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.