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.

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...

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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...

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