Absent Friends: “Warm, funny, sad, true … It is Perfect”
America’s current troika of literary truant officers – Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times, Ron Charles at The Washington Post, and Sam Sacks at The Wall Street Journal – have many duties. They must present a living chronicle of the fiction of their day – some eccentricity is allowed, but there can be no weird, persistent haring after obscure authors: the new Thomas Pynchon creates a deadline obligation as unyielding as anything ever invented by the IRS. They must praise – not necessarily the authors whose publishers buy ads in their papers, but plenty of authors just the same: readers stay away in droves from dour scolds. They must pontificate – since the days when Bennett Cerf tossed off jokes on What’s My Line? America’s top fiction reviewers have needed to do more than simply write their columns: panels, symposia, seminars (and Twitter, and YouTube, and Facebook) loom.
But they have one other duty in addition to these, and it’s the trickiest of them all: they must end up being right. Every week, they put not only the reputation of their newspapers but their own reputations for critical probity on the line, wagering that the judgement calls they make will be vindicated by posterity. And not just whether or not Book X is any good, but even more comprehensively, whether or not Author X is any good. Nobody wants to be lampooned in future ages as the killjoy who said this James Joyce fellow will never amount to anything, nor yet as the enthusiast who ranked Lord Hailsham as the equal of Shakespeare. It’s an insanely unfair standard, but such in-the-sun critics are held to it just the same. They’re expected to pick tomorrow’s greats today.
This is a big part of why they tend to be so reluctant to hurl bricks, why they have a tendency to equivocate when they should eviscerate and praise when they should pillory. It’s also why novelists with proven reputations tend to get taken more seriously (even in censure) than newcomers: the momentum of consensus is comforting.
Comforting, but still enormously prone to error – in fact, more prone to error, as all mob-driven decisions must be. In fiction more so than in any other genre, reputation should count for nothing; each novel is a world unto itself, or should be – the fact that an author wrote a stirring roman-a-clef in 1968 should have no bearing, positive or negative, on the book in front of the critic in 2013. But our current top troika – and their colleagues, and their predecessors going back to Addison and Steele – must assess that earlier work as part of the flyer they take on future work. A less committed observer, somebody free from front-line duty, might feel comfortable predicting that the literary reputations of John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Alice Munro are infinitely perishable things, that all four (and many like them) will be utterly forgotten by 2050, despite all the unending plaudits showered on them today. Front-line newspaper critics, by contrast, are the producers of those plaudits; they’re understandably less than eager to admit to fad-following (in themselves anyway; they’re happy to spot them in everybody else).
The impartial passage of time suggests it all the same, irresistibly. The 20th Century was littered with “big,” “important” novels that rumbled down the chute each year, preceded by fervid publicity and accompanied by the solemn rites and rituals of the publishing world’s High Mass: huge print-runs, front-of-store displays, author tours and signing events.
In 1947, for instance, the hoopla surrounded the release of East Side, West Side, the latest novel from Marcia Davenport, who’d had an enormous hit in 1942 with her bestseller The Valley of Decision, which sold many thousand of copies in hardcover and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Greer Garson. Davenport, daughter of the famous opera singer Alma Gluck, had worked a series of freelance writing jobs in 1920s New York, supporting herself and her little daughter by selling pieces to anybody who was paying. In 1928 she got hired to write for The New Yorker, and she continued to freelance music and book criticism around town until The Valley of Decision hit it big. The book purported to be the multi-generational story of a family of Pittsburgh steel mill owners, but two of its main characters were well-portrayed strong-willed women – a knack Davenport had already demonstrated in her 1936 debut novel Of Lena Geyer.
She took theme even further in East Side, West Side, which is the story of Jessie Bourne and her odyssey (sexual, financial, ultimately personal) through the various social strata of New York City. In Jessie Bourne Davenport found that most problematic of all literary devices: a working alter ego. It freed her normally too-clustered prose and let it stretch a bit; she inhabits the nuances of Jessie’s feelings far more thoroughly than she does those of any other of her characters – inhabits also Jessie’s weaknesses, without even implicit apology:
She looked up at him, her feelings so torn and confused that she did not dare to speak at all. She wanted to ask him if he would be good to her. She wanted to ask him if she could depend on him. She wanted with a sudden rough slash of clarity to tell him that she was mortally afraid to have a child because she did not feel safe in taking his part in the new state of things for granted. At the same time she felt, looking at him, the irresistible force of his physical hold over her, which had been weakened from time to time, but which he still possessed, and, more distressingly for her, knew that he possessed.
