The hero as foulmouth is evidently a side effect of the new American middle-class puritanism, which thrives on being nonjudgmental verbally and is prissy on every topic except sex. So appalling is the unctuous discourse of everyday life, it is no wonder the novelists turn, through their protagonists, toward a vocabulary of obscenity and insult. The problem is once you’ve set up your profane and blasphemous hero, what do you do with him? An apparent solution—not particularly happy, but perhaps the best available—is to discover beneath his rough and bristling exterior that old cornball standby, the heart of gold. One is half ashamed even to mention it. Here we are creeping up on the twenty-first century, and we have nothing to fall back on except a convention that was hackneyed in the sixteenth.
Take Five by D. Keith Mano presents an unusual set of imbalances. It is painfully hard to get into and much too easy to get out of. The reader will be fore-warned to expect a certain number of infantile tricks from the fact that the book’s pages are numbered backward and the book’s chapters in reverse order; i.e., one begins at Book V, Chapter 7, and works remorselessly down the numerical scale. The “hero” also degenerates from a blustering, rambunctious, brutal exhibitionist to an insensible, impotent, incontinent bundle of infirmities. We are supposed to find him a good deal more attractive in his later stages than in his earlier ones; but it will be someone more patient than the average reader who puts up with the improbable antics of his prime long enough to appreciate the eloquent account of the last stages of his decline.
Simon Van Lynxx (the name alone warns us to expect a novel of caricature) is set before us as a genius movie producer with two award-winning shorts and a number of turkeys to his credit; surrounded by a menagerie of pickup associates, he inhabits a large van parked somewhere in the outskirts of New York City. His current project, for which he hasn’t bothered to write a script (or, in the cant of his trade, a “treatment”) is a pop-satiric version of the Gospels, Jesus 2001. Perhaps fortunately, filming of this epic never gets any further than a few pictures of a recalcitrant donkey carrying a more than dubious virgin and child down a garden path. For Simon is too much of a genius to bother with getting anything organized, and too busy with his own noisy, zany buffoonery to give anyone else the benefit of half a sentence. If he is an artist at all, he is a put-down artist; his loud mouth is stored with a rich assortment of racist and sexist slurs, plus an unfailing plethora of miscellaneous abuse for special occasions. He is a one-man Cloaca Maxima, Don Rickles with delusions of grandeur; and discharging all this contempt in a steady stream of one-liners leaves him little chance to display anything like the metaphorical genius that is claimed for him.
The main action of the novel is Simon’s attempt to get backing for his work, not Jesus 2001, which is abandoned early on, but any piece of trash that he can use to promote big money. First, however, he manages by sheer carelessness to burn out the inside of his mouth—pours gasoline instead of olive oil into the salad dressing, and lights it before recognizing the difference. His disfigurement suggests to our beanbag hero the device of disguising himself as a black in order to get a government grant.
This project fails because he overplays the part; and he embarks on an even cruder plot (back in his own natural disguise now) to con a Jewish movie mogul out of a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Here again the scheme is bungled, and in revenge he is set upon and beaten savagely; the manhandling puts him on the long downhill road to the catatonic state in which we leave him.
His decline is presided over by an angel of mercy named Merry Allen whom Simon healthy had tried to seduce—unsuccessfully, as usual: he is a most inept and unfortunate Priapus. She turns out to be an Episcopalian ecclesiastic, a turn which imposes wrenching strains on our credulity, but no matter, by this time it’s bound to be pretty elastic. At all events, in describing her marriage with the helpless hulk and her devotion through his final disintegrating days, the novel achieves a quiet and eloquent pathos.
Subdued to gentle helplessness, Simon tugs at the heartstrings of the fictional public (the wedding is what is now called a “media event”: crowds, speeches, applause) and of the susceptible reader too; but Simon is not at all the Simon of the early book, the man we have learned to love to hate. Mr. Mano having disposed of that fellow, and not a bit too soon, we are left with Simon who seemed to be a bad boy but was just showing off, and is now not only unfortunate but also loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. All that’s needed is a faithful dog.
Though it’s easy to write farcically about a book like this, which is three-quarters farce in the first place, the midcurrent reversal of character and tone suggests a serious dilemma which Mr. Mano—clearly a writer of verbal gifts and imaginative invention—couldn’t quite overcome. Simon the capering, obnoxious punchinello is the mainspring of the action; at least some of the pieties that he joyously desecrates deserve the vigorous boot he gives them. That pious ending seems to leave the door uncomfortably open to cheap edification, such as can be had in profusion any Sunday morning on the box. The title Take Five (but I’m afraid it’s more like days than minutes) is so deprecatory as to suggest that the author wants his book to be thought ephemeral, like a coffee break. It’s got to be more than that, but it stakes only an equivocal claim. The patient reader will find much in it worth thinking about, with an occasional mordant laugh.
More successful as a performance, less provocative as a problem, is John Gregory Dunne’s Dutch Shea, Jr., a novel in which California, as we have come to expect, appears as a place of desolation and despair. The unheroic hero who gives his name to Mr. Dunne’s novel is a pimp lawyer in a city which tries, not very hard, to avoid looking exactly like Los Angeles. He is Irish, a bad Catholic (for fictional purposes, the very best sort), divorced from an unfaithful wife, and haunted by the fate of his father—a suicide in jail, where he was doing time for embezzlement, much like that which Shea, Jr., is for the moment successfully concealing. He is haunted also by the recent death of his adored, adopted daughter, blown to pieces by the random savagery of an IRA bomb in a London restaurant. Shea is a man, in short, with an unruly and painful memory, as well as a deeply troubled conscience which he tries persistently (and of course unsuccessfully) to suppress.
