Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Long Tail: Steven G. Kellman on MacDonald Harris

By Eric Banks

Over the past month we've been publishing the results of our Fall 2010 NBCC Reads survey, in which we asked our membership and past winners and finalists for out-of-print works of fiction or nonfiction that ought to be newly republished. Here's what board member Steven G. Kellman had to say (click here to read all the responses).

MacDonald Harris was the nom de plume of Donald Heiney (1921–93), a California author whose books deserve to be restored to the esteem and affection they enjoyed before his sudden death. Heiney's career echoed that of Joseph Conrad, after whom he named his younger son. After years of circumnavigating the globe in the Merchant Marine, he retired to a literary life. Though he continued to pursue sailing as an avocation, Heiney went to graduate school and became a professor. He taught for many years at the University of California at Irvine and helped found its legendary creative writing program.

MacDonald Harris's novels are distinguished by a sly wit and sophisticated intelligence that are in service to engaging characters and a plot that enchants and astonishes. Most of them, especially Pandora's Gallery (1980), Herma (1981), Screenplay (1982), Tenth (1984), and Hemingway's Suitcase (1990), are as fresh and frisky as when they were first published. However, The Balloonist, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1977, best deserves to be wrenched back from oblivion. Set in 1897, it is the rambunctious but elegant tale of an expedition to the North Pole undertaken by a Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a French adventurer. Meticulous in evoking time and place and adept at pacing its lively story, The Balloonist floats its themes of ambition, love, and loyalty above the reach of mundane fiction.There are fifteen other neglected novels where that one came from–the fertile imagination of MacDonald Harris.