The Saturday Review raved about the book’s “Gusto … vivacity … detail.” The Atlantic Monthly sighed that it was “Wonderful!” Hollywood came knocking again. Davenport waited almost seven years before publishing another novel, 1954’s My Brother’s Keeper, about Manhattan’s infamous Collyer Brothers, 60 years before the same idea occurred to E. L. Doctorow. Booklist called the latter “haunting.” Booklist also called the former “haunting.”
While Marcia Davenport was chasing paychecks across Manhattan, another literary talent was ripening further east – in scenic little Norwich, Connecticut, where in 1958 a forty-year-old woman named Mildred Savage completed her debut novel Parrish. The book tells the story of a man named Parrish McLean, who’s caught between two warring families of Connecticut tobacco growers. Parrish has always yearned for some kind of entree to the wealthy plantation world. He’s unhappy with what he finds there, but readers were very happy indeed with what they found in this novel: Mildred Savage invests every page of her novel with brutal, unflinching vision – it’s like Steinbeck without the wispy sentimentality. When young Parrish injures himself in a car crash, the play of class and envy is right below the surface:
Slowly, he became aware of a throbbing in his hand. He opened an eye and saw, without emotion, blood oozing down to his wrist. Then he saw Lewis Post standing a few feet away, surveying the wreck. In a daze, Parrish pushed at the door and dragged himself out of the car. Lewis sat down dejectedly and Parrish went over and sat next to him, and then he started to see that they were sitting on the setting machine, inside the barn, and that half of the Rolls Royce had crashed through the wall.
Lewis whispered, awesomely, “It’s like it was the end of Sala. That Rolls was the last thing he ever bought when they had all the money they was to have.” Then he snickered. “The end of Sala. An’ I ain’t sorry. Him with his high ‘n’ mighty ways.”
Critics were enraptured. The Boston Herald called it “a superior novel,” and the New York Herald Tribune‘s critic wrote, “Has everything to recommend it … breadth of canvas, depth of feeling, suspense, vivid, frequently poetic writing and holding it all together, the sweet magic of story telling. Mildred Savage is a novelist to be greeted with respect and admiration.”
Hollywood certainly greeted her that way; Parrish was made into a very effective movie starring Troy Donahue and Karl Malden. But whatever magic created Parrish was exhausted by the creation – Savage only wrote two further novels over the course of 40 years, and neither one had a fraction of her debut’s fire. She lived a quiet life in Norwich and died there in 2011 at the age of 92. She couldn’t even find a publisher for her last novel.
Quiet small-town life also featured prominently in the publicity material for Patricia Gallagher when her debut novel The Sons and the Daughters appeared in 1961. She was born in Lockhart, Texas in 1917 and spent her life cooking meals and tending house for her husband and son – and writing fiction at the kitchen table every day once they were seen off into the outside world. Despite the demure exterior, there was fierce ambition at that kitchen table during the composition process, and the book that resulted – a steamy fictional expose of raw, bigoted Texas life – emboldened her publishers at Bantam to slap across the book’s classic James Bama cover: “If Texans could choose a book for burning, “The Sons and the Daughters” would probably be it!”
Gallagher – who attended Trinity University in San Antonio but, like Mildred Savage, had no training or professional experience at writing – displays on every page of The Sons and the Daughters a sharp, slightly acidic intelligence that seems pitched to get her in trouble:
“You’re not a bitch, Grace. And what I said about myself is true. I wanted to hurt George, I guess. That’s a pretty horrible thought, isn’t it? Wanting to cuckold your own brother just to hurt him. I ridicule George in my mind sometimes. I try to tell myself that I have nothing but contempt for his provincialism – and yet I know it’s not contempt, it’s envy. George has proven himself. He went to war and he did a good job of it. He was a good soldier, and now he’s a good civilian. He has a right to sit back on his haunches and be complacent. Whereas I – well, about the only decent commendable thing I’ve ever done, Grace, was not following you into that bedroom.”
