On Broome Stages by Clemence Dane: A Conversation with Kate Macdonald

A few months ago, Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and I had a long dialogue on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which both of us had — coincidentally — just read and written about. That pleasant experience led to suggestions of other books to read and discuss, and we settled on Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages a 700-page saga that follows a family of English actors from the mid-18th century to the 1920s. I’d read very enthusiastic reviews several years ago and thought it might be a long, rich, and entertaining read.

Cover of first UK edition of "Broome Stages"Kate: When you suggested this novel I was keen because I enjoy reading novels about the theatre, and have long had Clemence Dane on my radar as an author I ought to know more about. I hadn’t realised that she wrote novels as well as plays (over 30 plays and 16 novels, and the Wikipedia entry suggests that she was also a painter and a sculptor). Now that I’ve read this novel (which is more like three or four), I’d rate her at the same level as J. B. Priestley: highly competent, excellent with character and dialogue, but not convincing as a literary stylist. She is a quintessential English middlebrow author, I think, but (in this novel) doesn’t give more than an absorbing family saga with lots of domestic drama. She’s vague about historical detail (especially shaky in the early, Regency part), but I think that’s because she’s writing as a playwright. All her characters are actors and her sets are stage sets. So much dialogue, and characters that draw the audience’s attention by being outrageous, or by saying arresting things. I found almost all them objectionable: selfish, obsessive, unkind, bullying and unreasonable, which is probably what makes them good dramatic subjects.

Brad: I’d have to concur with your assessment. Let’s face it, this novel is an order of magnitude lower than Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which we last discussed.

I was primarily interested in reading it because the reviews (both UK and US) when Broome Stages first came out were gushingly enthusiastic: “No lover of good fiction or of the theatre can afford to leave Broome Stages unread,” and that sort of thing. The Saturday Review (US) reprinted a long excerpt from it and the universal assessment seemed to be that it was a big, rich book studded with memorable characters large and small, and irresistibly readable. Personally, I found it all too resistable to read, at least in the first third or so.

In those early chapters, Dane uses a rather arch style that attempts, I guess, to mimic the tone of a Fielding but comes off (now, at least) stale and irritating. And I found it quite difficult to form a sustainable sense of many of the main characters. A sum of mannerisms and vices usually isn’t enough to turn a character from a name to a persona. The style, at least, grows a little more limpid as the story nears (Dane’s) present day, but the characters–well, I would certainly fail if you gave me a test of matching Broome names with their respective generations and actions now, a month-plus after reading it.

It did pick up momentum–a bit–but I felt that Dane didn’t some much end the story as stop it: as if she just ran out of ideas. There was one intriguing element toward the end. There is a fairly pointed hint at one point that youngest of the last Broome generation, John, is engaged in homosexual relationships at boarding school and then another, even more obvious, that he has a male partner–which his mother simple takes in stride, happy that her son is happy. Dane herself was gay and involved in a long-term relationship with a writer of children’s books, Olwen Bowen, so it might have been a way of asserting as normal and unexceptional something that was, at the time, considered acceptable only if covert.

Priestley is a good comparison. I thought of a huge best-seller in America around the same time–Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which was a 1,000-plus page historical novel intended to invoke the spirit of Sir Walter Scott and maybe even Tolstoy, but which is now considered more as a curiosity than a work of any serious literary merit. Such doorstop wonders seem to pop up every generation.

Clemence Dane, 1934
Clemence Dane, 1934
Kate: Looking at my notes I see that from the last generation of the Broomes it’s Richard who is gay, Henry dies in the war, Gerry is a lazy waster, and John is a mercurial playwright destined for greatness and to be the next Broome of the stage. But I need the notes to remember, you’re right about the personalitiesthemselves being forgettable. Hilaret, Lettice, Elinor, and Domina are the only named women characters I can recall. There was also Lionel’s illegitimate daughter who married into a Viennese Jewish family in the 1880s (very G. B. Stern, that), went to Brazil and brought forth another daughter who ended up in England to help Elinor elope scandalously with Lewis. Dane could absolutely create dramatic and entertaining storylines, but I agree, character definition was not her strong point.

Considering (now that you mention it) that Dane was herself gay, and presumably interested in women and their relationships, its odd that she create hordes of male characters, but only five women across three centuries of Broome breeding. They are all dominant, but stand out like illustrations of ‘the female condition in this century’ rather than working participants in the plot.

The staginess of the novel is quite attractive. I can visualise it working as a film or a TV series in the style of Dallas or Dynasty, endless sweepings on and off in big hats after huge rows and passionate arguments between men and women, and men who don’t behave as men are supposed to behave. The characters’ obsession with the continuance of the Broome legacy is typical of that genre. And, of course, after writing that I go to IMDB to check, and yes! It was made as a TV mini-series in 1966, starring many actors who don’t now have photographs by their names so they’re no longer working, or remembered. Only one series, though, and no pictures from it floating around on Google.

Brad: I think you hit the nail on the head: the staginess of this novel of the stage may weaken its merit as a work of literature but make it perfect material for adaptation to the screen. There have been plenty of great movies made from bad novels and bad movies made from great novels. And just think how a good screenwriter and a cast of expert scenery-chewing actors could turn the nastiness of many of the Broome characters into delicious viewing. Some of the best television of the last 10-15 years has been based on the ability to seduce viewers into sympathizing with some very bad people (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Urquhart/Underwood). And 1966 is fifty years ago–more than enough time to justify a remake.

Shall we contact the BBC? Surely pitching a concept to some show-biz types is on one of our bucket lists.

Kate: The 1966 miniseries began with the Lewis Whybrow elopement and used up the remainder of the novel, which I think was wise. I can’t think of a TV series that crosses so many historical periods as this book does. The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Poldark, all the British TV series of the 1970s that my mum was addicted to, and I took one look at, uncomprehending: they’re intense family sagas set in a discrete period, following the life of one individual and perhaps of their offspring as well. Perhaps that’s why Broome Stages is ultimately disappointing. Dane isn’t interested in people, she’s interested in creating a sweep of history, the rise and fall of a dynasty over centuries rather than generations. She loses the human focus, which is why her characters are unsatisfying. They have their moments of concentrated attention at crisis points, but years and decades go by in the turning of a page, which isn’t how one tells a story about people’s daily struggles.

Brad: True: any adaptation would have to focus on one period, at least in the case of Broome Stages. There have been a few examples of series that were able to successfully span several different time frames, but they required more narrative ingenuity than was demonstrated by Dane. As others have pointed out, she structured the generations and personalities of Broome Stages on the Plantagenets–which might be helpful for a reader familiar with that slice of English history but was utterly useless to a colonial such as I. In fact, one could hold up Broome Stages as a good illustration of why writing a novel around an arbitrary structure will rarely produce a work of the same merit as one building upon a strong story or interesting characters.

Which pretty much exhausts what I have to say about Broome Stages. I was hoping for better, but I’m afraid I will have to place it into my “Justly Neglected” file.

Kate: I never realised until I started reading up on the book afterwards that the Plantagnets were her framework. So that worked well, obviously ….. as you say, an arbitrary structure with more than a touch of staginess to it. So, goodbye Broome Stages. If I come across any other Clemence Dane novels I’ll read ’em, but I’m not expecting wonders.

Broome Stages, by Clemence Dane
London: Heinemann, 1931

My Literary Life, by Mrs. Elizabeth Lynn Linton (1899)

Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Between John Sutherland’s wonderful encyclopedia, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, and the Internet Archive, I can lose hours wandering through the three-volumed forest of English 19th century fiction, particularly in the last year that written by women. It can be soul-leeching, though. There is something relentlessly earnest and deliberate in so much English fiction after Amelia Opie. There aren’t many female counterparts to Thomas Love Peacock, Thackeray, Dickens or Wilde to lighten things up.

I thought I’d stumbled across a hidden gem when I started reading Amy Dillwyn’s 1884 novel, Jill, in which our heroine, making her own way through the world, is not above padding her travel claims or pocketing a precious object her employers clearly failed to appreciate adequately. And then I found that Jill was reissued by the Honno Press a few years ago as part of its Welsh Women’s Classics series.

And then I came across the following sentence in an essay about George Eliot: “She held her hands and arms kangaroo fashion; was badly dressed; had an unwashed, unbrushed, unkempt look altogether; and she assumed a tone of superiority over me which I was not then aware was warranted by her undoubted leadership.” It was attributed to Eliza Lynn Linton, a minor Victorian novelist and essayist, and a brief memoir that was published after her death in 1898. Such undisguised nastiness, so uncharacteristic of memoirists before Frank Harris and Beverly Nichols made it acceptable to add a hearty shake of bitters into the mix, deserved further investigation.

And the good old Internet Archive didn’t let me down. I quickly located an electronic copy of Mrs. Linton’s My Literary Life and proceeded to read the whole thing online (it’s a short book).

You know you’re in for some splenetic prose when the book opens with a warning — in this case from Mrs. Linton’s friend, another neglected late Victorian novelist, Beatrice Harraden (Ships that Pass in the Night — Anyone? Anyone?): “It is to be regretted also that she is not here herself to tone down some of her more pungent remarks and criticisms, hastily thrown off in bitter moments such as come to us all.” “Mrs. Linton’s pen was ever harsher than her speech,” Harraden offers in excuse, but My Literary Life rages on while Mrs. Linton’s dulcet tones have been silenced for more than a century. “It has been thought,” her publisher writes in introduction, that the incomplete sketches she was able to write before her death “possess an independent value which justifies republication.” Perhaps the same value upheld on a weekly basis by the National Enquirer.

Linton opens with a quick series of sketches of “My First London Friends,” who included the painter, Samuel Laurence, George Henry Lewes (not yet involved with Mary Ann Evans), and the poet Walter Savage Landor. Laurence, we learn, “by his experiments in glazes, grounds, and varnishes, some of his oil paintings were soon ruined by peeling off in broad patches, or by sinking into the canvas.” And was married to “a tall, fine, handsome woman, who overtopped him in height and I should say surpassed him in weight.” Lewes, she tells us, “would discourse on the most delicate matters of physiology with no more perception that he was transgressing the bounds of propriety than if he had been a learned savage.” And Landor, who is otherwise portrayed by Linton as a man of great kindness and learning, was a bit challenged in the haberdashery department:

He was dressed in brown, and his whole style was one of noticeable negligence. His clothes were unbrushed and shabby; his shirt-front was coarse and plain, like a nightshirt ; a frayed and not over-clean blue necktie, carelessly knotted, was awry; his shoes were full of bumps and bosses like an apple pie….

Linton goes on to discuss Thackeray and Dickens, contrasted the two men in both character and literary style for pages before adding the caveat, “I did not know either man intimately, but if not the rose itself, I knew those who stood near.” For their sakes, we can be grateful, since she quickly adds, with ominous tone, “Many secret confidences were passed on to me, which, of course, I have kept sacred; and both men would have been surprised had they known how much I knew of things uncatalogued and unpublished.”

She concludes with a chapter on “A First Meeting with George Eliot” in which she offers her timeliness comparison of the great author to a kangaroo. But not before polishing off a sampling of the women writers from the generation before hers — or, as Linton describes them, “remnants of a palaeozoic age.” These include Jane Porter, once celebrated for her historical tales such as The Scottish Chiefs, but in Linton’s eyes, “a kid of ghost from the tomb — a living monolith of pre-historic times.” Sadly, Linton confesses that “Charlotte Bronte I never saw; nor Harriet Martineau….” Lucky ladies. Linton only met Mrs. Norton only once, but that was enough to slip a quick knife in (it was “in later years, when her beauty was more a memory than a possession”).

Needless to say, the reader learns nothing of importance about George Eliot and far too much about Mrs. Linton’s squinted perspective on her contemporaries, and with her judgment that Eliot’s relationship with Lewes was nothing more than a house of cards, closes the cover on this short, brutish, and nasty book. Utterly forgettable and more than justly neglected, of course.

But after a long and heavy meal of Victorian seriousness, a palate cleanser nonetheless.

My Literary Life, by Mrs. Lynn Linton
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert (1963)

Covers of first US and UK editions
Covers of first US and UK editions

“Joyce Elbert had just turned thirty and divorced her second husband when she wrote this astonishing first novel … a daring story of a single woman’s frantic search for love in a loose living, free-wheeling world,” blares the cover of the Bantam paperback original of A Martini on the Other Table. I think I’ve seen about three hundred copies of this and other Elbert novels (Crazy Ladies, Drunk in Madrid) in used bookstores and thrift shops over the years and never paid the slightest attention to it, but when I spotted it in a discard box a few months ago, I thought, “Well, I’m focusing on women writers this year — why not?”

Looking for something quick, light, and a little newer after devoting a month to Dorothy Richardson’s weighty (in both length and substance) Pilgrimage, I fished A Martini on the Other Table out on the stack of cheap paperbacks perched precariously in front of a double row of other cheap paperbacks crammed into one of the bookcases in the basement.

I am something of an eternal optimist when it comes to cheap paperbacks. Experience has shown me that there is always a possibility that some remarkable and hitherto neglected gem lies behind a cover cleverly disguised to look like all the other junk that sat in a revolving wire book rack in front of the cigarette stand or the drugstore check-out. A slim possibility, but then you don’t maintain a site like this unless you’re willing to trust in outliers.

A Martini on the Other Table proved to be neither gem nor junk. A lost classic it ain’t, but it was something of a satisfying nostalgia trip for a kid who remembers spying on cocktail parties as I crouched in the hallway in my Dr. Dentons. Set in New York City, it’s narrated by Judy, just separated from her husband, a novelist enjoying his first wave of critical acclaim, and making her way writing superficial pieces for women’s magazines. No longer starry-eyed about love or fame, she makes the rounds of parties and gallery openings, having decided to post her picture next to the definition of blasé in the dictionary. She drinks too much and finds herself in bed with strange men on a regular basis. I half expected one of them to be Don Draper.

Most of the book is taken up with a intricately woven tangle of relationships, as a struggling artist and his socialite girlfriend befriend, and then bed (in turn) Judy, as a wealthy gallery owner watches her husband fall for a good-looking would-be actor, as Judy herself falls for a director of “industrial films” who turns out to be married (but not any more — or is he? — or isn’t he?). It’s all very complicated and utterly uninteresting, since none of these characters is anything but a name, hair color, facial expression, and personality quirk.

Joyce Elbert
Joyce Elbert

How much of Judy’s story is based on Joyce Elbert’s is anyone’s guess. Elbert is quoted on the back cover as saying, “The greatest thing that happened to me was when I turned thirty and divorced my second husband…. Fitzgerald was all wet. Freshness and youth don’t stand a chance alongside anxiety and dissipation.”

If you squint hard enough, that line almost looks like something from Dorothy Parker. There are more than a few echoes of it in A Martini on the Other Table. When Judy and the film director take in a play, she says she’s “glad that Ed and I had not driven in from the suburbs after a rushed supper and anxiety over the new baby sitter…. If a man is going to cut out on his wife I would much rather be the girl friend than the wife, who usually gets him back in the long run. Uncertainty beats the A&P-on-Saturday syndrome any time.”

But Elbert’s rebel act rings a little hollow. A lot of people go to a lot of parties in this book, and none of them seems to have any fun. Judy spends far more time brooding about men and relationships than about independence and sexual freedom. “The only person I ever really cheated was myself,” she confesses just after the director proposes to her. It’s hard not to believe there’s an A&P lurking on a Saturday not too far in her future.

Well, I was looking for something quite unlike Pilgrimage — and on that one count, I can say A Martini on the Other Table succeeded.

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert
New York: Bantam Books, 1963

Taking It Like a Woman, by Ann Oakley (1984)

Taking_it_like_a_woman“When I say I’m a feminist, what do I mean?” Ann Oakley asks near the end of Taking It Like a Woman. “I mean that I believe that women are an oppressed social group, a group of people sharing a common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions (and being over-represented in others). The oppression, she argues, is that of being “subject to the awful soul-destroying tyranny of being told the meaning of their lives by others in terms which are not theirs.” In part, Taking It Like a Woman is an account of the various interpretations of the meaning of her own life that Oakley encountered in the first forty years of her life.

Oakley’s childhood and youth were heavily influenced by the success of her father, Richard Titmuss, who played a large role in the shaping of the British welfare state and the policies of the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the example of her mother, a social worker, he defined for his daughter a life model involving competition, intellectual rigor, and dedication to society — in other words, one little open to anything that might smack of selfishness. To a young woman full of the natural doubts and uncertainties that any teenager might experience, it was, while never harsh or cruel, as relentless as the rigidity of sworn Fundamentalist parents.

Ironically, while Oakley found a very forward-looking husband, who was open to sharing household chores and comfortable with her playing the more dominant role as a bread-winner, and managed to find time and space to raise children as well (which she described in Becoming a Mother (1980)), she still struggled to find a fully satisfactory life model for herself. Indeed, I found it rather odd that she devoted such a significant portion of Taking It Like a Woman to what she refers to on her website as “fictionalised narratives about a love affair.” Nine of the book’s twenty-five chapters, in fact. In them, a woman (Oakley, I assumed, until I read the statement on her website) and a man, a sophisticated jet-setting academic from a far-off country (India? Indonesia? Japan? I couldn’t tell), meet in different hotels and resorts and share their souls — and amazing sex. After some years, he breaks it off, and she suffers a terrible crisis, only to decide that, “In the end, no one else was a reason for living: faith had to come from within, but within was no faith. So she finally took responsibility for her own life in a way that she always knew she would — being in the end just another woman.”

Ann Oakley, 1984
Ann Oakley, 1984

It’s hard to accept that these passages are purely fictional, in light of a remark Oakley makes at the start of the book: “I have persevered in this task precisely because I know I am living and writing about something which is recognizable to others.” Really? Yes, growing up, marriage, children, making a career, running a household, dealing with the death of a parent, recovering from cancer — all of which Oakley describes — are things recognizable, even familiar to others. But an extended affair with a handsome, intelligent, exotic man in good hotels all over Europe? Maybe not so much.

Oakley ends with more questions than answers: “There is no certainty in anything,” she says to her daughter, as they walk along a seaside. Yet she does establish at least one fact that she has seen in her own life and the lives of the women she has studied and worked with: “The tension between the interests of the family and the interests of women as individuals has been rising for some two centuries. It is not possible for these interests to be reconciled.” She foresees more battles over this issue to be fought, and if she finds any hope, it is in the growing willingness of other women to “look at the circumstances of their lives.” For me, her own example was intellectually intriguing but not inspiring. I wasn’t convinced that Oakley provided any clues for how other women could overcome their “common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions.”

Taking It Like a Woman: A Personal History, by Ann Oakley
New York: Random House, 1984

Caesar’s Angel, by Mary Anne Amsbary (1952)

Regular readers of this site (both of you) know that I tend to save the books I want to really concentrate on for the Transatlantic flights I have to take 5-6 times a year. This last trip, I thought I’d really found a good one. “Corrupt Power! This is the blistering story of a ruthless political boss whose thirst for power corroded his soul and blinded him to evil” proclaimed the flyleaf of the Signet Giant paperback I found in the basement of my beloved Montana Valley Bookstore. I am a sucker for a good city novel, and this had some indicators that it would be a good one: corruption; realism; dense plot packed into one evening during a state political convention; tempting review quote (“Full of violent, dramatic drive”–New York Times). It also appeared to have an interesting structure, with the core of the story told sequentially through three of the main characters. And it was unknown to me, which is usually a good sign that it’s probably unknown to most folks. So I happily tossed it into my briefcase for the next day’s trip.

I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. Some folks stop if the first page fails to grab them, others wait until the end of the first chapter, others until their patience gives out. I’m usually in the last category, and even then I will hang in to the very end on the off chance that it suddenly gets better. In the case of Caesar’s Angel, though, it was clear by the end of the first, mostly scene-setting chapter, that this was going to be predictable and pedestrian, something along the lines of, say, Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle.

Now, I know there are some–many, in fact–who consider these great books. And maybe there was a time when they were truly better than most of what was available. Kinda like the way Hill Street Blues seemed good when it first came out. But what seemed good, gritty, snappy and real when it was new can come to seem tired, thin and predictable when it’s got a few decades under its belt.

A simple run-down of the quartet of principal characters offers enough evidence for anyone to fill in the rest of the story without even reading the book:

  • Tony Maggiore, the tough, smart kid from the Italian ghetto who quickly realizes he gets more miles per gallon of political ambition with that special fuel additive: mob money.
  • Leo Stansky, the tough, smart kid from the Polish ghetto who becomes a prosecuting attorney with a special taste for busting hoods like the ones he grew up with.
  • Al Piazza, the idealistic, naive kid from the Italian ghetto torn between the heritage he shares with Tony and the black-and-white sense of right and wrong he shares with Leo. Oh, and who also carries a torch for …
  • … Jean Maggiore, the blonde angel attracted like a moth to Tony’s bright light of power and charisma but beginning to have her doubts.

It’s a little like Name That Tune: four notes are all it takes to identify the melody.

This was Mary Anne Amsbary’s one and only adult novel. Under the pseudonym of Kay Lyttleton, she wrote a series of novels for teenage girls about an earnest young woman named Jean Craig who grows up, goes to New York, becomes a graduate nurse, and finds romance. Or, at least, that’s what I assume happens given that these are the titles of those books.

She clearly tried to raise her sights to a much higher standard with Caesar’s Angel: a social message, the use multiple narrators, and a web of complicated relationships that I took the liberty to illustrate below.


But this illustration also shows what’s wrong with the book: a collection of stereotypes does not a convincing character make. I stopped reading comic books a long time ago. It takes a riveting narrative, stunning prose, or palpably realistic scene-setting to get me to hang in with cartoon-like characters (Hell, these days, even cartoon characters are more convincing than these mannequins).

Or a Transatlantic flight with nothing else to read. Which is the only way I got through Caesar’s Angel.

[In truth, the most interesting thing about the book was the list of other Signet Giants at the back. Just look at some of these titles: Invisible Man; The Naked and the Dead; Appointment in Samarra; Wise Blood. But even better are the lesser-known titles:

  • Street Music, the first novel by Theodora Keogh, whose edgy and odd sexual dramas have had something of a revival thanks to notice in the Paris Review and elsewhere.
  • Scalpel, by Horace McCoy, of the same hard-boiled school as Hammett and Chandler, better known for his Depression-era novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.
  • The Descent, by Fritz Peters, which I mentioned here way back in ought six.
  • Heaven Pays No Dividends, a novel of postwar Germany by Richard Kaufmann. Frederic Morton wrote of this novel in the Saturday Review, “That a novel so grim in its setting, so formidable in its moral implications, can at the same time be so wonderfully engaging, is a tribute to Mr. Kaufmann’s skill. He has armed his hero with a perennially childlike resistance to ulterior motives, with an imperviousness to sophisticated compromise. The effect is not dissimilar to the one Mark Twain achieved when he let Huck Finn’s gusty innocence loose upon life’s devious rascalities.”
  • Down All Your Streets, by Leonard Bishop, a long, rough, macho novel, one of the first to deal with drug addiction and drug dealing. William Burroughs feared it would take away readers he hoped would read his first book, Junky.
  • Natural Child, Calder Willingham’s fifth novel, set in Greenwich Village, flirting with the issue of abortion, and still well-regarded for its dialogue and use of an unreliable narrator.

Oh, and there’s Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. Well, they can’t all be great.]

They, by Marya Mannes (1968)

Cover of first US edition of 'They'Around the middle of Marya Mannes’ 1968 quasi-sci-fi novel They, a conversation about what is considered “dirty” goes off on several different tangents. After pages and pages that mention everything from Shakespeare to the nature of clams, the pompous conductor Lev says, “It is very hard to keep on the track with this group. No discipline.”

Unfortunately, this is how one feels reading Mannes’ misguided vision of dystopia. Despite an intriguing premise – a world in which people over 50 are segregated from the rest of society for 15 years until they’re finally killed off – Mannes doesn’t really give us a story to match it.

The story is narrated by Kate, who lives with Lev and three other people along with their pets in an old beach house. They’re all between the ages of 50 and 65, torn away from their families and preparing for imminent death. They’re only allowed to leave the beach house at designated times for restocking on food or going for medical checkups. During these checkups, any patient with a serious illness would be put to death immediately. This is because “They” (always capitalized) declared that people over the age of 50 were no longer able to contribute to society, and so needed to be exiled.

How did They come to this determination? Well, Kate provides a rather convoluted explanation. It seems to have started with young people’s love of late-1960s pop culture, which ultimately led to a youth-obsessed society that rejected not only the past but any kind of human feeling.

We kept looking for meaning, for standards, for order…and we were told they were no longer relevant….

We were told daily that mind (logic, reason) meant nothing and that only sensation counted.

Words were of no importance, except to the intellectual arbiters who used them to tell us this.

And the man who told us writing was dead could not write.

