When a Favorite Coming-of-Age Novel Turns 50

Revisiting Richard Bradford’s "Red Sky at Morning" -- and all that steamy stuff in the high desert.

Richard Thomas (center) and Victoria Racimo in the film version of "Red Sky at Morning," directed by James Goldstone.

Some people are natural-born “read again-ers.” Others not so much. Some people, if they’ve enjoyed a book immensely, flip back immediately to page 1 and plow through the story a second time. Or a seventh. Conversely, there are those who take a bucket-list approach to literature: “So, I finally finished The Sound and the Fury. Won’t have to worry about that one again.” (The bucket-list habit applies to playgoing as well. I have one friend to whom you could offer a free ticket to The Tempest, with James Earl Jones as Prospero, Lupita Nyong’o as Miranda, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Caliban, and he’d say, “No thanks. Saw it my junior year of college. Out on the lawn by the library. They did a good job!”)

I’m somewhere in between these two extremes. I’ll have a second look at a book, but generally not for years after the initial read. Recently, something put me in mind of a book — 50 years old this year — that I read about 45 years ago: Richard Bradford’s semi-autobiographical first novel, Red Sky at Morning. I remember loving it and I was curious how it held up.

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I recall getting the book from the high school library and reading it rather quickly. I’d found it a bit thrilling because it was an adult book, really — a coming-of-age story with some salty language and situations. And I hadn’t really read a lot of grown-up books at that point. I remember, too, that it was set in the American Southwest. But when I read it again this year, I was a bit surprised to find that it took place during World War II. In my memory, it had been a contemporary narrative. It was also much more openly comedic than I’d recalled.

Red Sky was a literary success. In 1971, it was turned into a film starring a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas, Claire Bloom, and Desi Arnaz Jr. The book was compared to other coming-of-age tales, including J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Knowles, who reviewed Bradford’s effort, pronounced it “not just very skillful entertainment, but a novel of consequence.”

Are coming-of-age novels intended for and best read by people who are coming of age? Certainly generations of young readers have identified with Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. I’m not sure Red Sky was targeted to a youthful audience. But if it came on the scene today, it might well be classified as a “Young Adult” novel.

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Bradford’s protagonist is a Southern white kid named Joshua Arnold whose father goes overseas as a naval commander during the war. Josh and his troubled, high-strung mother prepare to spend the war at the family’s other home, in Sagrado, New Mexico. The family had acquired this place, in mountainous northern New Mexico, years earlier because the humid Alabama summers were impairing young Josh’s health. “God damn it, Ann,” Mr. Arnold tells his wife. “I’m taking Josh out of this swamp before some hot-shot skin doctor puts him in the Carville Leprosarium. He’s one, big open sore.”

Josh has been to Sagrado many times before, but had not attended school there. He quickly adapts, however, and soon makes a couple of loyal friends. Not so lucky is his mother. Missing her husband badly, she drifts into an alcoholic fog. It doesn’t help that a snobby, freeloading friend of the family, James Robert “Jim-Bob” Buell, shows up in Sagrado and parks himself there, provoking gossip about what’s going on between him and Mrs. Arnold. Mostly just a series of bridge games, actually, but the citizens of Sagrado are a bit sex-obsessed. While the humidity may be low in the high desert, there’s a lot of steamy stuff percolating there.

And yet, the book’s sexual content is rather circumscribed. A year after Red Sky was published, Philip Roth would gain notoriety as the author of a much more graphic bildungsroman: Portnoy’s Complaint. It wasn’t until after college that I finally read Roth’s book. But I’d managed to have some glances at its wilder passages during my high school years. It’s possible that Josh Arnold possesses the auto-erotic ingenuity that Alexander Portnoy would soon exhibit, but, if so, he keeps his mouth shut about it.

Josh’s closest pals are William “Steenie” Stenopolous, Jr., and Marcia Davidson. The trio quickly becomes a sarcastic comedy team. Marcia is a precocious, blunt-talking young woman — virginal, but always up for repartee about sex and other bodily functions. “She spends every summer at a church camp,” Steenie tells Josh privately. “She comes back with a tan and the scroungiest jokes I ever heard. This year she brought back a song called ‘Ring Dang Do’ that would make your hair turn white.” The banter among these wisecrackers may seem a little over-polished for real-life teenagers, but the camaraderie they share is believable. It seems to serve as a roadblock against any sexual ideas that Josh may have for Marcia, at least in the book’s earlier chapters.

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Race and ethnicity are also of concern in the book, with Josh discovering that Sagrado’s population is much different than Mobile’s, what with just one Black student in the school. But, as Steenie tells Josh:

“He thinks he’s an Anglo. We only recognize three kinds of people in Sagrado: Anglos, Indians and [Spanish-speaking] Natives. You keep your categories straight and you’ll make out all right. Do you have anything against your sister marrying an Anglo?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even have a sister.”

The book is entertaining from start to finish, but Bradford has some difficulty with his denouement. He rushes over a traumatic event near book’s end. (The very last paragraphs of the book are lovely, however.)

Bradford wrote only one other novel, 1973’s So Far from Heaven. It’s the saga of the Tafoya clan: an influential if ragtag Chicano family in New Mexico whose members become caught up in a movement to reclaim land from the federal government. I read this book recently also, and can understand why it wasn’t as big a success as Red Sky. Like that first effort, Heaven is a largely comedic work, but it seems unfocused, partly because it lacks a strong central character. (It’s also told in third person, as opposed to Red Sky, which has Josh Arnold as narrator.) And, once again, Bradford fails to bring the story to a fully satisfying conclusion.

Both books display a politically progressive bent. Bradford pulls for the underdog and displays a clear affection for the culturally diverse New Mexican populace. But for a 2018 reader, some casual homophobia and occasional digs at hippies and women’s libbers can make eyes roll. That said, the character of Lupe — a smart, strong female character not unlike Marcia in Red Sky — is a robust and welcome creation.

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Bradford died in 2002 at age 69. According to the New York Times obituary, “[h]e continued to write freelance book reviews and humorous pieces, but he later told friends that he suffered from writer’s block and found that he was unable to complete anything he started.”

And yet, one beloved novel can generate a lot of general good will.

I contacted New Mexican crime novelist Michael McGarrity, who’d asked for and received a book-jacket blurb from Bradford when his own first book debuted. I inquired about his memories of the writer and received this reply:

Richard was a dear friend, and came to the pre-launch party I threw for my début novel, “Tularosa.” We drank a bit of whiskey that night. I still have the note he sent containing his blurb for the book. Several years back after his death, working with some friends, we established the Richard Bradford Memorial Creative Writing Scholarship at the Santa Fe Community College in his honor. It’s fully endowed and going strong. He had a wicked sense of humor.