The highest compliment you can give an author is to hand a book to a friend and say:
Your friend will say, “What is it?”
And you say, “Shut up and read it.”
novelist Jon Hassler, I’ve had that conversation — or variations thereof — with
friends dozens of times. I still remember coming across a new paperback copy of Hassler’s
Staggerford, on the “local
authors” table at a bookstore in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport while
heading home from covering the World Series. (I remember the incident vividly, but don’t
it was 1987 or 1991.) At the time,
I had no idea who Hassler was, but the book looked interesting to
me, as did the “blurb” on the cover from a Los Angeles Times review that proclaimed
author “good enough to restore
your faith in fiction.”
Staggerford was published as a hardback
in 1978 and had disappointing sales, even after being the
rare first novel to get a New York Times review — and from Joyce Carol Oates, no less, who did the
public a great disservice with her lukewarm
review that delayed Hassler’s acceptance as a great novelist.
Believe me, I understand how a soundbite quote from one lukewarm review, the one exception among
otherwise rave reviews from journalists, fellow writers
and the general public, can haunt an author.
I devoured Staggerford and loved
it for its subtlety, sardonic humor and human touch. I’ve given away
perhaps 20 copies of Staggerford, whether a rare copy of the hardback or paperback copies
at St. Vincent de Paul for
25 cents. I’ve recommended it to many others. I’ve hooked family and friends
on Hassler. Since buying that first copy of Staggerford, I first filled in
my collection of his works up to that
and then bought every one of his later books when they came out.
became such a cult favorite, Hassler in 1999 published his journal from the time as,
My Staggerford Journal. It is a must read for every would-be or new
author. The end of the book,
where he finds remainder copies of the hardback at a store for something like $1 apiece, gathers them
up and then attempts to write a
check to pay for them, brings a smile. (With his name and picture on
the book jacket, he was asked to show ID.) The hardback now is very valuable.
Years before any of my books were published, I wrote him
a fan letter. I was astounded when I
note back, and he said he was familiar with my work in The Sporting News, where I was
working at the time. He even mentioned a story I had written. He might have done some
research and was just being nice, but
I still was flattered. We stayed in touch, not frequently, but
intermittently and casually as he split time between Minnesota and Florida, and he even tried to
get his publisher and editor to
consider publishing my novel, The Witch’s
Season, which I had started
in high school. The novel remained unpublished for many years for a lot of reasons, some of them
complicated, although it drew initial movie interest when the manuscript was being passed around.
The screenplay version I was commissioned to write still is floating around,
along with two others
done. Boy, do I have stories…
I attended a Hassler appearance at the Tattered
Cover in 1995 (for Rookery Blues) and and we had a
nice talk. During the question-and-answer session, I had the nerve to ask what anyone who has read
Staggerford wants to know: Why did he end it the
way he did? I figured anyone at the Rookery Blues
signing had read Staggerford. (One sportswriter friend I
had given Staggerford called me at 2 in the
morning, screaming that the powerful ending had blindsided her. I knew the feeling.)
Hassler sent me the above postcard in 1995 shortly after his TC signing. Eventually, of course,
I turned to
non-fiction — and got published.
And I was able to branch out into fiction with, yes, The Witch's
and what I consider my best book, Olympic Affair
(2012). Each time I've
and presentations at the Tattered Cover -- I'm up to seven now -- I’ve always thought of Hassler. I still have the
note he sent me congratulating me on the
publication of Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, released
and Schuster in
2002. He was ill by then
and couldn’t write longhand.
keep reading (and re-reading) Hassler’s books. I’m probably up to 10 times for Staggerford. I
filled out a hardback collection. I’ve come to decide
that Simon’s Night, his second book, is at
least on a par with Staggerford. (It takes a mature outlook to truly appreciate it.) I loved the original
Staggerford trilogy, which also included A
Green Journey and Dear James. He still had his fastball
through many years and I was among those marveling at how his books, with his trademark sense
of humanity and sardonic humor, got better with each re-reading. I also
can make cases for Grand Opening
of Hope as his best novel.
