Steve Paul went to New Mexico, on a sort of pilgrimage. It was not about a spiritual journey or putting together pieces of his own past. It was an attempt to uncover information about another Kansas City writer who had long seemed unknowable.
The year was 2018, five years after Evan S. Connell – the man who wrote the novels “Mr. Pont” and “Mrs Pont“- had died in Santa Fe. And Paul’s trip to the Land of Enchantment had been largely successful, save for one loose end.
In his new book, “Literary Alchemist: The Writer’s Life of Evan S. ConnellPaul writes that he had a decision to make, ‘Turn left out of the motel parking lot and head straight for Albuquerque Airport or turn right and try again to find Connell’s final resting place. . “
Connell’s niece, Janet Zimmerman, had given Paul a photo and description of where she had poured her uncle’s ashes. A tree marked the spot.
But even today, many roads and houses in the old tourist town remain unmarked and known only to locals – a town after the heart of the mysterious Connell.
Paul turned right, although he wondered what difference it would really make if he found the tree. As he drove, he remembered that “to bring back a life means to turn over every stone, to trace every thread that might lead to a grain of meaning.”
This is exactly what Paul did with his research: he turned every stone and traced every thread.
“Literary Alchemist” seems to leave no details about Connell’s life. The author never married or had children, but Paul gathered an extraordinary amount of information from speaking to those who knew him well: his sister, a girlfriend, friends, parents, an editor and other writers.
He also worked from Connell’s papers, hosted at Stanford University, and his 18 books – or 19, depending on how you count them, Paul says.
Paul, whose first book was about Ernest Hemingway, did not have very far to research the subject of his second major project. During his 40 years as a book reviewer and report editor at the Kansas City Star, he knew Connell well and had been in contact with Connell’s sister before.
Additionally, Paul says, he spent many evenings at Connell’s childhood home in Brookside after ownership was transferred to family friend Paul.
Still, he didn’t know much about the older author, perhaps because, as Paul writes, Connell was not self-promoting.
Paul begins a paragraph at the end of the biography with “Evan who?And explains that it’s not uncommon to meet people who say they’ve never heard of Connell. Yet these same people easily remember “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge“, the film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and shot in Kansas City in the late 1980s.
Connell was purposely private, but it also didn’t help his legacy that no biographer had come to grips with the man’s life.
One reason no one had, Paul speculates, is that Connell wrote on a wide variety of subjects. But reach shouldn’t be a handicap and that was exactly what interested Paul.
He quotes what he calls the ‘intimate minimalism of’ Mrs. Bridge ‘”as juxtaposed with” the maximalist approach in “The Son of the Morning Star”. These books have each been turned into hit movies and became bestsellers, but they were very different.
“We know what to expect from a lot of these great 20th century American writers, because they told us, you know, not always the same thing,” Paul says, “but they gave us things that looked familiar to us. . With Connell, he was everywhere; he was unpredictable.
Still, critics have paid attention to his work, if only to wonder why he wrote a novel like “The Alchemist’s Journal”, which Paul describes as “channeling those medieval voices” when he could write another one on the Bridge Family.
“It has gained some critical consideration,” Paul explains of “The Alchemist’s Journal”. “It’s still a book that I think if people came back to it and spent time with it, they would find it fascinating. For the time, 1991, it seemed like the wrong thing to do. But that’s how he drove.
Connell continued to “ride” as he pleased until a double knee replacement didn’t go as planned, and he had to move to a nursing home in Santa Fe.
Paul connected with a former staff member who fondly remembered Connell and could fill in a few final descriptions, such as how he remained a “handsome, elegant man” even as his health deteriorated.
At the end of Paul’s Santa Fe trek in 2018, he may have found the tree where Connell’s ashes are scattered.
“Or no. I have no idea,” he wrote.
Either way, Paul says, the journey gave him, as Connell’s biographer, a sense of finality even though in many ways his subject continues to remain as elusive as those scattered ashes.
Connell also addressed this unknown artistry at one point. Paul quotes him as having written about an artist like an onion: “If you keep peeling in the hope of catching it, you end up with nothing in your hand.