These six books, all of them by young writers, are in their way characteristic of the current crop of fiction—not a bumper crop, to be sure, but not so bad at that after all. We have become rather accustomed of late to critical laments prophesying the novel’s imminent demise. But these dire pronouncements, usually made by critics with frustrated creative aspirations of their own, are scarcely to be taken seriously. Pornographic forays aside, contemporary American fiction, though patently fallen below the level of the period of “experiment and liberation” that ended in the early 1930s, is no worse off today, it seems to me, than it was ten or twenty years ago. The wanton and popular form of the novel provides writers with a freedom of movement unexcelled in any other literary genre; and a form in which inner and outer experience merge with ease, accommodating the subtlest psychological analysis along with the most factual sort of story-telling, is not so quickly downed as bearish critics profess to believe. It is, basically, the dominant verbal medium of the modern world. In recent decades the classic avant garde’s pre-occupation with language and technique has shown no signs of revival. Experimentation now is all with the absorption of new materials and with the devising of personal attitudes, which, as is to be expected, has led to a good deal of mere attitudinizing. Moreover, the moving force of ideology (exemplified in a work such as Dos Passos’s U.S.A.), sometimes acting like an incubus and sometimes like an inspiration, hardly exists at present. Nevertheless we do have a number of quite interesting and lively talents, far more interesting, to my mind, than the new French or German or British lot. Even if no new Faulkners (or even Dreisers for that matter) loom on the horizon, fiction is still very much a going concern. Thus two of these six works under review are rather better than just promising; three, if not good, are at least readable; only one—Richard Brautigan’s beat-story A Confederate General from Big Sur—strikes me as very crude indeed. In it the beatnik tendency to disorganization of form and inconsequence of content reaches a new low.
Roar Lion Roar, a collection of stories by Irving Faust, is one of the volumes I want to speak well of. It is Mr. Faust’s first book, in which he displays an unusual ear for the vernacular, wonderful economy of phrasing, and an understanding of marginal lowlife New York types rare among our many urban story-tellers. Mr. Faust’s people are cast as types well below the level of alienation, which, for all the anxieties it induces, might make them feel far more alive and at least conscious of their plight than their frantic efforts to belong to their society by conforming, in the most literal possible manner, to its shoddiest dreams and images. Thus in “Philco Baby” the shipping clerk Morty is virtually married to his pocket-radio, to which he listens day and night, repeating the names of the products it advertises with love and adoration. He clearly prefers its company to the Miss Mandell who attempts to seduce him and who in desperation smashes the “baby” to which his ear is glued even as they lie together on a Coney Island beach. Morty is not even stodgy or dull; he is half-crazy, as is Ishmael Ramos, the Puerto Rican protagonist of the title-story, who, while working in the boiler room of Columbia University, so identifies with campus life, regarding it as a heavenly state, and specifically with the football team, that he goes insane altogether when the Lions lose a big game. The only story in which the people rise above their helpless, deluded, and deprived condition is “Justice for Ladejinsky,” an exceedingly subtle account of an actor’s work and contacts in a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos during the period of the McCarthy hearings. Here the tensions of the time, as reflected in the behavior, sexual and political, of a group of Stalinoid liberals, is beautifully recreated.
Some of the stories, however, nurse sensations at the expense of credibility. In “Jake Bluffstein and Adolf Hitler” the protagonist changes from Jewish orthodoxy to sympathy with the Nazi cause, marching down the temple aisle screaming “Sieg Heil” to the assembled congregation. Now Jewish self-hatred no doubt exists, but Bluffstein’s crack-brained transformation is of a different order altogether. The story, insufficiently motivated to carry conviction, is a mere notion padded out with fictional detail that the author hopes will somehow persuade us; it fails to do so. And some of the stories, like “The Madras Rumble” and “Coogs in Lambarene” are funny enough in spots but a bit too ingenious and anecdotal to provide satisfactory fictional substance. What Mr. Faust needs is the curbing of his ingenuity and, above all, he needs to reduce his reliance on city-jargon as a verbal mode. Such jargon is subject to so many quick changes that in some years it may well leave Mr. Faust’s stories stranded in incomprehensibility.
An altogether different type of fictional experience is presented by The Edge of the Woods, which takes us to a deeply rural setting in North Carolina. It is a short work, no longer than a novella actually, in which the author, Mrs. Heather Ross Miller, achieves an exquisite style in relating what her heroine, Anna Marie, goes through in childhood and the way in which she tries in youth to redeem her stricken life. Hers is a truly individual style which, though drawing in a rather original manner on Biblical imagery, in no way suggests any recognizable imitation of her literary elders—not even the imitation of Faulkner, by whom contemporary Southern authors seem to be positively hypnotized. Mrs. Miller mingles past and present in her narration without recourse to the mechanical flashback technique which so many writers nowadays seem to be unable to do without, and her language responds to every nuance of feeling with lyrical force. I do not usually like prose written in the lyrical mode, but Mrs. Miller’s book is quite exceptionally persuasive; the horrendous plot of her story, its stark realism, is in no wise blurred by the lyricism. This plot (which I have no intention of giving away) ends with the marriage of Anna Marie to a man who seems fated to save her:
After that day, I determined to have Mark. Not through the old way, through wishes and dreams, but in the real…I engulfed him like an amoeba. But unlike the amoeba I could not digest him, destroy him, or understand him out of existence. Instead, I felt my own self being digested, destroyed understood completely into a wild green oblivion, until, bit by withered bit, my old flesh fell away, my bone disintegrated, my soul unwound like a bobbin, and I stepped from the wreckage a new woman. Or so I thought for a while. For I had stepped gently over the ruins, and I had saved relies. Like the mendicant friar, I wander, selling dry bones in a moldy pouch, amulets to ward off the dark and sweet balm from the tree of Gilead.
