Newton Thornburg: Novelist whose 'Cutter and Bone' was a key text of the US’s Vietnam era

Commenting on the 30th anniversary re-release of the 1981 film Cutter's Way, the critic Michael Goldfarb recently called it a "genuine forgotten masterpiece". The same description might apply to the novel Cutter and Bone, on which the film was based, and whose author, Newton Thornburg, was the kind of genius who seems to be in constant need of rediscovery.

George Pelecanos, who 10 years ago wrote an introduction to a British re-issue of Cutter and Bone that sparked one such rediscovery, said the book "challenged the very foundation of the traditional crime novel". But it was Thornburg's curse to produce works that were too edgy for "literary" fiction and too offbeat for genre success. Published in 1976, just in time for America's Bicentennial, Cutter and Bone was "remarkably wise without the benefit of hindsight", about post-Sixties, pre-Reagan America, where a spoiled generation's mixture of hedonism and idealism is broken in chaotic paranoia. In the sense of bringing the Vietnam War home to America, it ranks with Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers as a key novel of the era.

Newton Kendall Thornburg was born in 1929 in Harvey, Illinois and grew up in Chicago Heights in a family he described as "fundamentalist Christian". At Illinois Wesleyan College he began writing, and had a prize-winning story published in the Methodist progressive magazine Motive. More interested in art, he transferred to the University of Iowa, where he earned a degree in fine arts. He then enrolled in Iowa University's graduate writers' workshop, America's premier creative-writing programme, but "got bored with it".

He married, and with his wife Karin moved to New York to try his luck in the art world, but grew disillusioned when galleries preferred his abstract paintings to the more realistic work he thought better. He returned to Illinois, sometimes living in his wife's parents' vacation cabin, working on his brother-in-law's cattle ranch, or in his father's business as a wholesaler to candy and variety stores.

Thornburg then spent a decade as a copywriter, eventually settling in Santa Barbara, California, where he wrote fiction in his spare time. His first novel, Gentleman Born (1967) estab-lished some of Thornburg's themes: corrupt fathers and authority figures, prodigal sons, and romantic conflicts within families or surrogate families. Next came a caper novel, Knockover. When a film option was sold he turned to writing full-time, and in 1973 Little Brown published his first hardback novel, To Die in California, in which a Midwestern cattle-farmer travels to Hollywood to investigate his son's supposed suicide. When producer Hal Wallis bought the film rights for $100,000, Thornburg used the money to buy a ranch in Missouri's Ozark mountains.

Cutter and Bone followed, set in Santa Barbara but with its finale in the Ozarks. The New York Times called it a "classy, big-league act". Again, the film rights sold for $100,000, but it took five years to get made, with the Czech émigré Ivan Passer directing, and John Heard, originally cast as the gigolo Bone opposite Dustin Hoffman, taking the role of the crippled Vietnam veteran Cutter, with Jeff Bridges as Bone.

It also got him a multi-book contract, but instead of another crime novel he wrote three very different books. Black Angus (1978) featured a rancherprotagonist, a former advertising man with a crumbling marriage, a ne'er-do-well best friend and a business on the verge of collapse. Valhalla (1980), was a borderline sci-fi novel about race war in a future America. And thoughBeautiful Kate (1982) is told through brilliantly constructed multipleflashbacks, its central revelation of brother-sister incest didn't make it easy to promote. The film rights were bought by the Australian actor Bryan Brown; the 2009 film, written and directed by his wife Rachel Ward, with Brown and Rachel Griffiths, was described by Total Film as "Tennessee Williams with kangaroos".

Thornburg's last major novel was Dreamland (1983), dealing again with prodigals returning home and facing corrupt politics. Though successful, it didn't earn him a new contract. In 1986 Karin died, and Thornburg, bereft and unstabilised, eventually entered a second, short-lived marriage. The Lion at the Door (1990) perhaps reflecting this turmoil, was arguably his least interesting book. But his last two novels, A Man's Game (1996, with a surprisingly happy ending) and Eve's Men (1998) marked a return to form.

Michael Carlson

Newton Kendall Thornburg, writer: born Harvey, Illinois 13 May 1929; married 1953 Karin Larson (died 1986; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased), married secondly; died Bothell, Washington 9 May 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference