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, a body and a mind; both use the college setting as an excuse for an adventure plot that glorifies both halves of the Narcissus who is hallucinating the whole thing; and in both cases the “body” half outlives the martyred mind. Of course Gabriel Reuben could never share Fanshawe’s epitaph: “The Ashes of a Hard Student and a Good Scholar.” Gabriel murders a faculty wife for obscure but admirable reasons and subsequently dies by setting fire to his hideout, a giant representation of the University President in a Wholeness of Western Man parade float. Yet the feeling accompanying the two staged exits is curiously the same. “He left a world for which he was unfit,” says Hawthorne, meaning that the world was unfit for Fanshawe; and Jeremy Larner says, “And so Gabriel left this world as he had always wished to leave, by his own choice and in a conflagration.”
Drive, He Said reminds me alternately of Mad magazine and the inner monologue of an anxious freshman. At one moment we are dancing to the inhaled trumpet of the Megaton Maniac & His Hydroheroin Heptet; at another we hear the soul-cry of an updated Holden Caulfield: “All I want is a person, a real person…” When Larner’s characters seize upon Truth they talk like this: “No lover, God can’t come in pieces, He’s a whole hunk, I’ve seen Him, He takes in ants and Jupiterians and galaxies and anthrax germs. He’s creamed up in the big fluffy juicy strawberry pie of things…” At least Larner has got his Fanshawe out of his system; a hip Scarlet Letter might be something to see.
Richard G. Stern has already produced one excellent novel, Golk (two later ones, Europe and In Any Case, are more labored); and here are his short stories. Because Stern is obviously gifted, and because he is reluctant to depart from realistic conventions, he illustrates the plight of the disengaged American writer even better than Larner does. By merely writing well about small matters, he sometimes brings up the perhaps unfair question: So what? I find myself approving of his humane attitudes, enjoying his descriptions of familiar places, admiring his fine wit and economy of narrative—yet feeling the lack of any central experience to give these virtues purpose. Perhaps Stern is aware of an insufficiency of some sort, for he has padded this collection with a play and an engaging but irrelevant essay on Nixon and Kennedy, and has dated each piece as if to beg indulgence for his juvenilia. The best stories are in fact all recent ones—“Teeth,” “Wanderers,” and “Dying” would be the envy of any contemporary writer—and the pieces he wrote at twenty-one are correspondingly tentative. Though a collection of stories ought not to read like a growth chart it is impressive to watch Stern gaining command of his idiom.
The question remains whether he will be a truly substantial writer; his best fiction often seems to be effective precisely because he has kept himself from serious ideas. Golk sustains a frothy sarcasm toward its subject, the world of network television, and its plot is guided by a cliché so frank (the sudden rise and sudden fall of an opportunistic genius) that we never pause to ask what it all means. In Teeth, Dying the memorable stories are invariably those dealing with insignificant little people from whom Stern is intellectually detached. He commemorates the small failures of permanent hotel denizens, of a spinster who has her teeth removed because she is after the dentist, of a man who wants to commission a funerary ode for his mother—and he does these things with authentic comic pathos. But in holding his material at arm’s length from his own feelings Stern risks triviality, and in this book he succumbs to it more often than not.
John Cheever is so cliché-shy that he once wrote a whole book purportedly in order to exorcise unworkable types from his “Next Novel” (which turned out to be The Wapshot Scandal). He has often spoken of the way American writers are thwarted by the drabness of their milieu, and he has lamented the unavailability of a tragic vision these days. But there is little reason to take this Miniver Cheever seriously; his temperament and talent appear quite suited to the times. His four previous volumes of short fiction show a remarkably serene writer who has always been at home with his cast of wealthy neurotics and petty adventurers. In The Brigadier they are noticeably older and more entrenched in the suburban code, but Cheever’s amused indulgence toward them remains constant. The most practiced of the three authors under review, he aims at modest effects and almost always achieves them. He is easy to underrate; if we are tempted to think of him as a New Yorker writer, it is worth remembering that to a great extent he has given The New Yorker its fictional tone for twenty years, not vice-versa.
Of course this tone—the jaunty but literate essay-style that seems to count on the reader’s wish to take short views—ought to be pretty deadening by now. Not much passion or power can be inserted into a story that begins, “You may have seen my mother waltzing on ice skates in Rockefeller Center. She’s seventy-eight years old…” and ends, “My brother is still afraid of elevators, and my mother, although she’s grown quite stiff, still goes around and around and around on the ice.” Curiously, however, most of the stories in this book manage to seem fresh.
Perhaps this is because Cheever has chosen frankly to celebrate his characters’ banality, and from the literal details of suburbia and his knowledge of how desperately unreal that brightly busy world is has devised a kind of poetry. On close inspection his characters look more like mythological figures than the fund-raising housewives and polite lechers they are asserted to be; plausible motivation has been inconspicuously subtracted from them and replaced by godlike compulsions. One woman is absorbed in getting the key to her lover’s bombshelter; a man wins back his cold wife by taking piano lessons from an enchantress and breaking down his wife’s resistance by practicing intolerable scales; another man conceives the plan of swimming across the county by traversing all his neighbors’ pools, only to remember at the end that he no longer lives in the house that was his goal. Still another tale is called “Metamorphoses,” giving away Cheever’s game; its characters are modern figures, with names like Actaeon and Nerissa, who suffer magical changes. Here Cheever comes dangerously near a Thorne Smith classicism; yet despite his often annoying tricks he succeeds in getting the atmosphere he wants, a sense of awakening from culturally induced delusion to the steady facts of senescence and death. Lest this awakening suggest tiresome social criticism, the recourse to magic helps to keep moralism at a safe distance.
Before the bland American scene Cheever strikes a pose of decadent acquiescence. The most he promises is to show us some amusing types—people who parody us but in such contrived ways that we needn’t take offense. But he often fulfills the promise with slick professionalism, somewhat at the expense of sincerity and psychological interest. As one of Cheever’s characters rightly complains, “I just have this terrible feeling that I’m a character in a television situation comedy. I mean I’m nice looking, I’m well-dressed, I have humorous and attractive children, but I have this terrible feeling that I’m in black-and-white and that I can be turned off by anybody.” It is typical of the disarming Mr. Cheever to have put these words in his character’s mouth just as the reader was about to say more or less the same thing.
October 22, 1964