But Mrs. Miller is still a very young writer—she was born in 1939. It remains to be seen if, after so fine a start, she will be able to transcend purely personal experience and discover in her imagination a sufficiency of novelistic resources.
Miss Kathrin Perutz is also a very young writer. A House on the Sound, her second novel, is clearly the work of an educated, sophisticated, and very bright young lady—the kind of work which is a special product of our literary economy. It is primarily a novel of manners, and the scenic framework for the display of wit and sex is a dinner party (followed by nude bathing) on Long Island Sound. The host is a publisher, Edward, who has a semi-erotic relationship with his pretty daughter and a moribund one with Sonia, a middle-aged lady novelist given to taking young lovers, whose deciduous consciousness offers a few fine prizes to the enterprising author. The male figures, of whom there are several, American and foreign, are done with far less bravura. Sex is the idée fixe of the females, and the males are in duty bound to service them. The writing is efficient, ostensibly effortless; what it lacks is density and individual accent; and the incidents are more or less of the expected variety. The book contains observations on the newest set-up in American urban and suburban culture that struck me as having more gusto and intrinsic interest than the skimpy narrative episodes giving rise to them.
Another exceedingly youthful recruit to literature is C. D. B. Bryan, whose book, P. S. Wilkinson, is the Harper Prize Novel for 1965. It is just the kind of book that publishers like to latch on to, trying with might and main, through pre-publication publicity, advertising, and other means, to launch it as a bestseller. Whether they will succeed with this latest find I do not know. Mr. Bryan graduated from Yale in 1958, entered the peace-time Army in Korea, where he spent two years as a lieutenant of Intelligence, and as a member of the Reserve was recalled to duty during the Berlin crisis of 1961. This is more or less what happens in the novel to the hero, whose name, Philip Sadler Wilkinson, sounds rather gratuitous in view of the all too close identification between him and his author. There is also a good deal of what in old times was known as “love-interest,” brought up to date in the novel by the sexual candor proper to our latter days. The bed-scenes are credible enough, but the girl Hilary, whom P. S. finally marries after much searching of conscience, only comes through fitfully and dimly as a novelistic figure. The book is full of echoes of Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, who is the writer’s step-father. Wilkinson is a perfectly decent chap, and no doubt preordained to grow up to be a good middleclass liberal. The prose Mr. Bryan writes is pedestrian and reportorial; technically he depends too much and somewhat flabbily, I think, on the use of flashbacks. There are some good bits in the story, however, as in the account of Wilkinson’s application for a CIA job and the really gruesome polygraph examination he undergoes, an ordeal that sends him off in a hurry to take on the tiresome employment in a New York bank which he had heretofore spurned.
B. H. Friedman’s Yarborough (the title is a term from bridge meaning a hand that can’t be played, therefore “the most abstract hand”) is a readable enough book and interesting in a documentary way on the subject of narcotics, but in the long run unsatisfactory as fiction. It is quite long, and its numerous scenes are for the most part underdramatized. Its hero, Arthur Skelton, is a rich young man who has everything, including brains, but who finds that nothing is really worth doing for its own sake. Achievement means nothing to him, not his phenomenal early success as a bridge-player, nor the many women who succumb to him. Though a brilliant student, he drops out from Columbia. His faculty adviser remarks: “Arthur, you don’t have a right to waste yourself. You have an obligation to—“ But the young man cuts him short: “To what? To society? To my dead parents? The obligation of a flower to be plucked? The obligation of a melon to be eaten?” He tries drugs—“pot,” mescaline, LSD—and the book is full of arguments in which he very articulately defends his use of them. Asked what his need for mescaline is, his reply is: “The need? The pathological need? …It’s a beautiful experience, that’s all. No one has to have beautiful experiences, especially when there are so many ugly ones available.” And when a girl friend says that she hates smoking “pot,” as it means loss of control, he answers: “You’re not losing control. Not of anything that matters. Not even of things that don’t matter. Half the time I play bridge I’m high. I’m in control. The only difference is that I know bridge doesn’t matter.” What matters is “being high. Seeing myself perform some technical function, without confusing it—that function—with me.” Skelton, a kind of mystagogue of immediate gratification, who cannot believe in history but only in the here and now, lives his life in a state of low-keyed despair—a life which is a short “list of games, distractions, experiments, performances, searches—nothing—a catalog of zeros.” When at last the girl he likes most warns him that if he goes on like that he will surely reach a dead end, his comment is: “What isn’t?” while smiling so sadly that the tears come to the girl’s eyes. Finally the author does not appear to know what to do with his hero, and kills him off in an auto accident.
Skelton’s wealth is a condition of his nihilism but in no sense the cause of it. There are no elements of sociology in the novel, no exploration of social life except on the simplest plane of manners. Mr. Friedman’s own attitude is murky, to say the least; in spite of the fact that his solidarity with his protagonist is nearly complete through most of the novel, he does not fundamentally commit himself. Hence the impression of complacency on his part. Nihilism is one of the greater themes of modern literature which in this book is not brought to sufficient consciousness and above a certain pragmatic level of articulation is not even taken into account as a psychological or spiritual phenomenon.
There is little to say of Richard Brautigan’s A Confederate General from Big Sur except that it is no story at all but only a series of improvised scenes in the manner of Jack Kerouac. It is pop-writing of the worst kind, full of vapid jokes and equally vapid sex-scenes which are also a joke, though scarcely in the sense intended by the author. Its two protagonists, inevitably, are a couple of young men who have made scrounging for food, liquor, and women their life-career. The only connection with the Confederacy is that one of the young men fraudulently claims descent from a general in the Civil War. And what is so terribly funny about that remains the author’s secret.
April 8, 1965