Whenever I visit
a bookstore, whether a chain or an independent, I check the fiction section to see if
it has a copy of Staggerford, either the mass market paperback or
trade paperback. Not all good stores
have it; but all stores that have it are good stores. Unfortunately, more stores now
stock his later Staggerford sequels, The Staggerford Flood, The Staggerford
(the best of the three)
The New Woman. There’s nothing wrong with them, but the earlier
books are far better vehicles for being introduced to Hassler and provide context and
background for the final sequels. Or, sadly, many of the
surviving brick and mortar
stock Hassler books at all.
You’ll thank me.
Thanks, Mr. Hassler.
Hassler died in 2008, and the news left me shaken. I'm sad I was never able to send him
a signed copy of The Witch's Season ... or Olympic
Affair. Here’s the obituary.
Author Jon Hassler dies
By JEFF BAENEN
Associated Press Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) —
Author Jon Hassler, who chronicled the foibles of small-town life in
“Staggerford,” “Grand Opening” and other novels after starting his career late in life, has
died. He was 74.
who suffered from a longtime neurological disorder, died early Thursday at Methodist
Hospital in St. Louis Park, said family friend Nick Hayes. Hassler had been in home hospice
care since the holidays and entered the hospital on Monday, Hayes said.
Despite his deteriorating
health, Hassler continued work on a book, “Jay O’Malley,”
until his death, Hayes said.
In a 1995 interview, Hassler told The Associated Press that he liked writing about
misfits. “You can’t write a novel about somebody who’s
perfectly happy,” he said.
Hassler was born in Minneapolis in March 30, 1933, and grew up in the small
north-central Minnesota town of Staples, where his father owned a grocery store.
He graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1955 before receiving
master’s from the University of North Dakota. He spent
years teaching before launching
his writing career at 37. He didn’t
publish his first novel, “Staggerford,” a semi-autobiographical
about a high school teacher in a small town, until seven years later. Hassler’s other
works include “Simon’s Night,” 1979; “The Love Hunter,” 1981; “A Green Journey,”
“Grand Opening,” 1987; “North of Hope,”
1990; and “Dear James,” 1993.
Kay and other favories
All writers have
a "favorites" bookshelf or two. Mine are here in my den.
Other books -- very good books, books I love -- are in other shelves, or
storage bins, or boxes. These
are the fiction authors whose books I love
and re-read. In addition to the works of the writers above, the authors
on my "favorites" shelves include:
-- Terry Kay. Among them, To Dance With the White Dog, Shadow Song,
Taking Lottie Home, The Book
of Marie and the non-fiction essays of
Kay. A former newspaper sportswriter and theater critic, he also
has written the wonderful screenplay adaptation of White Dog, and
film starred Jessica Tandy, Hume
Cronyn and Esther Rolle. I've been an
of his thoughtful fiction for many, many years.
him when we both appeared at the Arkansas Literary Festival in 2004.
I most recently caught up with his list and read his terrific The Book
which while not a sequel
is an outgrowth of his earlier book, The Runaway. I found
myself going right back through it a second time to check for
what I "missed"
have the perspective of knowing how it turned out without having
cheated. It especially resonated with me because its characters, major and
minor, often reminded me of folks
in my past. And for those of you who
have read it: I'm convinced Marie knew that was Cole at The Fantasticks.
Terry wrote a cover blurb for my novel, Olympic Affair, and I'm proud that his
praise is prominent on the back cover of the book itself, on my web site and in
passed away in 2020. He lived in Athens, Georgia, and I regret that I didn't
get to visit him and get to know him better.
Conroy. (My favorite always will be The Great Santini.)
-- Mark Harris. (The "Author" Wiggen baseball novels.)
-- Herman Wouk (the World War II novels).
Heller. (My father, the WWII pilot subjected to raised number of missions
or combat flight hours necessary to complete a tour of duty, annually read Catch-22.
I'm up to about five times.)
-- Roy MacGregor, for The Last Season, the greatest hockey novel of all
-- John Irving, most notably his first novel, The World According to Garp.