In the world of Starbucks, and public libraries and coffee houses crammed with kids with nose piercings and ear studs writing screenplays, there is a noticeable lack in the art of the storyteller. Those men, women or bright and shiny young things who cannot transcend the desire to just Xerox their Exciting Young Lives and tell everyone what they have done and snorted and who they have slept with (their therapist, their graduate student teaching assistant, their tour guide to sunny Old Athens) have forgotten the art of telling The Ripping Good Yarn.
Oh where have you gone, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.
But for thirty five years or so there was one brief shining moment when a storyteller took the stage, first with a college text on filmmaking and a few plays and one screenplay adapting a novel, later with books more akin to those of Flaubert and Balzac than Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins, Anne Rice and Stephen King, talented though some of them were and are.
Trevanian was the nom du plume (well, one of several) employed by Rod Whitaker, once a college professor of theater and film who later became famous and wealthy as a teller of tales, first espionage thrillers and later gothic romance, western and memoir. He was one of the more unique storytellers this nation has ever produced, and in this Reviewarticle, I intend to pay homage to one of the finest storytellers I have ever had the pleasure to read.
And be forewarned: Most of the readers I have introduced have read at last one and in a few cases, all of his published works still available. Some of these books are out of print, but are still available with a little sleuthing on Amazon.com.
Someday, most likely very soon, someone will write a very interesting biography of this great man and his storytelling mastery, but then again, perhaps not. Whitaker played it very close to the vest when it came to his personal life. Almost no autobiographical clues appear in his fiction beyond the fact that he had been a college professor in Texas and a few other locations, and later retired to the Basque countryside, which he adopted as his home in his later years. Three of his books were at least in part set there and his love of the area shows through.
It’s a strange feeling writing about this old friend. Writers who move us tremendously can come to feel like friends, and this article feels a bit like telling tales out of school, which Rod Whitaker would certainly consider an invasion of his privacy.
But to the dead we really only owe the truth, and the truth of Whitaker’s life and fiction are certainly fascinating. If in the course of this essay I manage to draw even a few constant readers to his books, I will be proud and hope that Mr. Whitaker will not be too embarrassed. So, Rod, this one is for you!
1. Whitaker had a love of wordplay and puns. One example of this is that he gave the name of the assassins in the Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction names based on poisons, hence the main character’s name of Jonathan Hemlock (hemlock was the poison that Socrates was given to drink to kill him in ancient Greek history. If you don’t know who Socrates is a) look him up on Wikipedia and b) you are a cretin. He also gave the head of the CIA/The Mother Company in The Eiger Sanction, the wonderful name of Yurasis Dragon. It took years for me to figure out that joke. Say it out loud.
2. Rodney William Whitaker was born June 12, 1931, landing right square in the Great Depression, which may explain a little of the reason why his father abandoned his family. Men generally define themselves by their occupation, just as women generally defined themselves until recently by the man in their life.
3. Just as Sherlock Holmes was gifted with a supernatural sense of observation, and the heroine in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has an Eidetic Memory, Jonathan Hemlock in both The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction is gifted with a supernaturally accurate eye for art, being able to discern forgeries at a glance.
4. Whitaker had a wonderful sense of witty insult. Once an enemy said “I hope you won’t hold that against me.” To which Hemlock answered, “Hope’s cheap. Indulge yourself, anus.” Another time, a military officer is trying to get the main character in the novel Shibumi to take an offer to assassinate some enemy of the United States. He makes the comment “Opportunity doesn’t knock twice.” The main character, Nicholai Hel asks him to knock twice, “so I won’t confuse you with opportunity.”
5. Whitaker was fascinated with radio stories and songs as a boy during The Great Depression. The final novel he wrote The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street featured much of the radio music and entertainment that was to him what cable TV and the internet are for us today: The state of the art of entertainment. His love of storytelling very likely came from listening to radio and reading books as a lad.
6. He enjoyed writing under various pseudonyms as well as his most famous one “Trevanian.” He also published works as Benat Le Cagot, Nicolas Seare and Edoard Moran. He published the filmmaking textbook The Language of Film as Rodney Whitaker.
7. His novels published as Trevanian are: The Eiger Sanction (1972), The Loo Sanction (1973), The Main (1976), Shibumi (1979), The Summer of Katya (1983), Incident at Twenty Mile (1998), Hot Night in the City (a collection of stories published in 2000) and the memoir The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street (2005).
8. He created a website late in his career and published cyber notes as a companion to The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street. The website has recently been updated by his daughter, the executor of his estate. www.trevanian.com.
9. He once commented on the people who enjoyed his writing: “The Trevanian Buff is a strange and wonderful creature: an outsider, a natural elitist, not so much a cynic as an idealist mugged by reality, not just one of those who march to a different drummer, but the solo drummer in a parade of one.
10. It was rumored that Trevanian was Robert Ludlum, writing under a pen name. Trevanian rejected that in a rare interview, stating, “I don’t even know who he is. I read Proust, but not much else written in the 20th century.”
11. Trevanian wrote his novels and stories with a style and a manner that I have found unique and delightful. He would first think of the story he wanted to write and then like a method actor, create the perfect writer for that story. He would imagine what the writer had as far as education, what his childhood and adult life were like and then assume that character as the author. He wanted his various novels to be written and credited to different pen names, but his publishers insisted that he employ the name Trevanian to increase sales and to help his reading fans to find his work.
12. Abandoned by his father at age three, he wrote characters that were for the most part loners and romantically detached. His character of Jonathan Hemlock was betrayed by two women who got close to him - one named Maggie Coyne, to doubly add the insult of a woman betraying him like a Judas for money. He harbored serious grudges, one may imagine. He left America after a certain number of years being dismayed by the Reagan and Bush years, and one can only imagine his revulsion at the sexual excesses of Bill Clinton.
13. His character of Nicholai Hel was once described by another character as a Philosopher Warrior, and I cannot think of a better way to describe him. He held a set of values out of place in modern society. He was an outsider, but other outsiders enjoyed his exploits in fiction.
14. Only one film was ever made as an adaptation from one of his novels: The Eiger Sanction. I saw this movie as a young teen, and outside of some brief nudity, what I remember most vividly is the character played with steely determination and a wicked wit by Clint Eastwood. But unfortunately, a young climber died during the making of what Trevanian later labeled a “vapid film”. Thus, no other of his books was made into films during his lifetime. More’s the pity, though now that Whitaker has passed, his daughter has been in negotiations with several producers hungry for the opportunity to make these films. We shall see if any of them are indeed made and if they were the sorts of films this film scholar would have been proud.
15. Whitaker was a climber and a spelunker (cave explorer) and these two athletic pastimes figure prominently in The Eiger Sanction and Shibumi.
16. The Summer of Katya is the closest that Trevanian came to penning a love story, but it is a tragedy and leaves one with a sadness that I can only compare to the ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Be forewarned. While his characters are never happily married, Whitaker himself met a wonderful woman in his youth and stayed married to her his entire adult life. There is only one rumored photograph of him and it is with her, presumably. Still, one should remain skeptical about this as other biographical bits of information. As I warned in the title, this was a writer more reclusive and more guarded about his private life than J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon.
And that’s saying something.