rod Usher who is her cousin’s son, so I finally got to facebook-message him with recollections of a 1970s family reunion and how-are-things. I got one word in reply: Fine. Good to know, cousin Rodney. Thanks to you having the same great-Grandma Usher I did, the great, great, GREAT author Rod Usher came to my attention. What’s so great about Rod Usher? I’ll type out a few excerpts of his prose (maybe tomorrow) and attach to the end of this blog (which got destroyed after I typed for two hours, hit “update” every few seconds, yet somehow managed to lose the blog to a cyber black hole).
Rod the Author tops Rod the Cousin for elusiveness: no blogging, Facebook, twitter, or social media, no author interviews. Most websites with any bio are out of date. I had to write Harper Collins-Australia with a message for his agent, who forwarded it to Rod, who emailed me with humble thanks for my high praises. Ah, the poor man, he gave me his email address! I’ve been pestering him ever since, trying to learn more about the best writer of the 21st Century, but he calls himself a “minor novelist,” and while he’d like to see his books for sell in the USA, his contract is with Australia-New Zealand, and not even Britain book stores carry his titles. His poetry appears in various journals. *World Premiere Alert* –I have here a poem (as of this date, it’s not yet in print), accepted by Les Murray, Australia´s leading poet and literary editor of Quadrant, which has been going 75 years as a right-wing magazine (Rod’s own personal political views are not publicly known). Rod wrote the poem in tribute to his father, Captain Robert Austin Usher, who died when Rod was only four. And here, with Rod’s permission, is the poem:
Typing WWII Letters
(i.m. R. A. Usher)
There´s a man naked fishing
on a Guadalcanal beach
one day when Japanese planes
have paused their bombing runs
and the U.S. offshore big guns
are not plastering what remains
of the Solomons´ vegetation.
His mind keeps casting to a wife
who is carrying the child
he left in her on leave
convinced he won´t die here
desperate to receive
letters in answer to all his,
read by a censor in San Francisco
then re-routed again so far
to Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
where he´d gone on R&R.
Up the beach a soldier waves.
Fisherman drops rod and runs
thrashes Jeep along muddy tracks
passing combat-weary men
playing cards, cleaning guns
who hoot to see the mail-grin
of a Captain dressed as on the day
he was born, in Brooklyn.
The Corporal holds a batch.
Nude hurries to duckboarded tent
table and chair he´s making
from scavenged pallet wood
when he and his don´t have to go
wading swamps to pinpoint
men awaiting letters from Tokyo.
He reads his swelling bride.
Months back he wrote his dreams
of having her every imaginable way
one such, “in a Jap pillbox, they
only lock from the inside!´´
(the censor let that info go).
He doesn´t see his daughter
until she´s nearly one.
Postwar, Long Island, NY,
they produce another, and a son.
H&S Battery, 4th Btn, 11th Marines
and Pacific islands slaughter
now fade to typical scenes
of late-started domestic life:
he gets a job, rents a house,
buys himself a car, a Riley,
goes dancing with his sexy wife.
His letters were stored in a trunk
hers disappeared after the war.
I know she once posted him a cake
to Guadalcanal (and it got there!)
that he sang beautifully. Little more.
The typing has been a son´s fishing.
When she lifted the phone that night
her captain was 37, I was four.
After Guadalcanal, where he got a Purple Heart, malaria, and complained that his hair was falling out, Capt. Robert Austin Usher and family returned from New York to Australia, where he had a job. He was killed instantly when a car in which he was a passenger crashed into the back of a timber truck in Western Australia on July 4, 1950, Independence Day.
Too sad for me to comment.
From his emails, I’ve gleaned that Rod’s pastimes include gardening, woodworking, and restoration of old homes. He’s “had 13, between England, Australia and España. Where we live now is a former school run by nuns, which took heaps of work to make liveable. It´s huge, but we´d like to sell it.” He plays flute in a municipal band: “the processions we play in, especially in Semana Santa, go on for many hours, and often up cobbled streets in the dark… Anyway, I´m an ordinary player, not a natural.” (Yeah, right. And you’re a “minor” novelist–only because you need better publicity.)
It’s no surprise that Rod’s prose is earthy, sensual and honest, considering how much physical labor he’s engaged in. Recently he wrote, “I´ve been upcountry all week repairing a stone wall that heavy rains and winds brought down, in tons, after, oh, 100 or more years. Me and a neighbor mixing cement and sand, 10 bags of cement!, by hand. Heavy lifting….I feel content to have done it, if barely able to move.” A week later, Rod was in” the backwaters of Extremadura, ripping out and burning zarzamoras (blackberries) that have been left at the bottom of the block for ever, some with almost tree-thick trunks…I´m home in Barcarrota, scratched but content the way only the physical can make one.”