Yet, after spending many pages attacking the youth and their lack of standards, Kate writes, “For you see, it wasn’t only Their doing, although perhaps I should have made it more clear that They applies not only to the young. The machines were part of the takeover, for they had invaded every function of daily life.” It gets worse: “For what really brought the sense of crisis that followed the chill was not merely domination by the young or by the machine but the brief return to political power of a reactionary coalition under a conservative President.” This government then started a war with China. Talk about slippery slopes!

So what do the residents do? Do they try to rally against the system? Do they attempt an escape into a world where they can live without restrictions? No, they just spend a lot of time talking about Them and their interests. And because of her experience as a writer and editor, Kate gets chosen by the rest of the group to be the chronicler. Yet her purpose for writing (like everything else in this book) is unclear, since “writing is dead,” even though the book begins with a preface written by Kate’s son, identified only as “6B8953A-411-Y.”

In all fairness, the residents do make some attempts to live on their own terms. One of the things they do besides arguing is to schedule days in which they deprive themselves of one of their senses. For example, they have “Blind Day,” where they are not allowed to use sight. The residents believe that by practicing such things, they can heighten their other senses in case they lose one in real life.

And, at the end of the book, the residents do create an incident that gets Their attention. But Mannes spends too much time on observations and arguments about what society has become and not enough time building up the story to its climax. (It doesn’t help that she mentions the climactic incident at the novel’s beginning.)

Much later in the story, a young mute enters the lives of the residents. Despite his youth and his inability to talk, he actually gets along with the residents, who name him Michael since they cannot determine his real name. The problem with Michael is he’s not really a character. When he first appears, he serves as a temporary distraction from all of the bickering about culture and politics. Then Mannes – rather blatantly – turns him into a device foreshadowing the incident at the end. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if Mannes had used him more in the story and given him more human characteristics.

In conclusion, Mannes’ novel serves neither as a warning about the dangers of technology nor an example of the human spirit overcoming adversity. And They has little to offer in the way of literary value or entertainment. Perhaps readers who are interested in social criticism from the late 1960s may appreciate this novel, but those who are looking for a great dystopian novel similar to 1984—or even one on a par with an average SF book—will be disappointed.

Written by Christopher Iacono
Twitter: @ciacono1973

Out of My Time, by Marya Mannes (1971)

outofmytimeThis is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time.

Marya Mannes was a woman who got around with a capital “A.” Her parents, David Mannes and Clara Damrosch Mannes, were among the most popular and respected classical musicians of the early 20th century, and through their New York apartment flowed a constant stream of talents such as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Schnabel, as well as Clara’s brothers Frank and Walter. Her brother Leopold was a celebrated concert pianist, married one of George Gershwin’s sisters, and, along with fellow musician, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., invented the process behind Kodachrome color film.

When she was 19, she travelled alone to England, where she studied with sculptor Frank Dobson and socialized with various members of the Bloomsbury set before heading off to Paris and the Riviera, where she partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Returning to the U. S., she wrote a play that was produced (unsuccessfully) on Broadway, married Jo Mielziner (“the most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway,” according to Wikipedia), and wrote and modelled for Vogue. She left Mielziner to live with Francisco Duran-Reynals, a pioneering researcher into cancer virology, then travelled back to Europe, where she married the wealthy American artist, Richard Blow. She and Blow enjoyed life in their palatial villa in the hills outside Florence until they fled to the U. S. just a few days before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.

Her gift for languages and wide network of contacts came to the attention of the Office of War Information and, later, the OSS, which sent her to Portugal and Spain–where she also managed to write a series of “Letters” for The New Yorker. Then it was back again to the U. S., where she brought along Paul Cavaillez–a French aviator later convicted as a Nazi spy–to one of the first public showings of film from the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. Then back to Europe, this time working for Vogue, and on to Egypt and Palestine, where she watched the arrival of one of the first ships carrying Holocaust survivors to their new homeland. After that, she published as best-selling novel, Message from a Stranger and married husband #3, former R. A. F. pilot and British aviation executive Christopher Clarkson.

When she and Clarkson moved back to New York City after his assignment as air attache in Washington, D. C., Mannes started writing regularly for The Reporter and became one of the earliest critics of television–and then, one of the earliest critics to appear on television, in the early days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. And, ironically, managed to get some early and strong pro-feminist pieces into the pages of such magazines as Vogue, Redbook, and McCalls. By the late 1960s, her face and name was so widely recognized that T. V. Guide could feature her in an advertisement as a foil to Ed Sullivan.
And in and amongst all this, she carried on a series of affairs, for which she offers no regrets or apologies:

I did not then–and do not now–understand the term “promiscuous”: used pejoratively, of course, and only of women. What was wong with giving and receiving warmth, pleasure, affection, and release even if these could no qualify as love? If it was not wrong for men (Oh yes, philanderer, rake, swordsman, what have you–all implicitly more flattering than diminishing) why was it wrong for women? One at a time, to be sure. For one night, or ten, or two years. But how could you know a man you liked without knowing his body?

Of course you accepted the consequences of these acts. You accepted uncertainty, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and insecurity. But you lived as full as you could, and often as deeply.

So why my frustration?

I think there’s a subtle clue in the passage above. Note that in the space of one paragraph, she shifts from first to second person. Now, it’s not uncommon for a memoirist to address her younger self as “you,” but in this case, the “you” seems less the younger Marya than an ambiguous other person that could be herself but might just as easily be the reader or women of her generation or … well, you can make your own guess. Although Mannes quotes from her own diaries, letters, articles and unpublished works throughout the book, there is always an odd sense of the impersonal in her tone.

Take, for example, how she relates her experience of early motherhood:

There–really there–a child. And I was a mother.

In love, yes, but not in nuture. A nurse was already waiting at home. There would always be nurses. What did I know about taking care of a child, free soul over thirty, always in other worlds? No more prepared to be a mother than his sire a father?

… But once maternal demands began to impinge, I began to retreat. Like most men who have successfully dodged for millennia the actual nuture of child and home (owed equally with their women) I wanted to pull free of the basic hourly, daily matters of care. I loved to hold my child but not diaper him.

While I give Marya Mannes full marks for her honesty, I can’t read the above without thinking it was written more as an editorial commentary than a felt memory. “His sire?” Who used “sire” outside of animal husbandry in the last hundred years? A few diaper changes might have provided something missing in much of Out Of My Time: sensations.

This book is full of thoughts and reflections but largely empty of the things that make one person’s memories real to another–the specific details of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. When she does try to convey them, the result is unconvincing. Here, she describes going out to meet a ship bringing Jewish refugees into Haifa harbor: “Alongside the hull, the smell from the black portholes just above our heads was overpoweringly foul: the breath of a thousand latrines and a hundred hours of sweat.” Maybe it’s just me, but this clunky prose seems like a second-hand memory rather than something still vivid and felt twenty-some years later.

Too much of Out Of My Time is life in the abstract rather than the immediate. Although Mannes dedicates the book “To my son, with love and respect,” he goes unnamed and is mentioned, glancingly, less than five times after he’s born (e.g., “The adventurer in me would often continue to prevail, at a child’s expense, over the parent”). “A child”? His name was David Jeremy Blow, for the record. Neither do her three husbands get names. I had to rely on her New York Time obituary for theirs.

And this is what makes Out Of My Time such a frustrating book. Marya lived a remarkable, diverse, creative, original, and significant life. Her autobiography ought to be fascinating, a page-turner, full of anecdotes and insights. Instead, too much of the time it reads like War and Peace–specifically, the Second Epilogue, where dancing Natasha and dithering Pierre are replaced by Tolstoy the would-be philospher of history (“What force moves nations?”). Had Tolstoy not preceded the Second Epilogue with a thousand pages of rich, vivid, intensely felt fiction, no one would read War and Peace today. Just as almost no one reads Out Of My Time now.

Out of My Time, Marya Mannes
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Doctor Cobb’s Game, by R. V. Cassill (1970)

Cover of e-book reissue of 'Doctor Cobb's Game'Having taken a long trip over the last year through the pulp paperback fiction of R. V. Cassill, starting with his 1956 novel of wife-swapping in rural Iowa, The Wound of Love, I wasn’t surprised when I was contacted by Open Road Media, an e-book publisher, about their re-issue of five of Cassill’s books:

They offered me a free copy of any of these in return for this post, and as I was planning to read it anyway, I opted for Doctor Cobb’s Game.

Doctor Cobb’s Game was certainly Cassill’s most commercially successful book. The story is based on the Profumo affair, a scandal involving sex, secrets and Soviet spies that led to the resignation of Conservative Defence Minister John Profumo. Cassill’s Doctor Michael Cobb is his fictional version of Dr. Stephen Ward, the London osteopath and socialite who introduced Profumo to the 19-year-old Christine Keeler and who facilitated their affair while, at the same time, carrying on a close friendship with Soviet military attache and intelligence officer, Yevgeny Ivanov. Although doubts remain whether it did actually involve prostitution, procuring, or the passing of secrets or was just a case of bad judgment and awkward coincidences, the Profumo affair was something of a watershed in British culture and morality. Never after did the cone of silence over the old boys’ network fit so well, and the affair is often taken as one of the events marking the start of the swinging Sixties.

As all of his pulp novels plainly demonstrate, sex–particularly adulterous and illicit sex–held a great fascination for Cassill, and Doctor Cobb’s Game is his magnum opus on the subject. At the time the book was first published, sex had become something of a centerpiece on best-seller lists. The Sensuous Woman, by the anonymous “J”, topped lists for 1969, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was among the hottest titles when Doctor Cobb’s Game came out. Cassill’s publisher saw him, as he joked, as “Jacqueline Susann in trousers” and threw together a press campaign that saw the writer appearing on The Dick Cavett Show alongside the Rev. Billy Graham and Mandy Rice-Davies, who played a minor role in the Profumo affair. The press coverage and generally enthusiastic reviews succeeded in boosting the book’s sales and Cassill took home what was probably his biggest-ever paycheck from the sale of the paperback rights to Bantam Books.

In his review of the book for the New York Times, James Frakes wrote, “Cassill is remarkably adroit at capturing moods–domestic, supernatural, and, of course, psychosexual. I know of only two writers who rival him in this respect. Their names are D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” At the time, this was high praise. Reading it over forty years after Doctor Cobb’s Game, it seems much more artifact than masterpiece. Back in the 1950s, Cassill made a living for a few years working as an editor for the mens’ magazines, Dude and Gent. Although his work never made it to the pages of Playboy, his writing about sex in Cobb’s Game reminds me very much of the tone of that magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was, basically, “The great thing about Women’s Lib is that it makes it OK to fool around because now we know that women can get something out of sex, too.” In other words, it’s not the least bit liberating. Instead, it made me nostalgic for the good old days when Mailer had to write about “fugging.”

Frakes’ Times colleague, Jonathan Leonard, described Doctor Cobb’s Game as “a staggeringly complex meditation on irrationality, the forms it assumes, its energy for good and evil, its sources in biology and myth.” Running over 500 pages in hardback form, the novel does pack in a substantial array of characters in addition to those taken a clef from the Profumo affair. He tells the story, in fact, through an American narrator, Norman Scholes, who works in some ambiguous position for the mysterious Gath Corporation–an archetypal fictional “mysterious think-tank” corporation run by former Marine general and based out of a remote fortress-like complex in upstate New York known as “Falcon’s Wing.” The material related to the Gath Corporation alone is a choice bit of 1960s culture itself–I kept expecting Scholes to run into Derek Flint or Napoleon Solo.

But in fiction, there’s a fine line between complex and just plain complicated. While I found something to appreciate in each of Cassill’s pulp novels, they all suffered from his tendency to introduce one too many characters or one too many scenes or one too many plot diversions. In the right hands, most of these books could easily have made it into the ranks of a fine pulp classic like The Postman Always Rings Twice, but in Cassill’s, they ended up like a jigsaw puzzle with a few empty spaces–or,rather, pieces left over. Whether the fault lies with the manufacturer or the assembler, the result is awkward and unsatisfying. I was reminded of the old quip that an artist is someone who knows when to stop–and does.For me, the whole treatment of Doctor Cobb as some mythical character with access to alien or supernatural powers might have seemed radical and the height of invention at the time, but from this perspective, it looks as clunking and unconvincing as a special effect in a cheap science fiction film.

As one who remembers furtively thumbing through my father’s copies of Playboy in the late 1960s, Doctor Cobb’s Game was something of an uncomfortable trip back in time. I fear that what I enjoyed most were aspects and associations that Cassill never intended to evoke, while his great artistic reaches seemed like so much flailing around. I feel particularly chagrined to open 2015 with this post because I had decided to devote this year to featuring the work of neglected women writers.

However, I do want to note the significant contributions of Open Road Media toward the rediscovering of neglected writers both male and female. Over the last couple of years, they have reissued in e-book format (Kindle, EPUB and PDF) some of the most interesting writers of the last forty years, including such personal favorites as Thomas Rogers, Charles simmons, Stanley Elkin, Norman Lewis and Thomas Berger. And while I probably won’t pursue any other Cassill novels, I am delighted at the chance to sample his short stories, now available in The Father and Other Stories and The Happy Marriage and Other Stories.

Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer (1938)

littledoglostI wrote about one of Tiffany Thayer’s early novels, Thirteen Women, some years ago. For those who haven’t read that post, I’ll explain that Thayer was an eccentric and unique combination of pulp novelist, self-educated philosopher and follower of Charles Fort, and writer whose ambitions perhaps outstretched his abilities.

I bought a copy of Little Dog Lost after seeing the briefest of synopses, which described it as the story of Hollywood producer turned homicidal drifter. That made it seem a bit like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer — and too odd to pass up.

I should caution that I am no expert on Thayer and defer to those who are in setting down the authoritative facts of his life and work, but I feel safe in speculating that Thayer may have been trying to work through some of his inner conflicts in the process of writing Little Dog Lost. Thayer enjoyed the financial rewards of writing to the lowest common denominator, but he also wanted to pursue philosophy, to continue Fort’s work on anomalous phenomena, and to write a massive serious historical novel based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Wittgenstein’s friend, Barry Pink (“Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse”), Thayer seemed to be struggling to decide which role he preferred.

It’s not stretching comparisons too far to say that Little Dog Lost is something of a modern-day Candide. Thayer launches his protagonist, a highly successful movie producer (think Irving Thalberg or Darryl Zanuck), off on a journey to discover “the common people,” only to find that life among the simple folk is even more complicated than the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood.

Oh, and to spice things up, Thayer sets up his hero, Stanley Franklin, as (a) an orphan who witnessed his father kill his mother and then slit his own throat; (b) the informal foster child of a warm-hearted Brooklyn Italian family; (c) the ward of an enormously wealthy bachelor who plucked Stanley from la familia to raise and educate him as a gentleman; and (d) the brother of a psychopathic criminal. Oh, and (e) married to an infinitely patient and understanding woman who suffers gladly her husband’s every erratic whim.

I will not attempt to outline the plot beyond this. If you’re really interested, there is a detailed account available on Goodreads. Let’s just say that Stanley bounces from criminal gang to college campus to religious community to Communist rally to, well, a bunch of other stuff; joins a kidnapping conspiracy; learns that his real mother and father were not who he thought they were; dabbles in several varieties of 1930s radical politics; and ends up in an insane asylum. Unlike Voltaire, Thayer failed to understand that a good satirist does need to be a bit more organized than the crazy world he’s portraying.

If the whole thing sounds like a gawdawful mess, it is. I sort of admire Thayer’s chaotic energy, which can bring the stalest cliches, unfathomable motivations, absurd coincidences, and a certain manic brilliance together on the same page. I can’t for a moment claim to make sense of it, but I’ll give this to Thayer: he was certainly brimming with ideas.

File under “Eccentric Fiction.”

Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1938

Little Dog Lost

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

leftbankofdesireDown to the last few of R. V. Cassill’s pulp novels, I started Left Bank of Desire curious if I could detect any significant differences in style or approach between this novel, which Cassill co-authored with Eric Protter, and the rest, which he wrote solo.

I did, quite quickly and easily. Most of Cassill’s pulps are at least interesting as literary experiments, texts in which he tried out narrative techniques or played around with subjects (e.g., wife-swapping in The Wound of Love, even if they’re not always successful as stories. To be honest, having started and failed to finish several of Cassill’s mainstream novels, I’d even say they’re better reads than the books he wanted us to take seriously.

In contrast, Left Bank of Desire is just crap. I don’t know if the fault lies with Cassill or with Protter or with a collaboration that simply proved less than the sum of its parts. Frankly, it’s not a matter worth investigating. But this is a book with an implausible premise, a meandering narrative, characters either flat or caricatured, incredible motivations, and undistinguished style.

The only distinctive element–which, sadly, I cannot now shake from memory–is the strange substance to which a number of the book’s characters are addicted: ether. This is a story set in France around 1947 or 1948. At least a half-dozen or more times, someone is tipping a bottle of ether into a handkerchief, taking a great whiff, and either flying off on a high or passing out. Several times the protagonist runs off to buy a bottle at the pharmacy so he can satisfy the cravings of his would-be girlfriend or other denizen.


It sounded like someone badly hurt. It sounded like the machinery of the Loch Ness monster starting up.

What I’d smelleed before–mixed in with the turpentine smell–was stronger now. I saw the two girls sitting on a bed with their legs stretched out and their backs against a rough wall. Each of them was holding something to her nose. They looked like there were afraid they would sneeze.


… The guy took the cotton pad she had been holding to her nose and slopped ether onto itt from a bottle. He passed it back to her. Again the girls started kicking the bed. The drumming sound they made was faster than any sound could be without turning into steady roar.

I was familiar with the fact that ether addiction became a widespread problem soon after its introduction as a medical anaesthetic around 1820–particularly among physicians–but I assumed it had died out a century ago. Its appearance in the book seemed the crowning bit of evidence of its absurd awfulness. A quick check with Wikipedia (article), however, revealed that it continued, with serious social costs, in Poland and–more relevantly–in France. The sniffing, kicking, and screaming described in the book seems to have been something Cassill and/or Protter saw while living in Paris in the early 1950s.

So there’s the one thing we learn from Left Bank of Desire: French bohemians were still sniffing ether when Camus and Sartre were becoming household names.

And now that we know that, no one else ever has to read the book.

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill and Eric Protter
New York: Ace Books, 1955

The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, by Alan Harrington (1955)

Given the number of times it’s been reissued, it’s surprising that Alan Harrington’s fable of conformity, The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, is out of print now. In some ways, it’s a classic text of the 1950s, a satire on normality written in the middle of what, in America at least, may have been normality’s greatest decade.

Harrington’s story centers on Hal Hingham, a sad and unsuccessful insurance salesman who lives in a small, seedy boarding house and has convinced himself and everyone he encounters that he’s a loser, a depressive personality everyone tries to avoid. Then, one night, contemplating suicide but lacking the will, he see an ad at the back of a magazine: “STOP! WHY ARE YOU SO UNHAPPY?” and “FAILURE? TRY CENTRALISM!” Hal sends away to one Dr. Modesto for the doctor’s little self-help guide.

The doctrine of Centralism seems the perfect philosophies for fifties:

1. Since your self grates on others, and makes you miserable, get rid of it.
2. In our society, in our time, it does not pay to be yourself. People laugh at you and call you strange–even it it was your father’s fault.
3. Look around you, and see who is the happy man. He is the one Just Like Everybody Else. “Oh, so that is the way to be?” you ask, and I say, yes, that is the way you and I must be.
5. The only place to be is in the center of their culture. Be more average than anyone!
6. From this moment on, HAVE NO SELF.
7. Have no mind of your own. Have no thought, opinion, habit, no desire or preference, no enthusiasm, love or fear of your own. Be the composite of your neighbors.

Hal sinks himself into the practice of Centralism, and heads off to put it to the test by returning to his home town, where he failed to rise even to the standard of his father, another hapless insurance salesman. With the power of Centralism behind him, however, he manages to sell dozens of policies within just his first afternoon back in town. He drives himself into a frenzy in which he loses all sense of himself and collapses.

At this point, however, Harrington seems to have hit an imaginative wall. Hal falls in with Merko the Human Fly, a carnival performer who trained himself to walk up the walls of buildings through sheer willpower. Then Harrington shifts his focus to Jack Swan, a small-time publicist in thrall with Gladys, the statuesque blonde room-mate of Hal’s girlfriend. We spend some time with Fred Purdy, Hal’s ultra-cynical boss. Finally, he sends Hal off in search of Dr. Modesto, who turns out to be a crazy old coot in a Nebraska asylum.

Harrington was certainly aiming his satire at the combined targets of middle-class American conventions and the sunny-spirited self-help prescriptions of Dale Carnegie, Earl Nightingale and others. He wrote much of the book while staying at his mother’s house in Tucson, Arizona, where he was visited by Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on one of their cross-country trips. In fact, Harrington appears in On the Road under the name of Hal Hingham.

I first read The Revelations of Dr. Modesto over thirty years ago, and since then, have carried a memory of it as a magical little book, something along the lines of Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams. On re-reading the book recently, however, I found it disjointed and often flat, with none of the charm of Frayn’s fantasy and not enough of the sharp edge required for satire. Ironically, Harrington tends to treat his characters with too much empathy to skewer them with sufficient cold-bloodedness. I wonder now if I was remembering the wrong book.

The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, by Alan Harrington
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955

Lustful Summer (1958), by R. V. Cassill

lustfulsummerI hate to say it, but the greatest pleasure I got from reading Lustful Summer was the fact that the copy I scored is in mint condition. I regretted opening it because it will never be quite as perfect as it was when I opened the package.

This book is almost as old as I am, and there are very few things left in this world from 1958 that are mint condition, and not many of those are paperbacks. I wonder how this copy survived the last 50-plus years without a scratch, and fantasize about a box of paperbacks from some Avon Books distributor forgotten for decades and then chanced upon by some lucky dealer. I picture seeing Lustful Summer next to Death Hits The Jackpot (Avon T-280) and Honeymoon Guide (Avon T-282, featuring Harold Meyers’ “Spicy gags and cartoons”). Perhaps I should have framed it instead, although I can’t imagine where my wife would have tolerated it.

Sadly, Lustful Summer is of greater interest as an object than a novel. It starts out with promise, with a voice that seems worth hearing more from:

If you are pretty, too many men try from the first minute of meeting to get at you. They crowd a girl too much. Because I was pretty they were always buzzing in my ear that I could have whatever I wanted….

This is a voice with some sass and spirit: “they crowd a girl…. they were always buzzing in my ear.” A voice that will take the world from a different angle. A voice that could spin a story that could hold up for 150 pages or so.

But it doesn’t even last through the first page:

Then I ran past it without recognizing it, so now I don’t even have anything like beautiful memories. The best memories I have hurt me. They hurt bad.

This stinks. It stinks bad.

Lustful Summer is about the short, awkward, and tedious love affair between Laila–our narrator–and Bruce, a married man who’s abandoned his wife to pursue his apparently muted passion to be a painter. We can at least be grateful that Bruce isn’t pursuing a passion to be a writer, given the kind of garbage he dumps out in an early love letter:

Beauty is the Mother. You send them forth and call them back. The dynamo that lights this sacrilegious island by night and illuminates the pageant of doormen shooing to their lust the handsome Westerners and the elastic and steel blondes. Makes the light by which I see the toothless pucker, blood-fringed, in the face of a drunk sleeping on Third Avenue.

What woman on Earth would take that kind of prose as anything but the ranting of a stalker?

John O’Hara took a character similar to Laila and wrote a pretty decent novel, BUtterfield 8, around her.

Read it instead.

Lustful Summer, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Avon Books, 1958

Ferment, by John T. McIntyre (1937)

Cover of first US edition of 'Ferment'Published within a year of his award-winning Steps Going Down, Ferment was, in many ways, even more ambitious that that 500-page descent into the world of small-time crooks and back streets. Ferment tackles the subject of the clash between union labor, business, and finance. Like Steps Going Down, it approaches its story from the underside, focusing on the efforts of an undercover factory spy and strike buster, Steve Brown, to make a fortune by organizing a scheme to lure both business and labor into an illusory partnership manipulated to put both in debt to a group of bankers. And like Steps Going Down, it is full of talk–once again, mostly in seedy hotel rooms, cheap apartments, and beer joints. There are pages and pages of conversations–much of it convincing in tone but mind-numbing in length.

McIntyre is more successful from a purely narrative standpoint, as the essential situation is simple. Steve tricks his brother Tom into lending him the money to underwrite this scheme, and Tom–himself an officer in the taxi-drivers’ union–eventually figures it out. To spice things up, both brothers are in love with the good-hearted, beautiful Maggie.

Which leads McIntyre off track from the big story of corruption and industrial violence and into the tedious and overwrought love triangle between Steve, Tom and Maggie, and results in a book I stuck with only in the foolish hope that McIntyre would produce something he failed to provide in Steps Going Down: a plausible ending. The copy I read came from a University of California library courtesy of my son, and it is in such pristine condition that I suspect I may have been its very first reader. Having finished it, I can say why.

