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Ink Chorus: Never in Doubt!

By (February 16, 2016) No Comment


Our book today is Never in Doubt, a collection of book book reviews from stalwart bull terrier Peter never in doubtPrescott, who reviewed books for Newsweek for two decades and adored our ragged fish-wrap art form with a sharp wit, a punchy prose style, and, underneath some thick plates of armor, a true believer’s heart. He was a voracious reader, an indefatigable annotator, and a champion lugger of overstuffed satchels full of books, and he loved his job in exact proportion to how much he complained about it.

He had an enviable berth at Newsweek in the 1970s and ’80s, mainly because his editors there either cared enough about books or didn’t care enough about books – whichever the reason, they gave Prescott what all book reviewers desire but very few now get: a free hand when it came to tone and body-count. As a result, his praise is all the sweeter for how sharp his condemnations are – and oh! Those condemnations are choice! This first line of a review of some piece of crap or other by Richard Brautigan:

Imagine Zane Grey trying to spruce up Book I of The Faerie Queene to make it accessible to readers west of Wichita and you’ll have some idea of this fable’s disarming appeal.

Or this First line from a 1978 review of I Hardly Knew You by Edna O’Brien:

Garbage put out in winter will not smell as soon as garbage put out in summer, which is doubtless why Doubleday has put out Edna O’Brien’s new novel now.

Or this virtuoso opening about one of his favorite targets:

James Jones died last year at the age of fifty-five, leaving undecided the question of whether he was the worst novelist ever to write good novels or the best writer every to write such bad ones. Whistle, which he did not quite complete, won’t settle the issue, for if Jones’s bad novels are appalling, even stupefying performances, his good novels are pretty bad, too.

Prescott hated mere mummery, and he despised sham profundity, and he kept his reviewer’s scalpel sharp by reading the widest possible variety of the new releases of his day. He was a master at spotting fads and trends; if an author introduced an albino character, you could rely on Prescott to remember instantly the last albino character he encountered, and to deplore the fact that some poor author mistakenly thought he was being original. And more often than not, his deploring was deadpan funny: “Faster than a speeding Cuisinart, the reviewer’s memory slices through produce pushed into his tube over many years until from the resulting julienne a salient fact emerges. Peter DeVries has now written two novels narrated by furniture-movers – another first for American letters.”

Since he hated sham, he of course hated America’s foremost modern-era practitioner of it, the late Kurt Vonnegut and served him up in tasty slices whenever he got the chance:

Breakfast of Champions provides further evidence that as a thinker and literary stylist, Kurt Vonnegut is fully the equal of Kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, even Richard Bach. These writers, gurus, and soothsayers apparently fill a need for some of us adolescents of all ages who clutch at any sentimental positivism: Gibran’s perfumed religiosity; McKuen’s mawkish romanticism; Bach’s can-do optimism dipped in mystical shellac; and Vonnegut’s smug pessimism with its coy implication that the reader is one of the author’s intimates, one of the happy few. The comfortable banalities advanced by these writers in place of ideas are totally incompatible, but that doesn’t bother the groupies. Anything will do for them as long as it tells us it’s okay not to think and as long as it’s presented in a lobotomized English that these writers feel is appropriate for their audience.

“From time to time,” he wrote, still about Vonnegut, “it’s nice to have a book you can hate – it clears lucy reads never in doubtthe pipes – and I hate this book for its preciousness, its condescension to its characters, its self-indulgence, and its facile fatalism: all the lonely people, their fates sealed in epoxy.”

One of the added delights of Never in Doubt arises out of Prescott’s decision to give his readers more than simple reprints of his earlier work: throughout the book, he follows his old reviews with later thoughts about them and the issues they raise. For instance, we read his 1976 stinging dissection of Vance Bourjaily’s Now Playing at Canterbury (a review that made both Bourjaily and yours truly toweringly irritated at the time, although unlike Bourjaily, I eventually got over it), and then we get a typically wonderful Prescott defense of his earlier attack:

The question arises: is a reviewer ever justified in attempting to blow a bad book out of the water? I think the answer is yes, but the reviewer must choose his targets with the greatest of care. It’s not enough for a book to be bad; other elements must be present: smugness; pretentiousness; an overinflated reputation; clear evidence that the book’s badness is not the result of incompetence, but of deliberate design. Such books represent an assault on the republic of letters and should not be ignored. A reviewer confronting a routinely bad book simply criticizes it and leaves his reader to disagree if he will. But a reviewer confronting a genuinely meretricious piece of work assumes a greater obligation. The book is an offense and must be labeled as such: to shrug or say, “I didn’t like it,” is insufficient; the essence of its awfulness must be laid bare …

Prescott wasn’t always happy to assume that greater obligation when it came his way – he knew better than anybody the kind of tedious rows they could kick into motion. Contrary to his reputation, he loved to find praiseworthy things, and he loved to be surprised. But when he something “genuinely meretricious” crossed his desk, he went after it with all the precision mockery at his command. The Ink Chorus lost a very distinctive voice when he laid down his blood-soaked pen.