Some of his physical labors show up in a poem I found online (i.e., in public domain):
We began our humble homebuilding from the roof—
by architects and priests it’s unrecommended—
thirty-five years later, I trust we have the proof:
surely love this long sees old Newton upended?
Sadly we can’t boast any offspring of our bloods
a family prefabricated, my two, your one
Toft Monks in East Anglia where the Waveney floods
old cottage, no quid, my ex darkclouding the sun.
The older two barely reached their pedals for school
little Jake backseat drove behind your Spanish thighs
we scoffed loaves-and-fishes, Rayburn stove fired by coal
nights that seemed so short hid your shyness from my eyes.
Twelve houses later, you are pension-age, my sweet
and it’s just on two decades since your one son died
I admire your courage, each day incomplete
my bricklaying heart at your still-curvaceous side.
Copyright Rod Usher 2011
Yes, it’s safe for me to give away all those personals; someone else already did, in this recent site:
“Product of an Australian mother and an American father, Rod Usher lives in Extremadura, Spain, with his Spanish wife, Angela Gutiérrez. He grew up in Melbourne, where, after dropping out of law school, he began a career as a journalist. He has been literary editor of THE AGE, chief sub-editor of THE SUNDAY TIMES, London, and senior writer for the European edition of TIME MAGAZINE. His poetry is published in Australian literary magazines, including QUADRANT, ISLAND and MEANJIN. He plays flute, not very well, in the Guzman Ricis municipal band in the village of Barcarrota.”
Further digging led to an Australia’s Favourite Novelist contest that didn’t even have Rod’s name on it, so I never did try to find out who won: http://blog.booktopia.com.au/ — I vote Rod Usher, not just as the best author in Oz (as Aussies call Australia), but anywhere.
From various emails, I’ve gleaned information that might make this blog look more line an author interview:
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE AUTHORS?
Saul Bellow is one of my all-time favorite writers. I´ve just re-read Humboltd’s Gift, and it’s enough to make any minor novelist stub out his/her pen. He was a genius. I have all his books, and his collection of essays, It All Adds Up. While my favorite poets tend to be English, my top ten novelists would include Bellow, Roth, Updike, Cormac McCarthy and Nabokov, all Yanks, if we use a little licence with Nab.
Of poets: the Israeli Yehuda Amichai led a strange life, largely as a soldier, before moving to live in Israel. I recently bought his `Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems´ (the bookdepository.com), and the latter poems are just marvellous. I attach a couple so you can see if you agree. Some of his poems were translated from the Hebrew by him with the help of Ted Hughes, another of my favorites.
WHY DON’T USA BOOKSELLERS CARRY YOUR NOVELS?
You´re too kind about PMW. I wish it would find a publisher in the States, but times are tough, and, as I’ve said, HarperCollins Australia don’t seem to have anything to do with the parent company in the U.S. I sold only the Aust-NZ rights with the thought my agent might have been able to sell it in the UK.
Even my cat is skeptical of Rod’s humble claim that he is not in Saul Bellow’s league. “Ravelstein” is a great novel, to be sure, but it is nowhere near as endearing and delightful as “Poor Man’s Wealth.”
Rod, I will put you on the map in America. I swear.
This little bio (which I’ve had to update) turned up at http://www.answers.com/topic/rod-usher#ixzz2L26gGlZt:
Rod Usher (1946- ), born in the USA, has lived in Australia, Britain and Spain. A journalist for twenty-five years, he is a former literary editor of the Age and has also worked for the London Sunday Times as chief sub-editor and Time magazine as deputy editor of the South Pacific edition. He has written two non-fiction books and two novels, A Man of Marbles (1989) and Florid States (1990) and has published two collections of poetry, Above Water (1985) and Smiling Treason (1992). Wide-ranging in subject and style, his poetry includes ballads, love poems and humorous reflections on aspects of natural and man-made worlds.
A Man of Marbles centres on a Melbourne greengrocer of Greek origin, Stavro (‘Stan’) Kristopolis, whose natural innocence makes him a misfit in an environment that is normally corrupt. A holy fool, he is bound to fail in the world’s terms as he succeeds in his own. As a result of his innate kindness he is accused of murder and undergoes a prison sentence, none of which detracts from his natural serenity: ‘It was a serenity that many of the warders … noted, and Stan remained this way through the contruction of the jigsaw that would eventually depict the balanced shining scales of justice. He got annoyed, at times, flattened, suffered loneliness and fear, but his reserves were never plumbed.’ A novel of subtle nuances, A Man of Marbles achieves the difficult feat of celebrating passivity.
