There must be a way to write a good novel about Americans in the Vietnam war, but the authors of the three or four I have read have not found it. The sad fact about Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers is that its way of failing isn’t very interesting. If any one person’s experience of the war ranged from the shapeless to the chaotic, to write a shapeless and chaotic novel just won’t work. The Short-Timers has a central figure, and we see only what he can see, but neither he nor Hasford has a point of view. Everything just happens. Joker goes to Parris Island, writes for Leatherneck, goes to Da Nang, he and Rafter Man go to Hue right after the Tet Offensive. Joker then goes to Khe Sanh, and later goes on patrol with his pals Cowboy and Alice and New Guy and some others. Most of them get killed.
As the names suggest, Hasford has apparently read Catch-22, but he has none of Heller’s shaping genius, so the writing is very literary, but to little point. Joker says, “Well, Rafter, now you’ve heard a shot fired in anger,” and Cowboy says, “This is just a John Wayne movie. Joker can be Paul New-man. I’ll be a horse.” There is a General named Motors and a Captain named January, and Chili Vendor and Daytona Dave are good buddies. As a result the conversations sound brittle. But then the elaborate writing comes, and it is even worse:
The snipers zero in on us. Each shot becomes a word spoken by death. Death is talking to us. Death wants to tell us a funny secret. We may not like death but death likes us. Victor Charlie is hard but he never lies. Guns tell the truth. Guns never say, “I’m only kidding.” War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere.
Humping in the rain forest is like climbing a stairway of shit in an enormous green room constructed by ogres for the confinement of monster plants. Birth and death are endless processes here, with new life feeding on the decaying remains of the old.
It is as though Hasford and his buddies during the war relied so much on the protection of arch jokes that he had only Creative Writing 201 prose to offer when this protection was removed.
I would agree that for moral or political reasons we all should try to read every book on Vietnam whose author was actually there. But the experience has so far yielded little in the way of fiction, so far as I have read. One virtue of The Short-Timers is that it can be read in a couple of hours.
A. Alvarez’s Hunt bears the same kind of eerie connection to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock that The Short-Timers does to Catch-22. It is not an imitation in the usual sense yet never seems able to stop imitating and be itself. Alvarez, a critic of poetry and the author of a book on suicide, assembles a cast of disagreeable characters and then traps them in a strong plot. Isn’t that what Graham Greene does? But it isn’t that simple. Here is the opening paragraph:
Conrad Jessup, foxy mustache, sly melancholy eyes, sat over his beer and brooded: “Loves me, loves me not, loves me, loves me not.” He sipped his beer, puffed his cigarette, and stared at his newspaper but did not take it in. Did not even take in the daily horoscope he usually paid so much attention to.
Jessup is facing middle age, he is destroying himself, and he spends a lot of this long novel not taking things in. Like his job, which he goes to an comes from without our ever learning what he does. Like his wife, who is often drunk when Jessup comes home and who lurches into an affair when she knows Jessup is not paying attention to her. Like his painting, to which he retreats in his attic to do gloomily. The only being he can care for is his dog, and the only activity that brings him to life is playing poker—and it is not surprising that the moments with the dog and the poker scenes are much the best things in the book.
But affection and the discipline of gambling will satisfy neither Jessup nor Alvarez. Late one night when he is out walking the dog, Jessup finds a woman who has been badly beaten up on Hampstead Heath. He calls the police, but refuses to leave his name. For some reason the police are outraged at Jessup’s attempt to be anonymous, and they find him out and hound him, try to implicate him in the assault. Meanwhile Jessup, for reasons never made clear, tries to involve himself in the affair by seeking out the woman, a tart who is surrounded by a sinister bunch that may be involved in drug peddling or in spying. Two men start shadowing Jessup, warn him off—but off what? Seeing the woman, presumably, but why? Are they police? Spies?
Alvarez wants Jessup himself to be a drifting, unlikable man bent on something; he surrounds him with shadowy and unlikable characters out of whose actions he can construct a plot. But he seems not to see that the stronger he makes the plot the more Jessup is dragged into it and the less clear he becomes. Or to see that the plot itself is unworkable, strong enough to dominate the novel, but pointless at every turn. In the second half of the book a man Jessup has met playing poker, who seems to know everything as long as it involves a congame, takes over the book; he confronts and triumphs over the woman’s gang. In the final maneuvers to capture the villains, Jessup’s dog is killed, and this allows him to storm off into the night, claiming some kind of disgust or superiority that is unearned. But we see all too clearly that the dog must be killed; for if he weren’t, Alvarez would be trapped, his novel having reached its climax and gotten absolutely nowhere. Which is a way of saying that for a novel that is somber and pretentious, Hunt is too full of the unlikely, the unexplained, and the unimportant to come even close to justifying itself.
