Thomas Powers

Thomas Powers is the author of nine books. He lives in Vermont where he is completing his tenth, about his father.

Stone got his only glimpse of the fighting in a battle zone twenty or so miles north-west of Saigon. He made the trip riding pillion on a motorcycle with a friend. He felt that honour required he share the danger of the troops, however briefly. A deeper, in some ways even scarier impression was left by the Saigon underworld with its war-wounded and homeless street kids, its teenage prostitutes and thieves, and its ‘skag-bars’ selling heroin in multiple user-friendly forms – as a booster in cans of beer, as an additive in cigarettes, or as a powder for snorting or injection. War was the business of the day – ducking it, waging it, arguing about it – but next to war came drugs. It seemed to Stone that among the writers he saw, a ragged mix of big names and the unknown, everybody was a user or a dealer. On Perry Lane, drugs had been a form of recreation; in Saigon their sale and consumption was of a different order of magnitude. Stone’s dozen days in Saigon were all passed in the shadow of the war. Everybody was in it, somehow, and talked about it non-stop, but the talk never went anywhere. It ran into the war and came to a full stop. The war refused to be won, or lost, or understood.

When​ I think of J.D. Salinger now – not the books but the man – the thing I find hardest to understand is the moment when, in his early thirties, he began to hide his face. In 1952 he hired the photographer Antony Di Gesu to take a series of portraits. With his prominent nose, jaw and cheekbones he looks as ruggedly confident as a prizefighter – in early life he was a...

James Angleton​, chief of counterintelligence at the CIA for twenty years, was not the ideal spy. The ideal spy is a mouse-coloured blur in the crowd, someone like George Smiley, described by his wife as ‘breathtakingly ordinary’. There was nothing ordinary about Angleton. Once experienced, his history, his appearance, his manner, and his stubborn refusal to be clear were all...

‘Who​ are you?’ is the question that devils every son and daughter. Other people can seem of a piece observed from across the room or across a table or on the next pillow but clarity disappears when you look inward. The chaos within is one of the major themes in the fiction of Richard Ford. What engages him is the churning of the conscious self, as changeable as the weather on...

All I Can Stand: Joseph Mitchell

Thomas Powers, 18 June 2015

Joseph Mitchell of Fairmont, North Carolina lived one of the classic American lives: dreamy boy in a Southern town with a mother interested in the finer things, read a zillion books in college following no particular plan, decided he was going to get a newspaper job in New York City and become a writer, and by God did. He’d been thinking about New York since a visit in 1918 when he was ten. After one look at the bustling city he told his father: ‘This is for me.’ His father was not pleased then or later.

To spend time​ with Tennessee Williams – for months on end in the case of Elia Kazan, the director who put his plays on the stage in the 1940s and 1950s; 12 years in the case of his latest and best biographer, John Lahr; or even as little as six weeks by me while reading Lahr’s absorbing Life, along with the work, and a big chunk of all the stuff Williams wrote and said about...

25 July 1978 (Tuesday). Dinner at George’s, where Gore Vidal showed up about nine and sat down in a curious hugging crouch in order to hide the fact he has grown fat since the last time we saw him. Otherwise he seems the same in every particular – intelligent, funny and malign in about equal proportion. He lamented the fact no one keeps diaries anymore, implying that all the awful,...

Flub-Dub: Stephen Crane

Thomas Powers, 17 July 2014

The Red Badge of Courage is generally the only thing about Stephen Crane that readers remember now. The novel, first published in 1895 when Crane was only 23, is short and centres on the battlefield experience of a man younger still, Henry Fleming, who worries that in the test of war he will prove a coward, and then does. Some rough germ of an idea for the novel had been with Crane for...

The Road to West Egg

Thomas Powers, 4 July 2013

Preposterous dreams can seem reasonable when you’re young. ‘I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived,’ Scott Fitzgerald said to his friend Edmund Wilson when they were just out of college, ‘don’t you?’ Wilson was the son of a lawyer, a bit chilly, a prodigious reader steeped in Plato and Dante. He thought Fitzgerald’s remark foolish – just what you might expect from a man who had been reading novelists like Booth Tarkington and H.G. Wells. But Wilson respected Fitzgerald’s ardour; he believed that was how a young man of talent should feel.

