William Eastlake: The Lyric of The Circle Heart Trilogy

   William Eastlake was a highly regarded American novelist in the 1950s and 1960s, but his reputation began to sink like a stone in the late 1970s and by the time of his death in 1997 he was a forgotten figure. I would argue that this obscurity was largely undeserved, yet understandable. After all, the author himself is on record as saying, ” When you’re dead, you’re dead. I don’t care what people will think of my work when I’m dead.’ But it is undeserved because Eastlake began writing about the American Southwest long before Cormac McCarthy or even Tom Robbins. His Southwest was one “whose comic and tragic dimensions, as well as its hard beauty, encapsulates American myths and nightmares much in the way that Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County.”

 Biography

  Eastlake was born in Brooklyn in 1917 to English parents. His family soon relocated to Caldwell, New Jersey. A few years later his mother would be permanantly confined to a mental institution and William and his younger brother would be sent to  a boarding school, where they would remain until graduation.

   After high school, Eastlake took to the road and worked his way across the country. He ended up in Los Angeles in the early 1940s and worked as clerk in Stanley Rose’s bookshop. This shop was a hangout for West coast writers such as John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, Clifford Odets, and Theodore Dreiser. Eastlake ‘s time there was important for two reason’s. First, it was while working at the shop that he first committed himslf to writing. Secondly, he met Martha Simpson, a painter, who he would marry in 1943.

  In 1942 Eastlake joined the army. After basic training he was assigned to Fort Ord to “look after” Japanese-American draftees. This proximity to Japanese -American troopes would lead him to express his frustration and contempt for the suspicion and racism that Japanese -Americans faced during World War II.

  As American involvement in the war increased, Eastlake would later be transferred to a replacement company. He would see action in D-Day, and having survived, would fight in France and Belgium.  He received a Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was seriously wounded.

   After the war, Eastlake and his wife travelled around Europe for several years. In 1950, the Eastlakes returned to Los Angeles. In order to support his writing and her painting, he borrowed money and became involved in real estate speculation.  During this time, Eastlake often visited his brother- in -law at his summer home in the Jemez mountains. This inspired Eastlake to buy his own four hundred acre ranch in the Jemez Mountains near Cuba, New Mexico.

   Eastlake’s ranch was located between a Navajo Reservation and an Apache Reservation and he became especially friendly with the Navajos. He often hired them as ranch hands. More importantly, he would learn much about Navajo customs and beliefs from his friends and neighbors that would mark his fiction.

   It was during his time in New Mexico that Eastlake began to appear in print. His first stories were published in 1954 and in 1956, his first novel Go In Beauty was published. In 1958,  he brought out The Bronc People. In 1963,  Portrait of the Artist With Twenty-six Horses saw daylight and in 1965,  Castle Keep.   Eastlake subsequently published four more works of fiction before his death in 1997.

  Lyric of the Circle Heart

  Eastlake’s first thre novels form a trilogy which he would later  title  Lyric of the Circle Heart.  I will try to smmarize their contents.

   Go in Beauty (1956) is the story of two brothers, George and Alexander Bowman, who fall into spiritual, and in Alexander’s case, literal death. The book is set in the New Mexico part of the Four Corners region , which Eastlake fictionalizes as the Checkerboard, and the story revolves around the troubled relationship of the brothers. Alexander runs off with his younger brother George’s wife. The wife, Perrette, is a fancy easterner who has never warmed up to life in the sticks and George really doesn’t protest too much. Paracelsus, the oracle-like medicine man, has predicted that something out of the ordinary will be stolen from Indian country and with this theft will come drought that will plague the land. And so it does. The prophecy becomes the reality around which the story revolves.

 Alexander and Perrette flee to Europe where they lead a life that is almost a parody of the Lost Generation. Alexander does succeed as a writer, penning stories set in the Checkerboard region. As he wears out his material he wears out his life, because his guilt will not allow him to return home to recharge as a man and artist. He evetually becomes more and more dissolute until he commits passive suicide by allowing himself to murdered in a Mexican back alley, which is the closest he can come to home.

