Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-reView

february 2008


by Robert Ronning

It’s tempting for me to treat Rod Whitaker as something of a righteous cause since his death in December 2005.  In an age in which herd psychology mostly determines what books are “packaged,” Whitaker based a whole writing career on a shocking premise: if you write what you want to write and keep working at it, you will be published and people will read your books.  As his heroine-punster Katya might have put it, what a novel concept.

It’s a classic author fantasy, befitting the classy writer that Rod Whitaker was.  No author book tours, no interviews, no book signings – Whitaker would just keep writing audacious stories and would shun the media and anything else that had the odor of celebrity stuff.  Let the dreck take care of itself, he might have said.

Dashing a little late out of the gate as a forty-year old best-selling writer of stylish, seductive page turners like The Eiger Sanction and its sequel The Loo Sanction, Whitaker could have written countless such confections. But he said writing the same sort of spy spoofs would be a shallow, dull enterprise.  Instead, his career took a more circuitous, fascinating path, one that began in a difficult childhood.  In fact, it was a time so troubling that he would create “story games” for himself to tap into an inner life of fantasy, as a way to avoid being robbed of his youth.

Whitaker would go on to explore a range of genres in highly-crafted fiction under the familiar pen name of Trevanian as well as other amusing pseudonyms.  An adept literary mimic, the childhood story games would morph into ingenious, uniquely-fashioned novels like Shibumi and especially The Main and The Summer of Katya.  I marvel at his careful workmanship, the long, lucid sentences within elegant, intelligent paragraphs; I delight in the deft shift in character, milieu, and narrative approach from book to book.  I sense a writer who could turn on a literary dime and dart off in any direction with whatever narrative and style intrigued him. There may not be a better writer of snappy, provocative dialogue, not only in his novels but in a stellar collection of short stories.  His early, first-rate plays showed that, had he pursued a playwriting career, he might have held his own with the likes of Chekhov, Shaw, and Tom Stoppard.

If your mood is for a bit of nastiness in the political-thriller genre, for a tale with tart, witty dialogue and over-the-top characters, go to the Sanction spoofs.  If you’re feeling more than a little foul about the U.S. and what the country has got itself into, you could pick up Shibumi and get an outsider’s perspective from thirty years ago wrapped in a fanciful story that still rings true.

If your taste is for a top-notch story, one Whitaker called a novel that’s “buried within a popular genre” of a police procedural, then The Main is a first-rate novel from the seventies that still reads like a classic.  As Whitaker described it, the “inner novel was about the inability of western males to deal with grief and loss.” [2] Hardly an issue that’s gone away.

If you savor some old-world romance - “that last summer before the Great War,” as told by an endearing, Chekhovian narrator, “the war that marked the boundary between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between the Age of Grace and the Era of Efficiency” [3] – then The Summer of Katya is the place to visit. 

If you find yourself in a foul mood, unwilling to shake off a misanthropic view of life after reading Shibumi, then you need to pick up Incident at Twenty-Mile, a novel its narrator says is “firmly embedded in the conventions of the Western genre, but dealing with wider and more contemporary issues: with the end of a century, the end of an era, the end of a defining, and for most American males a limiting, dream. … A last Western.” [4]

What a clever fellow he was and with such an ineffable presence.  He was hard to pin down largely because he stayed below the media radar in his famously private life.  As I peeked behind the curtain at this phantom of big-league writing, even friends and colleagues suggested Whitaker could be something of an enigma, a very likable enigma.

Variously described as affable and charming, charismatic and brilliant, dapper to maybe even flamboyant, I prefer another description I heard: that he was a classicist.  I see a kind of postmodern classicism in his writing: a studious precision; an obsessive care, clarity, and authenticity in every aspect of his literary craft.  He carried these diligent virtues over into each novel: chapters read like tightly woven scenes from a play or a film; “crisp” dialogue, he called it, often spoken by colorful, supercharged characters; meticulously arranged and edited episodes that support what he called a “forward-thrusting” action, all of which were his stock in trade.

Rod Whitaker at left directing, at right acting along with Bill Scott, with sound track at far right, in stills from Stasis (1968) produced at the University of Texas-Austin’s film program.  Whitaker also wrote the film script along with Richard Kooris.  Photos from Thomas Fensch’s Films on the Campus (1970). [5]

There were brief but significant adult phases as actor and director, university professor and filmmaker, including a groundbreaking film text, The Language of Film.  But I believe the seeds of his talent go further back – to that harsh but fertile childhood.  It was a time he described as a “retreat into long and complex story games,” [6] when he was forced to become an adult but still only a child.  He would spend his youth in Canada near Trois Rivieres, he revealed in one interview; he seemed to have spent considerable time on the streets of Montreal and Albany, where along the way he might have acquired the childhood nickname The Professor.  Ever the classicist, he was in many learned ways primed to become a writer as a culminating career.