Mad to Be Saved: The Kerouac Years

Thomas Powers, 25 October 2012

Jack Kerouac’s short life, big talent and last dollar were all just about exhausted when the young writer Joyce Glassman bought him a dinner of hot dogs and beans on a Saturday night in New York City in January 1957. Glassman understood he was broke, but the rest she learned only later. She thought Kerouac was beautiful, with his blue eyes and sunburned skin. He had recently returned from 63 days alone on a fire tower in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific North-West, where he wrote furiously in his journal and was tormented by dark thoughts of mortality.

Comedy is murder: Joseph Heller

Thomas Powers, 8 March 2012

The longest years of Joseph Heller’s writing life fell between his first book and his second. He set no records but the delay eventually got his name into magazine pieces about one-book authors, a cautionary roster of the silent that included Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. Heller’s history reflected theirs – the dreams of youth and years of...

Too Fast: Malcolm X

Thomas Powers, 25 August 2011

How to be black in America was the challenge for spirited young men of colour who found their way to Harlem in the troubled years of the 1940s, when music, poetry, dance and art were giving way to drink, drugs, street crime and sex for money. Malcolm Little’s first impulse was to cut loose in the big city where he found himself soon after his 17th birthday in 1942.

Incandescent Memory: Mark Twain

Thomas Powers, 28 April 2011

The sun never shone more brightly and a boy’s dreams never seemed in closer reach, nor the girl next door prettier, nor his friends readier for bold adventure on a Saturday free of school than all did in the ‘white town drowsing’ on the Missouri shore of the mighty Mississippi River where Mark Twain in the 1840s drank deeply of the sweetness of life, and never forgot it. ‘Free’ was a word of powerful attraction for Twain. His friend Tom Blankenship enjoyed a glorious perfection of freedom, as Twain saw things: no mother or aunts to wash, comb, dress and civilise him; no expectations to fail to meet, no sermons in church to scare him and no school to crimp his style. He slept in a hogshead, smoked a corncob pipe, went barefoot in three seasons, knew how to make himself scarce when his father showed up drunk and mean.

What all men know – that Hitler wanted, intended and tried to annihilate the Jews of Europe – was something largely hidden from the Jews themselves until the job was far along. Hitler had spoken clearly enough in Mein Kampf, but the slow, deliberate and secretive progress of his Government’s efforts somehow lulled his victims in Germany just as it misled and confused most of those who watched from abroad. The minor scholar and writer Victor Klemperer, a German Protestant by his own estimation but a Jew by Hitler’s, witnessed and recorded the disaster as it unfolded in Dresden. He was quick to see that Hitler’s monomania would destroy the Nazi regime, slower to realise that annihilation was Hitler’s goal, and almost – but not quite – fatally late to grasp that he would certainly be killed as well if he did not bestir himself.’

And after we’ve struck Cuba?

Thomas Powers, 13 November 1997

October 1962 was not August 1914 because John Kennedy had learned the lessons of Munich, which may be summarised as follows: get angry in private, think before you speak, say what you want, make clear what you’re prepared to do, ignore bluster, repeat yourself as often as necessary and keep the pressure on. Where Kennedy learned the mixture of forbearance and resolution which lies at the heart of international peace and good marriages is a mystery; his mother and father were no better at solving problems than Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. But two new books about the Cuban missile crisis show how, in a pinch, Kennedy managed to keep a serious argument from slipping out of control.


The Monster Plot

10 May 2018

Thomas Powers writes: Jefferson Morley merits a good scolding. His offence wasn’t daring to ask ‘if Angleton was running Oswald as an agent’ but the words that follow. Here is Morley’s full thought on page 265 of his book: ‘Was Angleton running Oswald as an agent as part of a plot to assassinate President Kennedy?’ The problem with that sentence, so close to the...

War on Heisenberg

M.F. Perutz, 18 November 1993

Did the German physicists make no atomic bombs during the Second World War because they wouldn’t or because they couldn’t? This is the question which Powers addresses in his extensive...

Read More

Spies and Secret Agents

Ken Follett, 19 June 1980

Anthony Summers’s argument is remarkably simple. There is a tape-recording of the gunfire which killed President Kennedy. The third and fourth shots are too close together to have come from...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences