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William Gaddis; Noted but Little-Read Author

Obituaries

December 18, 1998|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Gaddis, perhaps the greatest unread American novelist of the postwar era, died Wednesday of prostate cancer at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 75.

Though literary scholars often compare him to James Joyce and Herman Melville, Gaddis was almost a cult figure, who toiled in relative obscurity. He produced only four novels over four decades, although, by sheer bulk, it was an impressive output: His first work, "The Recognitions," published in 1955, totaled almost 1,000 pages.

That novel, about a failed seminarian who turns to forging Old Masters in a misguided effort to restore authenticity to a society enfeebled by fakery, repelled critics as tedious and overwritten. Twenty years passed before Gaddis produced another novel.

But by then, the critics had come around, bestowing on his second novel, "JR," the National Book Award in 1975. Although as challenging a novel as his first--it spurned traditional narrative, relying almost exclusively on unpunctuated dialogue without the usual "he saids" and "she saids"--"JR" remains, one critic says, "perhaps the great unread novel of the postwar era."

"He was always wrestling with the form and making it his own, pinning it down into Gaddis-ness," said fellow writer E.L. Doctorow, a friend for many years.

Gaddis was described in his later years by writer Louis Auchincloss as reserved, quiet and impeccably clad, "with the patient composure of a man of the world and the piercing eye of a wit."

Unlike today's celebrity authors, he rarely gave readings and declined most interview requests, explaining once that he didn't "want to be seen in People magazine, romping with my dog."

He composed each of his books on the same old Olivetti portable typewriter, deliberately eschewing the conveniences of computers and automatic spell-checks for the more leisurely thumbing through of dictionaries and encyclopedias. Known for his obsession with detail, he read American Jurisprudence, the 80-volume compendium of case law, before writing "A Frolic of His Own," a satire about the American legal system that earned him his second National Book Award, in 1994.

Born in New York, Gaddis attended Harvard and was president of the Lampoon, the satirical undergraduate magazine. But he never graduated, forced out of Harvard along with a drinking companion after some youthful high jinks in which Cambridge police intervened. He spent a few years in New York's Greenwich Village while working as a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine, then began some adventures abroad, including joining the insurgents in 1948 during Costa Rica's brief civil war.

In 1951 he returned to New York to work on "The Recognitions," which he completed in 1953. When it was published two years later, the reviews were devastating. Over the next decade and a half, Gaddis, forced to find another way to make a living, worked at a succession of jobs--doing publicity for a pharmaceutical firm, creating film scripts for the Army and later writing speeches for corporate executives.

He did not reenter the literary stream until 1970, when the Dutton Review published what would later become the opening passages of "JR." That novel, which begins with the word "money," was a satire of corporate America, its protagonist a crafty 11-year-old boy who cheats his classmates out of one share of stock and quickly builds a piddling portfolio into a formidable financial empire.

The most radical aspect of the 700-page work, though, was its almost stream-of-consciousness reliance on dialogue to move the story along. This would become Gaddis' hallmark, a deluge of voices unaided by the conventions of quotation marks or other punctuation. He used a dash to denote the beginning of dialogue, but he left it to the reader to discern who was speaking.

This style maddened many reviewers. Richard Eder, in The Times, described Gaddis' novels as "less a stream of consciousness than a contaminated flood." In its review, the New Yorker proclaimed "JR" unreadable, "like molasses."

Other reviewers, though frustrated by Gaddis' technique, nonetheless recognized his ability to render with uncanny accuracy the speech of everyone from artists and businessmen to jaded wives and prepubescent children. Writing in 1985, when Gaddis published his third novel, "Carpenter's Gothic," critic Cynthia Ozick proclaimed him an "American original."

Gaddis, not surprisingly, disliked being thought of as a writer of dense, reader-unfriendly books. "I still think of writing as between the reader and page," he said in his later years, "and the reader participating in what comes off the page rather than the writer taking his hand and leading him down the path."

The author is survived by a son, Matthew Hough Gaddis, a New York filmmaker, and a daughter, Sarah Meares Gaddis, an Asheville, N.C., novelist.

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