Ferment, by John T. McIntyre
New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

The People Immortal, by Vasily Grossman

One of my earliest posts on this site was devoted to Vasily Grossman’s epic of the Russian experience in World War Two, Life and Fate. At the time, it was out of print in English translation and had been for over a decade.

Since then, Life and Fate has been reissued as a New York Review Books Classic and Grossman’s work has found a substantial audience. His wartime reporting has been collected as A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945, and about a year ago, his last work, An Armenian Sketchbook, previously unavailable in English, was translated by Robert Chandler and released as another NYRB Classic.

A year or so before I started this site, I came across a copy of Grossman’s first book published in English: The People Immortal in a Charing Cross bookstore that’s since become a pseudo-French bakery. It was in the bargain shelf, priced at one pound.

Out of curiosity last week, I decided to see what it was going for, given Grossman’s recent fame, and found a grand total of one copy for sale, priced at over 100 pounds. Which motivated me to dig it out and give it a read. Now, if by the end of this post you decide you can’t live without a copy, my recommendation is to opt for the U.S. edition, which was published by Julian Messner in 1945 under the title of No Beautiful Nights (there are three copies currently available).

In the English translation, credited to Elizabeth Donnelly in the U.S. edition, The People Immortal appears to be an abridgement of the Russian original, with a shorter text and four fewer chapters. How much has been lost, I cannot tell for certain, but given that Grossman shifts between characters and scenes, much as he did on a much grander scale in Life and Fate, it would have been easy to drop a chapter here and there without affecting the principal narrative.

The People Immortal takes place over the space of about ten days in August 1941, and follows a number of Russian soldiers and civilians as they retreat in the face of the German invasion. When first published in 1942, the book was something of a best-seller and was widely acclaimed. Grossman was nominated for the Stalin Prize for literature that year, but Stalin vetoed the selection and gave the prize to Ilya Ehrenburg instead. At the time, it must have been quite effective as propaganda, as Grossman displays throughout the book a profound confidence in the superiority of the Russian character, which he sees as more significant in the long run than the Germans’ military advantage.

As a work of fiction viewed from a distance of seven decades, it’s an uncomfortable mix of fine descriptive writing and simple Russian boosterism. I say boosterism simply because Grossman’s book lacks the fire and brimstone of the most strident Soviet propaganda. The Germans are referred to as “Germans,” for example, when a hardcore Soviet writer would call them “Hitlerites.” That’s not to say that he doesn’t engage in an occasional bout of character assassination: “German creative thought has been rendered sterile in all fields–the Fascists are powerless to create, to write books, music, verse,” remarks his chief protagonist, Commissar Bogarev, at one point.

Grossman’s approach to propaganda is less to denigrate the Germans than to highlight the most positive aspects of the Russian character. Thus, we get the stoic and indomitable leader (Bogarev), the salt-of-earth Russian mother, the happy-go-lucky soldier who breaks into song to rally his comrades when the going gets rough. Indeed, much of this will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen the Hollywood equivalent from World War Two:

Casualties among the men were heavy. Red Army man Ryabokon fought to his last round of ammunition; Political Instructor Yeretic, after downing scores of the enemy, blew himself up just before he died; Red Army man Glushkov, surrounded by the Germans, went on firing till his last breath; machine-gunners Glagoyev and Kardakhin, faint with loss of blood, fought as long as their weakening fingers could press the trigger, as long as their dimming eyes could see the target through the sultry haze of battle.

On the other hand, The People Immortal is redeemed somewhat by Grossman’s frequent use of nature as a means to set the war in perspective. Even greater than the strength of the Russian people is the resilience of the Russian land. As one soldier lies in a field, waiting for the command to rise and attach a German outpost, he notices the life going on around him:

Running across the dry ground is a crack like a fine streak of lightning. The column of ants winds along a bridge in strict order, one after the other, while those of the other side of the crack patiently wait their turn. A lady-bird–a plump little old woman in a bright red dress–is hurrying along, looking for the crossing. A gust of wind, and the grasses sway and bow, each in its own way, some humbly and quickly prostrating themselves to earth, others stubbornly, angrily, quivering, their ears spread out–food for sparrows.

It may also be that The People Immortal is redeemed by its brevity. Grossman puts his cast into a quandary–being trapped behind German lines, rescues them with a bout of ingenuity and heroism, and brings the story to a quick end. Another hundred pages and it might have become, as someone once described his next novel, For a Just Cause, which has not been translated into English yet, “a Socialist Realist dog.”

In the end, though, like that book, The People Immortal is of interest today only as an early and largely unsuccessful prototype of Life and Fate. Only a Grossman completist should consider hunting down a copy.

The People Immortal, by Vassili [Vasily] Grossman, translated by Elizabeth Donnelly
London/New York/Melbourne: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1943

Married Men, by Ira Wolfert

Cover of 1953 Eagle Books paperback edition of Ira Wolfert' 'Married Men'I like to take advantage of quiet days of the Christmas holiday to devote myself to a big, long book. Two years ago, it was Benito Perez Galdos’ masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, which offers everything one could ask from what Henry James called a “loose, baggy monster” (“with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary”): a strong narrative, a personable narrator, and plenty of rewarding detours into the sidestreets and marginal characters of 19th century Madrid.

While there were certainly plenty of candidates to choose from, this year’s choice was easy: Ira Wolfert’s massive 1953 novel, Married Men. Ever since I saw an immaculate first edition copy on the shelves of the great Wonder Books store in Frederick, Maryland, I’ve been intrigued to learn just what Wolfert managed to pack into its 1,007 pages.

Ira Wolfert’s first novel, Tucker’s People (1943), often pops up on lists of neglected books. It was mentioned among the additional titles listed at the end of David Madden’s first Rediscoveries collection and Gerald Green provided an essay on it in Rediscoveries II. It’s been reprinted numerous times, most recently by Black Curtain Press and by Amazon itself for Kindle. An Act of Love, Wolfert’s second novel, about a Navy pilot stranded on a South Pacific island, was received with great hoopla, including a cover story in the Saturday Review, and ranked with The Naked and the Dead when it first appeared in 1949. Married Men, however, popped up, received a few reviews, then disappeared, aside from an Married Men paperback edition (with an utterly misleading cover) later that year, disappeared.

One of the obvious reasons for the neglect of Married Men is its daunting size. It’s a brick in hardcover, and even squeezed down to 863 pages through narrow margins and tiny print the paperback is a great block of newsprint. But all of Wolfert’s novels are behemoths. Tucker’s People runs around 400 pages, and An Act of Love nearly 600.

Even considering its size, however, Married Men might have attracted the kind of readership that
Peyton Place won a couple years later if its title had actually provided an accurate clue as to its contents. Based on the jacket blurb or the paperback cover, you’d think this was an exhaustive account of mid-century American males and their adventures in and outside the bounds of marriage.

But this is not at all what Married Men is about. What it really is is a wildly ambitious attempt to write the Great American Business Novel: an epic of manufacturing, money, mergers, politics, and labor. Centered around Wes Olmstead, who builds a mid-sized metal plant in the fictional town of Grand Island in an unnamed Midwest state into a national conglomerate, it spans the period from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, and features a cast ranging into every corner of the social spectrum.
In a way, it’s Wolfert’s version of Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood saga (The Financier and The Titan), but lacking Dreiser’s deft, subtlety or concision. And if you know anything about Dreiser, you’ll know that none of those were his forte.

In his review of An Act of Love, John Woodburn described Wolfert’s prose as “massive, encircling, slate-colored, and tirelessly industrial.” It’s an apt description, and the experience of reading Married Men is a bit like slogging through a swamp. There are plenty of passages in which the writing just goes on and on without advancing the story or idea a single inch. I was often reminded on William Gibbs McAdoo’s characterization of Warren G. Harding’s speeches: “An army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.” Wolfert’s approach betrays a tragic degree of artistic hubris. To steal from his own description of one character’s piano-playing, “It was as if each word were a bullet and (s)he was waiting for it to hit and sink in before sending out the next one.”

What Wolfert desparately needed was an editor with a drawerful of blue pencils. At half the length, Married Men might still come off a bit leaden, but it would at least have been able to maintain a livelier narrative pace.

A ruthless editor would certainly have eliminated many of Wolfert’s relentless ruminations on his characters’ thoughts, acts, and motives. Here, for example, is just the start of the Byzantine labyrinth he constructs around one minor character’s decision to quit Olmstead’s company:

Roy Warrener did not understand very clearly why or how, but the issue had become a drastic one for him. Krause had allowed his own name to be used on the letterhead of Oscar’s commission only to find out what Oscar was up to. Then, when Olmstead Metals started building its own hospital and the issue with Oscar was joined, he had withdrawn his name.

But Roy had had his name put on the letterhead for other reasons. He was forty-two at that time, of middling height, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, with a worn, lined face that was comfortable to look at because it seemed so honest. He was indeed an honest man and he had an honest heart.

As a medical student Roy had hoped eventually to specialize in obstetrics. But it was only a kind of inclination in him, and Alice Banniman was a passion. Alice was one of the poor relations of the Bannimans. Her father had been the older brother of Claude and Virginia. But he had broken with the family and had spent his life as a counter-jumper at Bushforth & Kopfers.

This goes meandering on through family history, city and company politics, and Roy Warrener’s reflections upon them until, four pages and roughly two thousand words later, we arrive at the point: Roy “had taken a lot of crap” from Claude” (Banniman, Roy’s wife Alice’s uncle, an Olmstead Metals executive and dirty old man). Then, just a few pages later, Wolfert quotes in entirety one of Roy’s early letters to Alice: a four-paragraph invitation to a party with an eight-paragraph P.S. that tells a long-winded anecdote about an aged patient of his who had just died. Alice somehow managed to look past Roy’s gaseous writing, much as a reader who expects to finish Married Men must look past many more pages of Wolfert’s.

Wolfert once wrote that, “I write novels that are objective, naturalistic, realistic works of reportage and social comment. They contain all the poetry, painting and music of which I am capable.” Then he added the telling remark, “It may seem that I am trying to ride off in all directions at once, but actually I ride in one direction: the direction of recording experiences objectively.” If there is one sense conspicuously missing from Married Men, it’s objectivity.

That’s not to suggest that the book is bereft of anything worthwhile. There are some very strong and visceral passages, such as the endless night of drinking and bar-hopping that Wes and a fellow young executive spend early on in the novel, which culminates in a meticulous account of a cockfight. It’s pretty unpleasant stuff but unquestionably powerful writing. And Wolfert does lay out a vast design for his story, taking in countless business and political deals and featuring characters ranging from a night watchman to a vaudeville dance act to a J. P. Morgan-like New York financier. But, in the end, there is just too much of “the arbitrary and the accidental” to allow Wolfert’s loose, baggy monster to wrestle itself into coherent shape.

It may say something about the artistic toll that Married Men took on Ira Wolfert that he never again attempted the novel form.

Married Men, by Ira Wolfert
New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1953

The Bitter Season, by Robert M. Coates

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Bitter Season'The Bitter Season, Robert M. Coates’ 1946 novel is, according to its dust jacket blurb, a story of “the civilian in wartime; the men a little too old, or a little too frail, to be warriors.” Like many such blurbs, it’s a poor attempt to make something of a book that it is not.

Tom, Coates’ protagonist and narrator, is “a little too old” to run the risk of being drafted, but certainly not too frail, given his many walks around Manhattan in the course of the book. And World War Two, particularly the impending invasion of France, looms large in his thoughts and life. But he is hardly an everyman and Coates never suggests that his is anything but an individual and unique perspective on his situation.

Tom is a writer, and as the book opens he has separated from his wife, Laura, a nightclub singer, after a dozen or so years of marriage. Over the course of the five months covered by the superficial narrative, he reflects upon their relationship, begins to build a life on his own, dates several women, and falls in love with one of them–Valerie, a Dutch refugee. As far as this slight and generally uninteresting story goes, the book might jokingly be summed up as “They also serve who only sit and mope.”

Personally, I think Coates could have dispensed with plot entirely, although it served at least as a skeleton upon which to hang his thoughts and observations, and probably also as an artifice by which to give his publisher a genre to categorize it with. Writing in Saturday Review, reviewer Donald Hough asked, with some frustration, whether The Bitter Season could even be labelled as fiction: “But what about something that in both form and content is nothing other than an outline of personal reactions to a given scene, of a point of view, and which by the device of naming a protagonist is called a novel?” Tom’s story is the weakest and most forgettable aspect of the book, and detracts from what is good in it.

The New Masses took a more lenient view, describing the book as “an experimental mixture of narrative, diary or journal, prose poem, and philosophic disquisition,” and pointing out that such things could be found in fiction as far back as Fielding and Sterne. Even so, it’s only the prose poems and philosophic disquisitions that offer the book’s lasting values.


As I noted, Tom spends a good deal of time wandering around the streets of Manhattan, which allows Coates to paint some memorable scenes of the city:

I walked up to Fiftieth or Fifty-first Street, and then zig-zagged back down through the quiet cross streets to Rockefeller Center. It was April, I think, and the night was warm, but there was still ice-skating at the rink there. The music was playing, and the glare from the floodlights, reflected from the cloudy surface of the ice, poured up like the glow of some mechanical aurora borealis upon the quiet darkness above. I stopped for a while to look down from the railing on Forty-ninth Street at the skaters circling to the music’s rhythm in the sunken rectangle below. They looked small, even at that little distance, and intent on their glides and their maneuvers–they seemed oddly disassociated from the life that went on above them; as I leaned on the rail there, watching, it was like looking down at the creatures in some air aquarium, darting this way and that in response to motives and impulses that were largely incomprehensible to me.

Tom’s wanderings also bring him into contact with men whose attitudes and opinions add a disquieting note to the relentlessly upbeat stream of bond-selling, war-boosting propaganda. A cab driver blames a fire in an office building on “the Jews” eager to collect the insurance. A man at a bar likens European refugees to vermin that have infested the city. Another says “the niggers” have been given too much freedom by Roosevelt and need to be brought back under control when the war is over. Coates notes a subtle parallel between the violence of the far-off battlefronts and the violence implicit in such views.

Coates’ is an existential perspective. Living on his own, cut off from friends who know him only as half of Tom-and-Laura, Tom is deeply lonely:

Loneliness, I’ve discovered–I discovered then–is a hard-to-define emotion. It’s the product of unfulfillment, a factor of frustration, and as such it is largely an emotion of negatives; it arises most often not from something that has, but from something that has not happened–a letter that has failed to arrive, a telephone that refuses to ring–and its worst feature is that its causes and its control are not governed by anything that you can do or can hope to do, but depend on the actions of some other. Thus it is that it has nothing to do with setting or with circumstance; it can descend on you anywhere, anytime, and as reasonlessly and as abruptly as a cloud can blot out the summer sun.

Coates describes what people were experiencing at this time as “a sort of global loneliness.” It was “the feeling that whatever was happening or was going to happen would occur despite anything you could do to aid or prevent it.” Despite the constant barrage of headlines, newsreels and radio reports, “the storm never touched us directly; all we felt was the heat and the omninousness and the tension.”


Although the great event looming offstage throughout the book is the D-Day invasion, when it finally arrives, there is no real sense of relief. The headlines of combat and casualties continue on. In a sense, The Bitter Season is less a book about life on the homefront during World War Two than an anticipation of life during the Cold War, when the threat against individual life became greater in scale even as it became more remote and beyond any individual’s control.

Ultimately, though, Coates’ choice to wrap his meditations around the frame of a plot undermines the book. Hough’s review for The Saturday Review wasn’t too far wrong in observing that Coates “… is a good workman at the typewriter end of his craft and he leads you on, paragraph by paragraph, through sheer competence in writing, and a dangling hope that something is going to happen, until finally he seems tired of chasing his tale and steps nimbly aside to let you read on into the dust-jacket flap.” Without the plot, The Bitter Season would probably have become a forgotten little book of “prose poem and philosophic disquisition.” With it, it just became a forgotten little novel.

The Bitter Season, by Robert M. Coates
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946

Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz

Cover of Berkeley paperback edition of 'Altars of the Heart'One never knows just how good or bad a book is when it’s wrapped in a lurid 1950s paperback cover. This was a time when publishers and cover artists were a bit like Weekly World News editors–fighting to catch the eyes of buyers by constantly striving to reach new highs in glare and new lows in discretion. I’d sure that somewhere out there is a 1950s paperback edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine featuring a Roman babe about to lose her toga to the hands of a lecherous young Augustine.

In the case of Richard Lebherz’s 1957 short novel, The Altars of the Heart, what you get is both better and worse than the cover promises. The writing is far more subdued and sensitive, and the story and characters bear only slight connection to the nymphet and bed games suggested by the cover. “A Story of Love and Deceit in Summertime Rome”–well, that much is true, but woman is a good fifteen years older and the love is brief, confused, and one-way.

But there are also elements much creepier than would even be appropriate within the loose guidelines of these covers. The Altars of the Heart is one of a long string of tales of innocent Americans lured off their wholesome standards by the ease and sophistication of decadent Romans. In this case, it’s a spinster schoolteacher who sprains her ankle and goes to the wrong doctor for treatment.

The wrong doctor meaning one who seems to have spent a little too much time in Berlin working for the S.S. during the war and who seems to be in the midst of some kind of obsessive S&M relationship with his mistress. I say “seems” because Lebherz merely suggest these details. The doctor decides to romance the teacher as the means to getting a quick loan of $500 to help the mistress out of a jam–or rather, as he puts it to teacher, to “pay off medical equipment.”

Well, not to be a spoiler, but let’s just say that if you ever find yourself in the doctor’s situation, make sure to put your souvenir S. S. dagger out of reach. The schoolteacher flies home in panic, and the moral of the story seems to be … well, keep the S. S. daggers out of reach, I guess. What started out as a restrained minor work takes a Grand Guignol turn and never manages to find its way home save by means of a Pan Am ticket. Odd and forgettable.

Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz
New York City: Grove Press, 1957
New York City: Berkeley Books, 1959
also published as Affair in Rome, Ace Books, 1960

Purloining Tiny, by John Franklin Bardin

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Purloining Tiny'I first encountered the works of John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, a collection of Bardin’s first three novels introduced by the British crime writer, Julian Symons. Although bearing the trademark green spine of Penguin’s mystery and crime line, the Omnibus seemed to have less in common with your typical mystery than it did with, say, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

The Deadly Percheron (1946), in particular, has a fair number of parallels with The Third Policeman: the same hallucinogenic atmosphere, the simultaneous sense of hilarity and dread, and a certain unmistakable Irishness–real leprechauns in Bardin’s case. The Last of Philip Banter (1947) is something of a recurring nightmare, as the alcoholic Banter finds himself waking from blackouts and being greeted by his own confessions to murder. And Devil Take the Blue Tail Fly (1948) is almost completely surreal, with a heroine who may or may not be suffering from multiple personality disorder and may or may not be imagining that she bashed a man’s head in.

Bardin kept on writing and publishing, although under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Daniel Ashe several times, at a steady rate, piling up a total of nine novels by 1954. None of them sold all that well, and only the first three earned a quiet word-of-mouth reputation for their originality and power. Then Bardin, it appears, stopped writing for over twenty years, putting his energies into a series of jobs in the advertising and magazine business.

Purloining Tiny popped up out of nowhere in 1978. Perhaps the critical acclaim the John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published Omnibus received inspired Bardin, or Harper & Row, or both, to publish the book. Whatever the motive, the result was a flop, commercially and artistically.

There are fragments of the wonderful bizarre logic of Bardin’s first three novels in Purloining Tiny. The Tiny of the title is Sheila (or is it Patricia?) “Tiny” Barrett, who got her nickname when recovering from polio, but who has grown into a statuesque blonde. With her step-father, Joel, she appears frequently on television in magic acts with an overt S&M theme, often involving medieval instruments of torture. She is kidnapped by her real father, Harry Barratt, who has evolved over the decades since his wife ran off with their little girl from loser to hit-man to courier for an international crime syndicate. Harry holds her in a soundproof, hermetically sealed, all-white apartment he’s had constructed two floors below Tiny and Joel’s penthouse in Manhattan.

But none of it holds together. We get a tossed salad of violence and kinky sex, with incest and S&M sprinkled in like croutons. We get a villain–Harry–who considers himself an agent of Puritanical redemption all the while that he is beating up, knifing, shooting, and tossing people out windows. Bardin gives Tiny the ingenuity to figure her way out of the apartment within hours the first time and then expects us to believe she would then put up with weeks of confinement and psychological abuse with barely a fight. Oh, and when the detective shows up in the last two chapters to solve the case, he’s suffering from constipation.

Had George Romero made the story into one of his low-budget oddball horror films, something along the lines of Martin, there might have been something redeeming about the badness of Purloining Tiny. But it lacks the deliberation that keeps a good bad book from completely disintegrating. It’s just bad bad.

Let this one keep on collecting dust and order a copy of The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus instead.

Purloining Tiny, by John Franklin Bardin
New York: Harper & Row, 1978

The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Great Green'
“No one knows for certain how the world began, whether it was made or whether it made itself from energy or love, if it was a piece of the sun or the Word of God, if it rose from kaos or E = mc2,” begins the foreword to Calvin Kentfield’s 1974 memoir of his life as a merchant mariner, The Great Green. It goes on for four pages full of references of the Popul Vuh, geology, astrology, creation myths, and finally ends with, “I, child if progress, surfaced to the light and air in the hospital and, twenty years later, set out for the sea, for The Deep, for The Great Green, for the Possessor of All Secrets and the Father of All Gods and of the World.”

I think this is what I had in mind when, a few years ago, in a post about John Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors, I mentioned that I had given up on The Great Green “after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose.”

Well, for some reason, I picked up The Great Green again a few weeks ago, and gave it another try. The book’s subtitle is, “A Loose Memoir of Merchant Marine Life in the Middle of the Twentieth Century with Examples of True Experience Being Turned into Fiction,” which in itself illustrates the self-indulgent and meandering problem. An average kid with no particular ambition and a tendency to follow along in others’ slipstream, Kentfield dropped out of the University of Iowa in the late 1940s bummed around the country until he wound up in New Orleans and decided to ship out as a merchant seaman.

This was not as straight-forward as he had expected. He spent a few weeks crashed with a friend while he waited, first to get his union letter, and then to get his Coast Guard rating as an ordinary seaman, and then to rise high enough in the pecking order of the Seaman’s Hall to get offered a spot on the S.S. John Ringling, a Liberty ship hauling bauxite out of Guiana.

Kentfield went to sea at a time when the life of merchant sailors was beginning to change. Although he had his share of dockside bars, drunken fights and weary prostitutes, this renegade lifestyle was transforming into a routine nearly as bourgeois as a banker’s. The hierarchy of ranks was as rigid as the military, and as an ordinary seaman, Kentfield was at the bottom of the heap.

Life on board a merchant ship, he soon learned, involved hundreds of practical details, such as a dozen or more different ropes for different purposes:

A heaving line is a small tough rope about the size of a clothesline though made of hemp, not plastic or cotton, and perhaps seventy-five feet long with a monkey fist on one end. And a monkey fist is an iron weight, usually a steel bearing, slightly smaller than a tennis ball covered with a Turk’s head, and a Turk’s head is a weaving of small rope that put sailors a long time ago in mind of a turban.

Kentfield seemed to enjoy playing the role of tour guide to the world of the merchant seaman, and The Great Green is full of explanations, from the uses of bell signals for telling time and announcing upcoming obstacles to the rules affecting seamen’s pay. As matter-of-fact as most of these passages are, I thought them by far the best part of the book.

kentfieldbooks“True Experience Being Turned into Fiction” is, perhaps, the focus of the book. Kentfield wrote several novels and published dozens of short stories that drew heavily upon his time as a seaman. He often reveals the real-life inspirations for characters in his fiction and occasionally quotes from his work to illustrate the links between them and his experiences. In this way, The Great Green shares a little in common with Katharine Brush’s This is On Me, although Kentfield lacks Brush’s light-hearted charm.

Kentfield returned to complete his degree and took breaks to start his writing career, starting with The Alchemist’s Voyage, a novel, in 1955, and The Angel and the Sailor: A Novella and Nine Stories in 1957. He continued to ship out from time to time, however–in part for the boost it seems to have given his fiction.

He finally quit in 1959, after coming to a decision as he worked on the deck of an oil tanker in Puget Sound on a rainy Christmas Day:

Standing there with the rain pouring from the end of my nose and my ears through my collar and my drawers, flowing over my boots, I, tending the valves and listening to the pumps, I came slowly to the realization that not only was I bored but that I was no longer pursuing the Possessor of All Secrets, the Father of All Gods and of the World, I was standing in the cold rain serving Standard Oil, a false god if ever there was one; so when I got back to Frisco, I quit.

Nevertheless, the sea never seems to have worked its way out of Kentfield’s system. His next novel was titled All Men are Mariners (1962), and his next short story collection, The Great Wondering Goony Bird (1963) was full of stories about sailors. And aside from contributing a novella to a collection titled, Three: 1971 and writing a coffee table book on the Pacific Coast, Kentfield only published one other book before his death in 1975: The Great Green. The last fifty pages of the book reprint three of his early short stories of sea-going life: “A Place for Lovers in the Summertime,” “Mortality,” and “Dancer’s Cricket.” According to various accounts, he struggled with alcoholism and his sexuality, and his death, from a fall from a tall seaside cliff, might have been suicide or vengeance from an angry wife.

The Great Green is very much the work of a writer struggling to master his prose and his perspective. There are some gawdawful attempts at the poetic, a fair number of anecdotes Kentfield probably rolled out to disgust or tease his friends after a few too many, and several character sketches that end up telling us more about the writer than the subject. I am glad that I stuck with it to the end, if only for the glimpses it offered into a life that seems never to have found its true reckoning.

The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield
New York City: Dial Press, 1974

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen

Cover of 'Presidents Who Have Known Me,' by George E. AllenWhen I spotted Presidents Who Have Known Me on the shelves of the Montana Valley Bookstore, I knew I had to get it. With a title like that, the book was either going to turn out to be a classic of egocentric bombast or an enjoyable exercise in self-mockery, something along the lines of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.

Instead, it turns out to be a little of each and not enough of either to recommend to anyone but a historian desperate for an anecdote about some figure or other from midcentury American politics. George E. Allen’s Wikipedia entry describes him as a “political operative,” and based on his book, it’s a good way to sum him up. A Mississippian who had a few unsuccessful years as a small-town lawyer, Allen managed to work his way through a variety of jobs, including lobbyist and hotel manager, until he became a staffer for Pat Harrison, the senior Democratic senator from Mississippi and a key Roosevelt ally in Congress. With Harrison’s support, along with that of FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, he managed to get appointed as one of the commissioners running the District of Columbia–a post he held for most of the 1930s.

He also wangled his way into a variety of official and unofficial positions in the Democratic Party, which led him to work (if mostly intermittently and on the margins) with FDR and Truman. His were one of a number of hands through which the notorious series of hand-written notes from FDR that eventually led to Truman’s selection of the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944. Later, he became involved with Truman’s re-election campaign in 1948. One recollection of this experience manages to illustrate how Allen attempts to be self-deprecating and self-celebrating at the same time and manages to flub the whole thing:

Almost all the political experts, both professional and amateur, were wrong in their predictions about the outcome of the last Presidential election [1948–Ed.]. But not one of them was more wrong than I. Indeed, I was even wronger than George Gallup.

To make it worse, I was, at the time of the campaign, a sort of self-appointed unofficial advisor to President Harry S. Truman. I was in a position to tell him how is campaign should be run, and I did so. All through the campaign Mr. Truman ignored my advice, and all through the campaign I kep promising myself that when he lost to Thomas E. Dewey I would remember to be generous and not say, “I told you so.” When it was all over and he had won, I told him that I had been supremely confident of his defeat.

“So was everybody else,” he confided, “but you’re the first one who’s admitted it.”

In case we fail to get his point, Allen makes it again, and as obviously as humanly possible: “My point is that whereas almost everybody was wrong on this occasion I managed to rise above the pack and get credit for being outstandingly wrong.” Why do I get the feeling that George Allen had a tendency to repeat the punch line when a joke failed to get a big enough laugh?

Allen–whose chief assets appear to have been an endless supply of jokes and ready availability as an extra hand at poker and bridge–didn’t come from Missouri, but that aside, exemplified the band of card-playing buddies Truman kept close at hand for advice and support. Allen fit in well with the likes of Truman’s old World War One Army pal, Harry Vaughan, who was promoted to General and appointed as the President’s Military Aide on the strength of similar achievements.

Indeed, when Truman appointed Allen to a seat on the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Washington Star broke the news with the headline, “Appointment of Allen to RFC Board Called Worst Choice Made by Truman.” Allen’s face made the cover of Time magazine, with the caption, “George E. Allen: For the President: jokes, cheers.” Despite the outcry of influential columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann, all of whom noted that Allen was utterly unqualified for the job, a circle of Democratic Party supporters, led by Senator Alben Barkley (who went on to become Truman’s running mate in 1948), arranged to get the appointment confirmed. Allen acknowledges his lack of qualifications but insists that he had to go through it for Truman’s sake. In the end, he resigned the post after a year, having done almost nothing. This he seems to consider an illustration of his personal integrity and loyalty to the President. One wonders why he didn’t try harder to talk Truman out of making the appointment in the first place.

No, actually, by the time one reaches this point in the book, the whole affair seems to sum up Allen’s character. After all, he uses the Time magazine portrait for the cover of his own book.

Allen’s ambiguous role in Washington politics seems to have rapidly grown smaller after the RFC stint, and the book may have been an earnest attempt to keep his name in the spotlight a bit longer. Although he assures his readers that, looking ahead to the growing struggle between democracy and communism, “the men who emerge as our leaders will have the incalculable advantage of knowing me,” the evidence shows that his principal patron after 1950 was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, with whom he regularly lunched and went to the horse races. One may take some consolation that other American leaders failed to take advantage of Allen’s acquaintance.

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950

The Patriot, by Harold Bienvenu

Cover of Avon paperback edition of "The Patriot" by Harold BienvenuWhen I picked up an old paperback edition of Harold Bienvenu’s 1964 novel, The Patriot, I was hoping it might turn out to be a forgotten gem. From the cover blurbs, it was clearly a scathing view of right-wing Southern California politics from the heyday of Barry Goldwater. A young public relations man sets up shop in a fictional version of San Bernardino or Riverside, and stumbles into a connection with right wing minister. Together they decide to form the American Patriots, a group blending the tenets of the John Birch Society, the NRA, and Senator Joe MacCarthy.

“I am an American Patriot. I believe in a Supreme Being. I believe in the American Republic. I believe in the American Constitution. I believe in the American Enterprise System. I am an American Patriot.” So goes the group’s oath. At first it’s little but a flag-waving version of the Rotary, but with the help of a local millionaire (modelled on Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm) and the PR man’s hard work, it soon becomes a force in local politics and business. Stores are pressured into sponsoring the group and displaying American Patriot cards. A not-too-subtle boycott is organized: “No member who is an American Patriot would trade with any professional man, or any businessman, who is ashamed to proclaim himself a patriot.”

At this point, The Patriot could have developed into something promising. But having created the situation, novice novelist Bienvenu (a professor of economics by trade) quickly loses all control, and the story spirals off into lurid silliness. In the course of a few chapters, the PR man dumps his lounge singer girlfriend, agrees to become a bagman for a Howard Hughes-like billionaire in return for a shot at the local Congressional seat, and rapes and then marries the Knott-like millionaire’s lesbian daughter. Bienvenu might have started out with the aim of writing a serious book, but he caught the Harold Robbins mojo and ended up with a gawdawful mess.

Hands down the worst book I’ve read this century.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore

Cover of first US edition of 'Quin's Shanghai Circus'I first read Quin’s Shanghai Circus around my freshman year in college, when I was hot off devouring the whole series of Vonnegut’s novels in their Dell paperback editions. I found a used copy of the Popular Library paperback edition of Circus and was convinced to buy it from the first three sentences alone:

Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue. The owner of the collection, a huge, smiling fat man named Geraty, presented a passport to customs that showed he was a native-born American about as old as the century, an exile who had left the United States nearly four decades before. The collection contained all the pornographic works written in Japan during the last three hundred and fifty years, or since the time when Japan first closed itself to the West.

I took the book straight home and proceeded to read it in the space of about two days. It was wild, complicated and constantly over the top in its details: Geraty’s penchant for stuffing gobs of wasabi up his nose; Baron Kikuchi, the Japanese aristocrat and spymaster who could sleep with his glass eye open, making others believe he had superhuman powers of concentration; Father Lamereaux, the pederast priest; the horrifying account of the Japanese army’s atrocities in its rape of Nanking. Whittemore made Vonnegut seem tame in comparison. The book remained in my memory as one of my most intense reading experiences and that paperback has traveled with me through a dozen moves since then.

So it was on my books to devote a long post to when I started working on this site. I felt certain I would be offering up a wonderful box of treasures in bringing it to light again.

I was wrong–others had already written posts about it, even before I started the site: Jeff Van Der Meer on the SF Site in 2002; the late Bob Sabella on his Visions of Paradise blog in 2005. Others followed thereafter: Dan Schmidt on his Dfan blog in 2009, Chad Hull on his Fiction is Overrated blog in 2010. And it turned out that a small press, Old Earth Books, had reissued Circus, along with the four books in Whittemore’s subsequent Jerusalem Dreaming quartet, with an introduction by novelist John Nichols, in 2002.

Still, with such a vivid memory of the book, I knew I had to give it a second reading.

Ah, there are some experiences best left in memory.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus is, without a doubt, an impressive work of story-telling. Although the novel is set mostly in Japan and China, Whittemore’s approach more resembles the intricacies of the most ornate Islamic scripts, in which one wonders how anyone could manage to unravel a text from the twists and coils and overlapping strokes. It’s not surprising that he shifted his setting to the Middle East after this book.

According to his biographies, Whittemore spent some years working in the Far East for the CIA. Doing just what is never revealed. Personally, I find the fact that he let this be mentioned revealing. From my experience, people who consider themselves espionage professionals are exceptionally tight-lipped and discreet. There’s a joke in the DC area that you can always tell that someone works for the CIA when they respond, “I work for the government,” to questions about what they do for a living.

On the other hand, I’ve run into ex-GIs who weave elaborate accounts of their “black ops” days, who describe suitcases full of cash and unbelievably precise surveillance technology, who seem to have inhabited a world where everyone was on the take and nothing was as it seemed. Personally, I have become a great skeptic of conspiracies and secrecy. If conspiracies were managed as well as they’re usually claimed to have been, then it seems to me that the easiest way to solve the world’s problem would be to make everything a conspiracy. Do we really save our most extraordinary ingenuity and very best organizational skills for conspiracies, making do with second-best for everything else in life?

Which leads me to suspect that Whittemore was only a very accomplished version of those ex-GIs whose bullshitting verged on the rococo. Reading Quin’s Shanghai Circus as a middle-aged father and mortgage-payer was a considerably different experience than it was when I was a virgin teenager. Today, the book seems to belong with what I call the Playboy Magazine school of fiction.

Back in the days when men would claim that they read Playboy for the writing, there was a certain type of brittle sophistication to the stories it would publish. Brittle like the magazine itself, for poke through the ads for Scotch and cigarettes and English sportscars, and you would find each month’s installment of Little Annie Fanny.

Probably a big reason I thought better of Quin’s Shanghai Circus in recollection was Whittemore’s graphic description of the horrors of the assault on Nanking (you can find a long excerpt in Jason Lundberg’s post on the book). It is so brutal, it has the effect of giving the rest of the novel a solid base of seriousness. But reading it for second time, I found the passage more offensive in its use than in its contents. To be honest, it seemed to have been included more for its shock value than for its function in developing the story, and I questioned Whittemore’s right to appropriate the event for what would otherwise be just an entertainment (here I’m appropriating Greene’s use of the term).

I’m sure that not everyone would have the same reaction to the novel or Whittemore’s other works. At least one thesis (“Opening the Window to Edward Whittemore: Systems that Govern Human Experience”, by Joseph Winland, Jr.) has been published, and more will probably follow. Anne Sydenham has created a website, Jerusalem Dreaming, devoted to his work. There you will find numerous expressions of praise, including this quote from Tom Robbins: “One of the best-kept secrets in American literature, the novels of the mysterious Edward Whittemore are like bowls of hashish pudding: rich, dark, tasty, amusing, intoxicating, revelatory, a little bit outlandish and a little bit unsafe.”

All I can say is: if a bowl hashish pudding sounds good to you, go right ahead and dig in. Don’t let me stop you.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974

Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig

Cover of first US edition of 'Young Woman of 1914'Young Woman of 1914 (1931) is the first in narrative order and the second in order of publication of Arnold Zweig’s tetralogy of the First World War (the others are The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927), Education before Verdun (1935) and The Crowning of a King (1937)). Calling this a tetralogy, however, should not imply that there are such strong links among the books that they need to be read in sequence or even in totality. Aside from the character of the writer and draftee Werner Bertin–a major character in this novel and a supporting one in the others–and a few other minor characters and events, the common bond among the books is one of context, not content.

The young woman of the title is Leonore Wahl, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker in Berlin, university student and eager follower of the intellectual radicals of her time. She meets and has an affair with Werner Bertin, a rising young writer of a more modest family. I hesitate to say that she falls in love with Bertin, because although the two develop a relationship that continues when Bertin is enlisted into the German Army Services Corps and shipped off to a series of postings, Zweig makes it clear that neither is quite ready to put head over heart.

Until Leonore finds that she is pregnant, that is–or at least, until she deals with this fact. If Young Woman of 1914 is remembered at all today, it is as one of the earliest and frankest accounts of abortion. Given her youth, her situation as a single woman, and her awareness of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of her feelings for Bertin, she decides to have an abortion. Although illegal at the time, safe but surreptitious abortions could be found if one had sufficient funds and guile. With the help of her brother, Leonore locates a doctor who performs the procedure:

Leonore, outstretched on the examination chair, uttered no more than a sharp gasping moan as she clutched its metal edges. On each side of her a Sister held down her arms and shoulders with dragoon-like fists. The violence of the onslaught almost deprived her of consciousness. Her heart seemed to change into an organ sensitive to pain, and she felt as though it were splitting within her breast; an engulfing surge of torment swept over her forehead and temples.

“Poor creatures, they always had to pay the bill,” the doctor muses.

This excerpt gives a sense of the ham-fistedness of Zweig’s style–or at least of Eric Sutton’s translation–that turns the experience of reading his novels into something akin to hiking through thick underbrush. It’s unfortunate, as the basic story here is actually quite modern. When Bertin meets Leonore again, he does feel and express some remorse, but mostly to be seen to care. In truth, what she’s gone through is alien and a little distasteful to him.

Having seen a little of combat and a great deal of the drudgery and boredom of army life, though, Bertin has a much greater appreciation for the comfort of a loving relationship, and Leonore herself seems prepared at last to find refuge in the tenderness they feel for each other. They decide to marry, if only to postpone Bertin’s quick return to the front. And as she sees him off at the train station, she thinks, “It was none other than love that had come upon her–love that suffers, schemes, creates: just love.”

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s full of fine moments, such as a walk Bertin takes through the streets of a Bosnian town while serving on the Balkan front, where Zweig captures the flow of life that goes on despite the big-H history happening all around it. And in the relationship of Leonore and Bertin, he does a good job of conveying the awkwardness of lovers who need to establish an intellectual equality before confronting their real feelings for each other. On the other hand, what would have been a little masterpiece if pared down a to around 150 pages takes Zweig over 380 pages to tell. And this is one of Arnold Zweig’s shortest books! It’s no surprise to discover that he went on to become a key literary figure in East Germany. There is a certain Marx-like windbagishness in his writing. Stefan Zweig–no relation–would have dealt with this in a novella.

Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig, translated by Eric Sutton
London: Martin Secker, 1932

The Survivor, by Carl Marzani

I have to admit that I rarely pick up a book without at least Googling its title, confirming that it’s out of print, and checking if it has at some time had something favorable written about it. Finding Carl Marzani’s The Survivor in a $1 book box outside a bookstore while getting my son settled at Drexel University last month, however, I bought it and then stuck it in my backpack for the flight back to Brussels without the usual due diligence.Cover of first edition of "The Survivor" by Carl Marzani

One could argue that it’s best to approach a book with as little prior knowledge as possible, to prevent one’s perceptions from being contaminated by others’. After almost 50 years of reading, however, that’s almost impossible for me. Turning the first pages of The Survivor while sitting in the passenger lounge of the Philadelphia airport–and then through much of the seven hour flight home–was the closest I’ve come to an unadulterated encounter with a book in many years.

The Survivor starts strongly and I read the first hundred pages almost without a break. Marc Ferranti, a senior State Department official, has been asked to appear before a departmental hearing on his fitness for maintaining his security clearance. Although a veteran of the Official of Special Services (OSS)–the wartime pre-cursor to the Central Intelligence Agency–Ferranti had been an activist as a student in the 1930s. He left a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and after his return to the U.S., he dabbled with membership in the Communist Party. Having sniffed out his radical connections, the department’s security officers want to make a showcase of Ferranti, anticipating President Truman’s decision to require Federal government employees to sign a loyalty oath.

The hearing is chaired by former Senator Richard Aldrich Bassett, a liberal Virginia Republican in his eighties. Much of the novel focuses on the meeting of minds between Bassett and Ferranti. Although a symbol of the American Establishment, Bassett had been strongly influenced by the Populist views of Tom Watson, a Populist politician from Georgia he ranks with Jefferson and Eugene V. Debs as the most important radicals in American history. An ally of FDR and recently-appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Bassett is repulsed by the tactics of the Red-baiters now rising within the Truman administration and Congress. Through the efforts of his superior, an assistant secretary, Ferranti has learned that Bassett is, at least in principle, sympathetic to his case.

By far the strongest elements of The Survivor are the conversations and reflections of Bassett and Ferranti on the realities of politics and power in Washington:

“… You do not know much about the art of compromise, perhaps, but I do. Indeed I do. The Senate is the finest training ground for the art. You thunder no, and you murmur yes. Everyone saves face, always, everyone obtains a little of what he wants, alway. Compromise is the very soul of statemanship. The one time it failed in America we had a civil war, and the fault, in my judgment, lay squarely in the lack of a compromiser in the South, for the North had one of the greatest compromisers in our history: Mr. Lincoln.”

The Survivor takes place over the course of the three days of Ferranti’s hearing. The novel was Marzani’s first and only attempt at fiction, and one of the many ways in which this shows is the amount of activity he manages to shoe-horn into less than seventy-two hours.

Another is the awkward use of an manuscript Ferranti has written–a novel about his early years in America as an immigrant child. Ferranti believes he’s been singled out for persecution in an attempt by the Catholic Church to ally itself with reactionary forces within the Federal government, aided by his brother, a conservative Congressman. Ferranti manages to pass along the manuscript to Bassett, who then reads it in what appears to be one marathon evening. The passion and truth of Ferranti’s novel tugs at long-dormant radical allegiances within Bassett, and also evokes an empathy for the plight of foreigners learning to survive in America.

By this point, two hundred or so pages into The Survivor, my initial interest began to shift toward irritation. Through much of the middle of the book, Marzani tries to weave the narrative of Ferranti’s encounters between sessions of the hearing, the text of the manuscript, and Bassett’s reflections on Ferranti’s novel and life. It all becomes a rat’s nest I doubt anyone should ever bother to unravel.

In the end, Ferranti passes muster, keeping his job and opening up his chance to move on up the State Department ladder. Bassett is driven home to his Virginia estate, wondering if he hasn’t failed to live up to the radical ideals of his early mentor, Tom Watson: “The men and women his era has shunned and ridiculed might well turn out to be the precursors of a new life, a new country, perhaps a new civilization.” And this last line should give you a strong hint that The Survivor has a lot more in common with the works of Tom Clancy than those of Camus or even Koestler. It’s certainly not well-written or constructed, although I would say that it’s full of fine observations of bureaucratic manners.

Only after finishing The Survivor did I have a chance to research the book, and that’s when things became really interesting.

Carl Marzani, around 1958
Carl Marzani, it turns out, bore more than a little resemble to his fictional counterpart, Marc Ferranti. Like Ferranti, he was born in Italy and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in his early teens. He excelled academically, earned a scholarship to Oxford, and left to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the Lincoln Brigade. He did not just dabble with Communism: he joined it outright and worked as an organizer in the late 1930s. After the U.S. entered the Second World War, he was recruited into the OSS and then moved over to the State Department.

As early as 1942, he was questioned by the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Feeling secure in the support of his OSS superiors and reluctant to give up his position, he lied. There were no immediate consequences.

In 1946, however, he was questioned again and determined to have perjured himself. In instructing Marzani’s jury, his judge said: “This court is not concerned with Communist vices. The issue is whether the defendant knowingly, willfully and feloniously made false statements to Government loyalty examiners.” Although he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, his conviction was upheld and he served three years in prison. While in Federal prison, he wrote We Can Be Friends, a call to reserve the policies of the Truman Administration–influenced by George Kennan and others–to contain the Soviet Union’s expansions and maintain a relatively hostile diplomatic stance.

After being released from jail, Marzani worked as a professor of economics, a film producer, and co-owner of an independent publishing house, Marzani and Munsell. According to KGB archives, as detailed in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Marzani was also a Soviet agent, operating under the code name of NORD. His firm owed at least some of its financial backing to the KGB, in return for publishing such sympathetic titles as Cuba vs. the C.I.A., which Marzani co-authored with Robert Light.

Marzani published The Survivor–before he began taking money from the KGB, it appears, but not long enough after the McCarthy era to have much chance of getting any recognition in the mainstream press. About the only magazine in the U.S. to take note of its publication was New World Review, the journal of the Friends of the Soviet Union. Although David Caute calls The Survivor “the best and one of the most important novels” of the Cold War in his recent book, Politics and the Novel during the Cold War, there appear to be few considerations of the book not colored by sympathy or distaste for Marzani’s own history.

Which leads one to wonder what Marzani intended to accomplish in writing it. Marzani may have been a victim of Red-baiting, but he doesn’t appear to have been an entirely innocent one, and The Survivor isn’t really an attempt to exonerate or justify himself. Although Marc Ferranti is portrayed as an exceptionally bright and shrewd operative, his actions are often more self-serving than heroic. If the book has any heroic figure, it’s Marc’s sister, Tessie, who shows herself ready to fight for both Party and family.

It could be that the novel was an experimental foray into autobiography. In the late 1980s, Marzani began writing a memoir titled The Education of a Reluctant Radical. It eventually spanned five volumes: Book 1: Roman Childhood; Book 2: Growing Up American; Book 3: Spain, Munich and Dying Empires; Book 4: From Pentagon to Penitentiary; Book 5: Reconstruction. The first volume, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, was published by the Topical Press in 1993, shortly before Marzani’s death in 1994. The last volume was not published until 2001, but is still available from Amazon.

The Survivor: A Novel, by Carl Marzani
New York City: Cameron Associates, 1958

Dictatorial Literature

Muammar Gaddafi reading his Green BookWherever Muammar Gaddafi may be at the moment and whatever may be left of his powers as a dictator, it’s safe to predict that the number of readers of his famous “Green Book”–or, to call it by its full title, The Green Book: The Solution to the Problem of Democracy, The Solution to the Economic Problem, The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory–is headed for a swift decline. Such is the fate of long, dull, dogmatic diatribes written in the oxygen-thin atmosphere of absolute power (and without the benefit of an impartial editor) when one can no longer command them to be handed out in triplicate to all of one’s subjects and made the object of hours of close study and memorization.

Libyans will no longer profit from the insights of the Third Universal Theory–although they can now freely ask what happened to the first two. They will have to search for a solution to the problem of democracy without Gaddafi’s handy crib book. And they may find themselves struggling with the basics of human reproduction without the Great Leader’s wise advice:

Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate or suffer during the monthly period. A woman, being a female, is naturally subject to monthly bleeding. When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant. If she is pregnant, she becomes, due to pregnancy, less active for about a year, which means that all her natural activities are seriously reduced until she delivers her baby…. The man, on the other hand, neither conceives nor breast-feeds. End of gynaecological statement!

Gaddafi’s The Green Book now takes its place on a shelf much over-filled with the works and memoirs of former dictators. No longer mandatory reading, these volumes languish, neglected by all but die-hard loyalists, masochists, and those inclined to morbid curiousity.

Admittedly, there is something about these books that makes watching paint dry seem thrilling. Vladimir Lenin set the tone a hundred years ago with such cliff-hangers as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, and Stalin followed suit with Economic Problems of Socialism in the U. S. S. R. and other page-turners. Mao had the bright idea to package his best tid-bits in what became a global best-seller, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, otherwise known as the Little Red Book. Although perhaps it sold a little too well, for a couple years later he released a tract titled, Oppose Book Worship.

At least Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao wrote their own material. Seeing the number of volumes that comprise the collected works of Kim Il Sung or Enver Hoxha, it’s hard not to speculate about secret forced-ghostwriting camps.