It didn’t get her into trouble, however (except with the dyspeptic critic for the Boston Herald American who called the book “as big a pile of horse dung as anything you’ll find fertilizing the back 40”) – in fact, it launched her career. The Cleveland Plain Dealer proclaimed it “Scintillating … the appearance of an amazing talent” – and despite that Bantam banner, the Texas press was nothing if not enthusiastic. Gallagher’s next two novels, 1964’s Answer to Heaven and especially 1966’s The Fires of Brimstone, contained still something of the first book’s illicit, defiant insight, but success was clearly mellowing our author: her next eleven books were plush historical romances that even the world’s most dedicated pyromaniac wouldn’t want to burn.
Book burnings were more than once proposed for the novels of James Kirkwood, who was born in Hollywood in 1924, was good-looking and gregarious enough to work in movies and TV, and who published his 1960 debut novel There Must Be a Pony, which featured a flamboyant obviously gay character in a fairly sympathetic light (and which more than a little implies that its main character, Josh, might be gay himself). In 1968 he wrote a remarkable novel called Good Times/Bad Times about an attractive, confused young boy, Peter, on whom his prep school headmaster has developed a clearly erotic fixation. Peter’s sole ally among his fellow students is arch, campy Jordan, one of the last such literary caricatures to appear in print before the Stonewall riots of 1969 began to sweep the whole flouncy artifice into the garbage.
Good Times/Bad Times is narrated by Peter, and it’s suffused with homoeroticism. When Peter looks at Jordan for the last time, the sexual tension is vivid:
That got me. That’s when the – oh, God, he looked so young and frail lying there, even with the tug of his mouth and the bruise and that little flattened-out place on the side of his nose. And I thought: There he is, all there like he always was, light-brown hair, a little of it down across his forehead, that smooth ivory skin, the odd nose and that mouth. All there but I’d never see them working again, never see the cool look or that wise expression or the campy one or the tough one. For a moment I wished I hadn’t closed his eyes. I’d never see them again.
Kirkwood is remembered today as the co-author of A Chorus Line, but Good Times/Bad Times boasted blurbs from Gore Vidal, Nathaniel Benchley, Noel Coward, and Tennessee Williams. And The New York Times called it “Amusing, sensitive, suspenseful, touching.”
That same “amusing, touching” vein was mined by New York writer Herman Raucher in his autobiographical screenplay Summer of ’42, the story of how teenage Raucher spent a torrid summer on Nantucket in love with an older woman whose husband was away attending to World War II. Because there was additional money to be made, Raucher spent the time during the film’s production transforming the screenplay into a novel of the same title, and in 1971 it sold out of American bookstores at a frantic pace.
The book bears all the clear, tell-tale signs both of Raucher’s talent and haste. Passages are vividly realized but full of unconscious slang and lazy profanity of the type that would have shocked Mildred Savage:
The old wooden water tower stood high against the sky, a tall, buglike structure straddling the earth like the Colossus of Rhodes, providing a refuge for all the mothers’ sons who could navigate the forty rungs without breaking their asses. Beyond it the sun was checking out in a conspiracy of reds and purples. Below it the small town stretched lethargically, turning on a few spasmodic lights as talismans against the night. And upon it three boys, their legs drawn to their chests, sat shoulder to shoulder on the narrow platform that embraced the bulging water barrel. In the good company of only each other, they were bored shitless.
Book-buying public and book critics alike couldn’t help but mentally conflate the bestselling book and the popular movie, and the sunlit appeal of the latter perhaps dazzled a clear view of the former. The Chicago Sun-Times called the book “a novel that will be read and re-read many times” (it’s an almost statistical certainty that nobody ever did that, including the author). The book-critic for The Detroit Free Press, earning every penny of his $25 fee, couldn’t wax enthusiastic enough: “Poignancy and riotous humor, a feast of memorable scenes. The warmest, funniest, saddest, truest book you will read for a long time. It is perfect.”
