Craig Nova Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Craig Nova 1945–

American novelist.

Reviews of Nova's first two novels, Turkey Hash (1972) and The Geek (1975), were mixed. Set on the seamy side of Los Angeles and on a barbaric Greek island, respectively, the two books focus on the lurid and vulgar aspects of life while maintaining a lighthearted manner. Critics called Nova's writing style technically proficient and witty, but some contended that his characters were not sufficiently developed. Incandescence (1979) elicited similar comments. Again the focus is on a down-and-out protagonist who participates in a series of bizarre incidents but does not change or grow over the course of the novel. Critics agreed that Nova did not assist the reader in understanding his characters and used imagery and metaphors which were irrelevant to his themes and story line.

Nova's novel The Good Son (1982) is a departure from his earlier works both stylistically and in subject matter. Critics have unreservedly praised this work for its fully developed characters and engaging story. An upper-class family estate is the setting for a father-son power struggle which parallels the thematic conflict between passion and discipline. The novel is narrated by eight different characters and critics concluded that Nova handled this difficult technique well.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Geek] belongs to a distinct but elusive Anglo-American genre, which includes a lot of Hemingway, Lowry's Under the Volcano, and a good deal of John Hawkes: that form of fiction which pits a solitary Anglo-Saxon against an ancient, alien, and violent culture….

There is something too cryptic about a lot of the novel's transactions, a suggestion of dialogue out of Henry James shifted to a dusty taverna, and, as I say, the writing keeps reaching for effects that are more than a little lurid. But the blending of emblematic and literal truth … is remarkable. The specificity of the island landscape, the clear characters and past history of the individual islanders, the careful tracing of Boot's reactions to separate events, all help to pitch The Geek somewhere between reality and nightmare, as if it were a dream that had found its own geography in the material world, or a familiar piece of geography that had toppled into a dream. Boot, the double exile, drunk and alien, fills out his fiction … and his Greek island will stand for many places where men of honor, beaten down by craftier antagonists and their own fatigue, have given up the ghost and subsided into humiliation. (p. 11)

Michael Wood, "Crying for Attention," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIII, No. 10, June 10, 1976, pp. 8, 10-11.∗

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The bizarre happenings in The Geek are set on a Greek island in a Gothick atmosphere of unexplained death, unmotivated violence and heavily charged sex. A sandy-haired American called Boot drinks immense quantities of beer and ouzo and finds a dead girl on a beach. A patchy-bearded monk called Lukas dreams 'of a hymen tearing with the sound of a ripping sheet'. An opium-smuggler seduces a 14-year-old girl who gives off a 'crystalline' smell. The sea is 'glassine'. Craig Nova has a feel for heat and sweat and blood and dust, but clarity and character are lost in an un-Aegean fog. On the last page, Boot bites off the head of a live chicken and thinks: 'I'm not even curious whether it was a matter of loss or victory.' By then, my own curiosity had evaporated, too.

John Mellors, "Stern Stuff," in The Listener, Vol. 96, No. 2485, November 25, 1976, p. 688.∗

John Domini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Nova's men are out solo; they stumble along grim coastlines against which they seek nothing but to destroy themselves brightly—which seems only natural, amid the stench of hydrocarbons.

The world of "Incandescence," however, is considerably more hospitable than that of Mr. Nova's earlier novels, "The Geek" … and "Turkey Hash." Most of the action takes place in "the dark furrows of New York."…

Mr. Nova has never been unfunny, but "Incandescence" displays a sure grasp of the absurd. Much of the humor resides in metaphors that enliven the drab…. And Stargell himself actually gives evidence of having hope, of wanting, in his own queer way, to live and prosper. Not that the odds aren't against him. Formerly one of the whiz kids in a think tank, he now finds himself unemployed and, soon enough, heavily in debt to a loan shark.

Stargell's descent takes place mostly over one terrible night, during which he is led along by a weepy blind derelict; the next morning, we discover, is Easter. By these touches of allegory it would seem that Mr. Nova wants to establish a tangible bond between his protagonist's self-destructiveness and his nobility, between the burn-out of oblivion and "that incandescence … when you'd know your skin was filled with magic"; but I'm not sure he entirely succeeds. Although the episodes of that night are marvelous in themselves—notably, a scene in which derelicts sleep standing up, their arms, their arms slung over clotheslines strung across a flophouse room—their cumulative effect is diffused.