One odd tribute to the freedom of the Internet is the fact that one can get free access to most, if not all, of the works of late 20th century’s dictators. Gaddafi’s Green Book is available at www.mathaba.net/gci/theory/gb.htm, for example, and Lenin and Stalin’s works at the Marxists Internet Archive. Although Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Türkmenbashi, Leader of all the Turkmens, died in 2006, you can still savor the wisdom of his magnum opus, Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen at www/ruhnama.info, at the official Turkmenistan government site, and at several Rukhnama (or Ruhnama) fan-sites (although Ruhnama.com is now defunct).

Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen is my favorite dictatorial opus. In addition to more Turkmen geneaology that you could possibly imagine, there are little parables that I am still pondering the meaning of, such as:

Once upon a time, a wife and a husband without any children were preparing to go to Mecca on pilgrimage. However, they could not decide what to do with the two hundred sikkes, which was their life-savings. Finally they divided the sikkes into two equal bundles. They left one of these bundles in the care of one of their neighbors. And they left the other bundle in the care of their Turkmen neighbor.

The Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in that corner and put the bundle in it.”

On returning from pilgrimage, the husband and wife went to take their money.

The first neighbor said them: “Oh neighbor, I used your money and increased your 100 sikkes to 150 sikkes. I have taken some of them for myself.”

Then they went to their Turkmen neighbor and asked for their sikkes. Their Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in the corner and take your money.”

Nothing happens by chance in life. A Turkmen saves the goods left in his care better than his own goods.

Niyazov appears to have taken this particular lesson very seriously. Estimates of his personal holdings in private Swiss and German bank accounts range as high as $3 billion. As one report during his time in power put it, “A figure such as Niyazov, who is not subject in practice to any basic checks and balances, can dispose of state funds through the banking systems of Germany and other European countries without anybody knowing what exactly it is that he does with the money.” A Turkmenbashi, it seems, saves his countrymen’s goods much, much better than his own goods.

North Korea is now headed into its third generation of Supreme Leaders, and we can only hope that Kim Jong-un will produce something to rival his father Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of the Cinema, where we learn that “The director is the commander of the creative group” and that “A director, however talented, cannot imagine a new and audacious cinematic presentation if he does not know the Party’s policies well.” Here we see the fatal weakness that undermines the capitalist boss-gang productions of Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Scorsese: utter ignorance of PArty policies in the absence of helpful “field guidance” from the Supreme Leader. Thanks to the spirit of Juche, we can all spend hours clicking through the E-library of the works of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Suk (wife to the first, mother to the second).

Not all dictators have had their works preserved online, however. There appears to be just one copy of the English translation of Haitian ruler Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Essential Works Volume 1: Elements of a Doctrine available for sale, and that at a price of $200. Ugandan strongman Idi Amin appears to have been a man of few written works, although a few copies of his pamphlet, The Middle East Crisis: His Excellency the President Al-Hajji General Idi Amin Dada’s contribution to the solution of the Middle East crisis during the third year of the Second Republic of Uganda can be found–the book surviving better than his solution to the crisis. It’s not been transcribed for the web, but there are still plenty of copies of Answer to History, the rambling memoirs of the ex-Shah of Iran, who was dying of cancer as he worked on the book–the very last thing he dictated, so to speak.
Cover of Enver Hoxha's 'With Stalin: Memoirs'
The pinnacle of dictatorial literature, though, has to be Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s With Stalin: Memoirs, written a few years before he died (and available online, thanks to Marxists International). In it, Hoxha recalls five trips he made to Moscow to meet with Stalin, between 1947 and 1951. As far as I know it’s the only book in which you get two dictators for the price of one.

In their first conversations, Stalin seemed most interested in how effectively Albania was serving as a buffer against encroachments from Greece, which was coming out of its civil war and headed towards western democracy. But most of the time they discussed such timeless topics as whether the trains ran on coal or oil and how much cotton per hectare the collective farms were producing. Stalin seems to have been especially fond of agriculture. As they parted company for the last time, he and Hoxha had this memorable exchange on the subject of seeds:

“What about eucalyptus? Have you sown the seeds I gave you?”

“We have sent them to the Myzeqe zone where there are more swamps,” I said, “and have given our specialists all your instructions.”

“Good,” said Comrade Stalin. “They must take care that they sprout and grow. It is a tree that grows very fast and has a great effect on moisture. The seed of maize I gave you can be increased rapidly and you can spread it all over Albania,” Comrade Stalin said and asked: “Have you special institutions for seed selection?”

“Yes,” I said “we have set up a sector for seeds attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and shall strengthen and extend it in the future.”

“You will do well!” Comrade Stalin said. “The people of that sector must have a thorough knowledge of what kinds of plants and seeds are most suitable for the various zones of the country and must see to getting them.”

Stalin clearly saw that people who had been farming their lands through many generations desparately needed party cadre officers to tell them what to plant. One had only to look at the remarkable results the Soviets had achieved through collectivization to know that.

Hoxha did see Stalin in person one time after that, in 1952 at the 19th Party Congress, where “for the last time I heard his voice, so warm and inspiring.” He closes by assuring his readers that “the Party of Labour of Albania would hold high the title of ‘shock brigade’ and that it would guard the teachings and instructions of Stalin as the apple of its eye.” One can see the teardrop forming as Hoxha finished this line.

So, as one more dictator debates that eternal choice: suicide or exile?, we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what may follow in his wake, there will, at least, be the consolation that a captive audience no longer has to read his nonsense and be expected to take it seriously.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Jester's Reign' by Boyne GraingerI was immediately intrigued when I came across the dust jacket of The Jester’s Reign in the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library several years ago. The Jester’s Reign, according to the dust jacket blurb, is “A series of mysterious cosmic phenomena broke upon a startled world, defying the laws of nature and baffling the scientists” that takes place in the course of one month somewhere in the 1930s. After months of being put off by the fact that the handful of copies for sale all commanded prices of $40 and up, I finally broke down and bought one in March.

I wish I could say it was worth the wait and expense.

It starts with promise. An odd, loud, but unmistakable noise like laughter sounds for just a moment throughout the entire world. Most people are startled. Those of good humor feel the better for it. Those with shriveled up hearts feel uneasy and fearful. And a small collection of people in Manhattan sharing a small open space not much larger than an airshaft begin to find their lives coming together in unexpected ways.

At the center of this group is Mister Ergo. A quiet older man, Mister Ergo seems to have some connection with the “phenomenon,” as the newspapers quickly dub it. Or phenomena, to be more accurate, as the laughter is soon followed by a series of fantastical and gently whimsical occurences. In one of the earliest, everyone in the world stops for a moment to greet each other:

Diplomats said “How do you do?” to messenger boys, bank presidents said it to the charwomen. Functionaries said it to elevator boys. Spinsters said it to bachelors, stenographers to street sweepers, sweepers to ladies in limousines. An opera singer said it to a coal heaver, magnates said it to beggars, policemen to cab drivers, a queen said it to a lunatic, a duchess to a ragpicker. Theives said it to ministers, chorus girls to managers, general to privates, ships’ captains to stokers … and so on all through the walks of life where life was walking at that moment occurred this involuntary interchange of mutual recognition and solicitude.

Certainly the like had never been known on this planet before.

It was true that there were strange complications as a result of the phenomenon. Some were chagrined afterwards, and even mortified. For instance, two lady club members, deadly enemies, who chanced to stand side by side at a bargain counter went home and had nervous prostration because they had spoken to each other. A farmer and his wife in Vermont, who had shared farm, and farmhouse, and even bed, for forty years but had not spoken to each other since 1907, immediately applied for a divorce, unable to survive the shame of the breaking of their resolution.

Soon, the phenomena bring together a cast of characters a bit like a collision between “Major Barbara” and “Golden Boy.” There is a wealthy playgirl; an even wealthier armaments magnate; a boxer with the soul of a poet; his poor but gorgeous neighbor with an operatic voice; her snivelling gonif of a brother; a sweet spinster; and roughly a dozen others. Not one of them acquires the slightest depth of characterization in the course of the book’s 300-plus pages.

If a novel’s characters are flat and undeveloped, then its narrative could make up for that. And at first, it seems there might be some direction, some shape, some meaning to the various phenomena. Some are a bit dewy-eyed, like the rain of flowers that drop from the skies and sprout from the mouths of every cannon and rifle. Others are downright worth wishing for in real life:

… every frenzied activity was suspended, every adult straining muscle and thought relaxed, surrendered, enjoyed the mysterious hiatus in which the very idea of Hurry melted out of the human brain. In that marvelous fragment of time mankind had an experience never known before. It saw, down a vista like a deep green tunnel of woodland boughs, the future stretching thousands and millions of years away, with time for everything to be done without haste or concern.

By the time the book is nearly 95% done, however, nothing much more has happened than a month’s worth of phenomena and a lot of scurrying around by the various characters. Mister Ergo tries to explain what it all means in the climactic scene : “The New Hope will come. A New Hope always has come, created out of the need that is the core of Desolation. What will it be? Who can say … and how does it matter?” There is more of this, but it’s all essentially New Age-y babble.

Personally, I have always found that when a novel ends with a speech in which one character that tries to explain what it all means, what it really means is that the novelist ran out of ideas and is trying to substitute argument for imagination. It’s like cutting directly from Shakespeare to a Presidential debate. Whatever it is, it ain’t art. Is what Mister Ergo has to say really going to make a difference to any of other characters–or the reader?

If this technique ever worked–and if it didn’t for Tolstoy in War and Peace, why would it for a lesser writer?–then criticism would be indistinguishable from art. But it isn’t, and The Jester’s Reign doesn’t succeed where War and Peace failed. You’d be better of stopping 10-15 pages short and making up your own ending.

From what little I could piece together about her, Grainger was born Bonita Ginger, either in Colorado or England, in the late 1800s. She moved to New York around the time of World War One and was one of the colony of writers and artists like John Reed and e. e. cummings who settled in Patchin Place at the end of the war. She wrote a novel called, The Hussy, which was published by Boni and Liveright in 1924. It appears to have been a satire on the double standards of romantic/sexual behavior that existed between men and women at the time. Aside from The Jester’s Reign, she only published a short bundle of poems (Five poems) and a sweet memoir of Greenwich Village life in the 1920s (We Lived in Patchin Place). She apparently ran an informal speakeasy called “Bonnie’s Office” to make ends meet during the Prohibition, and befriended artists and writers old (brothers Theodore and Llewellyn Powys) and young (Esther McCoy) during her time in Patchin Place. She died sometime around 1962.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger
New York: Carrick and Evans, 1938

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt

By the time he wrote Take Today: The Executive as Dropout with the help of Barrington Nevitt, an engineer and consultant, Marshall McLuhan had learned that an effective way to keep his name in the media was to give his books provocative titles, such as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. Aside from the–at the time–“with-it-ness” of its title, however, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout probably attracted more readers–not that there appear to have been all that many–more with McLuhan’s name than anything else.

One might think that McLuhan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Robert Townsend’s 1970 best-seller, Up the Organization, which took a counter-culture look at big, bureaucratic organizations–without questioning their basic purpose or the value of the life and goals of the typical businessman. But McLuhan, it turns out, didn’t think much of Townsend’s book: Townsend manifests the [Harold] Geneen pattern of hotted-up ‘camp.’ If there is one thing that is perfectly obvious about Geneen U., it is that it is a ‘replay’ of some very worn-out organization ploys and patterns.” Anyone who knows a bit about McLuhan’s ideas will recognize that “hotted-up” is not a complimentary term.

And it’s unlikely that the average Wall Street Journal reader of the early 1970s would have found much in the book that could be put to any use on the job or in getting up the career ladder. It’s true that one can find occasional statements in Take Today that seem to leap off the page in their prescience:

It is in this new dimension of “software” design that the difference between the old mechanical industry and the new electric circuitry becomes manifest. It is a difference not only of speed and diversity but also of knowledge and of the programming for special, personal needs.

Written at a time when programming inevitably involved lugging around long, rectangular boxes full of hundreds of punch cards (all of which had to be in exactly the right order), the idea of doing it for special, personal needs was more than a bit ahead of its time.

But for every glint of genius, there are a dozen examples of the sort of writing that may one day earn McLuhan the reputation of a 20th century Nostradamus–meaning, the sort of writing that just about anyone can interpret to mean just about anything he wants it to. Which is also, of course, the sort of writing one’s not sure really had any meaning in the first place. Take this example:

As concertmaster, satellite man would have to audition such selections as the Manhattan Project with exquisite prescience of “audience” effects. The “audience” of satellite man includes the “actors” and is not merely human but consists of all the resonances awakened everywhere.

Both sentences are grammatically correct–but meaningful? They’re like a conversation or radio broadcast you’re not quite close enough to hear fully: you hear the fragments, you understand what each fragment means by itself, but you can’t quite piece together what’s going on.

And then you get the beauts:

What the “practical man” doesn’t know is that facts are something made, as the word tells us (facto). Moreover, a fact cannot be connected without “seizing up.” The interval or gap is necessary to any practical action. The gap is where the action is. “Ask the man who owns one.” The artist and engineer exist to create the right gaps and to avoid unfunny connections.

It’s writing like this that reminds me that, at about the same time that McLuhan was working on this book, gurus like Maharaj Ji were managing to get people to offer up their life savings and clean toilets with similar gobbledygook–albeit spiritual rather than intellectual.

I spent an entertaining and amusing hour thumbing through Take Today. McLuhan was never anything if not an eclectic reader, and like his other books, this one is full of striking quotes from sources ranging from James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to Peter Drucker to an IEEE Transactions article to an obscure work on the structure and function of the Chinese civil service during the Ming dynasty. And he had a knack of coming up with headline statements that owe more than a little to Wyndham Lewis’ blasts:



They Had the Looks When Cooking the Books


Loved Labels Lost

But I found much of what I read to be as windy as a winter in Chicago without being a fraction as invigorating. It’s hard to believe people wrecked their lives to follow a smiling 15-year-old Indian guru, and it’s hard to believe there was a time when a book like this was considered profound.

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper

I had big hopes for Albert Halper’s 1966 novel, The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach. Even if the story turned out to be a dud, I figured the atmosphere would make it worth the ride.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach"And it does, at least at first. Leo Roth, president of the Dilly Dally Dress Company, a girlswear firm in Manhattan’s Garment District, heads to Miami on the trail of his cousin, Bernie Flugman, a ladies’ man and habitual gambler who’s stolen over fifteen thousand from the company. To kill time between his nights of cruising Miami’s hotels in search of Bernie, Leo lounges on the sun deck of the Bel Haven Hotel, where he meets up with “the three horsemen of Miami Beach”–Moe Stein, Hy Bronson, and Jerry Ryan, retired fifty-somethings who spend their time sunning, joking, and flirting with the fifty-something women regulars.

But before that, the three horsemen have to say goodbye to Eli Fensterberg, the late fourth. As Halper sketches the scene, it’s pure early 1960s Miami Beach:

Moe saw the two cabana boys from the Bel Haven move up to the casket and peer down at the lifeless face. He recognized a clerk from a Surfside delicatessen standing in line; the dead man had been a heavy buyer of anchovies, olives, and other tid-bits for his table. Behind the delicatessen clerk, who looked a little strange without his long white apron, stood Mr. Lipsky the tailor who had recently made two suits for the deceased. In the gloom Moe spotted Eli’s barber, then his eyes picked out the tall, corpulent owner of the Surfside Liquor Store. When you’re dead, Moe mused, you find out who your true friends are, only it’s too late.

Suddenly Moe stiffened. In the back of the chapel, sitting a few rows apart, were two tall, stunning blondes. They were the call girls Eli used to phone every couple of weeks, or whenever he felt like seeing one of them…. A feeling of envy came over him. What was the secret of Eli’s success with people? He had been an irascible little man, yet when he died the cabana boys, his delicatessen clerk, his liquor supplier, his motel manageress, his tailor, and even his call girls came to his funeral.

While there are plenty more scenes–in nightclubs, motels, swank neighborboods and low rent dives–that provide Halper a chance to paint word pictures, his renditions aren’t much better than the prose equivalent of motel/hotel art.

Nor does he develop any of his characters in any significant way. Leo Roth is quickly seduced by the comfortable life among the early retirees, he eventually decides that fifty-two is too early to call it quits, and he returns to New York. Bernie the gambler spends most of the book hiding in cheap hotels and hitting nightly poker games, desperately trying to win back what he owes Leo and others, he’s finally caught by a couple of thugs working for a Mafioso holding most of his markers. They beat him into unconsciousness, and when he finally comes to again in a hospital … well, nothing, really. He says he’s off gambling for good. Has he undergone some kind of transformative experience? Based on what Halper gives us, the only thing that seems to have been transformed are his nose and jaw.

Finally, after setting up the premise and bringing Leo and Bernie to Miami, the narrative wanders into a variety of cul-de-sacs, including a tedious subplot involving Rosita and Manuel, a pair of Cuban dance instructors. Aside from being in the same town at the same time, Leo and Bernie might as well have nothing to do with each other. Halper even fails to derive any climactic benefit from a passing hurricane.

The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach seems more like a first and very rough draft than a finished work. Something promising might have come from further work–tightening up the narrative, jettisoning the endless hand-wringing rounds of Leo and Rosita, and bringing the stories of Leo and Bernie to collision instead of stringing them on in infinite parallel. The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach was Halper’s last published novel, and it betrays more than a few signs of a writer losing steam and creative inspiration.

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer

I’ve hesitated to write about Tiffany Thayer’s books up to now because they are all, as far as I can tell, just plain awful. They’re sleazy, pandering, full of wooden characters and plot devices, and suffer from Thayer’s logorrhea, which appears never to have been moderated by any editor. Next to Thayer, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or even the average Harlequin Romance author looks like Leo Tolstoy. Despairing of the state of the novel in the late 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that no one read anything but the Book of the Month Club’s latest pick–although “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries.”

One of David Berger's illustrations from Tiffany Thayer's "Thirteen Women"Which is also, of course, what also makes them almost irresistable. If you’re going to read a bad book, you don’t want one that’s half-heartedly bad, one whose author betrays any misgivings or sense of aesthetic standards. You want a full, unrepentant wallow–and that’s exactly what you get. In the case of Thirteen Women, you get adultery–both hetero- and homosexual–suicide, murder, rape, revenge, envy, gossip, corruption, show business, clairvoyance, yoga, blackmail, and chain letters. And I probably left something out of that list.

The story is, at best, preposterous. A group of women, all former members of a literary club at a prestigious girls’ school, receive mysterious letters from a Swami Yogadachi. The letters foretell some terrible event that will occur to each within the next few weeks. And sure enough, it does–at least to the first few. One commits suicide. Another starves to death. A third murders her cheating husband in front of his entire office.

Thayer brings in a medical expert, Dr. Blundein, to assure us that what’s going on is not clairvoyance but the susceptibility of the female mind:

“She was killed by suggestion.”

“Good God!”

“The power of the mind is almost boundless. Sometimes it is the power of the weakness or twistedness or the prejudice of a mind. I have seen hysteria break bones; actually snap a fibula, while the patient was prone on a bed — apparently unconscious.”

“A woman?”

“Of course. Men are seldom hysterical.”

See–I did leave something out: male chauvinism.

A lifelong advocate of skepticism (see Doug Skinner’s excellent article on Thayer and his connection with Charles Fort), Thayer can’t be bothered with mysteries. He tells us in the first chapter who the culprit is, in a paragraph that gives you a good sense of his shaggy-dog approach to storytelling:

The person guilty of whatever crime you find here was an half-caste, born in Java, an extraordinary woman; a woman with wide, full, undulating hips — strong shoulders and bust to match; a woman not unlike Mrs. O’Neill in general outline — if Mrs. O’Neill had not worn a girdle. That girdle had become necessary only after Bobby’s birth. Before that, her flesh had been solid and firm and resilient, which the guilty one’s never was. But we can say they were both Junoesque — if Juno can be imagined just a little softer than marble has translated her. If we can imagine a Juno so soft that one’s finger might leave a dent in a thigh, say, for twenty or thirty seconds? No one wants to think of a Juno like that, but neither did George O’Neill want to think of a wife like that, yet, there Laura was. One never knows, at twenty-two, what six or seven years will bring. And George half blamed himself. After all, she couldn’t have had Bobby without his help, so the breaking down of her constituent tissues was at least fifty per cent his fault. It takes a broad-minded man to look at it that way. George was all of that. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he always said — and until his meerschaum was thoroughly colored, he kept it covered snugly in chamois.

It’s paragraphs like this that make me pretty confident that Thayer’s motto, when it came to writing, was “Go with the flow.” I can’t imagine what kind of planning would have led from a half-caste woman with undulating hips to a meerschaum pipe in the space of a dozen sentences.

Thayer delighted in playing up the salaciousness of his books–he went on to publish Adult’s Companion–“Tales of the eternal passions … by the greatest writers of amorous literature.” But in truth, he was terrible when it came to writing about sex. Here, for example, is how he deals with a night of passion:

Tom’s arms were frightful and his nude chest rather like a pigeon’s, but because Nellie experienced, or seemed to experience, an holy rapture at their contact with her own more than adequate complements, the wind bated its breath and the stars blinked blissfully as climax after climax was reached time after time.

What I mean to say is that all through the night, while Anne ransacked the Youngstown hotels with a second-hand revolver in her purse, Tom was giving his entire time and all his swiftly ebbing energy to that man-killing occupation which Nature has made exhilarating to conceal its basic insidiousness.

This is the sort of thing that led Dorothy Parker, in a New Yorker review of another Thayer novel, An American Girl, to write, “He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.”

We also see in the above passage one of Thayer’s many typographical quirks, which led Parker to exclaim, “… ‘an hollow square,’ ‘an Hapsburg,’ and ‘an hill.’ ‘An hill,’ for God’s sake! It could happen to anybody who had no ear and had never got beyond the fourth grade.” She sums up his prose style as, “an entirely inexplicable idiom, and one that irritates me more acutely than anything I have encountered in letters since Mr. A. A. Milne minted the phrase ‘a hummy hum.'”

Thirteen Women was made into a film within a few months of its publication in 1932. Starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, “Thirteen Women” is a good example of a talkie from the brief period before the Hayes code took effect, and was considered so lurid that RKO trimmed out two of the dozen deaths in the picture soon after its first release. You can read several appreciations of the film, at The Irene Dunne Project and Une Cinephile. And, if you have the stamina, you can watch the whole thing online at YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

You can also find the text of Thirteen Women online at the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/ThirteenWomen. Be sure to browse through one of the formats that preserve David Berger’s illustrations from the book, some of which were pretty strong stuff for their time.

By now it should be obvious that I’ve concluded that Tiffany Thayer’s novels are the literary equivalent of potato chips: no damn good for you but too hard to pass up from time to time. I’ve got The Prince of Taranto, his last book–amounting to some 1,267 pages, published in three slipcased volumes and intended to be the first of 21 titles in a series about origins and life of Mona Lisa (viz. logorrhea)–sitting in my basement, along with a few others from his drugstore library period, and one of more of them will, like scum, eventually surface here.

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Triangle Books, 1932

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin

The Wikipedia entry for Speed Lamkin quotes composer Ned Rorem’s characterization of him as “the poor man’s Truman Capote”–which is probably not how Lamkin would choose to be remembered. The comparison was unavoidable, however, at least for the first thirty-some years of his life.

Portrait of Speed Lamkin by Jean de Gaigneron (circa 1948)Born in Monroe, Louisiana, son of a wealthy businessman, Lamkin like Capote went North young–to Harvard in 1948 at the age of 16. He quickly found his way into the circles of Eastern avant-garde and gay society. As early as 1949, Tennessee Williams mentioned “Speed Lamkin, whom you may know or know of, sometimes referred to as the new Truman Capote” in a letter to a friend. He published his first novel, Tiger in the Garden, while still an undergraduate. Drawing heavily on Lamkin’s perceptions of Monroe society, the novel was, in the words of Time’s reviewer, “made up of old ingredients: miscegenation, aristocratic drunks and flowerlike ladies, languid Southern talk and fiery Southern tempers.” While there was no doubt that Lamkin’s book was informed by personal knowledge of at least a few skeletons in Louisiana closets, most reviews found the book a bit artificial: the New York Times’ reviewer said it gave the “sense of a low-powered, highly polished Hollywood product.”

This was a prescient comment. In the same letter, Williams wrote that Lamkin “wants to get a Hollywood job,” and less than a year later, Christopher Isherwood, living in Los Angeles, mentioned Lamkin for the first time in his diaries. Lamkin was the first to try to adapt Isherwood’s Berlin stories for the screen, and while he didn’t succeed in this effort, he did work as a screen writer, mostly in television for most of the 1950s.

In 1954, he published his second novel, The Easter Egg Hunt (later retitled Fast and Loose in paperback). Although labeled a Hollywood novel, the book is, to be more precise, a novel of Beverly Hills. The distinction is subtle but important. A Hollywood novel is, in some way or another, about the business of movie-making and the people involved in it.