“Perfect” was never a word that came up in the vicinity of reporter-cum-novelist Les Whitten. After a stint learning journalism at Radio Free Europe, Whitten became in 1969 a political reporter for The Washington Post (for years, he co-wrote the famous “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column with Jack Anderson). In the 1970s, a series of confrontations with editors, co-workers, and the Federal government prompted him to pay more attention to his life-long dream of becoming a novelist. A stream of novels followed, all of them wretchedly amateurish and sloppily earnest. Their topics could be unconventional – 1968’s Pinion, the Golden Eagle was narrated in part from a bird’s-eye view, and 1967’s Moon of the Wolf briefly raises readers’ hopes that it might be a werewolf novel – at least at first, until Whitten took it into his head to turn life into art and write a hard-hitting novel about a hard-hitting journalist bearing a more than passing resemblance to himself. This was 1976’s Conflict of Interest, and the sheer concrete blocks of its lightly-coded self-pity must have made it great late-night drunken writing fun for its author, although it’s doubtful any amount of whiskey would dull the pain for his readers:
My sleepy mind drifted to fantasy again. Suppose I married her, I would stop working for Cubbins and Mihalik. I would be an editor with a team of young investigative reporters whom I could train. I could be editor-in-chief later on, much later, when I finally conked out as a reporter, if I ever did, and my beautiful wife, Connie, would then be showing a little gray (she forty-six, me sixty-eight). And we would drink Bernkasteler Doctor Auslese and make occasional love and have very good seats at the Kennedy Center. I would get the Pulitzer for my … well, for something, and would be straight and heavy with honor among my colleagues as I walked through the city room of our thriving paper.
And shortly before I retired to fish and to dream over my grandchildren, to be respected by worshipful young reporters, all Galahads good and true, I would prove that I had not become stuffy like Cubbins. I would write a well put-together non-fiction work about all the good stories I had covered, and also about all the ones I had failed on, and about all the fine women I had fucked or tried to fuck. And in this deceit I fell asleep.
It was a foregone conclusion that Whitten would call in favors to get this piece of tripe blurbed, and many big names – including Arthur Hailey, Senator J. Abourezk, and Dan Rather – complied with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But the professional book-critics also complied – not just Whitten’s old stomping ground the Post, which guardedly pronounced the book “a delight to read,” but also The Chicago Tribune, which called it “brutal and insightful” – approximately half right.
But then, there’s an argument to be made that all of these critics were at best only half right. All of these books were hailed as worth reading when they appeared before a bookstore public (then as now) overburdened with choices. Most of these six books were hailed as masterpieces of social insight, when only Parrish (and parts of East Side, West Side) actually qualify. Most of these six books were praised by the leading professional book-critics of their day for the quality of their prose, when again only Parrish (and parts of Good Times/Bad Times) actually display it. And more: all six of these authors – and many, many more besides – were wagered by the highest-profile book pundits as likely candidates for Parnassus (maybe the seedier foothills for Whitten, although even in his case, Beltway enthusiasts compared Conflict of Interest to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for its “fearlessness”), and all six authors have vanished entirely from the literary landscape … in all likelihood never to return.
Victorian novelist George Gissing, who never got an easy time from the front-list book reviewers of his day, once said, “A sound-headed costermonger who did not know the word critic would give better judgement” – and doubtless many an author ever since would have agreed with him. They’d have been wrong to do so: it’s no easy thing to be a high-profile book critic, but unless you’re incredibly obdurate (we’re probably thinking of the same names here), skills do develop. Such critics learn to listen carefully to their own reactions as a book unfolds; they grow acutely sensitive to filler, dross, and cliché, and they pounce on any hint of entitlement. Yes, they’re under a certain amount of pressure not to savage – at least not to savage repeatedly – but generally the best of these critics can be trusted to recognize a good novel when they see one, and to articulate that success to people who don’t read for a living. Our current troika sports varied strengths (in Charles an Everyman affability, in Sacks a tangled acumen, and in Kakutani a mercantile enthusiasm), as all such line-ups have. In the 1970s a harried novelist, playing the odds on just such vagaries, implored the editorial team at The New York Review of Books to give his new book to Norman Mailer instead of Clive James. “We thought you hated the way Mailer reviewed things,” they said in surprise. “I do, I do!” wailed the author. “But if Norman does it, he’ll write about himself for 3000 words and then praise me for 10. If James does it, he’ll talk about himself for 10 words and then knife me for 3000.”
In the end, that review went to neither Mailer nor James, and that author, too, is now entirely out of print and forgotten, despite having once been called “essential reading” by a newspaper critic with over 2 million circulation. A costermonger might not have used such a phrase, but then, costermongers don’t have to worry about book cover excerpts a century from now.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.