Finding a Girl in America – Andre Dubus
Girls are easy to find for Hank Allison, professor at an upscale university; they’re sitting in his classroom, waiting to be plucked. In the title story, I lost count of them. I also lost respect for Dubus. If you’re an author and professor of literature, you can’t have a protagonist who’s an author and professor of literature and not expect the reader to see the work as autobiographical. I passed judgment on an individual who has affairs with girls fifteen years his junior. Dubus added to my alienation by subjecting me to smarmy sex scenes with all the thrusting details. I had started this collection in a positive frame of mind; I liked Dubus’s one novel, The Lieutenant. But the first four stories (before I got to “Girl”) were flawed by the author’s presence; I felt him showing off his all-embracing sensitivity. In two stories empathy is extended to killers. Here’s one contemplating his victim: “He felt her spirit everywhere, fog-like across the pond and the bridge, spreading and rising in silent weeping above him into the black visible night and the invisible space beyond his ken and the cold silver truth of the stars.” This excerpt is an example of panting prose; Dubus wants the reader to think, “God, that man can write!” But back to “Girl.” Dubus ennobles the affairs: they move Hank from “a need not only to give her more of what attracted her in the classroom” to his “passion to know all of her.” For sexual gratification he can’t turn to the women in the town who “thought Chekhov was something boys did in their beds at night.” He needs someone who, like him, loves literature. Needs: Hank has a lot of needs to fill; it’s a burden that can do a lot of damage to someone vulnerable. Most of the coeds he beds are far from paragons of virtue; if they’re budding writers they probably see sleeping with their published prof as a chance to advance their careers. But at the end of the story he has found his true love in Lori, who’s relatively innocent. I fear for the Loris who unwisely stray into the orbit of his neediness.
A Question of Upbringing – Anthony Powell
The burden this novel carries is that it’s the first of a nine volume undertaking called A Dance to the Music of Time. I couldn’t help wondering, “Do I want to spend a good part of my life reading about these people?” The answer, which came to me on page 150, was that I just wasn’t interested enough. Part of the problem is that the narrator is looking back at events that occurred in his late teens, and his older self exhibits little emotion; even when the word “love” is used it’s without animation. Not helping matters is the stately prose: “The fact that an incisive step of one sort or another had been taken by him in relation to Lady McReith was almost equally well revealed by something in the air when they spoke to each other: some definite affirmation which made matters, in any case, explicit enough.” It’s as if the author was writing while dressed in suit and tie (and maybe spats). This excerpt also illustrates Powell’s quirky use of the colon. Was he trying to set a world record? As an experiment, I just opened the book five times, at random, and every page had one or more colons. The fact that I was noticing punctuation is a bad sign. But I’m being hard on a work that deserves respect. Though it wasn’t my cup of tea, I realize that Powell’s opus would be a treat for others. They could snuggle down by the fireplace for a good long read; they could enjoy Powell’s intelligence and sly humor; they could follow his handful of characters until, I suppose, they become doddering old men. Enjoy away!
Too Many Clients – Rex Stout
This was written late in Stout’s career, and it shows an author merely going through the motions. Archie has lost his bounce, and the many women characters are hum-drum. Like Stout, I didn’t exert myself – I read this inattentively. If I had made an effort to solve the mystery I would have resented how Stout pulls a motive for murder out of thin air (Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention . . .). What makes the ending interesting is that Nero Wolfe once again gives the murderer the time and space to commit suicide.