I want to tell you all a story about how I discovered a “forgotten” Chicago writer in a central Pennsylvania college town, and how coincidence and connection have introduced me to what is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Setting: Early evening, the streets of State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University, on a gloomy Thursday night in October. Your hero (me), is in town to deliver a talk at a conference for writing teachers the next day, but that night it’s just him with some time to kill, and there in the distance is just the thing he’s looking for, a sign for Webster’s Bookstore Café.
When I travel to unfamiliar places I go to a local used bookstore and see what’s doing. You won’t find the same collection of used books in any two places, and college towns are among the best spots for new (to me) discoveries.
I like to start with a quick perusal of the fiction section, a surface-level scan, and what I’m often looking for is a book that stands out from the crowd, usually something that I can tell is older by the style of cover design, but also something I’ve never heard of before.
Remember, I am the Biblioracle. This doesn’t mean I’ve read every author around, but it’s actually pretty rare for me to find a book published in my lifetime by someone I’ve never heard of, but there it is: “The Confession of a Child of the Century” by Thomas Rogers.
Published by Simon & Schuster in 1972, the back of the jacket contains blurbs from Philip Roth (“I think [Rogers] is our Evelyn Waugh.”) and John Cheever (“When I finished at two in the morning I exclaimed: what a welcome book, what a very welcome book.”).
The back flap copy says the book “Provides such high and steady pleasure that it bids fair to become one of the permanent novels of our time.”
“High and steady pleasure” is on point. I truly think “The Confession of a Child of the Century” is a masterpiece of seriocomic literature, or the “comical-historical-pastoral” as Rogers’ narrator, Samuel Heather describes his own story.
Heather is a protestant bishop’s son from Kansas City who derails his promising life by blowing up a riverbank of the Charles River near Harvard with a stray stick of dynamite, leading to his expulsion from school, fleeing justice by joining the army and winding up in a North Korean prison camp during that particular war.
This does not sound comic, but Rogers’ storytelling is so lively, so suffused with wit and energy, that even a harrowing chapter on Samuel’s first encounter with the enemy at war crackles.
I “found” Rogers in that used bookstore in State College because for 30 years he was a professor of literature and creative writing at Penn State, retiring in 1992. He passed away in 2007 at age 79.
The back flap prediction of “The Confession of a Child of the Century” as a “permanent” novel alas, did not come true. No one seems to remember this book.
Rogers was nominated for the National Book Award for his first two books, this and “The Pursuit of Happiness,” (which is set in Hyde Park), which should have set him up for some measure of permanence like Roth, his one-time colleague at the University of Chicago. But unlike the super prolific Roth, Rogers only published two more books in his lifetime.
I do not know, nor do I care to question what forces of fate brought me to find “The Confession of a Child of the Century,” but I am grateful for their existence.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “The Dictionary of Lost Words” by Pip Williams
2. “Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson
3. “Horrorstör” by Grady Hendrix
4. “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus
5. “Last Summer on State Street” by Toya Wolfe
— Laura U., Chicago
For Laura, I’m reaching back to a favorite of mine from a couple of years ago, “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid.
1. “A Brief History of Swearing” by Melissa Mohr
2. “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones
4. “A Subaltern’s War” by Charles Edmonds
5. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz
— Greg R., Perry, Ohio
A lot of range here. I think Greg will take to a novel about a unique character who chooses to reject the world he comes from and make a life uniquely his own, “Suttree” by Cormac McCarthy.
1. “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro
2. “Lessons” by Ian McEwan
3. “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman
4. “Verity” by Colleen Hoover
5. “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America” by Maggie Haberman
— Mina T., Chicago
For Mina, I’m recommending a little gem of a novel, no more than a few hours of reading, but each one of them captivating, “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.