Drive, He Said
by Jeremy Larner
Delta Paperback, 192 pp., $1.95
Teeth, Dying And Other Matters
by Richard G. Stern
Harper & Row, 288 pp., $4.95
The Brigadier and the Golf Widow
by John Cheever
Harper & Row, 288 pp., $4.95
Most serious writers who work from an experience outside the main areas of strife in our society find themselves adopting an attitude of weary sarcasm toward the blandness of present-day American life. The irony of these three style-conscious books seems directed largely against their authors’ own innocence—innocence of history, innocence of tragedy—and their need for special mannerisms of style and plotting seems to grow from the absence of any compelling theme; compare, to take an extreme example, the awful simplicity of Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.
The least experienced of the three authors, Jeremy Larner, is not surprisingly the most “experimental.” His first novel, Drive, He Said, insists heavily on its idiosyncrasies: nothing is meant literally, all is zany fantasy and protest. Yet the fantasy and protest are recognizable as minor offshoots of Catch-22 and perhaps ultimately of West’s A Cool Million. West’s book is funny in a quick reading but is essentially a gag, and the novelists who follow its mode are rarely as scrupulous as West about keeping the joke pure. Without the check of realism the desire to thumb one’s nose mischievously at the world or at other styles easily turns into the urge to self-glorification; the result is often a fiction of naive wish-fulfillment that confuses satire and throbbing sincerity.
Larner’s novel fits this category all too well. The protagonist is an All-American Jewish basketball star, the cynosure of every eye, who also happens to perceive the inner phoniness of education, respectability, the policy of atomic deterrence, everything. He and his friends are waiting for The American Revolution, which will accomplish nothing but will at least “bring that collective unconscious to a boil, BANG it explodes!” (a dream Schwarz-Bart might find a bit hard to appreciate). Hector Bloom is too busy with his hook shots, however, to think out the details of Armageddon. His intellectual life must be lived for him vicariously by his roommate Gabriel Reuben, ex-Anglo-Catholic anarchist hipster, whose New York connections enable the athlete to be exposed to marijuana, disciples of True Orgasm, socialites and pacifists, a movie star, the American Krupp, and so forth. Sex is provided by professors’ wives, who fall with listless compliance before the two lovable students. At the end Gabriel, having served his function as alter ego, is dead, while Hector Bloom has survived miscellaneous physical and intellectual threats and can think to himself that he is “still on his feet and breathing.”
Larner’s shock effects are strident but not at all shocking. Despite wild car chases and riots, jazz rhythms, bold type, and plentiful italics, plus a great deal of “daring” obscenity, the book fails to overcome the slackness inherent in extended daydreams of this kind. And the daydream here is patently adolescent. Perhaps the book that most nearly resembles Drive, He Said in its projective aspect is not A Cool Million or Catch-22 but Hawthorne’s college novel, Fanshawe. Both works split the hero into two characters …