Vance Bourjaily, prolific novelist and writing professor, dies at 87

John W. Aldridge (left) and Vence Bourjaily, co-editors of DISCOVERY, examining proof sheets. (Washington Post file photo)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Saturday, September 4, 2010

Vance Bourjaily, 87, a professor of writing and a prolific novelist who explored the complex lives of contemporary Americans in reticently unadorned prose, died Aug. 31 in Greenbrae, Calif. He died of complications from a fall, said his wife, Yasmin Mogul.

An enduring presence in American literature, Mr. Bourjaily was considered one of the eminent young novelists of the World War II generation. Critics put him in the same rank as postwar writers Norman Mailer and James Jones.

Mr. Bourjaily's first novel, "The End Of My Life" (1947), was influenced by his unsettling experiences as a soldier and ambulance driver in World War II. Literary critic John W. Aldridge wrote that "no book since [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] 'This Side of Paradise' has caught so well the flavor of youth in wartime, and no book since [Ernest Hemingway's] 'A Farewell to Arms' has contained so complete a record of the loss of that youth in war."

Of the 1958 novel "The Violated," a critic noted that Mr. Bourjaily is "one of that select band of writers equipped with antenna-like perception enabling them to project the heart and pulse of their generation."

In his long and varied career, Mr. Bourjaily was a playwright, a long-form journalist and a Broadway critic for the Village Voice. In the early 1950s, he was the co-editor of Discovery, a literary journal that a critic called one of the "liveliest and most buoyantly pugnacious of all the little magazines." After teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Mr. Bourjaily became the first director of Louisiana State University's post-graduate creative writing program in 1985. He retired in the late 1990s.

He was an avocational jazz trumpeter, fly fisherman and game hunter and was known to pluck details from his experiences that made their way into his writing.

His book "of a Spent Youth" (1960) was an explicitly autobiographical account of his youthful sexual exploits and dabbling in excessive drinking and illicit drugs.

Another of his popular works, "The Man Who Knew Kennedy" (1967), takes place shortly after the president's assassination in Dallas in 1963 and focuses on the life of a man who had briefly met the future commander in chief while recuperating in a military hospital.

Mr. Bourjaily's last novel, "Old Soldier" (1990), concerned an Army sergeant on a fishing trip with his homosexual brother who is dying of AIDS.

An entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography said Mr. Bourjaily's "reputation rests on his ability to tell wonderful stories with vivid surprising details. . . . [His] novels depict the common man struggling -- often heroically, often paradoxically -- to live with the contradictions that define society."

But critics sometimes disagreed on the staying power of Mr. Bourjaily's work. By the early 1960s, a New York Times reviewer said that while "the world has moved on," Mr. Bourjaily "has not."

Vance Nye Bourjaily was born Sept. 17, 1922, in Cleveland. His father was a Lebanese-born journalist and his mother was a romance novelist.

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