Life After a Critically Acclaimed First Novel

Bruce Duffy made his name with a great novel he wrote nearly a quarter century ago—then his fiction-writing career foundered. Will his latest book revive his reputation?

By: Tim Warren

Bruce Duffy’s “nonfiction novels” are years in the making. Photograph by Stephen Voss

Bruce Duffy is 60 and has been writing fiction all his life, but his literary reputation rests on a single novel.

The World as I Found It
, published in 1987, received extravagant praise: In a 1999 article, Joyce Carol Oates called his reimagining of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published.” A Guggenheim Fellowship followed the book’s publication, and for a time Duffy looked to be a rising literary star.

But that was 24 years ago.

A second novel, Last Comes the Egg, was based in part on his childhood in Montgomery County’s Garrett Park. It “crashed and burned,” Duffy says, when it was published ten years later.

Other writing attempts fizzled, including a novel examining black/white relations in Washington. Duffy made a living as a corporate consultant and speechwriter, and he wrote some good journalism, including an article for Life magazine on trying to buy a Stinger missile in Afghanistan.

His fiction? By 2002, he had no book, no editor, no publisher.

But Duffy and literature have always had a difficult relationship. Rather than thinking up books he’d like to write, he waits for a topic to come to him: “My mind can lie fallow for a long time, then spring to action when I get enthusiastic about a subject.”

With Wittgenstein, the spark came from reading that the Austrian had forsaken philosophy for a time to become an architect, then from learning that three of Wittgenstein’s brothers had committed suicide. Such sadness and pathos should be in a book, Duffy felt, and he wrote his novel.

His curiosity was similarly piqued by Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French avant-garde poet around whom Duffy imagined another “nonfiction novel.” The result, Disaster Was My God, has just been published.

Rimbaud’s poetry and his bizarre life—he repudiated his work at age 21—had long fascinated Duffy, but the thought of writing about him never crossed his mind. Then something kicked in: “I just knew he was a great story, and once I figured out how to write about the disagreeable parts of his life, the novel took shape.”

As with World, Duffy proceeded without a map, writing away without any clear focus. Then a couple of things happened.

When the Wittgenstein book had come out, Duffy admitted that his vividly drawn scenes of turn-of-the-century Vienna and 20th-century Cambridge University had come from his imagination; he had never been to Europe. But after friends told him that an early draft of the Rimbaud book was unconvincing, he made a research trip to Ethiopia, where the poet had spent much of his later life.

The rawness of Ethiopia’s frontier startled Duffy. “They still castrate each other,” he says. “There is still constant tribal warfare. You are not a man unless you have killed somebody.” He returned even more certain of Ethiopia’s importance to the novel.

Reenergized, he resumed the manic writing regimen he had undertaken during much of World. He would get up before dawn at his Bethesda house to write, then head to Starbucks when it opened at 6. There he’d toss back Triple Grande Frappuccinos and an energy drink and write until 8:30, when he’d go to his job as a corporate speechwriter.

Late last year, he told his agent that his third novel was just about done.

Disaster Was My God is now out from Doubleday, 14 years after Egg disappeared into a hole and nearly a quarter century after his debut novel caused a sensation in the literary world.

Disaster is an intense book. Duffy examines in excruciating detail Rimbaud’s anguished relationship with his mother and his supplying weapons to a king. The author’s reimagining of Rimbaud might make some readers squirm, but its power continues to the final page.

Duffy has a lot riding on Disaster Was My God. Will he be restored as a darling of the literary world? He acknowledges relief at finishing another novel: “I have not published in 14 years, so I feel like Rip Van Winkle.”

Duffy is tall, dressed casually and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, the picture of an associate college professor, down to the backpack. Of his new novel he says, “The world has changed. There’s a lot less coverage of books. My editor says, ‘We don’t know if this is the calm before the storm or the calm before the calm.’ ”

Much like his characters, Duffy is complicated. Along with some charm comes some steel, as well as decades of personal pain. Along with his self-confidence is an easily wounded psyche. He says what connects the self-confidence and fragility is “a molten core that has always propelled me.” That anger has been softened by age—and therapy—but is still a driving force.

