Back in the early 2000s I contributed acrostic puzzles to Tin House Magazine. An acrostic puzzle, in case you’re unfamiliar with the genre, “consists of two parts. The first part is a set of lettered clues, each of which has numbered blanks representing the letters of the answer. The second part is a long series of numbered blanks and spaces, representing a quotation, into which the answers for the clues fit. The first letters of each correct clue answer, read in order from clue A on down the list, will spell out the author of the quote and the title of the work it is taken from.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It’s a giant, complicated anagram puzzle, addicting to the solver, thrilling to the constructor, and a giant, pleasurable waste of time for both.
I made up four literary acrostic puzzles for Tin House, lifting quotations from four books on my shelf of old favorites. On a separate page of the magazine, I gave the solution, and then I added a short essay about the source and the author of the quotation. I had as much fun writing about the solutions as I did constructing the puzzles.
Here they are: all four of them: the quoted passages and my annotations.
From The Thundering Herd, by Zane Grey
Milly gazed back over her shoulder. The Comanches had gained. They were not half a mile away, riding now in wide formation, naked, gaudy, lean, feathered, swift and wild as a gale of wind in the tall prairie grass.
“Better death among the buffalo!” cried Milly.
Zane Grey (1872-1939) was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. His books sold thousands of copies, and he seemed to write thousands of books. (Actually he wrote about 90, of which 60 were westerns.) He is considered one of the architects of the American Western novel genre.
But by 1962, when I had a summer job in a used bookstore in Dallas, nobody was reading Zane Grey anymore. We had a whole shelf of his novels, in hardback, priced at ten cents each, and we never sold a one. At the end of the summer, I splurged and spent a dime (less my employee discount) on The Thundering Herd. I finally got around to reading that book about thirty years later. It was…well, it wasn’t all that bad. The writing was terrible and the politics were atrocious, but it was a ripping good yarn. That’s gotta be worth something. Speaking of worth, I recently saw a copy of The Thundering Herd offered for sale on the Internet, priced at $295.00.
Dang. I should have bought the whole shelf.
From The Trojan Horse, by Christopher Morley
It’s the dressing room where some Trojan warriors are cleaning up after the day’s fighting. Through the fog we see their naked athletic bodies under the spray. They shout to each other as gaily as college boys, or golfers at the club.
Christopher Morley’s 1937 novel about the Trojan war focuses on the bittersweet love story of Troilus and Cressida, in which a naive young soldier falls for a sophisticated divorcée, learns the joys of physical love, gets his heart broken, and dies in battle. It’s a sad story, but thanks to Morley it’s also warm and wise, gently erotic, and fabulously funny. It’s peppered with hilarious anachronisms, like taxicabs, tuxedos, martinis, and a sports announcer who broadcasts the daily battles over the radio. These “modern” touches seem a bit outdated now, but then that’s just another literary layer resting on the legendary town of Troy.
Morley’s novel tells us more about America in the 1930s than it does about ancient Troy, but then Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Chaucer’s Triolus and Creseyde are more about Elizabethan and Medieval England, respectively, than about Troy. For that matter, the Trojan war was relatively “ancient” history by the time Homer wrote The Iliad.
So it’s a tale for all times, and whichever version you read, you’ll be reminded that there’s nothing ancient about war, nor was there ever anything new about love.
From My Lady Nicotine, by J. M. Barrie
I gave up my most delightful solace, as I regarded it, for no other reason than that the lady who was willing to fling herself away on me said that I must choose between it and her. This deferred our marriage for six months.
J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) is best known as the creator of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. In the late 1880s, he wrote a series of newspaper stories about a group of London bachelors, young bohemian chaps who had nothing in common except their devotion to a particular smoking mixture. These stories were gathered together in 1890 and published as a book, My Lady Nicotine, which is considered the finest literary tribute to pipe-smoking. It is even more a hilarious satire of late Victorian society, and it is also a fine celebration of bachelorhood. Like Peter Pan, the nameless narrator and his goofy friends (who could have taught Bertie Wooster a thing or two) have no intention whatsoever of ever growing up.
From Good Bye, Ava, by Richard Bissell
In Clyde’s houseboat why you can set up there with a cold bottle of beer and look at the river and let the rest of the world go bye-bye, believe me. Some day were are going to try that but it takes quite a while for the rest of the world to go by, at least half an hour.
Richard Bissell (1913-1977), like Mark Twain before him, was a Midwestern humorist who also held a pilot’s license for tonnage on the Upper Mississippi River. Like Twain, Bissell traveled the globe, pen in hand. His literary career and success took him to the East Coast, where he joined and skewered the New York literary establishment.
But Bissell never gave up his home on the Mississippi, a houseboat in Dubuque, and his best books are all about the Midwest: A Stretch on the River; 7-1/2¢ (which became the smash it musical, The Pajama Game); High Water; Good Bye, Ava; and his memoir, My Stretch on the River, Or Why I Am Not Mark Twain.
Elmore Leonard once said that he learned most of what he knew about writing from reading Richard Bissell. I feel the same way, and I dedicated my first published novel to Bissell. In recent years his books have been out of print, and thanks to collectors like me he’s even hard to find in second-hand bookstores; but he’s worth the search. He is the best Midwestern humorist in American literature—and that includes that other tugboat pilot.