Still, in the charged scene where Stargell visits his father for the last time, Mr. Nova does convey a paradoxical impression of serenity at the edge of catastrophe. Though we cannot be sure the protagonist's skid has ended, we can have no doubts that his run of bad luck has made a special novel. Craig Nova has proved that nothing gives off sparks like hard living struck against surfaces even harder: the passing of time and our relentless struggle to make it stop.

John Domini, "Dark Furrows in New York," in The New York Times Book Review, February 11, 1979, p. 15.

Tim O'Brien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stargell, the 29-year-old narrator of Craig Nova's Incandescence, is a man of intelligence. Perhaps even genius. He once worked as an inventor at one of those high-powered think tanks but was fired after spending half a million dollars on a project to extract oil from the wing joints of moths….

So when the story opens, we find Stargell a down-and-out taxi hack in New York. He's broke. He's on the skids. He lives—survives—in a dingy three-room apartment…. A long, dizzying fall from the think-tank heights. And, in the course of this novel, a sad predicament gets even sadder. Partly in horror, partly in puzzlement, we watch as Stargell makes some zany but essentially halfhearted efforts...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Randall Rothenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Incandescence] has a striking profusion of tantalizing baseball references: The narrator's name is Stargell, and he is joined by a host of tangential characters called Munson, Carew, Lee MacPhail, The Georgia Peach, Concepcion, and Al Hrabosky. One searches in vain, however, for the baseball metaphors these names promise. Their use is, in fact, nothing but an idle literary device that serves no larger purpose—not surprising, really, since there is no larger purpose, not to mention theme, discernible in Incandescence.

Nova's characters do not grow in the course of the story; they stand still, reveling (as does the author) in their own quirkiness…. Yet not only does Nova give...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Incandescence is one of those novels that confront an awful world by generating brisk, tough, comic patter about sharply observed details of an incorrigibly vulgar culture. The suggestion is always that the absurd or horrifying is in fact perfectly normal, quite what one had been expecting, without power to hurt, depress, or anger. Nova is quite good at it, and the novel has its fine moments….

Like some other pleasures, writing like Nova's makes you long for ever more subtle and complicated versions of what you've just had, and the occasional miscalculation, however slight, encourages a suspicion—perhaps unfair—that rhetoric, not experience and understanding, is doing most of the work...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

John Irving

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pop Mackinnon—"a coarse, charming man, a lawyer, and a good one"—wants his sons to follow his path: to be lawyers who know how to hunt and marry well; to be gentlemen who join that unassailable aristocracy which is earned by tough, nononsense cleverness and is protected by money. Son John disappoints Pop; he is killed in World War II. So son Chip—a fighter pilot who was shot down in the war but survived as a P.O.W.—becomes the title character of "The Good Son," Craig Nova's fourth novel. In this dark, deep story of a father and son who love (and love to fight) each other, the good son is the one who will defeat, or even kill, his father with the father's own weapons.

I've read no better, no...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)

Charles Trueheart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Plenty of grownups spend their lives locked in mortal combat with their mothers and fathers, psychological shadow-boxing, flailing at specters and apparitions that linger from childhood conflicts long since irrelevant. For others, of course, the conflicts are real, and whether this is better or worse, more tractable or less, is hard to say.

Craig Nova's "The Good Son" is a story about just such a struggle, a real one between a father and his grown son. If there is something writ too large about their collision—their stubbornness one with the other, the contending passions each feels for making and having his own way—then perhaps the author is toying with allegory. He has tried to give flesh and...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Good Son is a portrait of unending combat between passion and discipline. Nova's first three novels, Turkey Hash, The Geek, and Incandescence were energetic, eccentric, exquisitely written tales of people who were on the whole, well, just not like us. As readable and demanding as any of them, The Good Son differs in that its people are like us except that they have a lot more money. Their difference seems to have little to do with the passed-on effects of corrosive passion and everything to do with the dignity of the self…. For Pop Mackinnon a man's importance and character may be found in how he does things, whether it be driving a car, hunting a deer, preparing and consuming a mint...

(The entire section is 639 words.)