The pivotal event of Duffy’s life was his mother’s death when he was 11—“probably from medical malpractice,” he says. She had gone into the hospital for a routine procedure.

“This was before I was a teenager, before I would normally be getting angry at her like any teenager, so I was completely smitten with her,” he says. “It was as extraordinary as if she had run away to join the circus. I felt completely radioactive and angry. I thought adults were fools and completely blind and that other kids had no clue.”

“He was very contrary,” says Marjorie Perloff, a poet and literary critic who taught Duffy in two classes at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s and has remained a friend and mentor. “He would scoff and not want to do the assignments, and he could be very belligerent. But one day he came to my office and we talked. It turned out that all he really wanted was attention. He was a very angry young man and drank a lot. But I never saw anybody turn himself around like Bruce has.”

Next: What it takes to be "different" writer

Duffy knew by the time he graduated from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School in 1969 and headed to the University of Maryland that he wanted to be a writer. His choice of vocation didn’t sit well with his father, a hard-nosed blue-collar type who couldn’t imagine why his only child would choose such a ridiculous profession. Then again, they didn’t get along for two decades after Bruce’s mother died.

Duffy acknowledged this troubled relationship in a 1990 article for Harper’s written not long after his father’s death: “From my teens through my late twenties, my father and I were sucked through the undertow of a bitterness so progressive and consuming that I don’t think either of us ever understood it.”

When they finally reconciled, his father confessed that he had spent many a night under a tree in the back yard, weeping over their estrangement. Probably not coincidentally, Duffy’s books make acute observations about the tortured relationships that both Wittgenstein and Rimbaud had with a parent.

Duffy decided to make a go at a literary career after graduating from Maryland in 1973. He wrote fiction and poetry, supporting himself by working as a security guard at a hospital. Such literary risk takers as Thomas Pynchon had dazzled Duffy, and he was set on writing something original.

“It was very important to him to go out of the gate and be recognized as a different kind of writer,” says Slaton White, a friend of Duffy’s since childhood who is now deputy editor of Field & Stream.

Duffy sent his former teacher Marjorie Perloff some of his poems. She responded “that I didn’t know enough about poetics, didn’t know how to use words, didn’t read the right poets. She said I had to be more conscious about really learning my craft and really looking at writers I admired and say, ‘How did they do that? Why does it work?’ It made me look at the alchemy of words, as Rimbaud said.”

Perloff’s blunt criticism hurt, but Duffy says she was right: “And her honesty was just what I needed at the time.”

The pivotal event of Duffy's life was his mother's death when he was 11—"probably from medical malpractice."   

Duffy set aside poetry to work for five years on an autobiographical novel, which he describes as “the kind of journeyman novel that doesn’t go anywhere but that every novelist has to get out of his or her system.” After junking the book, he considered giving up writing, convinced that the wave of minimalism sweeping American literature left no place for him.

He took up painting. One day, Duffy came across a reference to Wittgenstein. The next thing he knew, he was deep into research on the author of Philosophical Investigations.

Duffy spent seven years researching, writing, and rewriting while beginning a career in business consulting. His friend Slaton White told him: “You’re such a contrarian that you start your first novel about someone so obscure that maybe five people in this country would know of and understand.”

Duffy couldn’t come up with a good beginning, so he started writing the novel in the middle. A few years later, he got an agent, and some years after that the agent got him a modest contract with the publisher Ticknor & Fields. To get the contract, Duffy had to submit an outline for the nonexistent first half of the novel. He wrote one but then decided he hated it and, without telling the publisher, junked it and proceeded to write the first half of the novel in six months.

“I was getting up to write every day at 4 in the morning before I headed off to work,” Duffy says. “It was like going on bombing missions every day, but I had to get this done.”

Praise for the 600-page novel was nearly universal. Reviewers acknowledged its scope—it covered the first half century of European intellectual and cultural thought and featured real figures such as Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The Los Angeles Times noted: “It is hard to know which is more outsized; the talent of Bruce Duffy . . . or his nerve.”