Beverly Hills, on the other hand, while populated by many in the entertainment business, is first and foremost a town of the rich–or, as Lamkin describes it, small “wealthy city, two thirds suburb, one third resort.” The Easter Egg Hunt is more about lives lived around expensive homes, poolsides, and nightclubs than about directors, actors, and producers.

During the photographing, new people arrived. Cobina Wright’s secretary; and the Abe Abramses, who had money in Van-color; and an Egyptian princess, who had drifted to Beverly Hills in the entourage of the Queen Mother Nazli; and a blank-faced Dutchman, who owned a pepper business; and a man in pink shorts, who sold Fords; and the man who had once played Dagwood Bumstead

While many of the extravagances described in the book relates to the efforts of Clarence Culvers, a Louisiana tycoon, to make a star of his young second wife Carol, show business is never more than a presence on the periphery of the story.

The story itself is pretty thin. Lamkins’ narrator, Charley Thayer, a young writer for Time magazine from Miro (read Monroe), Louisiana, encounters Angelica O’Brien, a a childhood playmate and bright young thing, now married to Laddie Wells, a pompous would-be intellectual and assistant to a producer of “A-movie” westerns. At first the narrative seems to be leading into a triangle between Charley, Angelica, and Laddie, but then Charley, whose bumper sticker must have read, “I Brake for Bright, Shiny Objects,” becomes the confidant of Carol Culvers and the course takes a sharp turn. From there on, we follow the rocky course of Carol, who idles at unstable and regularly revs up to self-destructive, her affair with Laddie, and the ambitions and jealousies of Clarence. Although Charley hints at one point about halfway in the story that this all will climax in some violent, headlines-grabbing event, what we get at the end is more whimper than bang. Overall, I thought The Easter Egg Hunt an utter failure as a novel.

At the same time, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Lamkin might not have been an effective novelist, but he is a terrific observer. If he kept a diary during his time in Los Angeles, somebody needs to convince him to publish it. The Easter Egg Hunt is a treasure trove of descriptions of the people, places, and trappings of Beverly Hills in the early 1950s. If you read L.A. Confidential and other James Ellroy novels for the scenery, you’ll love The Easter Egg Hunt. Take, for instance, just a portion of the account of one of the Culvers’ frequent parties:

They sat drinking in sixes and eights around the tables under the marquee; and they would dance for half an hour to the bouncy music of an orchestra playing the songs of South Pacific. Then the orchestra would alternate with a rumba-mambo-tango band. People spread their fur wraps and lay down on the grass, and people had their fortunes told by a swank Beverly Hills numerologist. Two snobbish English actors arrived with Vera Velma the strip-tease queen, who wore pink dyed fur and was introduced as Mrs. T. Markoe Deering of Southampton and New York.

At two-thirty sharp the man who had played Washington in Valley Forge vomited over the buffet, and a sturgeon and three red herrings had to be taken away. Down the hill in the Japanese tea house two ensigns were having a crap game with Len Evansman, the columnist. Len Evansman wanted to know if I could change a thousand-dollar bill. At a quarter of three a dozen Hawaiian girls did the hula-hula and a dignified producer, who had an obsession for pinching young women’s behinds, got his face slapped by the ukelele player. A thin man who did rope tricks followed the hula girls. It was during the rope tricks that somebody started throwing the plates out over the hill. “Look,” cried a starlet, “flying saucers! ” Forty-five people rose from their chairs to look. Three men started throwing plates, then a woman started.

The book is rich of succinct character sketches full of efficient defamation: “George Martin was not handsome, he was not well-mannered, he was not entertaining in the least; in fact, every remark he made, every opinion uttered, was something stupid and inane; yet when George Martin entered a room, the eyes of every woman in it went to him.” Or the studio founder who “lived on in a Norman castle on Doheny with trained nurses to tend his artificial bowels.”

Although Lamkin’s alter ego Charley has a one-night stand with Angelica, his role and perspective seems more gay than straight. He becomes the confidant of both Angelica and Carol without stirring up much in the way of a jealous reaction from either husband. He spends much of his time in the company of an English novelist named Sebastian Saunders, who is clearly a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood (to whom the novel is dedicated): “His court consisted of two sailors in uniform, a trim little middle-aged Englishman, to whom he addressed most of his remarks, and a boy who could not have been over fifteen years old.” I don’t know if Lamkin was trying to camouflage his homosexuality or just using the language of his time, but there are regular references to gays that are likely to offend today: “Gladys Hendrix typified the sort of well-off older woman who goes around with swish young men; and the Titson twins with their talk of ‘stunning’ this and ‘smart’ that were horribly, horribly swish.” Charley and Angelica go to a “pansy bar”; the Culvers’ personal secretary, “a tall, stout, broad-shouldered woman with the complexion of a steaming red crab” is known as “Butch” Murphy.

The Easter Egg Hunt did well enough to be reissued as a lurid-covered paperback, but got reviews that consistently riffed on the theme of “imitation F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Lamkin abandoned the novel after this, but he did get one play, “Comes a Day,” produced on Broadway starring George C. Scott, in 1958. He returned to Monroe in the early 1960s and appears to have devoted his energies towards collecting. The New Orleans Museum of Art featured a number of items from his collection of furniture, paintings, vases, and other items in the exhibition, “A Taste for Excellence,” several years ago.

Although hardback and paperback editions of The Easter Egg Hunt are available, you can find copies of the book in various electronic formats for free: The Easter Egg at the Internet Archive.

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1954

As I Remember Him: The Biography of R. S., by Hans Zinsser

Cover of first U. S. edition of "As I Remember Him"“Why in thunder should anyone want to write a biography of R. S.?” a friend asks the author of As I Remember Him: “[W]hen he died, the world had no unusual reasons to mourn him.” “R. S.,” as Zinsser never acknowledges in this book, is Zinsser himself. The initials stood for “Romantic Soul,” which is how he sometimes referred to himself.

As I Remember Him is one of the more unusual experiments in autobiography. The book is written in two voices: one of the unnamed author, the other of R. S. himself. The author sets R. S.’ material in context or comments–not always positively–upon it.

In the introduction, the author mentions The Education of Henry Adams as one of his inspirations, and there are a number of parallels between the two books. Both take a rather detached approach to the personal aspects of their stories: Adams writing of himself in the third person, Zinsser refusing to identify himself and framing his own words with those of the fictional “author.” Both are as much intellectual histories as accounts of life events–more so, one could argue. Both men omit mention of what others might consider some of the more dramatic and interesting moments in their lives. And both set the subject as a figure from a particular age and cultural dealing with a time of change and transition to a far different world. In Zinsser’s case,

I approached my task with modesty, therefore, hoping that I might acceptably convey in this study the portrait of a representative of that generation, now rapidly disappearing–like the T-model Ford–whose lives bridged the transition from horses to gasoline to electric bulbs, from Emerson and Longfellow to T. S. Eliot and Joyce, from stock companies to the movies and the radio, etc.–in short, from Victoria to Mrs. Windsor.

Zinsser was hardly more representative of his generation than Adams was of his. Born into a wealthy German-American family, he was privately tutored until college age and taken off on tours of the Continent by an elderly uncle. His life moved back and forth from a Manhattan brownstone mansion to a country house. All his life he loved to ride and participate in the Groton Hunts.

When the Spanish-American War broke out, he and several of his well-to-do friends ran off and enlisted in the Army. He served for two years but never saw combat. Of the time, Zinsser recalls little beyond a humorous story involving Teddy Roosevelt and a startled horse.

Zinsser tried studying painting after that, and then literature, and only somewhat accidentally became interested in–no, fascinated and then possessed by–science and medicine. He graduated with an M. D. from Columbia in 1903 and went to work as a practicing physician. He had to make do with the cast-offs of other Manhattan doctors, starting out with the poorest patients, turning out in the middle of the night for deliveries his better-off colleague could avoid. He soon discovered, though, that the laboratory rather than private practice was his forte, and in 1907, he joined the faculty at Columbia.

Zinsser quickly became one of the leading American researchers in the relatively new field of bacteriology, and his work let him to be selected by the Red Cross to travel to Serbia in 1915 to help deal with an epidemic of typhus there. Of his experiences in Serbia we are told anecdotes about a crazy night in a dilapidated country inn, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and a charming Austro-Serbian character abruptly arrested and shot as a spy.

More telling, though is what he doesn’t tell the reader. This is about as much as we learn on his work in the field hospitals:

The work was trying on the nerves, since often, while I was doing an autopsy on a case still warm (it was desirable to perform these operations before secondary post-mortem invasion of bacteria had occurred), I could hear the families of other recent dead keening over the bodies on the farther side of a thin partition….

Less than two years later, he was recruited to serve as head of laboratories for the U. S. Army Expeditionary Force in France. His work on camp and hospital sanitation and disease prevention earned him the Distinguished Service Medal. And again one can debate whether his reticence is admirable or aggravating or both:

Of his military service, nineteen months were spend in France. Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life and his most intense emotions–elation, terror, compassion, admiration, disgust, and pride. But he utterly refused to discuss any of his experiences.

Hans Zinsser, 1930To offset such narrative ellipses, Zinsser offers little histories of typhus, syphilis, and other diseases he researched and deal with. These are not unwelcome–Zinsser’s classic text on epidemics, Rats, Lice and History–has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1935. But they’re second best as substitutes for first-hand observations–and comments such as “Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life” are third-rate writing.

Field research was clearly Zinsser’s great passion as a scientist. He traveled to Europe, China, Japan, and Africa to study diseases and bacteria in the midst of their most virulent outbreaks. In Mexico City he alternated between work in filthy alleys and sick wards and nights trying to control the poet Hart Crane’s benders. His work was ground-breaking but supportive: he was able to isolate a germ of typhus from which an effective vaccine was eventually derived, but others developed this into an affordable and usable treatment.

In 1938, he was diagnosed with leukemia, which was then incurable. He began writing this book in response. Although the disease must certainly have been painful and his death long in coming, Zinsser saw this in a positive light:

As his disease caught up with him, R. S. felt increasingly grateful for the fact that death was coming to him with due warning, and gradually…. [H]e was thankful that he had time to compose his spirit, and to spend a last year in affectionate and actually merry association with those dear to him.

Zinsser brings the reader back to the book’s premise at the very end:

… I knew that at the time of his death he was as thoroughly bewildered as any thoughtful individual of our time is bound to be.

All of which goes to prove that, as I pointed out in the first chapter, R. S. was really a quite ordinary person about whom it was hardly worth while to write a book.

Zinsser finished the book and was able to see it published before his death. The Book of the Month Club picked it as a featured title and it became a surprise best-seller–which is why it’s easy to find a copy for just a buck or two today. But it was never reprinted or reissued after this first release and quickly became forgotten. Although I was initially enthusiastic about the book, as the pages worn on, Zinsser’s choice to focus more on context and history and less on his own experiences and emotions grew increasingly frustrating. I think Clifton Fadiman’s review in the Saturday Review summed it up well: “…[N]o classic, but full of good things.”

Throughout his adult life, Zinsser was something of an amateur poet. A few of his poems were published in Saturday Review, The Atlantic and others, but his last sonnet has become something of a standard text for those suffering from terminal illnesses:

Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.
Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.

How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.

Find a Copy

As I Remember Him: The Biography of R. S., by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'People Will Always Be Kind'
Does it matter?–losing your legs? …
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

   –Siegfried Sassoon

Wilfrid Sheed’s 1973 novel, People Will Always Be Kind, takes its title from Sassoon’s poem about a paraplegic young war veteran, but Sheed’s protagonist, Brian Casey, is a victim not of combat but of polio. Well over half of the novel (the section titled, “Backgrounder”) recounts how Casey is suddenly struck by polio in high school and how he comes to turn his handicap into an effective tool for manipulating others–because, as Sassoon observes, “people will always be kind.”

In some ways, People Will Always Be Kind is a remarkably perceptive study of politics and human behavior. As his parents desperately attempt every cure, legitimate and outright criminal (leeches, at one point), Casey grows deeply cynical. “I don’t think I owe God any favors, after what he did to me,” he thinks to himself, and one of his Columbia classmates calls him “a man of little faith and much energy, the most dangerous of your human species.”

Casey cuts his teeth on campus politics and finds a natural talent for public speaking and private wheeling and dealing. But he also quickly realizes that campus politics was “like playing poker without money.” When next we see him, in the section titled, “The Perkins Papers,” he is a U. S. Senator, seen through the eyes of Sam Perkins, an idealistic Ivy League grad, part of a small movement trying to court a candidate to run for President on a peace platform. Sheed never mentions Vietnam in the book, referring to the war only as “The Issue.”

Casey takes up the challenge–or at least, he seems to. Although Perkins is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, even he understands that he’s dealing with a level of intelligence and sophistication far beyond his:

He also told me, though he didn’t have to by then, that he liked to hire high-minded people because they would do dirtier work for nothing than low-minded people would for hire. True. If the candidate so much as intimated to me that a principle was involved, it was like unleashing a rattlesnake. A low-minded person would at least have watched his own skin and thought about tomorrow.

During the campaign, a party hack comments, somewhat sarcastically, “That’s some staff you got.” “That’s not a staff–that’s my violin,” Casey responds.

Much like Eugene McCarthy, Casey achieves an unexpected breakthrough victory in New Hampshire and rolls into the convention as the leading candidate. Perkins does note that the transformation had less to do with the candidate that some undefinable combination of media coverage and popular sentiment: “Casey hadn’t changed a hair, but he suddenly had charisma and seemed like a great man.” He drives himself relentlessly, always conscious that any sign of exhaustion would be linked back to his polio: “Other politicians could show fatigue, Casey never. He would have to kill himself to prove his strength.”

Perkins quits the campaign in a childish and pretty unbelievable miff involving sexual jealousy over another staffer, but Casey wins the nomination and comes close to winning the election (a conditional cease-fire before the debate kills much of his momentum). Some observers, however, believe Casey made a deliberate choice to lose. His wife thinks it a matter of his struggle with his faith (Casey is an Irish Catholic): “It’s like an occasion of sin, if you know what I mean. He knows he shouldn’t be in politics.”

Yet brilliant as many of Sheed’s observations about politics are, People Will Always Be Kind fails as a coherent work of art. The two parts of the novel are unbalanced: “Backgrounder” burrows deep into Casey’s evolving psyche, while “The Perkins Papers” shows him through a glass, dork-ly. The campaign has the potential to be a much richer source of material–Time magazine’s reviewer thought that, “Sheed’s only real mistake was to quit writing about 200 pages short of his natural stopping place.” Certainly the book loses much of its strength by substituting Sheed’s profoundly intelligent omniscient voice in “Backgrounder” for Sam Perkins’ fuzzy-headed first-person voice in the second half. And while Brian Casey may be a terrific vehicle for navigating the winding ways of American politics, as a character he becomes something of a Cheshire Cat. In the last dozen pages of the book, he almost entirely fades away, leaving us with only his ironic smile.

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

And Sleep Until Noon, by Gene Lees

Gene Lees, 1958Gene Lees, one of the finest jazz writers ever, passed away a few days ago. Without a doubt, his best work was the series of jazz portraits and memoirs he published in his long-running journal, Jazzletter, which were collected in such books as Cats of Any Color and Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s. He was also a fine lyricist, best known perhaps for his English version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado,” which Lees transformed into the lovely “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”

But Lee also made two ventures into fiction. Late in his life, he published the nostalgic Song Lake Summer, set in upstate New York in the late 19th century, which received generally positive reviews. His first book, And Sleep Until Noon, his first novel, did not.

Lees started writing And Sleep Until Noon in the late 1950s, but only got the book published in 1966.

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'And Sleep Until Noon'
The book focuses on Jack Royal, a kid from Chicago who evolves from student of classical piano to jazz musician to jazz singer to pop star to star of baguette Westerns and adventure movies. Lees portrays Jack as a talented jerk, the kind of temperamental celebrity who tries to get hotel managers fired when the wrong drink shows up on his room service cart. Jack’s life and ways are turned around in the course of a week or so in Stockholm when he meets a beautiful journalist, Disa Lindahl. Unlike Jack, Disa is true-hearted and pure in spirit. Her effect on Jack is like that of a tuning fork, putting his mind and life back to the right pitch, and even though they go their separate ways in the end, it’s clear that Jack will now take his work, art, and other people seriously.

If that plot sounds thin, Lees’ characterizations do little to compensate. He attempts to draw some kind of parallel between Jack’s meandering career, marked mostly by a series of self-indulgent decisions, and that of Bud Weston, Jack’s boyhood friend, who drops jazz for medicine after meeting–and falling in love with–a Costa Rican prostitute scarred in an auto accident. As young men, both Bud and Jack are liberal users of booze, pot, and women, and there are numerous accounts of their debauches, none of them particularly convincing. Jack postulates at one point that “an entertainer’s popularity with women, who formed the majority of his audience and determined the tastes of the rest of it, varied directly with his utility as a focus for sexual fantasies, and any one of them who thought otherwise was a damn fool.”Library Journal called the book “sophomoric with puerile gaps predominating in the earlier parts.” I’m guessing the Journal’s critic was thinking of the scene where Bud masturbates a horse with a violin bow.

As a lyricist, Lees’ writing could be subtle and poetic. As a budding novelist, his work was on a par with those tired old lines about how the love of a good woman’ll set a man straight.

The only bright spots in the book are a few passages where Lees gets down to his true passion, music. There’s a wonderful little essay toward the end about the art of the pop singer, particularly on record:

Recording was an intimate medium. The listener’s ear was brought to a distance of only inches from the singer’s mouth. It was not only unnecessary to shout; it was rude. Making it even more intimate was the fact that the record was usually heard by one person, sometimes two, rarely as many as three at a time. If there were more persons present, he was fond of saying, nobody was listening–they were too busy talking.

And so, in recent years, there had been a steady evolution of his conception. He had dropped the volume of his voice. Not that he had abandoned the use of dynamics; he had simply made them more subtle. As a result his records had an arresting quality of intimacy, of private urgency, and a woman who listened to them tended to be drawn into the illusion that he was singing directly to her; while men, oddly enough, were inclined to feel that he was speaking on their behalf, saying those thing, making those confessions that they would make themselves were they only eloquent enough ….

Lees himself later told an interviewer that he hated the book. Perhaps the kindest thing one can says about it is that it provides convincing evidence that Lees made the right decision when he abandoned fiction and concentrated instead on writing about what he knew and loved best: jazz, pop, and the remarkable musicians who play it.

And Sleep Until Noon, by Gene Lees
New York: Trident Press, 1966

The Great Fake Book, by Vance Bourjaily

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Great Fake Book'It pains me to start 2010 with two pans in a row, but few books have disappointed me as much as Vance Bourjaily’s little-known 1986 novel, The Great Fake Book. As an amateur jazz player, I was attracted by the title, a reference to fake books, the cheat sheets many working musicians use to memorize popular tunes. [Barry Kernfeld wrote a short history of them, The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians, a few years ago.]

Bourjaily’s name often pops up on lists of neglected and underappreciated novelists. Despite a career spanning six decades and a nomination for the National Book Award (for his 1970 novel, Brill Among the Ruins), none of his books are currently in print. [Amazon reports that Doubleday will be publishing Brill in hardback at $7.95 this month. Probably a data entry error–but if not, grab it! When’s the last time you could get a new hardback copy of a good book for $7.95?] One reason for this lasting reputation, particularly among other writers, was his 23-year stint at the influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he mentored numerous young writers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Though Bourjaily wrote The Great Fake Book while in his sixties, the book certainly demonstrates that his appetite for narrative experimentation hadn’t diminished over the years. To tell the dual stories of young Charles Mizzourin and his father, Mike Mizzourin, a newspaperman and jazz musician who died in an auto wreck before Charles was born, Bourjaily uses letters, phone calls, archival documents, oral histories, and even a novel-within-a-novel. He switches decades, narrators, perspective, and tone as fast as Charlie Parker could play changes on “Cherokee.”

Unfortunately, Bourjaily’s experiment is doomed from the onset by unreliable ingredients. The correspondence between Charles Mizzourin and John Johnson (one of the few believable names in the book) that opens the story tries to create the impression of a fencing match between a child of the 60s and a man of the Establishment but just comes off as an inept tussle between two patently made-up stereotypes. We are led to think there is some kind of mystery behind Mike Mizzourin’s death and perhaps also his flip-flopping between journalism and jazz, perhaps having something to do with the Red Scare and McCarthyism–or perhaps not. Frankly, after finishing 100-some pages, I gave up caring and shelved the book. Not, regrettably, before coming across what I truly believe to be the most stomach-turning passage of prose I’ve ever read:

“Is that my finger-lickin’ chicken?”
“Hello Darlene.”
“Whompsie, did you get an answer from your friend Mr. Johnson?”
“I just found it in the mailbox.”
“I got one, too. To my li’l physical description of you.”
“That right? What’s he say?”
“He sent me his Style Book, and a bill for three dollars.”
“Going to pay?”
“What’s your letter say?”
“I’m about to pour me a drink and sit down with it.”
“Be sure it’s not a letter bomb. You’ll get vodka on your podka.”
“Night, Darlene.”
“Night, light.”

And that’s not the only saccharine attack from Bourjaily’s Kewpie doll creation. I kept hoping Charles would take a lesson from Groucho Marx and warn Darlene, “If icky baby keep talking that way, big stwong man gonna kick all her teef down her fwoat!”

No such luck.

What Became of Anna Bolton?, by Louis Bromfield

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'I picked up a copy of Louis Bromfield’s 1944 short novel, What Became of Anna Bolton? at one of my favorite bookstores, Magus Books, during a Christmas visit to the U. S.. Magus, located just a block from the University of Washington campus in Seattle, opened while I was going to school there 30-some years ago, and it’s one of an ever-diminishing number of bookstores where it’s still possible to find interesting old paperbacks from the 1960s and earlier.

I decided to take Anna Bolton along as my flight reading when we returned to Europe a few days later. From the title, I expected the story would be something about her disappearance or miraculous transformation. Taking the voice of David Sorrell, an American foreign correspondent, Bromfield introduces us to Anna Bolton at a London soiree in 1937. The widow of an American inventor and industrialist, she has come to London to work her way up the social ladder.

Sorrell, it turns out, knows Anna from their days growing up together in Lewisburg, Ohio. Anna–then Anna Scanlon–came from the wrong side of town, the daughter of a house cleaner and a town drunk. She falls in love with Tom Harrigan, from one of the better families in town. When Anna becomes pregnant, Tom elopes with her against his family’s wishes and they set up house in Pittsburgh. A year or so later, Tom dies in a car wreck and their baby follows soon after. It takes Bromfield about twelve pages to blitzkrieg through these first twenty years.

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'Sorrell next crosses paths with Anna some years later in the lobby of a pricey New York hotel, on the arm of Ezra Bolton, a fictional hybrid of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. A year or so after hiring her as a secretary, Bolton marries her as a trophy wife (although the term hadn’t been invented yet). The marriage is an arid sham, but luckily for Anna, Bolton dies before it gets too tedious for her. Millions in hand, she takes off for Europe.

Hitler’s invasion of France puts a crimp in her plans for social ascent. Caught up in the tide of refugees from Paris, she catches the Joan d’Arc flu and adopts a village of the homeless and helpless as her cause:

The truth was that Anna had found something to do. She had great health and great energy and great ability as an executive, and now setting up a canteen gave her an outlet for all these qualities. She liked the trips to Lyons, to Orleans, to Paris, even as far as Marseilles and Geneva to buy soap and medicines, chocolate and cigarettes.

Clearly, Bromfield had not a clue about life in occupied France. At this point, the book was halfway over and nothing of interest had really happened. Yes, a number of events were related, but Bromfield hadn’t managed to make Anna Scanlon/Harrigan/Bolton much more than a cut-out doll. “I’ve seen you grow a soul,” Anna’s paid companion, Miss Goodwin, tells her after a few months of the humanitarian relief. Miss Goodwin’s eyes were sharper than mine. But for another six hours of flying, I would have given up.

In hindsight, I wish I had. Anna continues her black-market magic, manipulating an S.S. officer who’s convinced he’s in love with her. “I want to marry you,” he tells her, “because I am tired and sick and corrupt and you are strong and healthy and young.” No, I am not making that line up. She meets Jean Lambert, a handsome Russo-French officer who’s the spitting image of Tom Harrigan. After a bit of pallid “Taming of the Shrew” nonsense, they marry, then escape to Algiers to avoid imprisonment after the U. S. enters the war. Sorrell meets Anna again and finds her transformed. We have to take his word for it.

When I got back home, I did a little research and learned that Edmund Wilson gave What Became of Anna Bolton? a right bashing when it was first published.

Louis Bromfield used to be spoken of as one of the younger writers of promise. By the time he had brought out Twenty-four Hours, it was more or less generally said of him that he was definitely second-rate. Since then, by unremitting industry and a kind of stubborn integrity that seems to make it impossible for him to turn out his rubbish without thoroughly believing in it, he has gradually made his way into the fourth rank, where his place is now secure.

