Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Novels of Lawrence Richette

Larry Richette was a novelist. That’s how he thought of himself and identified himself. All else meant nothing, was excess baggage. For Larry, his art always came first.

It was as if he knew he had a limited amount of years on this earth—more limited than most—to get his work done. When I met him for coffee on occasion, his work—and the art of the novel—was all he wanted to talk about. (His favorite novelists were Don De Lillo and Bret Easton Ellis.)

The novelist I compared Lawrence Richette to was John O’Hara. Novelistic competence—always readable, without too many bells and whistles but always with a point to make. Larry made it look easy.

One of his best novels, The Secret Family, is based on the history of his own family in Italy and America. The kind of thing Mario Puzo wrote when he was good, before he went for the flash and money.

Another novel, The Fault Line, of especial pertinence to Philadelphians, is Richette’s thinly-disguised take on the MOVE bombing, which Larry covered as a young reporter. It’s short, journalistic, concise and dramatic.

My favorite Lawrence Richette novel, however, is Private Screenings. Here’s a review I wrote of it when it came out. It’s an honest review. I’m never less than honest. I disappointed or angered more than one struggling author when I ran the ULA, by refusing to tell them their book was something it was not.


When I first encountered Richette, as a matter of fact, and he told me he was a writer, I thought to myself, “Not another one!” (The Underground Literary Alliance was in its heyday and I’d achieved some notoriety. There are struggling writers everyplace.) Larry pawned a copy of his novel, Secret Family, on me. I took it home intending to glance at the first page or two and dismiss it. I ended up reading the novel most of the night. (The first couple pages in fact are a tad slow. His proper beginning comes with the description of a personality around page five.)

Larry Richette received some bad press—a mark of distinction in my eyes. The articles don’t say that he was a very generous guy. After the ULA collapsed, he was one of the few individuals who didn’t abandon me. When I was hurting financially (flat broke) after I moved back to Philly in 2009, Larry bought me dinner on more than one occasion. The last time I saw him, in fact, a couple years ago, I was walking down the street near Rittenhouse Square. A voice yelled from across the street, “Karl! Karl!” It was Larry Richette having lunch at an outdoor table at some trendy cafe. I joined him and he ordered lunch for me. I begged off out of pride but he ordered it anyway. We talked about—what else?—books and authors, and what he was currently writing. Larry was as intelligent on the subject of literature as anyone I’ve met.

Why was he never published by the big guys? You tell me. Read his books and give me an explanation. Lawrence Richette’s novels are intelligent and readable— the kind of thing intelligent readers once read by the truckload, but which today, from the current breed of designated authors, is very hard to find. Jonathan Franzen with a deeper understanding of the world and a better sense of pace.

The only reason I can see for agents and editors not touching Larry is that they perceived him to be a “difficult” personality. A pity that those delicate souls put manners and convenience above art. It’s not the way the game should be played.

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