Thomas R. Edwards (1928–2005) was Professor of English at Rutgers and editor of Raritan. His last book was Over Here: Criticizing America.

The Awful Truth

John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, a very bad year, not least because it brought so many lies to those who care about truth. Politicians, priests, generals, CEOs, journalists, and mere entertainers kept telling whoppers about what they had been doing. Dunne’s first novel …

Unsentimental Education

Sue Halpern’s remarkable first novel, like many novels, is essentially about education, or that aspect of education called growing up. But the book’s main character must, in effect, grow up all at once, and the story suggests that education happens not because of anything that teachers do but because certain …

After You’ve Gone

A Multitude of Sins, a new collection of short stories, is Richard Ford’s eighth book of fiction, and it prompts some reflections on his literary career. His first two novels were powerful and promising, no less so for the evident literary influences at work in them. Ford has never been …

The Great Sultan

Brad Leithauser’s fascinating new novel looks beyond Detroit, where the author was born, up to the Thumb of Michigan, where, not far from Saginaw and Bay City, fictional towns called Restoration and Stags Harbor slowly dwindle, while their younger citizens flee to livelier and more prosperous scenes. Leithauser has a …

The Gang’s All Here

When John Casey’s novel Spartina deservedly won the National Book Award for 1989, it was announced as the first volume of “a long cycle of fiction set in Rhode Island”; but its successor, The Half-life of Happiness, set in Virginia and a very different kind of book, is clearly not …

Pulling Down the Temple

“I dislike most people I have ever met,” says the leading character of the latest of Mordecai Richler’s tales about smart, ambitious Jewish-Canadian men at war with their culture. Barney’s Version is wildly comic, but as with most good satire those who make fun of others also mock themselves. Richler’s …

Desperate Characters

Of the novelists who came into their own in the eventful, scary Sixties, Robert Stone remains one of the most serious and truthful. At first the violent worlds he described may have seemed marginal and extreme, but time would show how close they were to the American grain. Bear and …

It’s a Mad World

In The Friends of Freeland Brad Leithauser suggests something of how the modern world might look from a perspective as disorienting and yet revealing as a polar-projection map is to Mercatorized minds. He proposes an island country where no islands are, between Iceland and Greenland, from which the rest of …

Palm Beach Story

The burden of Louis Begley’s first novel, Wartime Lies (1991), was the dependence of life, in extreme conditions and perhaps ordinary ones too, on falsehood. Drawing on the author’s childhood experiences, it tells how a seven-year-old Jewish boy called Maciek, with the help of his resourceful young aunt, survives the …

Babylon Re-Revisited

The 1980s in America were not unlike the 1920s, as almost everyone noticed. Costly foreign military adventures had wound down, postwar slumps had turned to booms, friends of business in both parties had power in Washington, the demand for illegal substances was enriching the criminal classes even as the rewards …

Catch-23

Thirty-three years ago Catch-22 brought an impudent new tone to American fiction; with considerable help from the Vietnam War and other lunacies, it conveyed a deeply distrustful sense of modern life, even for people who had never read it. Now its belated sequel, Closing Time, takes a look at how …

Design for Living

Anyone who loves natural history museums knows that the first moment we enter one, particularly as children, we understand that the collections are not the main point; they are for soberer minds. The point is the dioramas, those magical windows opening on times and places we will never actually visit.

Family Values

In making the case for restoring “traditional family values,” politicians imply that there have always been “traditional” families which were beneficial to their members, and that their supposed disappearance has created much of the misery observable all around us. William Kennedy’s Very Old Bones is a family novel that puts …

Good Intentions

In both Mating and Brazzaville Beach, a smart young female scientist comes to Africa to do field research, encounters an older man who is an academic celebrity, and finds her life radically altered by the experience. These are of course timely matters: post-colonial anxiety in the white West, the tribulations …

Adventurers

The novels considered here are very different in manner and effect, but their authors have something in common. David Ignatius and Mark Helprin seem to be about the same age (fortysomething), studied at Harvard and Oxbridge, and have seen more of the world than most of us have. Ignatius was …

Underground Man

Nelson Algren died in 1981, but during the last twenty-five years of his life he had published no book of new fiction. Many younger readers now have only the dimmest idea, or none at all, of who he was. His then shocking novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) …

Sad Young Men

Paul Auster’s Moon Palace tells the old story—of an alienated youth struggling to understand how he may belong in a difficult time and place—with an intelligent sympathy that renews its pertinence. Marco Stanley Fogg, Auster’s narrator-hero, is an orphan, a condition whose possibilities for fiction Marco himself fully appreciates. He …

A Case of the American Jitters

The appearance of Last Notes from Home and the republication of A Fan’s Notes (1968) and Pages from a Cold Island (1975) invite assessment of a curious literary career. On the evidence so far, Frederick Exley’s is not a large talent; only one of his three books seems to me …

Vita Nuova

What Philip Roth calls an autobiography turns out to be a fairly short book that says little directly about his life since the 1960s, as if to suggest that he found the “material” for his fiction early. He had what sounds like a rather pleasant childhood; he went to college …

Low Expectations

Authors are not responsible for what even their friendliest critics say about them, and Tom Wolfe shouldn’t be blamed for George Will’s statement that Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is “Victorian, even Dickensian” in its scope and its “capacity to convey and provoke indignation.” Both Dickens and …

Ghost Story

A novel like Toni Morrison’s Beloved makes the reviewer’s usual strategies of praise and grumbling seem shallow. I find it hard not to dwell on passages like this description of a fugitive slave trying to get out of the Old South, where what is seen and felt so delicately mirrors …

Indictments

Even those who don’t care for crime fiction may like what Elmore Leonard makes of it, especially his way of representing common or low American voices. Consider this splendid speech in Bandits, by an old but still lively Louisiana bank robber banished by his relatives to a shabby nursing home: …

Gulp!

Stephen King’s books contain much that is childish, even infantile, but that alone is no scandal. We have all been children, and we hold the hidden signs of that ordeal—even a serious interest in art begins in childish make-believe. King seems to have no other subject than the ways by …

Boom at the Top

Near the end of The Bourne Supremacy, two mandarins of American intelligence wonder together at the feats of good field agents: “These people do things the rest of us only dream about, or fantasize, or watch on a screen, disbelieving every moment because it’s so outrageously implausible.” “We wouldn’t have …

Pathos and Power

Each of these three very different novels has to do with politics, but each writer in his own way sees politics as destructive; and all three try to express the pathos governing a world that increasingly seems in other respects ungovernable. Honorable Men is another of Louis Auchincloss’s honorable searches …

An American Education

Joan Didion is one of those writers—Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Gore Vidal are others—who are so good at the higher journalism that their status as novelists may sometimes seem insecure. Do they, we may wonder, keep writing fiction out of professional pride, as if only the novel could truly …

The Innocent

It is hard to think of a writer whose reputation has fallen farther than John Steinbeck’s. In his new and semi-idolatrous biography, Professor Jackson J. Benson considers a variety of explanations for Steinbeck’s decline: he lost his talent, after the extraordinary success of Of Mice and Men and The Grapes …

Good Morning, America

It’s not often spelled with a “k” these days, and after two decades of doubt and disaffection many people seem able to hope that “America” is no longer a dirty word. In their new books about the state of the nation neither Peter Davis nor Richard Reeves adopts the mood …