New Novel & Biography
Book review from Publisher’s Weekly:
Prof. Anthony Landau, the caustic narrator of this smart, dark romp from Roper (Mexico Days), is the ultimate outsider: half British, half Jewish, and a tourist when it comes to American culture. He’s also a renowned epidemiologist, an ardent skirt-chaser past his prime, and a resident of self-righteous ultra-left hipster Berkeley, Calif. One evening Landau returns to his house in the Berkeley Hills to find his former lover and colleague, Samantha Bernstein Beevors, who tried to ruin him professionally, cold, naked, and quite dead in his bed. During the subsequent investigation, his lawyer hates him for speaking to the press and police, and he becomes privy to a past cuckolding of sorts by his distant son. He’s been neither charged nor cleared by the law when his housekeeper, a post-doc student, and other friends and acquaintances come to grisly ends, but it’s clear someone is trying to frame him as a serial killer. The rhythm of the evidence trail builds to a crescendo, and the conclusion is as satisfying as the book’s wonderfully acerbic tone.
Book review from the LIBRARY JOURNAL:
Lazy writers who also teach have many excuses for not producing a lot of books, but sometimes by accident they do have a bunch of new work appearing all at once, and this is the case for me with a new novel, The Savage Professor, and a new biography, Nabokov in America, coming out at almost the same time. I don’t know how to explain this logjam. I began writing The Savage Professor before I had a contract for the Nabokov biography, but when I did get a contract and some advance money I started feeling like I had to work on the biography to the exclusion of everything else, so I put the novel aside. I didn’t know if it would ever turn out, anyway; novels sometimes come to nothing. This one had started just as a character sketch of someone I know, a retired epidemiologist friend who did some of the early crucial studies of AIDS back in the early 80s in San Francisco, and while it was fun to write in this guy’s persona I didn’t know quite what I was doing with it, and then a lot of murdered women started appearing in the story, which was upsetting, to a degree. So I laid it aside. I started researching Nabokov full bore. Vladimir Nabokov, Russian-born author of Lolita among other books, had fled to America with his Jewish wife and child from about-to-be-conquered-by-the-Nazis France in May 1940, and he stayed here among us vulgar, amusing Americans until 1960, when sudden fabulous wealth from book sales and from the Stanley Kubrick movie Lolita allowed him to return to Europe as pretty much the most famous writer in the world. During his twenty years here he had taught at Wellesley and Cornell and every summer he and his wife and boy would travel by car all over the West – he was a mad collector of butterflies and the kind he most liked to hunt, called the “Blues,” were fluttering all over the Rockies.
Anyway, I thought it was funny that this distinguished master-Modernist spent year after year traveling on the cheap in used cars in Wyoming and Colorado and Utah and staying in motels and motor courts, going out every day bug-hunting, and some of his favorite places to hike and collect were some of my favorite places to hike and climb, among them the Tetons and Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Then I found out that his son, Dmitri, dragged along to all these high-altitude meadows and rock-faces, turned into a fanatical mountaineer as a teenager, after having been instructed in the sport by Willi Unsoeld, the man I wrote a biography about (Fatal Mountaineer) a dozen years ago. Remarkable coincidence. I had plenty work to do, researching Nabokov, reading all his old letters in archives like the Berg Collection in New York, and at Harvard and the Library of Congress, but somehow I managed to convince myself that I needed to lay down my nubby pencils and go west myself, drive and walk around and try to locate all the spots where Nabokov and his wife and kid had collected and stayed in the 40s and 50s.
I did do that, that was a lot of fun. I drove a few thousand miles in a few weeks in September 2012, having near misses with suicidal antelope on Highway 50 in Nevada and with moose and elk in Colorado, encountering a dead bear in the middle of a mountain road near Togwotee Pass, Wyoming, and bumping into a leering, scary-big male wolf one night in Yellowstone. I did a little climbing, telling myself that it counted as research because Dmitri (the son) had done the same routes in the late 40s, and I suppose I did get some sense of what it had been like to travel where they did and how they did sixty-five years ago – although, to be honest, I could’ve spent my time more profitably in some dusty archive, making transcriptions. To call it “research” is a stretch.
The novel. My novel, the retired-epidemiologist-slasher-killer novel. I picked it up after about a year again, but my memory is hazy for things like this, the conditions and times for the composition of my books, matters that other writers manage to make part of the romance of their writer-lives, so all I can say with a fair degree of assurance is that I wrote most of it in California, over the summers, when I was still reading this or that about Nabokov, getting his story straight. There was a happy trading off of different kinds of work – reading, thinking, screwing off, playing pool, swimming, note-taking, drinking, writing a few sentences. Somehow, here are two books, one full of footnotes and other signs of sturdy mental effort, that one having given me a wonderful opportunity to offload my decades-long conflicted love/resentment for Vladimir, who, as my researches surprisingly revealed to me, was a deep-dyed American despite having come here when he was over forty, especially deep-saturated in our literature, in American literature, a guy who secretly had read everything, knew his Hawthorne and his Melville and Poe and Emerson and Faulkner and James and Twain and James Fenimore Cooper forward and backward, was probably the most American foreigner we’ve ever had scribbling over here; and the other one, the other book, a svelte little genre novel, a dark gambol through a sunny college town, Berkeley, California, with the professors and the street urchins and, unfortunately, with a lot of blood on the ground. As far as I can tell, the two books have nothing in common. I hope you enjoy them.
Some shots from my trip, September 2012, looking for signs of Vladimir Nabokov in the American West:
More Books by Robert Roper
October 28, 2008
Publisher: Walker & Company
Available in hardcover, paperback and EPUB formats.
The Civil War is seen anew, and a great American family brought to life, in Robert Roper’s brilliant evocation of the Family Whitman.
Walt Whitman’s work as a nurse to the wounded soldiers of the Civil War had a profound effect on the way he saw the world. Much less well known is the extraordinary record of his younger brother, George Washington Whitman, who led his men in twenty-one major battles—from Antietam to Fredericksburg, Vicksburg to the Wilderness—almost to die in a Confederate prison camp as the fighting ended. Drawing on the searing letters that Walt, George, their mother Louisa, and their other brothers, wrote to each other during the conflict, and on new evidence and new readings of the great poet, Now the Drum of War chronicles the experience of an archetypal American family—from rural Long Island to working-class Brooklyn—enduring its own long crisis alongside the anguish of the nation. Robert Roper has constructed a powerful narrative about America’s greatest crucible, and a compelling, braided story of our most original poet and one of our bravest soldiers.
March 20, 2003
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Available in hardcover, paperback and EPUB formats.
In 1963, Willi Unsoeld became an international hero for his conquest of the West Ridge of Everest. A charismatic professor of philosophy, Unsoeld was one of the greatest climbers of the twentiethth century, a man whose raw physical power and casual fearlessness inspired a generation of adventurers.
In 1976, during an expedition to Nanda Devi, the tallest peak in India, Unsoeld’s philosophy of spiritual growth through mortal risk was tragically tested. The outcome of that expedition continues to fuel one of the most fascinating debates in mountaineering history.
Fatal Mountaineer is a gripping look at Willi Unsoeld and the epic climbs that defined him—a classic narrative blending action with ethics, fame with tragedy, a man’s ambition with a father’s anguish.