Evan S. Connell was a writer of wide-ranging talents who wrote acclaimed novels such as “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge” and whose nonfiction account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, “Son of the Morning Star,” has been hailed as a modern classic.
Connell died Thursday in New Mexico of complications from a stroke. He was 88. Connell (pronounced con-NELL) drew on his Midwestern youth for his best-known works of fiction, the intersecting novels “Mrs. Bridge” (1959) and “Mr. Bridge” (1969), about the stunted emotional life of a prosperous Kansas City family. The novels were made into a well-regarded Merchant-Ivory film, “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge” (1990), starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
But Connell was almost impossible to classify as a writer. In other novels, he wrote about the life of a Navy pilot, which he had been in World War II; alchemists of the Middle Ages; the Crusades; and the unstoppable desires of a rapist.
As a nonfiction writer, Connell composed his 1984 study of George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, a biography of Spanish painter Francisco Goya (2004) and essays about science, history, religion, exploration and astronomy.
The only element that united his writing was a refined, carefully delineated prose style that drew favorable comparisons to the works of Proust.
“Mrs. Bridge,” which was Connell’s first novel, examined the life of a lawyer’s wife, turning over the cracks in her marriage and her unspoken doubts about life, faith and the path she chose.
In the novel, which is written as a series of more than 100 short scenes, Mr. Connell depicted his title character without sentiment in delicately etched prose:
“She sat in the stalled Lincoln, with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally, she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called to anyone who might be listening. ‘Hello? Hello out there?’
“But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.”
Critic Anne Chamberlain, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called the novel “a triumph of ironic characterization.”
A decade later, when Connell turned his attention to “Mr. Bridge,” critic Webster Schott wrote in The Washington Post: “Evan Connell looks at his world straight. No artifice . . . ‘Mr. Bridge’ is a tour de force of contemporary American realism, a beautiful work of fiction.”
If Connell had early critical success, with the “Bridge” novels and his 1966 novel “The Diary of Rapist,” which is exactly what it purports to be, he didn’t find widespread commercial success until 1984, when he published “Son of the Morning Star.”
He spent fours years writing the book about the 1876 battle in which Custer and all his 250 troops were slaughtered by Indian warriors in Montana. “More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past,” Connell wrote, “but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.”
Connell structured the book in a series of vivid scenes, including the impressions of soldiers who came upon the grisly battle scene.
“As the troops marched south,” he wrote, “they noticed occasional clusters of arrows standing up like cactus. Before long they understood that each cluster meant another dead cavalryman.”
“Son of the Morning Star” was made into an ABC mini-series in 1990, and Time magazine named it one of the best books of the 1980s.
Evan Shelby Connell Jr. was born Aug. 17, 1924, in Kansas City, Mo. His father and grandfather were doctors, and his mother was the daughter of a judge.
He attended Dartmouth College in the early 1940s to study medicine and, after the war, graduated from the University of Kansas in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He studied writing at Stanford and Columbia universities, lived in Paris in the early 1950s and later settled in San Francisco, where he held a series of dead-end jobs, including working in an unemployment office.
He never married, but he had a romance with Gale Garnett, a singer and actress who wrote and performed the song “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.” Survivors include a sister.
Connell had lived in Santa Fe since the 1980s and published his final book, a collection of short stories, in 2008. The Santa Fe-based Lannan Foundation awarded him a $100,000 prize for lifetime literary achievement in 2000.
He never bought a computer, never taught at a university and resisted modern conveniences. “I hate to be recognized,” he told the Los Angeles Times when “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge” was playing in theaters. “I want to be anonymous.”