Cover of later paperback edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'Although he began by calling the book “one of his [Bromfield’s] most remarkable achievements,” after devoting about four times as much text to a recap of the novel’s plot with only an occasional dig, Wilson then dismissed it as, “a small masterpiece of pointlessness and banality.”

To which I can only add, “Amen, brother!”

Despite the book’s utter lack of interest and distinction, What Became of Anna Bolton? managed to be reissued at least five times in paperback. Which just proves again how right Bo Diddley was when he sang, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.”

What Became of Anna Bolton?, by Louis Bromfield
New York City: Harper and Brothers, 1944

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman

For the first fifty-or-so pages of The Snowman, I thought I’d really found a long lost–heck, a never-discovered–gem. I picked up the Penguin paperback edition at a bookstore in Seattle, attracted by several promising clues. The Penguin edition came out four years after the initial hardback release; despite the fact that the novel was written by an American and is set in America, it appeared to have been published only in the U. K.. The blurb on the back read cryptic enough to suggest something worth investigating:

The Snowman is often infuriating, always compelling, a blinding collage of cross-threads, dead-ends, endless tunnels, red herrings and bang-on target salvos of smouldering reality.

Cover of Penguin U.K. paperback edition of 'The Snowman'
And at first, the work itself seemed a wonderfully bizarre treat. The first chapter ones with an entry from The Motorist’s Guide to Upstate New York, 1939: “Joseph’s Landing (232 alt. 729 pop.) 1.6 miles from State 3, is a peaceful lakeside village of wided, shaded streets and roomy old dwellings first settled in 1802.”

Over the next few chapters, Charles Haldeman introduces us to Joseph’s Landing and some of its inhabitants, past and present. It is, to say the least, an unusual place. There is something odd about everyone in the place. Here, for example, is a bit of town history:

Donatien’s death left Melba and Claude Hagen swamped in the peaked and parapeted four-story sandstone monstrosity at the acute intersection of Joan of Arc and Pierre de l’Hôpital Streets. Even when the ground floor had been overflowing with patients and Melba was holding a D.A.R. convention upstairs, the house had still seemed empty, it was so huge. Its original designer and builder, General Gilbert Raye, had obviously suffered from daedalomania. But that wasn’t all he’d suffered from: in 1819, not five years after the last stone was set in his labyrinth, he and a down-eastern prelate were arrested for conducting experiments of an unspeakable nature and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead and then burnt. Donatien’s great-grandfather Count Joseph de Villiers, a pseudonymous self-made noble who had absconded with the Spanish crown jewels afer the Battle of Waterloo and come to America with grandiose plans for establishing a new French Empire in the North, recognized in the condemned general a kindred spirit and paid him several visits in his cell. On the eve of his execution the wretched man gratefully bequeathed his eyesore to his friend.

This combination of the baroquely bizarre (“daedelomania”; “experiments of an unspeakable nature”) and the down-to-earth (“eyesore”) reminded me in a powerful way of one of the first books I featured on this site, John Howard Spyker’s Little Lives. I could imagine Joseph’s Landing sitting in the heart of Spyker’s Washington County. I even began to wonder if Charles Haldeman was yet another Richard Elman’s pseudonyms.

Unfortunately, the promise is unfulfilled. We move from these lovely odd vignettes into a series of chapters focusing on one and then another resident, most of them leading nowhere and weaving threads never again picked up in the narrative. Penguin’s blurb above is not intriguing praise. It’s a literal description. Haldeman seems to have been unable to decide just what he was writing. In the end, he settles upon a story of misfits and outcasts finding a kind of peace among themselves–the material of a Flannery O’Connor story, but not the end product.

His first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, published just a year or so before The Snowman, apparently suffered from similar problems. One reviewer praised its “Joycean” language but found it an artistic failure. Haldeman told the story of a child survivor of Auschwitz through a variety of textual artefacts but in the eyes of most critics at the time, didn’t manage to bring these pieces together into an effective whole–and he certainly didn’t manage to get past this stage with The Snowman.

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman
London: Jonathan Cape, 1964

The Man Who Lived Backward, by Malcolm Ross

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Man Who Lived Backward'This is the most confusing book I’ve ever read. 400-plus pages and my head still hurts when I try to make sense of it.

The Man Who Lived Backward tells the story of Mark Selby, to whom author Malcolm Ross endows a unique form of time-travelling:

“At dawn each day,” he began again, “I awake and enjoy my breakfast. I go about the business and pleasures of the day. I lunch. I dine. I talk with a friend, as I am doing now, and go to my bed secure in the knowledge that the sun will rise to a new day. As you, I have no idea what the day will bring forth. The only difference between us is this: when you awake tomorrow it will be April 18; with me it will be April 16.”

In other words, Mark Selby goes through each day normally, starting in the morning and going through the day to night. But then he goes to bed and wakes up on the morning of the day before.

This is not a work of science fiction. Ross only uses this arrangement as the pretext to take use through a series of historical situations–the siege of Paris in 1871, Pennsylvania steel strikes in the 1890s, the Spanish-American War. He wastes no energy trying to work out the logic of the situation.

I just couldn’t get past it, though. If he has “no idea what the day will bring forth”, then how is he able to have friends? Wouldn’t all his acquaintances be meeting him for the first time in their lives, even if he’d known them for decades ahead? And how is he able to avoid waking up on top of someone else the next day? He spends most of his nights in hotel rooms. How the heck does he pay for them? OK, so he could remember the day before to book a room so that he could wake up there the day after. But how does he change rooms? Wouldn’t that mean that overnight he travels through space AND time–but only when he changes locations? And he sails back and forth across the Atlantic a few times: how does that work? He travels through space AND time and coordinates his trajectory with the path of the ship?

All this is, of course, pointless speculation. As I said, time travel is just a pretext for Ross, and some readers will find enough else in the book to look past this shaky construct. There are several dozen long entries that record, verbatim, conversations Selby has or overseas as he wanders back through time. Three British clubmen discuss liberty in the 1890s, when that concept didn’t even fully apply to all white men, let alone another sex or race. He spends a good deal of time with Walt Whitman and John Burroughs, to the point that he seems to become something of a Whitman groupie. He tells us about the fine and horrible things that were served up to eat during the siege of Paris.

In the hands of a fine raconteur, these diversions would provide excuse enough to go along on any journey, whether backward, forward, or sideways through time. The problem is that Selby himself lacks a distinct enough character to offer much in the way of color, bias, perception, or any other distinguishing flavor to his observations. As a protagonist, he seems more instrument than human creation.

And, to drive one last nail in this book’s coffin, Ross manages to slap not one, but two framing stories to his work without either adding much in the way of narrative tension or interest. First, Ross presents Selby’s diary as an artifact found in the estate of a wealthy New Englander by his grandson. Long suspected of having made his fortune through some sort of under-handedness in the wake of the Civil War, the grandfather is revealed to be the lucky Union soldier to whom Selby passes along some valuable investment tips on the eve of his fatal attempt to thwart Lincoln’s assassination.

Second, there is Selby’s unique love affair with Helen, who somehow passes twenty-some years in a relationship with Selby–one that starts in her young womanhood and ends at his infancy. Theirs, we are repeatedly assured, is a great love story, but for some odd reason, Ross elects to leave almost all of it out of the book. Only chunks of Selby’s diary are included, and none of them directly covering the years of their time together.

Malcolm Ross, 1950'Fiction was not, I should note, Malcolm Ross’ forte. He spent most of his working life as a journalist and labor relations expert, serving as chairman of the Fair Employment Practice Committee through most of World War Two. His first book, Machine Age in the Hills, was one of the first works to address the hardships and near-bondage of Kentucky coal miners. And his 1939 autobiography, The Death Of A Yale Man, is still considered one of the more revealing memoirs of the New Deal era.

If any of Mark Selby’s tale strikes a familiar note, it’s probably because you’re thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” or its recent film version. Even though it’s one of Fitzgerald’s lesser works, it still towers over The Man Who Lived Backward: it’s got a simpler and sounder fictional premise, a more elegant prose style, and a couple hundred thousand fewer words.

After all, if you have to read a lesser work, make it a short one.

Find a copy

The Man Who Lived Backward, by Malcolm Ross
New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950

The Secret, by James Drought

Cover of Avon paperback edition of 'The Secret' by James DroughtI was intrigued when I can across The Secret in the stacks of a used book store in Seattle. “At long last, something real on the American literary scene; very powerful,” Paul Pickrel of the Yale Review was quoted on the bright yellow cover. “The only trouble with The Secret is that it makes me feel inferior,” it also quoted from a review by Paul Jennings in the Observer.

Now, I’ve spent many hours scanning through shelves of used paperbacks, so it’s not too often now that I come across something truly new and unknown to me. Naturally, my eyes pricked up at this sight and I bought the book. When I sat down to read it for the first time, however, I quickly grew tired of it and set it aside. That bold banana yellow jacket kept catching my eye, though, and finally this week I sat down and dedicated myself to a discovery of Mr. Drought’s genius.

It was dedication alone that stayed my hand the dozen or more times in the last few days that I felt like hurling this book across the room. This is not a novel. Mr. Drought himself referred it The Secret as an “oratorio.” “Screed” is probably a more accurate term.

If Mr. Drought possessed any genius in this book, it’s of the ilk of that of Dr. Gene Scott or Joe Pyne or the guys I used to run into on the 1AM bus home from downtown after working swings. Here, for example, is Drought’s take on youth’s first realization that success is not all it’s cracked up to be:

For the young, it is like seeing a lovely lady, refined by a fine family, slip out one night in all her silk finery and walk into a woods erect and noble, where suddenly she crouches, rips a bird to pieces and eats it raw, shits in a hole and then kills another refined lady whom she meets at an appointed spot.

It’s that second killing I don’t get. OK, illusion of civilization revealed in its primal barbarity. I get that. But then killing a fellow refinee with whom she’s made a rendezvous? Survey a thousand kids a year out of high school and none of them will come up with that image.

The Secret loosely follows the lines of James Drought’s own life: raised on the outskirts of Chicago, a bit of a loner and rebel. An unsuccessful time in college, then a stint in the Army around the time of the Korean War as a paratrooper. Somewhere in between he meets and marries a beautiful, wonderful woman, and they raise a boy and a girl. He becomes a writer and eventually produces this book, which is intended to reveal to all American youth the secret that the world is out to kill you:

You have to conclude that your country has run amuck, that the people responsible are insane, that you can not trust your leaders, your President, your general, your parents, your friends, your neighbors, you co-workers, your police, your town, your state, your country, anymore because it is liable to turn upon you for no reason at all, except that for its own security it needs a scapegoat, any scapegoat including you, and there is no appeal possible.

The problem, you see, is that virtually everyone Drought’s nameless narrator meets is a shell, a stereotype, a craven one-dimensional drone:

Money was the king in those days; it was the goal for which people used up their lives, it was the prize by which they judged their accomplishments, the energy that made their institutions grown, it was the rationale, the reality, the ring of truth, the religion, it was the one single thing that everyone wanted, respected, cherished, needed, it was the spark, the spirit, the soul of an entire age in America and there was nothing else, no dream that could match it….

It goes on from there, but I’ll spare you the trouble.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found this relentless hammering away at the Great American Myths particularly tiresome was that Drought chose to make his narrator the most insufferably superior being to inhabit a book without the slightest redeeming scrap of humor. Early on, we learn that he and only he is the master marksman and hunter among his fellows:

I found most difficult the very idea I had to accept that my friends could not do these things well, and although I made many excuses for them, soon I had to cease blaming fate and put the blame on their clumsiness, and afterward I could do nothing but smile with boredom as they discussed their theories on how to fish, snare and trap, urging me to try some so they could see if any worked. I shot squirrels out of trees, and I had to admit I was a better shot, either because of a gifted eye, a steadier hand, a determination, or what, but more did fall to the ground, brother, when I shot than fell when my friends fired away hitting limbs, leaves and ticking distant houses, swearing that something was wrong with their goddamn sights, their sleeve caught, something was in their eyes, the gun was bent, etc. so I couldn’t ignore their clumsiness and my skill for long.

Which just goes to prove once more that the one downside to being better than everyone else is that it’s so tiresome having to put up with everyone else’s inferiority. The narrator goes on to tell us that there, along the deserted creeks outside Chicago, he caught or killed “catfish, possum, coon, trout,” “dove, pigeon, a buck, and once on a weekend a deer with arrows, and another time a bear with three arrows.” I can remember guys in junior high school telling whoppers like that. It was always those little details they’d chosen so carefully to impart that final pinch of verisimilitude that tipped you off that it was all a bunch of B.S.. “On a weekend.” “With arrows.” Yeah, right.

Ironically, The Secret proved to be a little American success story in itself, despite its message. Drought first published the book himself and sold it, along with several of his earlier novels, out of the back of his trunk. Eventually, Avon Books offered him a contract and released The Secret, as well as his earlier novels Mover, ii: A Duo, and The Gypsy Moths in paperback. The Gypsy Moths brought him greater fame, if still not much, due to the 1969 film version starring middle-aged Burt Lancaster as the hero and very young Gene Hackman as a sidekick.

Whatever else success did to Drought, it seems to have stilled his pen for a good ten years or more. Only in the late 1970s did he emerge into print again, with something called Superstar for president: An American satire–and on his own nickel once again. According to one biographical account, Drought was nominated by some European critics for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. Now, according to the Nobel website, nominators can be any of:

  1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
  2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
  3. Previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature;
  4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

My bet is on those wacky Académie française guys.

Should you care to sample Drought’s work despite the cruel drubbing I just gave it, you can find several of his works online and free to download, thank to the efforts of his children, who established drought.com a few years ago. You will find the texts of The Gypsy Moths (1955), Memories of a Humble Man (1957), Mover: a Modern Tragedy (1959), and, not least, The Secret (1962).

The Secret, by James Drought
Westport, Connecticut: Skylight Press, 1962
New York: Avon Books, 1963

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King

The 'controversial' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'Every writer who’s ever been featured on Oprah’s Book Club follows in the footsteps of Alexander King. When he published his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older in 1958, he was, in the words of a Time magazine reviewer, “an ex-illustrator, ex-cartoonist, ex-adman, ex-editor, ex-playwright, ex-dope addict.” His book probably would have taken a quick trip to the remainder tables–had it not been for a lucky and path-setting break: on the second of January, 1959, King appeared on “The Tonight Show”, hosted by Jack Paar, to plug his book. As Russell Baker put it years later, “After charming millions on the Jack Paar show, Alexander King came up out of the basement and took off like a 900-page bodice ripper.”

Mine Enemy Grows Older is King’s rambling and very much tongue-in-cheek account of his first fifty-some years. Born in Vienna (as Alexander Koenig), King emigrated with his family to New York City in his teens. With a little bit of art training and a great deal of moxie, he worked his way through dozens of jobs, from decorating department store windows and painting murals a Greek restaurant to illustrating radical newspapers.

Cover of Alexander King's 'Is There Life After Birth?'It was as an illustrator that King’s career finally took off. Throughout the 1920s, he was caught up in the convention-flounting wave of Mencken, The Smart Set, and the Jazz Age and became a much-in-demand illustrator for new, unbowdlerized editions by such scandalous authors as Flaubert, Rabelais, and Ovid. He then worked as an art editor, first for Vanity Fair and then for Henry Luce’s transformed Life magazine. Unfortunately for King, he developed a serious kidney problem that led to a doctor’s prescribing morphine as a pain killer.

At the time, morphine was controlled but legally available in pill form from most pharmacies. And like any addictive drug, it also encouraged a thriving black market, with shady MDs writing scrips on demand for junkies like King who could scrape up enough cash. Eventually, King’s addiction led to his being arrested and convicted on federal drug charges and sent to a narcotics rehabilitation hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He was able to clean up, get back into painting, and reestablish some of his connections with the publishing world in New York, which led to a contract from Simon and Schuster for Mine Enemy Grows Older.

It probably would have ended there had not King’s wry and outrageous banter on Paar’s show. He was just the sort of taboo-breaker Paar’s audience was looking for: funny, opinionated, unconventional, urbane. Frank and April Wheeler of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road would have loved him. Take this account of King’s reaction to being stuck in a room in Lexington with nothing to read by an issue of the Saturday Evening Post:

It was a waking nightmare of the most sinister dimension and variety. My whole past life was insidiously evoked, ruefully demonstrated, and mercilessly indicted. It suddenly came to me that the reason my three marriages had smashed up was, simply, that they had been frivolously ratified on the wrong kind of mattresses; I realized with unshakable conviction that my social and financial calamaties had been caused by my improperly sanitized apertures; and, as I went on reading, it became brutally clear that all through my life I had washed only with soap substitutes, had worn unmasculine underwear, and had never decently neutralized my offensive bodily effluvia.

For seventy-two hours I wallowed in accusations and self-reproaches, and when the nurse finally let me out of my isolation cubicle I was a psychic tatterdemalion.

I remember saying to the doctor who interviewed me that rather than have another such weekend, I would prefer to spend three days on an army cot, lashed to a belching, gonorrheal Eskimo prostitute, who had just finished eating walrus blintzes.

Funny stuff, for sure. Practically every page of Mine Enemy Grows Older is filled with this sort of caustic, ribald bird-flipping humor. For fifteen to twenty minutes on a talk show it must have seemed like revolutionary stuff. By the end of the book’s 374 pages, however, it has grown monotonous and tiresome.

That didn’t stop Simon and Schuster from releasing four more books by King between 1960 and his death in 1965: May This House be Safe from Tigers (1960); I Should Have Kissed Her More (1961); Is There A Life After Birth? (1963); and Rich Man, Poor Man, Freud, and Fruit (1965). All sold well, though each time in diminishing numbers. There was something about King that really appealed to readers and viewers at the time. My grandparents, life-long Republicans and firm upholders of middle-class values, had two of his books on their shelves, and kept them with the small number they moved to their retirement apartment. Nor did it keep Paar and then Johnny Carson from bringing him back for dozens of appearances.

The 'safe' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'My theory is that King’s was a safe form of revolt. He mocked convention, but he didn’t exactly offer an alternative–nor did he suggest that people grab torches and set fire to police stations. He was like a Brother Theodore who could write. He introduced America to the term, “raconteur” and opened a door for other talk show guests–including Truman Capote. After a long day at the office and an evening of westerns and sitcoms, a bit of King’s “acid appraisals of modern art (‘a putrescent coma’), advertising (‘an overripe fungus’) and people in general (‘adenoidal baboons’)” (to quote Time’s obit of King) was a refreshing bit of outrage before turning in for the night.

Simon and Schuster were happy to exploit this sense of dabbling in forbidden fruit. After “The Tonight Show” appearance, the publisher released subsequent printings with two covers–a “shocking” one (above) featuring one King’s Dali-esque paintings and, to prevent any awkward glances, a conventional one (right) with a safe grey cover.

King still has a few fans, as you can see from the reviews posted on Amazon. For me, his books, like his art, is colorful, vivid, but ultimately superficial.

Other Opinions

Gerald Frank, New York Herald Tribune, 7 December 1958

This is a scandalous, wonderful, and strangely moving book. The publishers, for want of a better word, describe it as an autobiography. Actually it is less autobiography than memoirs, less memoirs than a series of immpressionistic self-portraits and wildly hilarious anecdotes done so vividly that the book all but leaps in your hands.

Bernard Levin, The Spectator, 4 December 1959

Alas, funny though the anecdotes, or some of them, are, this is the emptiest book to appear for many a year, and even if it were not written almost entirely in the same breathless, sweaty prose, it would still be a waste.

Raymond Holden, New York Times, 4 January 1959

The reader who has a strong stomach and is not irritated by the author’s verbal juggling and sometimes painful name-calling will be made either happy or morbidly excited…. [T]here are sandwiched in between its horrors some anecdotes and personal narratives of rare subtlety and humor. Whether one regards this as autobiography or fiction (the two are not really so far apart), it is at once a story of degradation and depravity and a sensitive and often kindly commentary on human life.

Locate a Copy

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1958

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight

G. Wilson Knight, 1936, Photography by Howard CosterG. Wilson Knight subtitled this 1936 book “An Autobiographical Design,” and had he stuck to the autobiography and left the design out, I might have been less resentful about the several hours I devoted to assaulting its slopes. Perhaps I lack the mountaineering skills to attempt such a tower of intellect. But Atlantic Crossing struck me as one of the most grandiose failures I’ve tried to read in a long time.

Knight made his name as a critic and director of Shakespeare and other English dramatists. His lifelong immersion in Renaissance poetry and prose left him with a weakness for an intricacy at times beyond his own dexterity:

It was then I watched in twilight where up-piled clouds in rugged Alpine ranges towered and caught the morning and glowed with it, black rocks and giant crags fire-fringed, stained with a gilden glory. Shafts of burning mist, spear-points of the assaulting dawn, slanted angular upward splendours. Watch those breaking palisades, that rock-pinnacle flaming to its ruin, those tufts of red smoke, that heaving, billowing, crumbling, conglomerated mass–was ever such chaos so musically blended?–while the artillery of advancing day fumes the air with its cordite, rolling attar of roses in wave on wave.

Phew! Imagine 300-plus pages of this hyperventilating.

In Atlantic Crossing, Knight hangs on the slender frame of six days’ voyage on a 1930s ocean liner from Montreal to Southhampton enough ornaments and appendages to sink even the most sea-worthy narrative.

There are some promising bits. A fleeting, glancing romance with a lively American ingenue. Some fine purely autobiographical passages in which Knight recalls his experiences as a dispatch rider with British forces in Iraq and Persia during World War One. And enough tastes of luxury liner travel to leave us envious of the past:

Now what to do after breakfast? A pipe in the lounge; a walk on the promenade deck; watch the people; perhaps get to know some of them; shuffleboard and deck-tennis. This is to be unadulterated leisured aristocracy, free from beggars, telephones, letters, money, and all complex interrelations of modern civilization, yet with its best luxury at hand; in a world beyond richness and poverty, for one week.

Unfortunately for the reader, however, Knight can’t wait to hurl in great shovel-fulls of aduleration and complex interrelations:

It is often hard to day whether man’s passionate unrest is a matter of volcanic flame or turbulent ocean. The opposition of Thales and Heraclitus is profound. Fire must be liquid in us, coursing like quicksilver in our veins: that is, man’s fiery ascent drags ocean up mountains through fields of air. I suppose fire is ultimately the Alpha and Omega, earth-centre and empyrean.

OK, folks–a show of hands. Man’s passionate unrest: volcanic flame or turbulent ocean? I know my mind is often torn between these two choices. On the other hand, I have no second thoughts about what category Atlantic Crossing belong in.

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight
London: J. W. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1936

A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'A Matter of Life and Death'')
Cheryl Crawford’s 1978 memoir, Mommie Dearest set the benchmark for mothers from Hell with its portrayal of Joan Crawford’s unique terror-and-saccharine approach to parenthood. Yet Cheryl Crawford on her worst day pales beside Virgilia Peterson when it comes to “having issues” with her (step)mom. Peterson’s 1961 memoir, A Matter of Life and Death, is 334 pages of relentless mom-bashing.

But this is frightfully crass of me. The daughter of one of America’s first practicing psychologists, Peterson was born into the heart of New York City society, raised in a brownstone mansion in the East Seventies and rating a notice in the New York Times’ social column for her coming out party. Graduating from a Seven Sisters college, she travelled the Great Tour and took classes in Grenoble. Her father decorated their home with his priceless collection of Chinese art. And her mother would never have bothered about wire hangers — how the clothes were stored were for the servants to worry about.

No, the contest of wills between Peterson and her mother was far more subtle and refined than that between Joan and Cheryl Crawford. Mrs. Frederick Peterson must have learned her techniques at the same places where her husband bought his art. As her daughter relates it, her approach to abuse was understated, elegant — and unrelenting. Like Chinese water torture, in which no single drop does much but the cumulative effect is unbearable pain, decades of her mother’s corrosive influence would have been enough to drive anyone mad. Indeed, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Virgilia Peterson did, in some ways, go mad. Certainly her need to write out what is, in effect, a 300-plus page monologue to her dead mother — 300 pages unrelieved by a single moment of humor and rarely focused on anything but how her mother reacted or judged some event in her daughter’s life reflects a degree of obsession at least bordering on the pathological. “I always knew you were insane” are the last words her mother spoke to Peterson. And by that point in the book, you’d probably concede her at least half-right.

Not that this obsession blinds Peterson to her own faults in this relationship. This is a searingly honest book.

Unfortunately, while passionate obsession and searing honesty add up to a powerful combination, it’s the kind of power a jackhammer has, especially when it’s been going for hour after hour. This is not a book you pass along to a friend. This is a book you hurl out the window at a yowling cat.