Last year, World—which had gone out of print—was reissued in a paperback edition by NYRB Classics, again getting great reviews. “We choose The World as I Found It because it seemed to represent the rebirth of the historical novel in the past 35 years,” said Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics. “It was a book ahead of its time.”

Next: A high bar is set with his new book

When World was first published, Duffy was an emerging star in the world of literary fiction. He received writing grants and got a two-book contract. Famous people—writers, scientists—wanted to meet him. He appeared on talk shows and gave lectures on Wittgenstein in Europe. The BBC took out an option on World for five years with the thought of doing a TV production, though it never materialized. “They decided they wanted only works by dead authors,” Duffy says dryly.

He didn’t make a lot of money, but that wasn’t the point. People loved the book, and he was beginning to be known. In Washington “I got some good recognition,” he says. But as a native of this area, he knew that such folks as journalists and politicians would always be the city’s real stars. Still, Duffy wasn’t prepared for the setbacks ahead.

When corporate work dried up, he turned to journalism, writing a long piece on hoboes for Harper’s. He says the travel his journalism required contributed to the breakup of his first marriage. He’s now married to Susan Segal, a Washington psychotherapist, and has two grown daughters and a stepson.

His editor was fired in a corporate shake-up, and Duffy’s contract with Ticknor & Fields was taken over by Simon & Schuster. “They definitely weren’t ready for me, and me for them,” Duffy says of the publishing conglomerate.

Last Comes the Egg barely caused a ripple when it was published in 1997. After that, he was reluctant to commit to another book contract. Then Duffy gave up on another project, one he had thought about and worked on for ten years. “It was a book where I wanted to depict these characters who were caught between the white world and the black world,” he says.

Last Comes the Egg was, among other things, my way of really becoming totally open and honest about a boy raised in Maryland in the early 1960s. It was still a Southern redneck state in those days. I lived in Garrett Park, and the n-word was in no way uncommon. Black people were totally foreign and hence totally fascinating to me.”

He started to work on a novel about a Jewish orphan and Holocaust survivor and her relationship with a black maid in the Washington home of a former Office of Strategic Services officer. Ultimately, Duffy decided it wouldn’t find an audience with black readers or with white readers, who he didn’t feel would be able to handle some of what he had to say.

"I was getting every day to write at 4 in the morning. It was like going on bomb missions every day, but I had to get this done."    

“I put it aside, and it was a big defeat,” he says. “It was going to be a massively crazy book, all over the place. I had a contract with Simon & Schuster that I had to buy my way out of, because there was no way I was going to ever do anything with them.”

Once again, he put his writing career on hold. It was 2002, and the consulting was going well. But where was the inspiration for another book? The Duffy approach of waiting for an idea to come to him wasn’t working. And the disappointment over giving up that long-envisioned novel on Washington lingered.

Finally, he stumbled upon Rimbaud. Perhaps it was better that he wasn’t following up so soon after World, he thought. There were a lot of readers who had never heard of Duffy or his first book. He was free to operate under the radar.

Still, it’s inevitable many reviewers will compare Disaster Was My God with The World as I Found It—and the bar is high. Like it or not, Duffy will always be judged through the prism of that first magical book—and the time when an unknown ex–security guard, driven by an unshakable vision and sheer bravado, confounded the literary world.

“Some people say he should have written more,” says Bob Shacochis, an author who brought Duffy along when he was reporting on Haiti for Harper’s in the mid-’90s. “What if a writer does ten mediocre books? Bruce has written one great book, one of the best books by anybody of my generation. In this country, there is a ghost brigade of really good writers who get little or no notice. Bruce is a captain in that brigade.”

Duffy says he has no regrets. He deflects any suggestion that things haven’t turned out so well in the aftermath of The World as I Found It.

“I have never felt cheated in terms of recognition, and I have never felt pressure to come up with another World,” he says. “Maybe that’s just me, but I live in the moment. I’ve never gone back and reread either of my first two books, and I never will.”

This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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