cover image Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell

Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell

Steve Paul. Univ. of Missouri, $45 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8262-2246-6

Evan S. Connell (1924–2013) remains an elusive figure in this mostly intriguing biography from former Kansas City Star reporter Paul (Hemingway at Eighteen). Born in Kansas City “into a life of American privilege,” Connell is often regarded as “the best writer you’ve never heard of,” the result, Paul argues, of Connell’s refusal to self-promote and his eclecticism as an author. Connell, he writes, had no interest in being “branded a writer of commercial books,” lived a private life apart from the literary scene, and wrote as a means of self-discovery. Paul marshals plentiful evidence that Connell’s work was well received and admired in his lifetime, including his nomination for a Booker lifetime achievement award, and covers his varied bibliography, which included short stories; his critically acclaimed 1959 breakthrough novel Mrs. Bridge (“It is not at all unusual to encounter people who had never heard of him but who fondly recalled his most famous novel,” Paul writes); and his book-length poem Notes from a Bottle, a turn that left “many in the publishing industry scratching their heads.” Paul’s focus on his subject’s aloofness provides a narrative through line, and, as such, it may not be a surprise that Paul is never able to get to the core of who Connell was. Still, literature lovers will find this a satisfying introduction to a mysterious figure. (Dec.)