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Catch-31

The Instrument

by John O’Hara
Random House, 297 pp., $5.95

A Bad Man

by Stanley Elkin
Random House, 336 pp., $5.95

Games of Chance

by Thomas Hinde
Vanguard, 255 pp., $4.95

First novels are generally treated with indulgent interest, second novels are approached with an anxious concern to see whether the author can keep up the level of his first, while third and fourth novels are inspected for signs of staying power. But by the fifth novel we begin to suspect that the author has been around rather too long. How then should we approach a thirty-first novel, if my rapid count of all the other titles by John O’Hara listed at the front of this book is correct? Once upon a time he wrote a good first novel, Appointment in Samarra, of which Walter Allen has remarked:

Appointment in Samarra is probably the best and most illuminating account we have of the class system of a white American town. It also—and here there is a real parallel with The Great Gatsby—catches exactly the feel and quality of life at a specific time in a specific place. On the evidence of Appointment in Samarra O’Hara ought, one feels, to have developed into a great novelist.

Perhaps Professor Allen was overstating O’Hara’s early promise: in the later novels, the hollowness which he admits is present in Appointment in Samarra has become more pronounced while the specificity of rendering has become more and more perfunctory. There is certainly no hint of greatness in The Instrument, not even much sociological interest, apart from some graphic pages about what goes on behind the scenes of a Broadway show.

O’Hara’s skills are, admittedly, much in evidence, well-oiled and smoothly running after more than thirty years’ practice. I imagine that the book’s opening paragraph will be analyzed in fiction-writing courses as a brilliant example of how a real professional brings it off—introducing the central character, telling one something about him, involving the reader in the action, and all in clear, direct, easy-to-read prose:

Yank Lucas fell asleep late one night and left the gas burning on the kitchen range. He was heating some water for coffee, and when the water boiled over it extinguished the flame and allowed the gas to escape. In a short while the odor of the gas passed under the door of Yank’s flat and out into the hall-way. Jiggs Muldowney, on his way upstairs, got a whiff of the gas and decided it must be coming from Yank’s flat. He did not know Yank Lucas, did not even know his name, was not sure who occupied the flat, did not want to get mixed up in anything.

Robert Yancey (Yank) Lucas, an aspiring playwright, is rescued from asphyxiation in the nick of time, and when he recovers he is able to finish the play which has hung him up by boldly introducing into the third act a similar bit of dramatic business with a gas stove. The play is a smash hit on Broadway, and after years of bitter poverty Yank finds himself comparatively rich; as a further reward he finds himself laying the leading lady, the beautiful Zena Gollum, who falls helplessly in love with him. But his art comes first, and he abruptly returns Zena to her odious husband and disappears into rural Vermont to work on his next play. While there he lays three of the local girls, one of whom is killed immediately afterward in a car crash. But the new play goes very well, seems almost to be writing itself; then, when it is completed, he learns that Zena, for whom he had been writing it, has committed suicide in New York, and he is forced to recognize that the play, as he reads it over, is an obituary both to Zena and to his own talent.

As this bald outline may suggest, Mr. O’Hara provides some interesting twists: Zena is a highly contemporary version of the traditional Muse, while there is something genuinely original in showing an artist who has to make a rapid transition from struggling against poverty and failure to the perhaps more lethal struggle against success and affluence. Yet few of these potentialities have been realized, and in spite of its high professional gloss The Instrument finally seems perfunctory: I couldn’t believe in the genuineness of Yank’s art, and could hardly believe in Yank himself, despite the author’s manifest anxiousness for us to accept him as sensitive stud and ruthless artist (there is, of course, a large question which John O’Hara leaves unanswered: how far is the writer of a big Broadway hit likely to be a genuine artist anyway?). Yank’s endlessly willing women didn’t seem much more than slight variations on a Playmate of the Month, even Zena, great actress though she is supposed to be. O’Hara doesn’t do much more than make weary gestures toward the exactness of observation and of setting that distinguished his early fiction, and a good deal of his book consists of remarkably undistinguished dialogue. Some of this, at least in the first part of the book, which is set in the New York theatrical world, has an agreeable astringency and malice, but far too much of it reads like a computerized version of earlier O’Hara material:

Did you enjoy your evening? I had a wonderful time.”

