Newton Thornburg's novel Cutter and Bone is published on September 13, 1976.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 4/15/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11217

On September 13, 1976, Cutter and Bone, the fourth novel by Newton Thornburg (1929-2011), is published by Little, Brown, and Company. It's a tale of two lost souls looking for the big score, but it's more than just a crime caper. The book vividly captures the dejected resignation of mid-1970s America in prose as only Thornburg could write it, and indirectly is an early commentary on the emotional destruction left by the Vietnam War.

"It Just Seemed to Flow"

Newton Thornburg was born and raised in Illinois. A restless, edgy man, he held down various jobs, including a stint in the 1950s at his wife Karin's brother's cattle farm. While he was there he discovered he had a taste for ranching and from then on he had a dream of owning a ranch, which later played a role in the creation of Cutter and Bone.

Thornburg's first book, Gentleman Born, was published in 1967 and from there he enjoyed gradually increasing success with his next two books, Knockover (1968) and To Die in California (1973). He sold the film rights to To Die in California for $100,000 to Hal Wallis (1898-1986), a high-profile producer who produced dozens of films, including Casablanca and Barefoot in the Park. The money he got from the sale allowed Thornburg to buy his dream ranch, and in 1973 he bought 60 acres near the tiny community of Jane in Southwestern Missouri. That summer he moved there with his family, buying a small herd of perhaps 60 Black Angus cattle.

Reality soon set in. He didn't know anything about ranching. He didn't know anything about Southwestern Missouri either. He learned in a hurry, and he didn't make the mistake of assuming that his new neighbors were all dumb hicks. Instead, he saw that some of those new neighbors were just as smart and cunning, and in their own way a lot more dangerous, than those he'd known elsewhere.

Despite his lack of preparation, in his first years in Missouri (between 1973 and 1975) Thornburg was living his dream. Cutter and Bone was born during those days. As he explained to the British website Tangled Web in a 2003 interview, "It's really weird. Everything was exciting for me, working outside, rebuilding the barn, dealing with the cattle and the grass. Every day I'd get up early and get to work. Then I'd come in about ten o'clock and write for about three hours. It just seemed to flow ... similar to the other [books], I had this vague idea [for a plot], but it certainly wasn't conceived ahead of time. And the ending, I had no idea what that would be" (Cornwell).

Cutter and Bone

In its simplest distillation, the book is a tale of two unlikely buddies adrift in Santa Barbara, in which one of them stumbles onto a crime and together they hatch a scheme to blackmail the culprit, a rural Missouri tycoon. But it's far more than that. It captures the despair of mid-1970s America (post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-1960s idealism) in a vivid and believable tale of two lost souls, one lost after being blown away in Vietnam and the other just lost, drifting through the empty space in American history between Vietnam and disco, trying to find the big score. Cutter's angst from the war permeates the book, as he demonstrates in one tirade against the "movers and shakers of the world" who called the shots in Vietnam: "One fact was always the same -- is always the same -- it's never their ass they lay on the line, man, never theirs, but ours, mine" (Cutter and Bone, 133).

Thornburg was a cynical and distant man, known for his pessimistic, bleak outlook in his books; his son Doug suggested that in some ways Cutter was Thornburg's alter ego. This void in the midst of plenty shows in passage after passage, such as in his description of a night Cutter and Bone find themselves crawling along Los Angeles's Sunset Strip: "And even high as he was, Bone found the topless-bottomless mills as depressing as ever, sexless and castrating soul-killing cells of gloom in which red- and blue-lighted girls listlessly swung and stroked and bumped their sleek spayed bodies before the uplifted and oddly bovine gaze of the crowd, dead men all. Even Cutter could not endure it for longer than a drink, nor find a blasphemy to equal it" (Cutter and Bone, 238-239).

A Singular Ending

He also had a wicked wit that his critics sometimes missed. In one example, a hitchhiking Bone is picked up by "a heavy middle-aged sales type with a bright red face and a whiskey voice ... Bone in fact believed that if he had been an armed Black Panther or a Hari Krishna monk ... it would have been the same -- the man would not have noticed. All he wanted, all he had stopped for, was a pair of ears, a hitchhiker confessor, a surrogate shrink" (Cutter and Bone, 251-252).

Most of the book's action takes place in Santa Barbara, but its last chapters are set in the Ozarks of Southwestern Missouri. These chapters give you a taste of how much of an impression his new neighbors were making on Thornburg. His son remarked, "I think Dad learned a lot out there about people which helped him be a better writer ... People there were different than they are in the cities; the types of people were unique. It just seemed like they had more of a soul -- they were very real" (Dougherty interview). Thornburg incorporates these impressions into the final chapters of the book, and they provide a singular finale that blew people away in the 1970s, since most people then didn't know much about the Ozarks except maybe from watching The Beverly Hillbillies or Hee Haw (television shows from a few years earlier).

Cutter and Bone was published on September 13, 1976, to rave reviews. According to the blurbs printed on its cover, the Los Angeles Times described the book as "a superlative novel out of Ross Macdonald country ... with two fictional characters so strongly set in a plot so complex and satisfying that one marvels at their creation!" while Time magazine described it as "tense, funny and despairing ... charged with a passion that makes even grotesques seem likable and, more important, credible right up to the last, startling sentence!" and The New York Times was perhaps the most effusive, describing the novel as "A thriller, and a whacking good thriller, too ... shows how much can be done within a classic form by a writer who knows his business ... the best novel of its kind in ten years!" (Cutter and Bone, back cover).

The book's ending seems to leave a couple of openings for a sequel. Thornburg was asked more than once if he intended to write one, perhaps simply titled Cutter, but he never really considered it. His son explained, "He decided the story stood on its own ... He let people draw their own story of what became of Cutter" (Dougherty interview).

Cutter's Way

Cutter and Bone was made into a movie titled Cutter's Way in 1981, starring John Heard (b. 1945) as Cutter and Jeff Bridges (b. 1949) as Bone. The movie follows the book to some degree until its ending, which completely differs from the book's explosive finale. Thornburg was unimpressed with the film and found its conclusion "absurd" (Cornwell), and if you know the book, you can only agree. The end of the movie is so different -- eliminating the climactic trip to Missouri entirely -- that it takes one of the central themes out of the book.

It was the pinnacle for Thornburg. He wrote seven more novels over the next 22 years, many good, and one of the them, Beautiful Kate, was made into a movie. Still, none of his books resonated with his readers to the degree that Cutter and Bone did. He left Missouri in 1978 and moved to King County in 1980, where he wrote his final five novels between 1982 and 1998. He died in 2011.

Sources: Newton Thornburg, Cutter and Bone (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1976); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Thornburg, Newton Kendall Jr. (1929-2011)" (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 15, 2016, 2016); Bob Cornwell, "Newton Thornburg," Tangled Web website accessed February 29, 2016 (http://www.twbooks.co.uk/crimescene/thornburginterview.htm); Phil Dougherty interview with Doug Thornburg, March 11 and 28, 2016, Kenmore, Washington.

Related Topics:   Writers & Poets

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