Bruce Duffy, an ambitious, inventive writer whose debut novel, “The World as I Found It” — with its improbable leading man, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein — received rapturous reviews but nevertheless failed to make him a lasting literary star, died on Feb. 10 in hospice care in Rockville, Md. He was 70.
His daughter Kate Duffy said the cause was complications of brain cancer, which was diagnosed in 2011.
For all the praise he received in his mid-30s, Mr. Duffy produced only three novels, with long gaps between the publication of each — the fruits of a career in which he wrote mainly on the side while earning a living as a security guard, corporate consultant and speechwriter.
His acclaimed first novel, published in 1987, grew out of a fascination with Wittgenstein. Mr. Duffy conceived the book as a fictional biography, with supporting roles played by the British thinkers Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, pressing forward with his tale even if he understood that a 546-page novel about a trio of 20th-century European philosophers might not win over many readers.
“You know, you don’t always have a choice of what you’re going to write,” he told The Washington Post in 1987. “You’re not like a cow that can give ice cream with one udder and milk with another. So I said, ‘Screw it!’ I don’t care what anybody thinks.”
Writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thomas Morawetz, an expert on Wittgenstein, described “The World as I Found It” as “a rich, eloquent, poised masterwork that succeeds beyond one’s most generous expectations.” In The Los Angeles Times, the critic Richard Eder wrote: “It is hard to know which is more outsized. The talent of Bruce Duffy or his nerve.”
Even a decade after it was published, the novel was still finding admirers. On Salon.com in 1999, Joyce Carol Oates named “The World as I Found It” one of the five greatest nonfiction novels and “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published.” And in The New York Times, A.O. Scott called it “one of the more astonishing literary debuts in recent memory.”
In addition to the critical acclaim, Mr. Duffy was recognized in 1988 as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and received the Whiting Award, for emerging writers, in fiction.
But a decade would pass before he produced a follow-up novel, a coming-of-age story, and it was 14 more years before he reimagined another esoteric subject, in “Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud” (2011),” about the French avant-garde poet and libertine who had a tormented relationship with his mother, renounced his art when he was 21 and spent years as a merchant and gun runner in Africa.
“Duffy carries the reader beyond the usual ventriloquism of a realistic rendering of the material to a playful level above and beyond it,” the novelist Alan Cheuse wrote in his review on NPR. “And his portrait of a mama’s boy gone mad turns out to be quite entertaining.”
Mr. Duffy reflected on choosing Rimbaud and Wittgenstein as his lead characters in an article for The Daily Beast in 2017. Wittgenstein, he said, “was a mental drill sergeant who destroyed the core of Bertrand Russell’s mathematics,” and Rimbaud was “a man roundly known at times to have been nasty, sadistic, and arrogant — even a jerk.”
Neither novel was a best seller but Kate Duffy said that her father was not dismayed.
“Writing was his passion, a drive that took over everything for him,” she said in a phone interview. “Whatever disappointment he felt, he just started another novel.”
Bruce Michael Duffy was born in Washington on June 9, 1951, and grew up in Garrett Park, Md. His father, Jack, with whom he had a distant relationship for many years, ran a heating and air conditioning business; his mother, Joan (Donnelly) Duffy, was a homemaker who died from complications following an appendectomy when Bruce was 11.
“It was as extraordinary as if she had run away to join the circus,” he told The Washingtonian in 2011. “I felt completely radioactive and angry. I thought adults were fools and completely blind and that other kids had no clue.”
At the University of Maryland, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature, he came under the influence of Marjorie Perloff, a poet and literary critic. She became a career-long mentor — but not before she challenged him on what she saw as his poor attitude.
During a class on Tolstoy and D.H. Lawrence, she recalled in a phone interview, “Here was this 6-foot-6 guy, sitting in the front row, sneering at me, rolling his eyes and making faces. I had never seen anything like it. I had him come to my office, and I asked, ‘How would you teach this class?’ He had no idea. He only wanted attention, and he told me what he was writing.”
After graduating, Mr. Duffy became a security guard at the Hospital for Sick Children (now the HSC Pediatric Center) in Washington. He brought a typewriter to the hospital, where he worked on his fiction and poetry. It was the start of a pattern — pursuing his writing while holding full-time jobs as a consultant for Labat-Anderson and then as a speechwriter for the mortgage loan company Fannie Mae and the accounting firm Deloitte. He also wrote for magazines like Harper’s and Life.
In 1997, Mr. Duffy published his second novel, “Last Comes the Egg,” about a 12-year-old boy’s flight from his home in the Maryland suburbs with two friends after his mother’s death. It was based in part on his childhood in suburban Garrett Park.
Then, in 2011, came “Disaster Was My God,” completed after years of ruminating about Rimbaud’s poetry and wild life. He needed to find a way to render the disagreeable parts of his life — to “create that oxymoron, a likable Arthur Rimbaud,” as he told The Daily Beast.
“The World as I Found It,” received new life in 2010 when The New York Review of Books’s publishing division reissued it as a “classic” after it had gone out of print.
“It is a serious novel about the grip of ideas and a historical novel executed with a very personal and remarkably light touch,” Edwin Frank, the editorial director of the publishing division, said in an email. He added, “Bruce’s book typically drives philosophers bats, by the way — another thing that recommends it.”
In addition to his daughter Kate, Mr. Duffy is survived by another daughter, Lily Duffy; his stepson, Sam Kupfer; his wife, Dr. Susan Segal, and a granddaughter. His marriage to Marianne Glass ended in divorce.
Mr. Duffy did not publish another novel after “Disaster Was My God,” but had completed one: “American Humdinger,” a historical novel about the creation of the atomic bomb that focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; the Danish physicist Niels Bohr; and Werner Heisenberg, who led German’s atomic weapons program.
When he couldn’t find an agent to sell the novel, Mr. Duffy gave up and started a new one, which was unfinished at his death.