Florid States, set in the isolated Overton valley, is partly a convincing study of the experience of schizophrenia, both from the sufferer’s point of view and from that of one who comes to love him. Ned Quinn, a teacher of English, who is subject to intermittent attacks of the illness, becomes romantically attached to Jennifer Duncan, a lonely widow and member of a Queensland counter-culture group, which has settled near the Condamine. Although Ned and Jennifer experience a period of idyllic happiness, bigotry and ignorance eventually conspire to separate them.
Poor Man’s Wealth, a delightfully wise and witty tale of a hoax perpetrated by a group of villagers to rescue their community from ruin – in the process abandoning their inhibitions, and uniting two lonely hearts.
(I added that, and will add this, from the publisher):
Part fable, part love story, part comi-tragedy, Poor Man′s Wealth is narrated, somewhat unreliably, by El Gordo, the Fat One. He is the mayor of Higot, a dusty village in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country under military rule. He and the secret Marisol Committee, a group of local councillors, dream up a plan to save the village from economic death and the exodus of its young people, especially now that tobacco, their one source of income, is a suspect crop.
They start a hoax.
El Gordo, whose charming English comes via a library bequeathed to him, argues that the hoax which so changes the life of Higot is no more a deception than, say, the Loch Ness Monster, Ireland′s Blarney Stone, the Colossus of Rhodes …
Can they pull it off, attract tourists to unattractive Higot? Will the hunchback Bartolomeo, a sex scandal involving a bicycle, or the military junta, blow the hoax apart and see its perpetrators ′disappeared′?El Gordo takes the reader on a joyous, witty and wise journey through the travails of his village … and his heart.
Another of Rod’s poems was short-listed for the Dwarf Stars Award http://www.sfpoetry.com/dwarfstars.html :
Before Science Stepped In
Before science stepped in with its fancy footwork
A raw youth, I’d scan nights for a shooting star
Crooning like Como to catch one and pocket it
Could it really do the magic? Unhook a girl’s bra?
Ha! They’re not stars, mere fragments of comet
Arcs of burnout in the black canopies of June
Older now, sadder, I leave science to the boffins
Rave on about breasts to an understanding moon.
Rod sent me another poet’s verse, which is quite a coincidence, because I had discovered the same poem a while back and emailed it to a friend:
A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention
Your thighs off my hips.
As far as I’m concerned
They are all surgeons. All of them.
They dismantled us
Each from the other.
As far as I’m concerned
They are all engineers. All of them.
A pity. We were such a good
And loving invention.
An aeroplane made from a man and wife.
Wings and everything.
We hovered a little above the earth.
We even flew a little.
translated by Assia Gutmann. From `Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems´
Rod also cited this as one of his favorites:
Songs for a Woman
Your body is white like sand
in which children never played
your eyes beautiful and sad
like illustrated flowers in a schoolbook
wisps of your hair as it falls
like smoke from Cain´s sacrifice:
I must kill my brother
my brother must kill me.
All night your empty shoes
cried out beside your bed
your right hand dangled out from your dream,
your hair studied night-speech
from a torn schoolbook of wind
the curtains moved,
ambassadors of foreign powers.
If you open your coat
my love must widen
if your wear that round white beret
my blood must redden
wherever you love
furniture must be removed from the room
trees, mountains, seas—all of it
gone from the narrow world.
When you smile
serious ideas suddenly get drowsy
all night the mountains keep silent at your side—
at morning, the sand goes out with you, to sea
when you do nice things to me
all heavy industry shuts down.
— translated by David Rosenberg, From Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems, (bi-lingual, The Sheep Meadow Press, available from The Book Depository)
NOTE: I’ve tried to unify the font and spacing, but such a feat has eluded me. I will publish this post at once, lest I lose my work all over again. I’ll write more about Rod, if he allows, and I’ll let you know when his books reach U.S. markets. With luck, maybe I’ll lure him out of hiding in Europe for a book tour in the States!
His first novel, A MAN OF MARBLES (Angus&Robertson, 1989, 1995) was highly praised by reviewers, as was his second novel, FLORID STATES (Simon & Schuster, 1990; Allison and Busby (UK), 1999), which was shortlisted for the MIND Book of the Year award. Rod’s poetry is frequently published in Australian litmags such as QUADRANT, ISLAND and MEANJIN. Posts he has held include Literary Editor of THE AGE, chief sub-editor of THE SUNDAY TIMES (London), and senior writer for TIME MAGAZINE′s European edition.