   Alexander’s inaction  has upset the balance of nature at home, which results in drought. Perhaps he is not guilty of theft, but he is guilty of allowing himself to be stolen, and the results are the same. The plot is more complicated than this , for it involves a sin of omission on George’s part, one which he allows to consume him, rendering him as unable to act as his older brother. Alexander hides in writing and George hides with the Indians.  Writing and helping the Navajos are ways of avoiding the self. Even so, Eastlake ends the novel on an affirmative note. What was stolen from Indian Country- Alexander- is returned for burial and the rain has returned. From nature’s perspective, balance has been restored.  The people of the Checkerboard, can “go in beauty.”

   The second novel of the trilogy,  The Bronc People (1958), is a rite-of-passage story that focuses on the quest for selfhood of another pair of brothers: Little Sant Bowman, son of Big Sant and Millicent, and Alastair Benjamin, the African-American boy the Bowman’s take in after his flight from an Albaquerque orphanage. alastair had been placed in the orphanage by Indians who had witnessed his escape from the burning house in which his father died. His father, called the Gran Negrito, had been the proprietor of the Circle R Ranch and the owner of a watering hole much needed by George “Big Sant” Bowman of the Circle Heart Ranch for his thirsty cattle. The novel opens with the argument between the two, escalating into a gun battle that sets off the fire at the Circle R. Two Indians serve as commentators on the fight, which neither man wanted,  but  leaves the Gran Negrito dead  nonetheless.

   As the novel unfolds, Alastair discovers the details of his father’s death. He must come to terms with his anger at his adoptive father and Big Sant must deal with the guilt he has carried around for years. Meanwhile, Little Sant searches for an identity as a bronc rider, and his mother, Millicent, sifts through several religions trying to find her place in the world. The book is also peopled with a broad cast of characters, including a priest who has gone native; Afraid of his Own Horses and The Other Indian, friends of Little Sant and Alastair;  My Prayer, the old Indian shaman; and most notably, his white counterpart, Blue-Eyed Billy Peersall, an old Indian fighter who now realizes that the frontier people and Native-Americans should have joined forces to combat the “civilized” easterners instead of each other.

  The final novel of the trilogy, Portrait of the Artist With Twenty-Six Horses, appeared in 1963. Eastlake again depicts the coming of age of two young men set against the backdrop of Indian country. The action takes place in a single day as Ring Bowman and Twenty-Six Horses undergo rites-of- passage. Furthermore, like the central characters of  The Bronc People, one of the protagonists must come to terms with a father figure while the other seeks fulfillment with his own calling in life.

   Portrait is episodically structured around Ring Bowman’s recollections during the eight hours he is trappped in arroyo quicksand.  His life does not flash before his eyes, but meanders, as does the story, through his consciousness as he struggles with questions of identity. He wants to know why this is happening to him. In coming to terms with himself he learns the lesson of coming to terms with nature as well. At the same time, Ring’s father and Twenty-Six Horses, his artist friend,  search the desert for him and in so doing confront their own questions of identity.

  In telling this story, the author employs a technique in which the narrator weaves disparate strands of story which in the end become “of a piece.” In this way, the loom that Twenty-Six Horses uses to create his Navajo rugs is an apt motif in the book. Structurally, Portrait consists of Ring’s present tense commentary (set off in italics) interwoven with a number of apparently unrelated stories from the past. Although these chapters and parts of chapters  appear extraneous to the thrust of the novel, they all involve the common theme of death or near-death in some fashion: the death of Tomas Tomas, the death of Tom Tolbek, the near deaths of a poet, a Nazi, and the passengers of  Clearboy’s white Lincoln- not to mention the near death of Ring himself as he fights to stay afloat in the arroyo for eight hours- all point to an existence that is hanging by a thread. This understanding of humanity’s tentative existence is an essential element in Ring’s coming-of -age.

    Go In BeautyThe Bronc People, and Portrait of the Artist with Twenty-six Horses all went out of print in the 1980s. To rectify this situation, the author revised these works and sought to publish them in a single volume under the title The Lyric of the Circle Heart: The Bowman Family Trilogy. The volume would be published by The Dalkey Archive Press in 1996. Once again a great piece of fiction would be available to new generation.

About Thomas Baughman

I am an unemployed factory worker in Northeast Ohio
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11 Responses to William Eastlake: The Lyric of The Circle Heart Trilogy

  1. raulclement says:

    Thomas,

    I’ll have to check these out now. I am pleased that you and John and others are using As It Ought to Be as a forum to promote high-quality forgotten works. I’ve been thinking of going in this direction for some time myself. Thanks to your inspiration I will probably use my next piece to focus on some personal love object of mine.

