This is a queer trio of books, damned if it’s not, two jolly fellows and would-be Fieldings down with the cultural mumps and Kerouac, well…more like Kerouac than would seem possible.
Donleavy and Gover were obviously plagued by acute cases of the Problem of the Second Novel. Our appetite for comedy has grown in harness with the publicity machinery that seems to drive a successful comic novelist, especially a very young one, almost batty with self-consciousness. No wonder in that either, when you consider the rewards and difficulties of raising a laugh.
Humor alone, that magnificent discovery of those cut short in their calling to the highest achievement, those who falling short of tragedy are yet as rich in gifts as in suffering, humor alone (perhaps the most inward and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism.
This little nugget, picked at random from Hesse’s Steppenwolf, gives some idea of what the budding comedian is likely to run into as soon as he begins roaming the halls of high culture and discovers that while the Tragic Sense of Life can be fairly neatly packaged and sold across the counter at the universities, humor remains protean, indefinable, the rarest flower of the highest peaks, or so our culture believes. There was little enough in Donleavy’s and Gover’s first novels to suggest that either of them would develop into Twains or even Lardners, yet they can’t be blamed, I suppose, for the ambition that trips them up this time. If your first successful formula is vulnerable to parody and condescension, why not stop the dogs’ mouths with self-parody, relaunching the once irresistible formula on a sea of irresistible cultural chic? That’s about what it comes down to here.
The formula of The Ginger Man was more or less irresistible: a New York Irishman goes to dreary post-war Dublin and gleefully re-Joyces the joint. Don-leavy hit on a neat division between Dedelean sensitivity, most of which went into description, atmosphere and resistance to dullness, and a blunt Gogarty smoking-room gusto, most of which went into action and speech. Jolly sex, moral anarchism, male narcissism, cultural hooliganism; this was one kind of antidote to leftist gloom and the slicker, blander Herbert Gold kind of thing. Dublin deserved it, Ireland expected it, New York consecrated it. But there are not many Dublins left where being Rabelaisian has all that venerable tradition behind it, all that lovely grim ready-made puritanism to set it off, and Donleavy wisely refrained from trying to flush those pigeons twice.
Back, then, to New York (spiritually if not geographically) and a plunge into the acidulous solvents of the new cool higher comedy that flourishes these days under the aegis of Genet, Beckett, Ionesco et al., an atmosphere that Mailer says is best reproduced at its source by Baldwin’s Another Country (no comedy certainly), to which I would add Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian inasmuch as Donleavy seems to have read it rather closely. To have kept his hearty heterosexual chastity in this literary maelstrom was quite a feat, almost saintly indeed.
A Singular Man takes place in a disembodied cosmopolis of sublimated dreamscapes ranging through all the fantasy-factories from The Ladies Home Journal “up” to Playboy and Esquire. We move between such charming addresses as Merry Mansions Two Eagle Street, Thirty Three Golf Street, Dynamo House Owl Street, 1 Electricity Street, Eel Street, Cool Village, and the Goose Goes Inn, savoring many such touches of Donleavy’s affectionate gift for the simple, not to mention the inane: but make no mistake, this is still the Big Time in every sense of the words, the Ginger Man syndrome sky-written across the blue. George Smith, our hero, is the same charming rat with the numinous dong, now mysteriously rich and vaguely “aristocratic,” cursed with an angst that makes him spend lavishly on an armored car and a gigantic personal tomb. He has the same nagging wife, now divorced with four kids and grown piggish, a pathetic homebody secretary-victim, a scandalously lascivious Negro maid (archaic touch this) and finally, in keeping with the grandiosity of the proceedings, a gorgeous, capable, cynical, simple-hearted insecure doll, Sally Tomson alias Dizzy Darling, who is ultimately buried at sea, “November The Twenty First, on Board Sea Shark, Piper Seven, Foot Of Owl Street” the invitation reads. I hope you gather by now that all this Means Something, something we will probably never know, and displays what the jacket calls “boiling creativity.”
And the prose! 402 pages of clipped, manly telegraphy modeled on the interior monologue of Ulysses, like three David Nivens reviewing their love lives in a high wind on the polar ice-cap; occasionally wonderful in its four-ply parody—Amis, Waugh, Wodehouse, Waterhouse, bughouse—sometimes cornily funny, sometimes just infantile silly. In other words, A Singular Man is like one of those enormous California carnival floats advertising some humble, unexceptionable commodity like oranges. Which commodity, to be sure, is jolly sex, and until the unlikely day when “pornography” (let’s not quibble; I like it whatever it is) can be safely classified and reviewed in chunks like science fiction, every so often we can expect this pancultural workout, this classy suspension of all the categories, in return for our small meed of uncomplicated fun.