She reached out to the chair beside her bed and got her kimono, knowing exactly where it would be.

What did you enjoy most?” he said.

Are you kidding?”

No. What did you?”

The screw.”

You did?”

Sure I did, didn’t you? A man can’t pretend. A woman can pretend, but not a man…”

This is a thin and lazy book, a depressing collection of missed opportunities.

IF The Instrument illustrates the dangers of too much narrow professionalism at the cost of genuine imagination and feeling, Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man, which is only a second novel, shows the dangers of too little. Mr. Elkin, one can say at once, writes well, occasionally very well, but he has basically a mannerist talent, with very little intellectual discipline. Ten years ago he might have written a conventionally witty campus novel, full of acid observation of human folly; but that is out of date now, and Mr. Elkin has adopted the fashionable comic-apocalyptic formula we associate with Barth, Heller, Pynchon, and others. His book shows how conventional and stylized this formula has become, how absurdity has turned into just one more literary mode. His hero, Leo Feldman, is a department store owner in prison for “doing favors.” Feldman is an example of a by-now-familiar type, the eccentric tycoon, previously exemplified by such characters as Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, Pierce Inverarity in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and the eponymous narrator of Stanley Crawford’s Gascoyne. Feldman has extended the services of his store to provide abortions for girls in need, and even an occasional fix for drug addicts; this is what he calls “doing favors,” and in time the law catches up with him.

Mr. Elkin has got the message that a bit of physiological oddity is very fitting for a character in an absurd novel, like the young gentleman in Gascoyne who is afflicted with an octopus tentacle growing out of his left ear. So Feldman is supplied with a four-inch homunculus inside his body, which his doctor describes:

I didn’t know, of course, until I had him x-rayed again. Oh, many times. I’m still not absolutely sure, but there between the sternal ribs, and lying across his heart’s superior vena cava and aorta—a homunculus, perfectly shaped. About four inches. A fetus. There, of course, from prenatal times. He was probably meant to be a twin, but something happened. Some early Feldman aggrandizement, and the fetus froze there. It couldn’t have been four inches at birth. Something that large would have killed him. It must have been alive inside him—God knows how. But Feldman killed it off, didn’t you, Feldman…. It’s very dangerous even now. It’s probably petrified by this time. If his heart should enlarge, if he should have an attack, or perhaps even a heavy blow in the chest, the homunculus could penetrate the heart and kill him.”

A nicely circumstantial description with an appropriately plausible air (compare, for instance, the account of the Nefastis machine in Lot 49). But having introduced this bizarre touch early on Mr. Elkin seems at a loss what to do with it; every so often we are reminded of the existence of the homunculus, and in one or two places Feldman indulges in whimsical dialogues with it that reminded me of that traditional standby of magazine humorists: the argument between a man and his stomach (or some other protesting organ). Mr. Elkin is, in short, better at invention than in following through, and his narrative has an air of almost desperate improvisation, fresh and further pieces of absurdity and grotesqueness being flung at the reader in order to keep the story going. He has plenty of stamina, but very little of the blend of manic concentration and absolute conviction that one finds in Pynchon or Heller, and his prose has a slightly effortful quality, without any of their dazzle. Reading his book I found a certain marginal interest in spotting the influences: Kafka and Heller in the oppressive arbitrariness of the prison where Feldman is confined and where most of the story takes place; Albee in some of the devastating exchanges between Feldman and his wife; etc. I don’t greatly admire the comic-apocalyptic novel, though I find it interesting. But Mr. Elkin’s somewhat strained performance has given me a fresh respect for the talents of the really original practitioners of this genre.

