Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Ferrari in the Bedroom - Jean Shepherd
As a young man alone in New York, I considered Jean Shepherd to be my friend. This friendship was carried on via the radio, with me listening to his nightly monologues. The man meant a lot to me; he brought good cheer to my life. In these essays I often caught a sense of that voice from long ago. He was a better talker than he is a writer – I don’t believe he had the patience to put a lot of work into his writing. His monologues had a fluidity and freedom that’s missing from his prose. I also found a more cynical person than the one I heard over the radio. Six of the pieces are very good, and seven others are good. There are a number that don’t come off, and some are duds. But who cares! Jean Shepherd gets a pass. It was a pleasure to spend some more time with my friend. *

The Enemy in the Blanket - Anthony Burgess
This second volume of the Malayan Trilogy: The Long Day Wanes has the virtues of the first, though a bit watered-down. The problem I cited in my previous review has become more serious. My inability to understand Victor Crabbe has progressed to the point where I don’t believe in him. And I dislike the person Burgess has concocted. Victor isn’t a good (nor a faithful) husband to Fenella; this has to do, supposedly, with his love for his previous wife, who drowned in a submerged car while Victor escaped. A tragic scenario explaining Victor’s errant behavior – but really? Why couldn’t Burgess, with all his skills, make this story more convincing? Anyway, Fenella leaves Victor (despite his vows that he has changed and truly loves her), and I applauded her decision. As for the watered-down aspect, the exotic world of Malaya and its gaudy characters are not so vivid as in the first novel. Still, I’ll read volume three.

The Custom of the Country - Edith Wharton
Edith was adept at applying the thumbscrews. In this character study she uses them on Undeen, a woman who values empty showiness – jewels, parties, dresses. She has no regard for things of enduring worth. A diamond bracelet means more to her than her son or her long-suffering parents. To get what she wants (and wanting is her only passion) she uses her beauty to climb the social ladder in New York and Paris. Undeen is willful, selfish, cold, calculating, but she’s also real. At times I felt sympathy for her; she is, in her way, a cripple, lacking in something essential. There are problems with the novel that bring it down a few pegs. Ralph’s suicide seems unsupported, simply convenient to the plot, and there were too many coincidental meetings between Undeen and Moffett (another strong character, though I didn’t believe in his rapid rise to power). Also, Wharton pretty much ignores Undeen’s son; this could be interpreted as a reflection of how Undeen ignored him. But when Wharton gives Paul center stage in the last chapter it’s an oddly flat scene; I don’t know if the author herself had feeling for the boy. The ending – with Undeen, who now has almost everything, left wanting that which she cannot get – doesn’t carry enough weight. Her story should close on a more emphatic note than discontent. Still – a novel that has a lot to say.

Beds in the East - Anthony Burgess
In this final installment of The Long Day Wanes Victor Crabbe is still the weak link; and, since he’s the main character, this proves fatal to the trilogy as a whole. I believe Burgess and Victor are one and the same, and Burgess couldn’t be honest about himself. As a consequence, Victor never rang true. When he was married to Fenella – in the first two volumes – he was constantly having sex with other women. In this book, when she’s left him, he’s chaste. In both cases, his behavior is incomprehensible. Burgess set up a long-ago love that haunts Victor; in the last pages of Beds it’s revealed to Victor that the woman never loved him. This revelation is presented by means of a flimsy coincidence. Shortly thereafter Victor (who has degenerated to the point of grotesqueness) falls in the river and drowns. Though we’ve been in his mind for nearly 500 pages, this episode is seen from someone else’s perspective; the person observing his death doesn’t care about him. Burgess’s callous, offhand destruction of Victor may reflect his own self-loathing and self-pity. At the end one woman briefly mourns him: “Poor Victor,” she thinks, “poor, poor Victor.” And then she’s off to dance.

4 comments:

Eugene B. Bergmann said...

I agree that Jean Shepherd's radio talk is his best work. Fortunately there are nearly two thousand of his radio broadcasts available at no cost through websites such as www.flicklives.com and at low cost on ebay and elsewhere. My book, EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD discusses his radio work as well as his creations in other media.
Excelsior!
Eugene B. Bergmann

j. m. said...

Ah, more books I've never read let alone, never even cracked a cover of to peak at.

You are vast in your reading appetite. I am inspired to look at books I haven't considered before.

The only problem for me in your incredible reviews is that you put too many reviews in each blog. If you did 1 blog per review (I believe blogs are unlimited here), I could get specific with each review. As it stands now, I am fumbling to touch on each book's critique & generally chicken out, like here, leaving an impression instead of a worthy comment.

Your reviews are brilliant & extremely worthy of meaningful comment.

Phillip Routh said...

Eugene - Excelsior indeed!
A fellow Shepherd fan - we're a rare breed.
He lives on in the movie, "A Christmas Story." I wish I could get some of the TV work he did for PBS. Wonderful stuff.
I will check out your book and the website.
Thanks for the tips and for dropping by.

Phillip Routh said...

j.m. - Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I think this project can best be used as a place to graze. The size is going to be overwhelming however I package it.
Maybe some would like to look only at those reviews that have an asterisk at the end (meaning I consider the books to be especially worthy).
Or you can put the name of an author in the blog search and see what comes up for him/her.
You use the word "inspired."
I hope some reviews inspire some people to read some of the books. Especially the obscure titles - works of excellence that have been forgotten (or never fully appreciated when they were published).