Robert Gover’s second novel, appearing so close on the heels of One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, has a fecklessly boyish, slapped-up quality that requires even less analysis than the Donleavy. It begins, quite well, as a small-town who-done-it. Someone has sunk a hatchet in the skull of a beautiful young unprotected housewife and the narrator, a local reporter, drives out to her house in the early morning after an unsuccessful seduction of the sex-kitten in the next apartment and chews over the crime in manly anguish in the company of a well-drawn bunch of reporters, neighbors, and cops. All this is A-OK, first class movie writing. But then comes trouble. He drives into the hills to meditate and meets a gruesomely sententious old hermit who addresses him constantly as “Kiddo,” to his justifiable annoyance, and lays claim to a large tract of metaphysical territory out back somewhere, perhaps at New Thoreau in Saroyan County. Anyway, our hero returns, observing along the way many significant road-signs revealing the Hollowness of Our Culture, delivers his story to the paper, and has another go at the kitten in a long spicy episode during which one can hear the heavy breathing of Mr. Barney Rosset in the background. But once more the girl funks out, our man is wretched and is finally nabbed by the police on the fire-escape trying to get back into her bedroom. So what does he do? He confesses to the hatchet murder, which he didn’t commit, because, natch, we are all, all “the maniac responsible” when it comes to such nasty behavior as murder. Then a sort of fantasy playlet, like, between the hero’s after egos (Fragmentation of the Self) and finally, absolved, a last trip to the old man of the mountains for a concluding word on the human condition. I hope this summary has indicated enough of the boisterous whirlwind tour of the contemporary conscience that Gover has provided in The Maniac Responsible. The girl friend is something like Kitten of One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding but not enough. The young man is a noisy rattle. The writing shows promise.
Et alors…Kerouac canadien de Lowell, Massachusetts, which I maintain is the best and truest Kerouac, although this tear-soaked monstrosity of a book seems designed to hide the fact from all but his fellow anointed. Kerouac has survived the nightmare, a parody by John Updike anthologized by Dwight Macdonald, and has nothing more to lose, no further depths to plumb. To call Visions of Gerard a self-parody, or even a hilarious take-off on those creep biographies of wee sainted children cut off in the cradle, would be wide of the mark. Visions of Gerard is all-out sentimentality of an intensity I believe unmatched in Western literature. That is a bold claim, but this is a book that goes beyond any conceivable definition of courage. Like the giraffe, it just exists. Who, beyond Kerouac’s friends, connoisseurs of New England regionalism, and French Canadiana, will read it I can’t guess, but having been brought up a few miles north of Lowell and driven through it often, I found the book as fascinating as it certainly is appalling.
Kerouac’s besetting handicap in recent years has been a certain deadness of ear, or tonelessness, just at that mystic point in his mind where he wants to be most alive, the karma-kid and dharma-daddy of all the philosophies, all the poetries. This has grown on him steadily since the relatively straightforward On The Road, so that the sentimentality which was pretty well sublimated into the fabric of On the Road here separates out into child worship on the one hand and near-gibberish on the other, with a brief but solid core of excellent writing in the middle. By now we have a sufficient idea of the Christo-Buddhist-Hindu heaven that beckons him on. He has much to say about that in this book, contritely, worriedly, rebelliously. Sometimes it thins to a diaphanous mist, sometimes gathers into black thunderheads of rhetoric. But the circumstances made clear is that this turbulent psychology has firm roots in his boyhood. Canuck life was one extreme after another in that Nineveh-city of Lowell, now one of the eeriest monuments in the country, but in 1926 when this “novel” takes place still a fairly busy mill town, polyglot and church-ridden like modern Montreal. Men who kept their heads above water, like the good father Emil of this book, were as heroic in their way as the East Side Jews of Malamud. The section Kerouac devotes to Emil’s Saturday night on the town with his vaudeville cronies behind Keith’s Theater is some of the best writing he has done, florid and generous in the best style of romantic naturalism. There is a good and a bad sentimentality, and this, if it is sentimental, belongs to the good. And most of the incidental description of the city’s people, winters, streets, churches, funerals and so on, is tellingly real. “Winds all the way from the nostril of the moose, coarse rough tough needs in potato fields…” Kerouac’s Zen Buddhism is often a terrible bore, but his faculty of sweeping down from the foggy heights and picking up bits of truth like lint throws some light on the oriental exoticism of life in those almost-abandoned towns on the Merrimack.
But then there is Gerard, and Gerard is unquestionably the sweetest, dearest, sickest and most saintly tot in fiction since Little Nell, her true bridegroom in heaven. I hope I won’t ever find out if there was such a child in Kerouac’s past. In any case, he dies at age nine of rheumatic fever and his invalidism is the plot of the book. As he lies there making his perfect little drawings or playing with his Erector set (a searing irony there!) or merely saying how he hurts, he provokes excruciating baby-talk from both his chronicler and all the onlookers. It may have been like that. Plainly Kerouac doesn’t care. He apologizes for nearly everything but this, or “his” family’s fortitude or the colors, sounds and smells of Lowell.
November 28, 1963