Saturday, June 7, 2008

What Makes Sammy Run? - Budd Schulberg
Through the eyes of Schulberg’s narrator we observe Sammy Glick, one of the more fascinating characters in American fiction. I believed in Sammy – his amorality and his abilities, his rise from copy boy to Hollywood mogul. He could do it. Every scene with him exudes energy – except the last ones. The novel peters out badly at the end. Sammy gets his comeuppance, but it’s not believable (Sammy is nobody’s dupe). A re-creation of his youth is supposed to provide reasons for how he got to be the way he is, but it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Sammy. Schulberg abandoned the character he had breathed life into. It’s as if a decision was made: this can’t simply be a story of an avaricious man who climbs over people on his way to the top. So Sammy is punished, he’s explained away. Which is a crying shame, because when Sammy was at full throttle this book was bright, sharp, smart, and it raced along.

In Country - Bobbie Ann Mason
Cumulatively, pretty effective, and by obvious means. This book makes a direct and naive appeal for your sympathies through the character of Sam. It succeeds because Sam is appealing. She’s a very decent young girl, at the stage when she’s thinking about big issues and deciding how to live her life. Mason has her contemplating Vietnam intensely, and this is a unique way to look at that war. The novel’s only problem is a long stretch in the middle when all issues have been presented and we follow Sam going over and over the same ground. However likable she may be, Sam isn’t the most interesting person to hang out with.

The Devil’s Dream - Lee Smith
It started out strongly – strange, gothic, mythical – as each character took center stage and in a vernacular voice told their story. But by the end the dark mystery of that past world was gone. There was too much of the same thing; first person voices, however varied, become monotonous when they repeat the same formula. As lives became entwined in complex ways it got confusing (who’s who, and what are their connections?). But undermining the whole novel is the portrayal of the modern characters. They’re so banal that I began to suspect the mystery and romance of those who came before. Maybe mystery and romance belong to legend; the present is trivial. But that point – a valid one – isn’t explored. Instead Smith just continues having her characters talk, and I began to feel that I was listening to gossip in a beauty parlor.

The Wapshot Chronicle - John Cheever
This was my second reading of the novel; I loved it the first time around. The beginning is a model of fine prose, the sparkling variety. But the sparkle diminished as the book went on; or maybe it became less able to prevail over the lack of a solid narrative. Cheever creates vignettes that spin out in a self-contained fashion, and then he moves on to the next one. There’s no overriding structure to hold things together. Also, the repeated evocations of romance, lost beauty, sexual yearning, etc. got a bit mushy. Still, this novel has a bright afterglow with decidedly dark hues, and that makes it memorable. At least, to me it does. I reread it for a discussion group and was surprised by how the members hated it. I’m not sure why it got this reaction; nobody explained their objection (beyond using words like “boring”). Still, I remain a faithful admirer. *

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