  2. Thomas Baughman says:

    Raul,
    Thanks for the comment. I am gratified to know someone is reading my pieces. Also Eastlke’s World War II novel, titled Castle Keep is well worth reading too.

  3. Siwasher says:

    I took a class from Eastlake in the 60s, when he was a writer in residence at my small college. I liked him a lot — he was funny and low-key — but never knew anything about his history or career until reading your piece. I never would have placed him at D-Day or even in the Southwest. I’ve only read Castle Keep, which I enjoyed very much, and will now seek out his other work.

  4. GWR says:

    TB
    Just to add some inconsequential, personal reflection..
    I was with him briefly, in a house in Santa Barbara just north of UCSB’s campus.
    I had been renting/living in the house in the master bedroom before he arrived for the summer.
    He stayed in one of the two other bedrooms and allowed me to remain where I was.
    Just remembering the place, it was a small house, on the cliff edge.
    He was there to get away and work.
    A regents lecturer.
    GWR
    A5619 – Apr. 15, 1970: The Writer and the Revolution

  5. Phil Montoya says:

    As a young teen in the late 1950’s I worked in my fathers construction business helping to remodel the old house on his ranch near Cuba New Mexico and later building a two plex home that he rented out.
    He always inquired and was curious about local history. I found him very intriguing.

  6. I’ve picked up the Lyric of the Circle Heart trilogy at Half-Price Books last week never having heard of either it or William Eastlake. I went online to find out about Eastlake expecting to read an entry on Wikipedia and found your piece instead. (Wikipedia needs your help on Eastlake; they have almost no info and misnamed the trilogy). Why did his books fall into disfavor in the seventies? Also, I’m living in exile here in Houston after 28 years in Cleveland, OH, so it was a surprise and a pleasure to find that the information I was looking for provided by a landsmen from NE Ohio.
    And so glad my Eastlake search led me to this blog. I will return.
    Belinda Wilson

  7. Ken LaFave says:

    Thanks for posting this. I studied writing with Eastlake in 1973 at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Another student in his class was, of all people, the soon-to-be-comedian Garry Shandling. He was always kind to me and although his teaching style was unorthodox (it consisted largely of saying things like “Write what you know and break free from all the shit”) it had a good and lasting effect. (If my writing “career” has consisted almost entirely of newspaper articles, that’s my fault, not his.) I own a signed copy of the trilogy, which in 1973 was called “Three by Eastlake: The Early Fiction,” published by Simon and Schuster. Look for his collection of odd little poems and Vietnam-era articles for The Nation called A Child’s Garden of Verses for the Revolution.

  8. rapier says:

    Eastlake went to Vietnam to write about the war for The Nation magazine. I don’t know the dates and you will with me have to see whats available on the Web now. The outcome was what I think is his best work, The Bamboo Bed. A casual similarity to Catch 22 and a then exploding output of writing about the war as a surreal absurdity hurt the books reception I think. A tragedy. Not that people much care about the war anymore but of the of the dozens of good to great non fiction and fiction books about it this is the best.

  9. Margaret says:

    I’ve been looking for someone / anyone else who knows Eastlake’s work for about 20 years now. From time to time I’d just google him to see if anything was out there. There’s been almost nothing until now. I recently picked up a copy of Jim Harrison’s book, Wolf, just because there was a quote from Eastlake on the back cover. So happy to have found this site and the interest in Eastlake. I think it is very important to begin collecting information on him. Anything. Stories from people who knew him as a writer or otherwise. It is all important. I’ve been reading his books for years but haven’t ever run across anyone else who had heard of him. If anyone wants to organize something, I’m interested. Really appreciate finding this site.

  10. Ed Behan says:

    Thanks for this info, which I stumbled upon after the paltry wikipedia entry. I will look for more of Eastlake’s work. I’d read Castle Keep a few times, likening it to Catch-22 meets the Battle of the bulge. I’d also read his satirical look at the American Revolution, the Long Naked Descent Into Boston. Not as strong a work, but still amusing. I was curious about his Southwest themed work, having seen epigrams of his on scenic calendars that included quotes from Edward Abbey and other environmentally conscious writers. Now I feel I have something to search for.Such information was not readily available on the web a few years ago, so I see progress in this odd technology. Not sure if Eastlake would have considered it such, but if it sends some of us looking for intriguing books, that’s a good thing. . .

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