Bernard Malamud’s new novel, Dubin’s Lives, may have more faults than either The Short-Timers or Hunt. It is about William Dubin, who writes biographies; every fourth or fifth reference to him is to “the biographer,” as if something significant were being pointed to, but there’s no significance there. Dubin is at work on a life of D.H. Lawrence, but we never learn much about it except for some remarks Dubin makes about Lawrence or when we are told “Dubin loved sentences.” Dubin falls into an affair with a woman in her early twenties, and Malamud apparently believes that people of this age are so inexplicable he can have her appear here, and show up there, in any way he pleases. At one point, when she is hundreds of miles away for all we know, she finds Dubin at three in the morning lurching, dog bitten, and catching pneumonia, on a lonely country road. Malamud has so little sense of Dubin’s final destiny that near the end of the novel he starts hurling events onto the page, and then in the least likely place he throws up his hands and stops.
Yet Dubin’s Lives may be Malamud’s best novel. It certainly is the first since The Assistant that truly justifies the novel form as many of his short stories justify theirs, and the first since A New Life that allows the narrative to go where it will. It is also his longest book, and while it may not have had to be as long as it is, it is a book a reader must live with for a long time in order to understand the grim beauty of Malamud’s relation with Dubin. Malamud is not a subtle man: he needs space to insist that this is how this life goes.
Dubin started his career writing obituaries, and while doing that he saw that saying how lives shape themselves gave him the sense of satisfaction and control that seemed essential to him; and for many years he needed little more. He has written biographies of Mark Twain, Lincoln, and Thoreau, and this last makes him famous and rich enough to live as he pleases. As Dubin starts a book on Lawrence he is fifty-six, living with his wife Kitty in an old farmhouse in upstate New York. The work goes slowly, but Dubin is used to this and is not alarmed. Then Fanny Bick comes to be the Dubins’ house-cleaner, and soon she takes off her clothes in his study. He resists her offer, but after she leaves for New York, he follows her there and ends up inviting her to take a trip with him to Venice.
Malamud is so absorbed in the day-to-day telling of Dubin’s life that only after the first third of the novel do events stop seeming arbitrary or bizarre. The whole idea of the trip to Venice, for instance, seems forced. It is not until it ends in disaster, when Dubin discovers Fanny screwing a gondolier on the hotel room floor, that we can see that it is Dubin, not Malamud, who has clumsily done the forcing—what does Dubin know about holidays or sensuality, he’s no Herzog or Charlie Citrine—and Fanny, who simply will not be forced, takes her impulsive revenge.
She tries, though, after Dubin returns home, to get in touch with him. He cuts her off, coldly, seeing no reason not to, and there follows the longest and grimmest of winters. Dubin can’t shake Fanny from his mind, he hasn’t told his wife about the escapade, his work goes badly. Dubin tries the usual cures for people trying to control themselves—dieting, jogging—but his depression deepens:
Hadn’t Thoreau said the mind was the only stronghold against winter: it could, at least, anticipate spring. Good, but not if spring held out to the end of spring: it shunned the anticipating mind. The outside thermometer read six below and winter had far to go before it yielded to reason or mercy—or to the thunder of the wheeling earth: through February and March into the teeth of cold April…. Anticipation admits there is tomorrow, not much more.
If going to Venice with Fanny seems forced, so too is this attempt to assert self-control, to deny he needs her, and so he must suffer this gloomy winter. But, since anticipation must admit there is not much more than the next day, Malamud cannot anticipate, and he slogs on with Dubin, in his study, in his lonely bed with his lonely wife, in his tramping about the countryside at all times of the day or night.
Summer finally does come, and Dubin takes up with Fanny again. He lies to his wife and suffers fearfully for his lying; he steals trips to New York where Fanny, quite convincingly, seems changed, because of Dubin and his books, which led her to want to make more sense of her own life. He gives her a feeling of self-mastery, she gives him release. He is torn but ecstatic, loving sex as never before. But Malamud is no more interested in ecstasy as such than he was in depression. Dubin is now fifty-seven, and Malamud carries him forward until he is nearly sixty, evoking powerfully the loneliness and paralysis of Dubin’s marriage, making his wife real even as she becomes unreal to him, recording conversations that express misery which is not just of a moment but of a day, a month, a season.
Wrenched out of his story, passages from Dubin may seem over solemn and awkward with heavy detail:
In the dark of night Dubin hopped to the floor to unknot the muscles. Kitty prescribed bananas to supply missing potassium. She knew what was missing. She made banana pudding, baked banana bread. He suffered indigestion, feared an ulcer, eructated, farted. He pissed in a limp stream, dribbling in his underpants. Dubin had discovered his prostate. St. Paul must have wished it on fornicators. Gone, the luxury of the long hot piss. He had entered the age of aging.
But such writing gains power as part of a slow rendering of a life battling with itself and the effects of time. Malamud does not know how to end his searing, strangely buoyant book, but it seems not to matter. He is not saying “I know,” in the Tolstoyan manner, only writing as a strong and apparently simple man saying “I know these things.” But his shapelessness is insistent and expressive. I’ve not been so absorbed and moved by a new novel since the summer when I read Humbolt’s Gift and The Realms of Gold.