THIS KIND OF FICTION hasn’t yet penetrated into England (though Andrew Sinclair’s impressive new novel Gog shows some trace of its influence) and there are complex cultural reasons which may prevent it from doing so, a fact deplored by the expatriate Englishman Paul West in a recent sour article in Commonweal. Mr. West remarked that “as a portrait of society” Lucky Jim comes nowhere near The Crying of Lot 49. As a qualified admirer of both books, I find the effort of holding them in the same critical focus too great to sustain. The truth is that these novels are not simply portraits of, or responses to, “society,” but describe two very different societies at two different periods, and I would argue that Amis’s novel does as much justice to the English Midlands in the early Fifties as Pynchon’s does to Southern California in the mid-Sixties. Still, it’s generally true that English novelists adopt other methods than exaggerating the latent absurdities in a given social situation to the point of explosion. By contrast, they tend to delineate fairly accurately the surface of conventional bourgeois life and then to show—or merely hint at—the forces undermining it. A conflict on the plane of manners can be suddenly or gradually edged into a metaphysical abyss, “Where the crack in the tea-cup opens/ A lane to the land of the dead.” This is the method of Angus Wilson or William Sansom or Thomas Hinde. The latter’s new book, Games of Chance, contains two short novels, The Interviewer and The Investigator, both first-person narratives that involve the reader in unusual and disturbing states of mind.

In The Interviewer Michael Vint, a fashionable journalist and television performer with intellectual pretensions, is sent on an assignment for a London weekly: “The job was a picture story on the home life of Julian Gort, a fiftytwo-year-old forgotten writer and his new wife, Lucy Lane, a far-from-forgotten six-kitten of twenty-six.” Vint is, in some ways, a sensitive man, who has antagonized his editor by turning down an assignment that he didn’t like the look of, but most of the time he conceals his sensitivity beneath a tough, aggressive exterior, generally acting like what John O’Hara’s characters would call a shitheel. Gort refuses an interview, but Vint persists until he gets one, and Mr. Hinde lovingly describes the artifices of the practiced newspaperman in getting what he wants, and the almost epic duel between the ruthless, declassé Vint, and the snobbish, upper-class Gort: the conflict is directly in the tradition of English social comedy and very accurately rendered, but Mr. Hinde does not linger over it. The interest is increasingly centered on Gort’s film-star wife, about whom Vint senses something increasingly mysterious and alarming. The story moves like a well-made thriller, accumulating suspense until its shocking conclusion, which shakes Vint out of his carefully nurtured toughness. The Interviewer is a very accomplished piece of fiction in which Mr. Hinde adroitly manages the difficult feat of having a self-revelatory story told by an unpleasant narrator.

The second novel, The Investigator, returns to a formula he has already employed successfully in such books as Mr. Nicholas and The Day the Call Came: the inexorable development, in an everyday setting, of obsession and mania in a fairly ordinary consciousness. The narrator, Mr. Parks, has worked for some years without conspicuous success or failure in a firm manufacturing toys, but when the story begins he has become convinced that his position is threatened and that his colleagues are weaving subversive schemes around him. Significantly, he is working out an elaborate indoor game called “Noose,” full of fiendish hazards, which provides a focus for his obsessions:

Another little hazard I devised was that as the board moved backwards holes would open at unexpected places, carrying you through them if you were on the appropriate number. These would be labelled “Coronary,” “Fatal car accident,” etc. I spent a couple of hours perfecting the idea. I felt more cheerful than for days.

This is a chilling story, though very funny in places, as when Parks describes his attempts to block the muzak outlet in his office, and to bug his superior’s room. These short novels show Hinde at his calculating best, and both of them undermine accepted ideas about the nature of ordinary reality as radically, though less sensationally, as does the fiction of the energetic practitioners of the comic-apocalyptic school.

Letters

Realism in the American Novel March 28, 1968

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