THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – Walter Tevis (1963)

The Man Who Fell To Earth (Tevis)Walter Tevis has some serious cultural clout. Two-thirds of his literary longform production was transformed into other forms – high profile forms at that. He wrote six novels: four of those were adapted for the screen.

The Hustler (1961) won 2 Oscars and was nominated for 7 more. The Color of Money (1986) was directed by none other than Martin Scorsese, and nominated for 4 Oscars, of which Paul Newman won Best Actor. The Queen’s Gambit became a very successful & critically acclaimed Netflix series in 2020.

The reception of the movie based on The Man Who Fell To Earth wasn’t as glowing, but it does star David Bowie. On top of that, the book was made into a TV-series twice, once in 1987 – conceived as a sequel to the 1976 movie – and in 2022, by Showtime. Bowie’s 2015 musical Lazarus – directed by the internationally admired Ivo van Hove – was also inspired by the novel, continuing its story.

Another thing that struck me was that at least three of Tevis’ books deal with addiction: The Queen’s Gambit‘s prodigy protagonist is addicted to painkillers, humans in Mockingbird’s future “spend their days in a narcotic bliss or choose a quick suicide rather than slow extinction” and Thomas Newton, the humanoid alien from Anthea and protagonist of The Man Who Fell to Earth, becomes an alcoholic. So when I did a bit of research for this review, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Walter Tevis was an alcoholic himself.

‘Write what you know’ is an often parroted as writing advice. So, did Tevis’ condition make this a better novel?

Sometimes the romantic thought that addicts are better attuned to the human condition and society’s ills takes hold of me. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, even though some addicts might have more empathy for those that can’t help themselves – and isn’t that basically everybody, to a certain degree? Being an addict confronts oneself with the non-existence of free will, even though some that have conquered their addiction will pin that victory to their moral strengths rather than their changed conditions.

So it is no surprise that lots of reviews of The Man Who Fell to Earth point to the deep humanity of this book, whatever that may mean. And while I agree the novel is still worth reading 60 years after it was first published – even somewhat of a classic – I found the portrayal of addiction a bit lacking. Tevis wrote an interesting story, even an original one, but I don’t think it is particularly deep or insightful.

There’s three addicts in the the book: Thomas Newton himself, the scientist Nathan Bryce, and Betty Jo, Newton’s housekeeper. They all fit the same category: drunks that don’t find their own addiction problematic. In Newton’s case, his addiction is – unsurprisingly – the result of alienation, doubt, loneliness. Bryce is a widower, and Betty Jo also drinks to forget an abusive dead husband. In a way, that’s all pretty standard fare. As such, this book isn’t about alcoholism, it just features three characters that are lonely alcoholics.

While Tevis wrote the book, he hadn’t kicked the habit yet, and so a few times you’ll find a certain glorification of addiction: “getting drunk on gin and sentimentality, and it had seemed to him that they had found a better kind of satisfaction in this emotional debauch than the middle class derived from its Roman barbecue feasts, its drunken midnight swimming and its quick sex” or “to be gently but firmly drunk, making a pleasure of melancholy.” Unsurprisingly, Tevis portrays being drunk as the rational thing to do “in an insane world”.

It for sure is refreshing to read a book that doesn’t make a big problem out of addiction, but on the other hand Tevis never really digs deep into the why or how, nor does he seem to care for the results of being chronically drunk. It just is – maybe like it just was in Tevis own life – and so Newton seems to be able to hold his liquor pretty well.

That leaves the other themes to unpack.

For starters, the book’s title & main focus is spilled out already on page 6: “and he fell to the ground and lay there, his body and his mind crying out against the violence that was being done to them by this most foreign, most strange and alien of all places.”

I don’t think Newton works particularly well as metaphor however: he’s not a human that feels alienated, but an actual alien. And while we can recognize something of ourselves in this alien – and some more things of Tevis, who has called the book a “very disguised autobiography” – the book does not really zoom into why a human would feel alone in a human world.

The rest of the thematic content is again pretty simple, and hardly explored: the notion of an intellectual Übermensch (Tevis doesn’t offer a true Nietzschean one, Newton is no moral Übermensch), a few brief ruminations on humanity being a danger to itself, the atomic bomb… the typical warnings against the destruction of our planet that started pretty much right Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and were a staple of lots of cultural expression throughout the 50ies and 60ies, not unlike today’s cli-fi.

