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The Sheltering Sky Paperback – April 1, 1998
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American novelist and short-story writer, poet, translator, classical music composer, and filmscorer Paul Bowles has lived as an expatriate for more than 40 years in the North African nation of Morocco, a country that reaches into the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. The desert is itself a character in The Sheltering Sky, the most famous of Bowles' books, which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa's own arid heart of darkness. In the process, the veneer of their lives is peeled back under the author's psychological inquiry. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"[The Sheltering Sky] is one of the most original, even visionary, works of fiction to appear in this century." -- --Tobias Wolff
"It stands head and shoulders above most other novels published in English since World War II." -- --The New Republic
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Travelers Kit, Port and Tunner live this philosophical post-war outlook from bedrooms and buses, boxcars and hashish-hazed cafes, the culture on the outskirts only there to suffer the Americans' wealthy dissatisfaction. Rejecting, then rejecting, they move further inland, further into a bored American's Heart of Darkness, attitude and identity similarly removing themselves from the malaise'd bodies with every mile, every dune crossed into the suppression of that finalizing sheltering sky.
An issue taken--these American Travelers are so flatly self-centered and unlikeable. Never are we meant to like them, or the many characters--namely the Lyles (byech!), so far absorbed by the Sahara they no longer witness their identities past and current as viable--interacting with them, there to receive readers' smiles, but the juxtaposition of bloated and bloating selfishness and ignorance by these enlightened Travelers is too overwhelming it inches miles past the point of believability; the result dissonantly ahead of its time--the marriage of wealth and aimlessless so common and approachable since the `80s--and a simple revival of his `20s inspirations. Yet, despite this, their interactions, their stories: They're absorbing beneath Bowles' slick, addictive prose; his crafting of the Saharan setting one of the novel's greatest strengths beginning to end.
I'm with many readers who feel the book's final act is bizarrely out of place, some good ideas present in Kit's breakdown and loss of identity to the foreign desert, but the execution far from ideal in the shadow of the alienating but constant travel and Port's painful, powerful absorption into the sheltering sky ("There are so many things I want to say. I don't know what they are. I've forgotten them all." She patted his hand lightly. "It's always that way."). It`s jarring because it no longer feels like it's the character--i.e., Kit--casting judgment on the Saharan culture, but Bowles himself, his portrayal of Kit's captivity and submission to the Soudanese Islamic culture downright uncomfortable to read and end an otherwise great and enjoyable story with. There's just too much -ish holding back the finale.
Like with the characters, I feel a dissonance over the place of this book in literary canon. I enjoyed it and don't regret reading it one whit, but by this point it's been done again and again, often better, by other writers before and after Bowles, and thematically it's a book that'll continue being covered as long as the culture that bore it evolves in this confusing direction. It doubtless won't be forgotten entirely, but its place and importance is continually being supplanted by other, always contemporary novels. Thank you, Larry McCaffery, but I don't think I'd call this required reading.