“Letters from Oblivion: A Novel”

By Edward Lorusso

CreateSpace Publishing, 2014

218 pages, trade paperback, $12.95

“Bob,” the letter-writer of Edward Lorusso’s novel “Letters from Oblivion,” is a fictionalized portrait of the real writer Robert McAlmon, who consorted with many of the famous writers of the 20th century — but dropped off literary radar long before his death in 1956.

He ran Contact Publishing Co. on his wife’s money; he published and tangled with Ernest Hemingway; was befriended in various capacities by writers like James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, Sylvia Beach, and Maine’s well-known modernist painter and poet Marsden Hartley; and wrote poems, stories and a memoir of literary life in the 1920s, “Being Geniuses Together,” that hardly made a blip.

Edward Lorusso, of Belgrade, devoted a significant portion of his scholarly life to resurrecting McAlmon’s writing, which, while unsuccessful in its time, had nonetheless been enthusiastically praised by Hemingway himself. Lorusso’s work with professor Carroll Terrell at the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine led to an investigation of McAlmon’s ties to American literary circles in Europe after World War I. Lorusso, building on a doctoral dissertation at the University of New Mexico, became an acknowledged expert on the little-known McAlmon and engineered the re-issue of McAlmon’s fiction in the early 1990s, much to the appreciation of scholars of modern American literature.

Along the way, Lorusso became intimately familiar with McAlmon’s life — a story of largely unfulfilled literary ambition and turbulent personal relationships (including his marriage to the wealthy “Bryher,” Winifred Ellerman, whose top priority was her lover, the poet Hilda Doolittle). In “Letters from Oblivion,” Lorusso re-creates McAlmon’s development from young Kansas native landed in the percolating Bohemian artistic scene of post-World War I New York, to the disappointments of everyday Paris, to the seedy, drink-ridden grind of artsy Berlin in the 1920s.

It’s an account of devolving artistic bitterness. Letters from McAlmon to a fictional friend “Tot” portray a young poet riding high-wire ideals of spontaneously written poetry and an aesthetic milieu he feels is “on the verge of a whole new world of art.” McAlmon’s innocence is tested in Greenwich Village by Hartley, famous not only for his art but also for his homosexuality, and by the chicanery of his own bride.

Fictionalized scenes set in Paris give us portraits of literary luminaries like Pound and Gertrude Stein, and we hear McAlmon’s side of the story of a trip to Spain and falling out with Hemingway. Bitter with unfulfilled hopes, jealousies and chronic disaffection with multifarious dishonesties — including aesthetic — McAlmon returns to the States, where he writes at one point: “I simply do not like people.”

In the book’s epilogue, Tot concludes: “Robert McAlmon died 8 February 1956 in the desert he hated so much. . . Who knew that he had been punched by Ernest Hemingway or slapped by an elderly French statesman? Who knew that he had flirted with Zelda Fitzgerald and feuded with Scott? . . . Who knew that he had spurned Marsden Hartley and courted Kay Boyle? Who knew that he had loved me? I did.”

“Letters from Oblivion,” while it has typographical issues and could have used another editorial pass or two, still gives probing, intelligent shape to this off-radar life in literature, with its realities of psychic and social squalors, and often beautifully expressed ideals of the aims and creative energies of poetry. You come away from this book with a penetrating understanding of how both the ethereal and the nether regions of the literary life really operate. Anyone with an interest in the unheralded strata of modern American literature will find this book well worth their time.

“Letters from Oblivion” is available in paperback and electronic editions from online booksellers. Lorusso, a graduate of the University of Maine, in addition edited McAlmon’s novel “Village” and short story collections “Post-Adolescence” and “Miss Knight and Others,” still available through online booksellers and at www.lulu.com/us/en/shop/edward-lorusso/letters-from-oblivion/ebook/product-21257852.html.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].