So why did I call this book original? Well – because its central figure, a very smart alien from a very smart race, turns out to be a complete & utter anti-hero, and a tragic one at that. I probably haven’t read enough vintage science fiction, but I know of no other book that takes this approach. In that sense, it’s also very apt that Newton seems to give up just because – without much explanation or psychological drama.

Walter Tevis sure can write. His prose stands the test of time, even though it is unremarkable, and the mystery & build up surrounding Newton’s home world and his mission is excellent.

There are quite a lot of problems with suspension of disbelief however, and for me they keep this book from being a full out excellent read. Those problems situate themselves on the scientific front, on the sociological front, on the plot level and in how Tevis portrays the reaction of the US government to Thomas Newton.

But as Tevis’ focus isn’t on the science fictional & political aspects of his story – it’s much more a cute bedtime story told by your slightly drunk melancholic uncle rather than a razor sharp critical or existential analysis – these problems don’t make it a bad read either, not at all. That leaves ‘good’ as the apt denominator: The Man Who Fell to Earth is a good, solid read, there you have it.

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976 movie still cover David Bowie)

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14 responses to “THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – Walter Tevis (1963)

  1. Excellent little book, this. I also think that Newton doesn’t work as a metaphor. Newton is constructed from Tevis, from his personal psyche, and it doesn’t really go further than that, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just reread your review. It seems I forgot Tevis being an alcoholic himself, as you already mentioned it. I agree the book doesn’t go much further than being some kind of personal confession, but that’s not a negative at all.


  2. As usual, Bart, you’ve piqued my curiosity and your final judgement of it as “a good, solid read” is encouraging. While I accept your reservations about it aspiring to being a teensy bit profound, I look forward to seeing what I actually might make of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think Tevis really had an aspiration to write a profound book, if I gave that impression that’s my bad. There is not the slightest hint of pretentiousness in the book. Not that it was meant as merely fluffy entertainment either. Tevis just wrote what he wrote, a bit like the way the alcoholism is treated in the book too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this after seeing the movie starring David Bowie, and even though the long years elapsed since then have turned any recollection a bit foggy, I remember it as a poignant tale of loneliness and isolation: learning through your review of the author’s problems with alcoholism, it would be easy to draw a parallel. I have not watched the recent TV series yet, but I would not mind watching the movie once again – David Bowie was a perfectly alienated alien, if you forgive me the pun…
    Thanks for sharing!


  4. It’s good to read your thoughts on this book. It’s on my “pile” and I will get to it soon. I really enjoyed Tevis’s Mockingbird–a case of the right book at the right time for me. As well as it being a moving and worryingly prescient story, it got me out of a reading slump at the time. A future society addicted to opiates sounds a bit familiar, especially if you remove the word “future.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting! I’ll keep this one in mind, although I think I’ll read Queen’s Gambit first. I’ve heard this addiction angle on Tevis’s writing before, and I think it touches on an interesting problem: how much books are impacted by the lives of their authors and how convincingly can you write from imagination vs experience. I was told that Lowry’s Under the Volcano is THE novel on alcoholism, but haven’t read it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Any reason you’ll go for QG first? I thought the series was okay, but not as good as it was made out to be by many. I especially thought the way addiction was portrayed was a bit problematic, in the sense that it wasn’t really problematized at all. Also the overall arc was pretty predictable. But I did enjoy it, so I guess the book should be okay too.

      Haven’t come across Lowry. Will look into it, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I liked the series, I like chess 😉 I want to see how he writes about chess as I think it’s not easy to write about such outwardly static a game in an engaging way. The addiction thing was of course mythicized to an extent, a known trope of addiction being the cost of greatness, but I want to read the original to see how Tevis approached it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “Those problems situate themselves on the scientific front…” I didn’t read what that problem was. An addicted alien?

    Great review. And I’m actually interested in reading his work now after seeing his name on books over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I didn’t list the specific problems, because I didn’t want to put too much focus on plot holes and inconsistencies. Sometimes such a review can be fun to write, but the overall quality of the book is too good to pan it like that.

      One example of a scientific problem is that at the end of the book it turns out that there are no human anesthetics that work on the alien, yet he has been drunk a large part of the book. It’s generally small stuff like that. The biggest problem might be the reaction of society as a whole and the US government in particular to the scientific wonders he brings, and the fact that he is an alien. Those reactions seem to me rather lukewarm, and overall unrealistic.

      Liked by 1 person

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