It’s bad enough that the focus of the book is a bitterly negative relationship that never once came close to a reconciliation. But take that story and relate it in Peterson’s hyperbolically intellectual style, and you have a combination that will drive all but the sturdiest readers away. Here, for example, is a representative Petersonian sentence:

At the same time, however, because of my father’s marked reluctance ever to apply the word insane; because of his insistence that his patients — no matter how they might appear to us — were not lunatics but ailing friends; because of his tenderness toward them and his reluctance to laugh at them, which, even as a child, I recognized as a kind of consideration he did not feel called upon to show to me; above all, because he was continually pointing out that between sanity and insanity lay the most delicate, the most shrouded, the most poignant of fulcrums, we knew better than other people that insanity was more tragic than any other tragedy that could befall.

Maybe it’s just me, but I had to reread that sentence several times before I could convince myself that the printers hadn’t dropped out a word or two at the end. Indeed, the tendency to string wandering dependent clauses together until one forgets what the subject was is only one of her stylistic pecadillos.

It’s a true shame, for both Peterson and her readers. For the bare facts of her life are not without interest. Travelling Europe in style with her first husband, she meets with and falls in love with a Polish nobleman. After much hand-wringing and scenery-chewing her family consents and they marry. They return to Poland and the near-medieval life of a rural estate. Hitler invades; Peterson’s husband is trapped along with most of the Polish Army. She and the children become refugees. They eventually make it back to America. Peterson publishes (as Virgilia Sapieha) a best-selling memoir of the experience, Polish Profile. A third marriage, to another member of the upper crust, follows. She starts reviewing books and becomes an established fixture on the East Coast literary scene, hosting a weekly show, “Books in Profile,” on WNYC radio with fellow Neglected Books Page writer Harding Lemay.

Her influence in the publishing business might have helped critics view the book in a positive light when it was first published. Reviews feature such phrases as “… a shining example of the proper use of candor ….,” “… continuously engrossing, often eloquent, and always serious …,” “… an impressive book,” and “… one of the outstanding autobiographies written by American women.” The book was nominated for the 1962 National Book Award. But even the favorable reviews are clouded with shadows of doubt: “… an almost obsessive — sometimes morbid — fascination …”; “… the unkindest comic valentine to the deceased I have run across …”; “… if it was written to exorcise her mother’s influence or achieve a posthumous reconciliation, these ends have not been accomplished.”

If only as case study material of a self-consciously literary form, A Matter of Life and Death has some value. And perhaps more diligent and empathetic readers than I will find the book worth rediscovering. My copy, however, is up for grabs for anyone who wants it. I am happy now to be working on Hermes Nye’s irreverent fictional memoir of life in 1930s Dallas, Fortune is a Woman. As Coleridge wrote of reading Fielding after Richardson, it feels like “emerging from a sick-room heated by stoves into an open lawn on a breezy day in May.”

Postscript: I had some belated confirmation from this entry in Helen Bevington’s Along Came a Witch, her journal from the 1960s:

Virgilia Peterson’s autobiography, A Matter of Life and Death, is motivated by hate, an emotion for which I have no respect. She addresses her mother in cold fury as “you,” an evil woman, and is herself touched by pitch. This is a self-wounding book with no healing in it, no cure, filled with revenge, the desire to hurt and destroy a dead woman.

Post-postscript: A Matter of Life and Death also got a thumbs-down from poet Louise Bogan, who mentions it in a letter to her friend (and later executrix) Ruth Limmer:

— The Virgilia Peterson, on the other hand, is a sort of Electra-complex nightmare. The old girl has absolutely no insight into her situation, and she writes like a simple-minded Proust — all curly sentences, which sometimes do not come out right. This you should see, as well, if only for the wry laughter it engenders

From What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-70

A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson
New York: Atheneum, 1961

Clutch and Differential (AKA Highway Episode), by George Weller

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'Clutch and Differential' (retitled 'Highway Episode')George Weller’s Clutch and Differential is an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful experiment. Indeed, it bears at least one trademark of experimental fiction: an obvious design to which all other elements of the work are subservient. Time magazine’s review provides a good explanation of Weller’s plan:

Written in a technique that owes something to John Dos Passos, something to James Joyce, Clutch and Differential is made up of 35 long episodes dealing with characters who bear little apparent relation to each other. Stripped of its complicated gadgets, it could be mistaken for a collection of old-fashioned, high-wheeled short stories. But 18 of George Weller’s episodes are subtitled “clutch” and 17 “differential” and apparently the clutch stories deal with people who are hanging on to money, love or dreams, while the differential ones deal with people who are letting go. Each “clutch” episode is introduced with a little discussion called Shift of Gear and followed by one called Universal, made up of technical automotive instructions directly or obliquely related to the material of that particular episode.

In addition to the alternation of his “clutch” and “differential” motifs, Weller adds the constraint of arranging the stories in order of the age of their protagonists: the first story, “Irene Herself,” is written in the voice of a girl of about 5; the last, “Mark My Words,” in that of Julia, an aging widow somewhere past seventy.

Weller places his overall theme at the book’s start, quoting a supposed automobile sales circular that states, “Beneath American-made bodies that are tastefully refashioned every year, power transmission has gained a standard performance. New bodies come and old bodies go but clutch and differential now change but little.” The message that human nature persists despite changes in technology has become more familiar since 1936, but even then it was a slender branch on which to hang a 400-plus page magnum opus.

Weller deserves an E for effort. He strenuously embraces and attempts to project the unique voice of each of his characters, whether it’s a clueless high school football player missing his first chance at making out to a passed-over Foreign Service officer musing over his many failures to make the right career moves. And you can’t help but admire his breadth of vision, as he ranges all over the social and geographical map of the United States.

Unfortunately, all this good work comes to no great end. One finishes story after story wishing Weller had applied his impressive techniques to a character or situation of real substance and interest rather than an theoretical construct. None of the 35 Americans in Clutch and Differential is half as believable as any of Joyce’s Dubliners and certainly none of its stories comes close to an “Araby” or “Two Gallants,” let alone “The Dead.” In all his earnest design and construction, Weller forgot to include some heart and soul.

Clutch and Differential was reissued as “Highway Episode” in an early paperback edition that featured a woman in stereotypically-ripped bodice fleeing from some unknown threat, alongside text that claimed, “No novel before or since has so nakedly revealed our automobile age! Here is the pulsing drama of penthouses, hobo jungles, summer camps, country clubs … of mad pleasures and promiscuous passion ….” It was also reissued for the academic market in 1970.

Weller went on to work as a journalist during World War Two and after, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for an account of an emergency appendectomy performed on a submarine in enemy waters. He died in 2002, but his work will soon be in print again, thanks to his son Anthony’s compilation of his father’s long-withheld account of the devastation of Nagasaki, First Into Nagasaki — which has already sparked some contrarian comments in his Wikipedia bio.

Clutch and Differential, by George Weller
New York: Random House, 1936
New York: Royal Books, 1936 (as “Highway Episode”)

Tom Fool, by David Stacton

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Locate a Copy


Cover of UK first edition of 'Tom Fool'
At Fairbanks he learned that he was not to be allowed to deliver at Minneapolis, as he had planned, a public address on his trip. Security reasons, said the President, who had to bottle him some way, and perhaps in this instance was not altogether wrong, but was getting tired of the way in which, no matter how we had defeated, the man came bouncing back. Report to Washington first.

There was also an offer to speak over the radio on October 26th. Well, thought Tom, that would take care of the bottling operation, if he had his way.

Unfortunately, the world, like the mouse’s tale in Alice, has a tendency to dwindle away to nothing, when you got back to America, except that in this case it was no mouse, but a lion they had by the tail. Didn’t they realize that?

He glanced at the mountains, whose snows were gold with sunset. Who was it, somewhere during his travels, a wit, so perhaps it had been in Turkey, where Noumen Bey, the Foreign Minister, had seemed, like his mind, a little sad, a little cynical, very strong, and very subtle, had referred to life in America as “Life behind the Gold Curtain”?

He could not remember, but he remembered the remark.

There were forces abroad (the war had let them out, as ghosts come out in a thunderstorm), out there, across the seas, which would have to be reckoned with, and which, if they were ignored, would distrub the whole world.

The trip had taken forty-nine days. That was almost exactly the length of that other trip he had taken, during the election campaign. That had not occurred to him before, but now he saw that they were the same trip, or at any rate, one on one side of the mirror, and the other through it; the one through a world that preferred to dream, the other through a world that was the nightmare America feared. It is true: the dream of reason produces monsters. But in this case it was an irrational dream. In this case it was the monsters who had reason on their side.

America is fenced with mirrors. They are our spiritual defence against the truth. And since we refuse to shatter them, there was nothing to be done now, but wait until they had been shattered from the other side, which would happen soon enough; though what would the world fine on the inside, then, but broken glass? The creature was shrivelling away from sheer mirror vanity. It was too late.

It had no dignity. Therefore it was a comedy, but only because one forced one’s self to smile. For it was also a tragedy, which broke for good hearts of those who still loved the place, no matter how ashamed they might be of what their government had done. There are a good many of those, and always will be, for the land means everything, even when those who rule it mean little or nothing at all. So it is sometimes nobler to be Tom Fool. Nobler, and of better use.

Editor’s Comments

David Stacton seems, from his Wikipedia biography, a fascinating case of the neglected writer. In the space of eight years, between 1957 and 1965, he published eleven historical novels, ranging in subjects from ancient Egypt (On a Balcony) and medieval Japan (Segaki) and India (Kaliyuga) to the Cannes film festival (Old Acquaintances). He also wrote a good share of pulp fiction under pseudonyms such as Bud Clifton, Carse Boyd, and David West. He died at the young age of 42, having lived a fairly itinerant life, and his work quickly vanished from public and critical sight.

Among Stacton’s works was what he referred to as his “American triptych”: A Signal Victory, a novel about the Spanish conquest of Mexico; The Judges of the Secret Court, about the assassination of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth’s flight and death; and Tom Fool, about Wendell Wilkie, the unlikely Republican presidential nominee. Having a long-standing interest in FDR, I thought I would start my investigation of Stacton by trying out this novel about the man who gave him his toughest competition in all his four presidential campaigns.

Wilkie came into the 1940 Republican convention with virtually no organization and absolutely no delegates, but a combination of strong support from several influential newspaper publishers and a three-way gridlock among the official candidates — Robert Taft, Thomas E. Dewey, and Arthur Vandenberg — enabled him to emerge after six ballots as the nominee. The old guard Republican party, in Stacton’s words, “wanted something like the Bourbon Restoration in Naples. They wanted to be reactionary. They wanted to punish.” Instead, the convention led to, in the words of one newspaper writer, “the most revolutionary thing the Republican Party had done since the nomination of Lincoln.”

Stacton portrays Wilkie as something of a holy fool. His motive is pure and simple — protect the land and the people from the many dangers of “that man”. Unfortunately, he quickly finds that modern politics is less a crusade than a circus, and no different from the lions and elephants, he is at the mercy of his handlers:

He was beginning to learn how much the professionals hated him. That left him the people. Unfortunately, as his advisers told him, it was first necessary to get to the people. He had to turn to such of the professionals as he could gather in, after all.

And so he winds up with a bevy of professionals at a retreat in Colorado. “The term is religious,” writes Stacton, “but the event is not. The event had about as much spirituality as a locker-room conference twenty minutes before the big game. It also had the same jockstrap, hard soap, sheep dip, and sweaty-armpit smell.” From the retreat, the Wilkie circus then takes off on an epic train journey around the country. Unlike Truman’s legendary whistle-stop campaign, Wilkie’s was less a matter of plain speaking and more one of media manipulation. Professionals such as “Sideboard,” who ghost-writes articles and forces canned speeches on Wilkie, or the Pattersons, who “had traits, but no character.” “Indeed,” Stacton continues, “they were not people at all, only a bank account and that odd, vacant look in their eyes.”

Wilkie’s crusade is not just a simple “back to roots” plea for folk democracy. He might argue against Roosevelt’s third term, but he shares FDR’s abhorrence of isolationism:

He could only tell such people that theirs was not the only country in the world, and that it behoved them to act accordingly. But that is never a popular message. Xenophobia saw to that, xenophobia is an act of ignorant pride, and pride, after all, goeth before a whole man.”

Still, Wilkie manages to misread the people’s will almost as consistently as the professionals do. He finds himself booed in Michigan: “… the workers, though better paid than the office staffs above them, were sullen with class hatred. He had never seen class hatred before.” He tells his listeners, “… if we do not prevail this fall, this way of life will pass.” But “Half the people … didn’t care. All they wanted was their salaries and hand-outs.” This half was already lost, at least in Stacton’s eyes, and with Wilkie’s loss, the other half — the good people of the land — lose their last chance:

The great ranches are going. The farms are gone. The highways lead nowhere; and the suburbs are worse and worse built; they cost more and more; and everybody drives.

The second half of Tom Fool seems a bit deflated. Despite his defeat, Wilkie carries on. Roosevelt sends him around the world as a personal investigator, a series of journeys Wilkie described in his 1943 best-seller, One World. But as Stacton characterizes the trip, which in the novel mirrors Wilkie’s campaign tour as precisely as described in the excerpt above, it is a journey through lands as spiritually defeated as America. The Soviets are neither the great red enemy nor the great hope for mankind. The Chinese masses are pulled between two leaders — Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao — more concerned with ambition and ideology than their peoples’ needs. Fascism comes to seem only slightly the greater of two evils. Wilkie’s vision has no outlet, even if Stacton considers it “Nobler, and of better use.”

The problem with Tom Fool, though, is that it claims to be a novel and yet comes across as a tract. Stacton may write that the Pattersons have no character, but Wilkie himself is more spirit than substance. The figures in this book have attitudes and positions, not features and habits.

In a review of another Stacton novel, Naomi Bliven wrote in the New Yorker, “Although Mr. Stacton is a good writer, his work is extremely disheartening, because he will indulge his talent for twisting perspectives so as to make human life appear to be nothing more than a grotesque and malignant practical joke.” This tone certainly pervades Tom Fool, and by the end of Wilkie’s journeys, the reader grows weary of Stacton’s relentlessly acerbic commentary. One biographer noted that Stacton’s characters

… are often two-dimensional figures, selected to illustrate a thesis, and drawn without much sympathy or understanding. By way of compensation there is his baroque and waspish style, studded with epigram, apothegm, and aphorism, ‘one of the most massively complex and convoluted styles of our time.’

In Tom Fool, however, this style bludgeons narrative, protagonist, and reader, leaving all with various scratches and bruises. Imagine one of Gore Vidal’s wonderful historical fictions, such as Lincoln, with all the intelligence and insight but almost none of the grace and wit. Or a cocktail party hosted by a brilliant but overbearing host — who drives his guests to the bar for another martini to tune out their host’s insufferable banter.

I plan to give Stacton a try again sometime. But if you care to give Tom Fool a try … well, then, you’re no wiser than Wilkie was.

Locate a copy

Tom Fool is fairly rare. Neither Amazon.com nor Amazon.co.uk lists any copies for sale, so if you’re desparate to read this book, you’ll need to search for it at a major university library or consider plunking down $75 for one of the few copies listed on AddAll.com.

Tom Fool, by David Stacton
London: Faber and Faber, 1962

The Visions of Nicholas Solon, by Monroe Engel

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Affairs of Nicholas Solon'Monroe Engel has been a novelist, critic, editor, and teacher for the last 50 years and I picked one of his novels at random to see what kind of work such a multi-talented writer could produce. The Visions of Nicholas Solon (retitled The Affairs of Nicholas Solon for its paperback release to match its suggestive cover) tells the story of a college instructor in his mid-thirties and his struggle to find happiness.

Let’s take a look at this poor guy’s lot: he’s managed to hold a paying job on the faculty of a small Eastern university without the benefit of any graduate degree purely through selecting a subject — Sanskrit — so rare that the usual prerequisites have been dispensed with. He’s married to an attractive younger woman who’s provided him with a house courtesy of her late father. He’s had a few affairs with the wives of other faculty members over the years prior to his marriage, and he may or may not be the father of a child by one of them. His father is ill as the story opens and dies soon afterwards, apparently at peace with the world in his last days. One of his best friends, something of a drifter, shows up, hangs around for a while, gets into a great funk, and eventually commits suicide. One of his old lovers leaves her abusive husband and decides to move to France to make a new start.

Overall, not the most uplifting of occurrences, but not that worse than befalls plenty of people in the course of a couple of years in mid-life. Yet throughout the book Solon wanders around in as if in a haze, not sure what to do, looking for some great revelation that will show him the way ahead. It never arrives, and in the end, he shuffles offstage as dull and clueless as he entered. I wanted to smack him for the self-absorbed ingrate he is and to kick myself for having wasted a couple of days reading about him.

For once, I wish I had read the reviews before giving this book a try:

· Booklist, 15 February 1959

A mature novel; the detached air of its major character limits is appeal, however.

· Samuel L. Mott, Library Journal, 15 March 1959

The book is written in the first person, and there are excellent introspective passages when Nicholes vainly tries to solve his confusion and hopelessness. But the author’s attempt to show how a group of completely lost, unhappy people slide deeper ito despair with drunken deaths and broken marriages, and drag Nicholas with them, fails to arouse either sympathy or disgust. Unfortunately, the story of these people … leaves the reader wondering if they were worth writing about at all.

· Robert Phelps, New York Herald Tribune, 19 April 1959

At least a half dozen of his marginal characters are so sharply realized that I wished Mr. Engel had written a novel about any one of them, instead of his rather too static narrator…. [I]n spite of these virtues, there is something missing — a vision, a focus, a selected pattern — which makes the books seem more like haphazard parts than a decisive whole.

· New Yorker, 28 March 1959

Mr. Engel writes in a slow, blunt, sour way…. An unbelievably lugubrious book.

“An unbelievably lugubrious book.” That about sums it up.

Perhaps Monroe Engel’s other novels are more deserving of another look, but I cannot recommend The Visions of Nicholas Solon to anyone — ever.

The Visions of Nicholas Solon, by Monroe Engel
New York: Sagamore Books, 1959

Three Cities, by Sholem Asch

Book One. Chapter I. The Capital

Cover of 1983 Carroll and Graf reissue of 'Three Cities'
From the Warsaw Station a long trail of little one-horse sledges lined with straw was slowly making its way through the soft, watery slush of the Vosnessensky Prospect towards Issakievsky Square. The sledges straggled in several long, apparently endless processions. The sheepskin coats of the drivers, some of whom had clouts tied round their feet with pieces of string, while others wore felt boots, were steaming like the flanks of their spirited black horses. Men and beasts breathed heavily as they struggled through the dirty gray gutters flowing along the ice-covered bridges in the dark thick fog which, rising from the canals, was gradually enveloping the whole of Petersburg.

Now and then a light troika flew through the slow-moving lines of sledges. The swift horses splashed the drivers from head to foot with the mud that flew from their hoofs, and gave them something to swear at. The drivers took liberal advantage of the opportunity; when they were not pelting each other with free samples from their stores of abuse, they addressed their horses, bestowing on them at one moment the tenderest terms of endearment and the next cursing them to the tenth generation with the most fluent oaths.

These little one-horse sledges were conveying the riches of the south into the capital of the Czar. The plains of Champagne sent their choicest vintages, of which Petersburg consumed more than all the rest of the world. Closed wagons bearing roses, carnations and violets were brought from the Riviera to the metropolis of Nicholas the Second; crates of the earliest fruits from the forcing houses; exquisite perfumes, soaps, and other cosmetic accessories from France’s best factories; rare jewels; cooling mineral waters: in short, the finest and most expensive luxuries that Europe possessed came in prodigious abundance to the Warsaw Station and thence to the capital. From the Warsaw Station the riches of the whole world streamed into Petersburg; the other railway stations of the city received and distributed the wealth of Russia itself.

In a narrow side-street off the Vosnessensky Prospect, through which the one-horse sledges were now lugging their crates and baskets of wine, fruits and flowers, stood an old and spacious building. It dated from the time of Alexander I and was built in the typical Petersburg Empire style. The yellow-washed facade had two entrances which were guarded day and night by liveried doorkeepers. The front of the gigantic building, which was so long as to be almost uncanny, stretched nearly to the end of the street. The side, which faced on another cross-street, was almost as long. Yet there were only three families lodged in this huge structure. The whole of the ground floor was reserved for a general’s widow, to whom the house belonged. The first floor was rented by a rich land-proprietor, and the top floor–that was occupied by the advocate, Solomon Ossipovich Halperin.

The corridor that led to the reception-rooms of the celebrated advocate had been packed with clients ever since three in the afternoon. It was a corridor such as was often to be seen in Petersburg, well lighted and heated, with long rows of sofas covered with red plush, and large Empire mirrors on the walls. It was pleasant to wait in that corridor, and clients who had secured admittance by bribing the attendants waited there until four o’clock, so that, when the advocate’s reception-rooms in front were thrown open, they might be among the first to enter.

And when the tall doors opened, the great rooms soon swarmed with human beings–peasants, land-proprietors, Jews. From every province of the Russian Empire came a stream of litigants; people who had been wronged, who were oppressed by the Czar’s officials, goaded by the pitiless laws, persecuted by judges and attorneys, tortured by the petty ill-will of local authorities–they all sought refuge in the capital and there appealed for justice to the supreme court or the highest State officials. Petersburg, the seat of the Czars and their officers, mistress of a hundred million human beings and tens of thousands of people drawn from the remotest corners in the whole breadth of Russia, pilgrims to this European Mecca in search of justice, safety and protection, concessions and privileges; for all affairs concerning the boundlessly great and rich empire of Russia were decided in Petersburg alone. And quite a respectable proportion of the pilgrims filled the corridors and the official and private reception-rooms of the advocate Halperin. For, though a Jew, Halperin was celebrated far and wide in Russia for his acuteness, his eloquence (he was counted one of Russia’s best orators) and his influential connections.

Editor’s Comment

I struggled with Three Cities for months. It looks, at first glance, to be a terrific story: the epic saga set in St. Peterburg, Warsaw, and Moscow in the years before and during the Russian Revolution. It has a cast of thousands, or at least hundreds, from millionaire railroad tycoons to homeless beggars, from Hassidic Jews to anti-semitic Russian noblemen. There are love affairs, jealousies, greedy schemes, worker’s strikes, famines, troika rides on moonlit nights.

And Asch has the capacity, even when filtered through double translation (from Yiddish to German to English) of producing passages remarkably vivid color and characterization. Every few pages, there are wonderful sketches in which he takes best advantage of the freedom of a long and complicated novel, taking time to inventory the residents of a Warsaw tenement or to lead us through the thoughts of a Russian estate owner on his way to his mistress in Moscow. For these passages, the novel rises to great heights of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, in between, the reader is subjected to endless and repetitive dialogues about the meaning of life and the value of life and whether the meaning of life has any purpose and whether a purposeful life has any value and whether the value of purpose is…. If you’re starting to doze off at this point, you’re not alone. After one too many of these discussions, you simply gives and skip on to the next descriptive passage.

The problem is with the protagonist. After putting so much energy into scene-setting, philosophical dialogues, and sketches of peripheral characters, Asch seems to have none left for his lead character, Zachary Mirkin. Mirkin is a young lawyer, left motherless at a young age, who discovers in his teens that he is a Jew. His father, a powerful industrialist, has worked hard to distance himself from his Jewish roots. The narrative follows Mirkin as he grows disenchanted with the materialism of Czarist St. Petersburg, seeks a mission in the ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz, joins a revolutionary movement, ends up in the midst of the Bolshevist take-over in Moscow, then finally abandons the revolution and returns to Warsaw. All around Mirkin Asch colors in a rich setting of places, smells, sounds, and people. Mirkin himself, however, is a void:

In this building filled with unfettered energy, Comrade Mirkin walked about with hesitating steps like a sleep-walker, as if he were in a dream. Everything seemed to him real and unreal at the same time, clear and yet indistinct; he knew what has happening round him, and again did not seem to know.

This comes on page 626, when the Bolshevisks and Whites are battling in the streets of Moscow. Meanwhile, our hero is wandering around in a fog, which is where he’s been since being introduced on page 18. And there are still 230 pages left to go! One academic has argued that most critics fail to understand the real character of Zachary Mirkin, the brooding protagonist of Asch’s novel. His struggle shows us, so the writer claims, that the hardest path in life is that of sticking to one’s beliefs. But Zachary spends virtually the whole novel wondering what he really believes. A good bitch-slapping is what the boy needs, and by the end, the reader is ready to give him one.

I’ve never thought much of Reader’s Digest condensed, but in the case of Three Cities, the approach has its merits. Chuck the soul-seeking and the clueless protagonist and preserve the scenery and supporting players, and you have the makings of a rich and satisfying read.

Locate a Copy

Three Cities, by Sholem Asch
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1933