Though born in Granville, New York in 1931, Whitaker was more Canadian than American – apparently speaking only French until age nine.  Except for the middle third of his life, because of political and cultural currents he lived mostly outside the U.S.  (“I could feel the growth of anti-intellectual fundamentalism of the kind we thought we'd killed off with the Dayton Monkey Trial,” and he sensed a “compassion – fatigue” throughout the country. [7])  But he had that very American tendency to reinvent himself: using his extraordinary capacity for language, he had a special talent for recreating different voices and narrative genres.  Perhaps narrative ingenuity was at the heart of his art.

Though he was in fact an expatriate, in truth, domains and nations probably never meant much to him, except for his beloved home in the French Basque Mountains.  Of course, his many interests were legion, including a love for French film and Japanese culture.

Significantly, he was famously a drifter in his younger years, an outsider, even a restless loner.  Yet having said this, it’s easy to charge off in the wrong direction and create a profile that doesn’t fit such a complex, enigmatic soul.

Let me clarify this with what I’ll call the “Marlon Brando Story.“ Whitaker rode motorcycles - Indian, Matchless - for many years.  Legend has it he rode into Blair, Nebraska, in black leather gear, looking for a job as a theatre professor at Dana College, where he got an interview and got the job.  In his three years at Dana, a conservative, private Lutheran college, he seemed to acquire a bit of a reputation as the campus Marlon Brando.

But how could he ever be “a biker” or a member of a biker gang?  In writing about Whitaker elsewhere, I’d even suggested that to think of him as a leader of a biker pack or any other “rebel” group is … well, an absurd contradiction.  Surely he was too much of a loner-artist and drifter ever to be a member of any fraternal organization, let alone a biker gang.

Then I interviewed his former colleague, Professor Wayne Danielson, at University of Texas.  Quite out of the blue, he told me that Whitaker had an amusing story about his once riding with a pack of bikers.  For fun they would pull up behind a car and tailgate the anxious driver until finally the gang would roar past him.  All except one biker (Whitaker presumably) who would linger behind, maybe in the driver’s blind spot, just long enough to let the driver regain his composure.  Then Whitaker would zoom off around the car and startle the driver all over again.  Shades of Brando and The Wild One and those dreaded 1950s adolescent delinquents …

I had to smile when I heard this story.  How ironic when set against my earlier picture of the “loner-artist-drifter” - yet another example of the complex individual he was.  There are scores of these perplexing stories about Rod Whitaker, a life rich, audacious, and so delightfully unpredictable that it shouldn’t surprise us that long after his passing we should look for more novels to come.


Cover Photo - Rod Whitaker in Blair, Nebraska, 1966, a photo taken by Prof. C.A. Christiansen who said everybody at Dana College loved Rod, except perhaps the Religion Department

2Quoted from “Trevanian Responds to PW” (Publishers Weekly fax exchanges with Trevanian, 8/10/98), p 7, see

3Quoted from Trevanian’s The Summer of Katya (New York:BallantineBooks, 1983), p.1

4Quoted from Trevanian’s Incident at Twenty-Mile (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 4

5Photos from Thomas Fensch’s Films on the Campus (A. S. Barnes, 1970), p. 151-52

6Quoted from Trevanian’s the Crazyladies of Pearl Street (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005), p. 25

7Quoted from “Trevanian Responds to PW” (Publishers Weekly fax exchanges with Trevanian, 8/10/98), p. 9, see


©2008 Robert Ronning
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Robert Ronning is currently writing a book about the influence of theatre and film on Rod Whitaker’s fiction and has written in many disciplines, with articles in the arts, academic, and business worlds.  He lives in Tucson where he occasionally teaches writing and communications. 


Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media
This Issue
Cover | This Issue | inFocus | inView | reView | inSight | Blogs | New Tech | Links | Masthead Submissions | Advertising | Special Issues | Subscribe | Privacy | Terms | Contact | Archives

Search This Issue Email This Page

RSS FeedRSS Feed

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine - International Magazine of Arts and Media. Copyright © 2000-2008 AVIAR-DKA LTD - AVIAR MEDIA LLC. All rights reserved.