His failure in this struggle is the novelist’s opportunity; hideous bits of buried truth are continually fighting their way through the slime of his reluctant consciousness, and, as they rise to the surface, they assemble themselves toward a story. Meanwhile the counselor, in his outer life, sinks lower and lower into the gutter society of which, through the practice of his trade, he is becoming a part. He lives in a slum, neglects his squalid apartment, and adopts the defiant slum style most likely to offend the nice, or not very nice, people of his original milieu. He is, plainly, a self-destroyer; among American heroes, Dutch Shea, Jr., has most in common with Julian English, the doomed hero of John O’Hara’s most moving book, Appointment in Samarra.
Though he’s no lily in his verbal habits, Dutch Shea, Jr., doesn’t stand out, like Simon Lynxx, by the ostentatious foulness of his mouth. In the gutter part of his life, “shit” is a neutral noun, roughly equivalent to “thing” or “stuff”; “motherfucker” and “asshole” are epithets of mild disapproval. Among the churchgoing “respectable” Irish of his acquaintance, things are little better; Polish jokes, anti-Semitic sneers, and a morass of contemptuous terms for blacks are commonplace. Dutch Shea, Jr., moves through these tepid pools of verbal filth, his mind numbed by awareness of his own tragedies, but accepting also that he belongs in these worlds, especially that of pimp, prostitute, pusher, and their victims. At rendering the idiom of this world Mr. Dunne is a virtuoso. An early chapter, for example, consists almost entirely of sparse, uncommented jailhouse dialogue between Shea and his client, a black woman of forty or so, named Harriet Dawson. The lawyer speaks first:
“…Who is Hector?”
“He my man.”
“And he is also your husband’s brother. Purvis’ brother.”
“And also Purvis’ brother, right?”
“I don’t want to talk about that motherfucker.”
“Okay. Is Leo your man, too?”
“And Harv is your son?”
“Baby Harriet’s papa.”
“And Marvis is…”
“Also baby Harriet’s mother. And Harv’s wife.”
“They never got married.”
“He went to jail, she just run out on him.”
“And left you with baby Harriet.”
“That’s what whores do. I loved that little baby.”
“Where is she now?”
“And Harv is right here in the county jail.”
“He wants to get in a drug program. He gets the right kind of supervision, he won’t do drugs no more.”
“You know he’s charged with over a hundred burglaries?”
“See what I mean?”
“To pay for his drugs. He in a drug program, he wouldn’t do no hundred burglaries.”
“He shoots all day to relieve his disappointments.”
“The judge give Harv a chance, he could function in society properly.”
“His lawyer tell him to say that.”
“I’m his lawyer.”
“That was you tell him that shit?”
“No shit. No wonder Hector got you.”
“Actually it was Leo’s idea.”
“Because you told Harv that good shit.”
And so the interrogation drags on, through the woman’s pitiful and disgusting physical condition, to the final revelation of the reason for her being in jail: left to care for her infant granddaughter, and absorbed in her infinitude of griefs, she allowed the child to be run over and dismembered by an errant lawnmower. The vision is nightmarish, appalling; the art with which it is managed superb in its simple and relentless pressure. And in an awful way, funny too.
This, then, is the slum side of Dutch Shea’s life; we see it deepening around and within him, pushing him toward utter disgust with the formulas, deceptions, and compromises of the “successful.” In a crucial episode, he is unexpectedly asked to defend—before Judge Martha Sweeney, with whom he has been having an affair—a black criminal who has previously robbed, abused, and beaten him in his apartment. The client learns with great admiration that Shea is a big-time pimp lawyer, then asks a question that would be simplicity itself to evade:
“If you such a big-time pimp lawyer,” he whispered, “what you doing here?”
“I fuck the judge.”
Morally and imaginatively, this brief whispered exchange is a tremendous scene. In the narrative proper it has no consequences at all, but beneath the surface one feels the deep, grinding shift of psychic strata that will lead Dutch Shea, Jr., to reject friendship, opportunity, intimacy, any form of help—that will push him, ultimately, to the suicide he has been trying throughout the novel not to contemplate.
Whether Mr. Dunne has done too much in the latter part of the novel to sanitize his smelly shyster-saint is a matter of taste. He’s faced with the same dilemma Mano faced; Dutch Shea, Jr., has to be shown as a good deal better than he looks if his demise is to move us properly. Accordingly, he is allowed for once to serve the ends of justice in defending a client, wholly unsavory but not in fact guilty as charged, whom respectable people were eager to railroad. Again, though the man has embezzled, this was not apparently for selfish but for generous motives; and besides, he is bonded, so nobody will really lose. Except, of course, Dutch Shea, Jr. So the reader’s sympathies are rallied, and the pariah—with the aid of many ecclesiastical formulas deeply embedded in his mind—is properly exalted. Though his church may have somewhat stricter standards, the conventions of the novel allow Dutch Shea, Jr., an exit to thunderous applause.
Is fiction even capable of subjecting to prolonged scrutiny a thoroughly, an unredeemably malignant figure? It’s a question that both these novels provoke. Heavies are always useful as foils and antagonists; but Oliver Twist told entirely from Fagin’s point of view would have to be a tour de force. Humbert Humbert comes close, but in Part II, section 29, of Lolita, he too succumbs to the platitudes of true love. Perhaps Jason Compson, drawn large enough to fill the picture right up to the frame, would approach the ideal. But the obvious problems of such a “hero” show why he hasn’t been much attempted. In any case, having the tough, obnoxious dynamis of a fiction subside into pathos and cliched good intentions leaves one with almost too strong a sense of a contrived tableau—of window-dressing. Perhaps a last-minute clutch for moral reinforcement explains why both these energetic and troubling novels seem obliged to conclude with a whiff of altar smoke, the wail of distant choirs.
June 10, 1982