Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Disenchanted – Budd Schulberg
When he was in his early twenties Schulberg accompanied F. Scott Fitzgerald on a trip to Dartmouth, where they were to get background material for a film entitled Winter Carnival. He writes about this episode in The Four Seasons of Success. The Disenchanted, written twenty-two years before Seasons, is a fictional account of the same trip; the once-famous and glamorous author is Manley Halliday, the young man accompanying him is Shep, and the script they’re working on is Love on Ice. This big, sprawling novel follows Halliday’s descent into an alcoholic binge of hellish proportions. But while we witness his harrowing dissolution, we also see him, through his memories, in his glory years, when he and his wife Jere frolicked about in a world that was their oyster. The scenes of the past aren’t as strong as the hard-edged ones in the present; the depiction of Victor Milgrim, the Hollywood producer, is devastatingly spot-on, and Manley’s futile efforts to do hack work are painfully funny. How could, one wonders, the Manley who observes the people around him with such clear-sightedness be unable to recognize that the life of the Madcap Hallidays was a frivolous squandering, and that the magical Jere was a co-conspirator in his destruction? Actually, he understands all that; he simply chooses to hold onto a gilded past, even if it’s mythical. He has no feeling for the present day Jere, stripped of her beauty and glamour (he sees her as “a carping, middle-aged imposter”). Nor is he, in the here-and-now, able to appreciate Ann, who is exactly what he needs to survive; when he refers to her as his “Seeing-Eye Dog” I was appalled by his callousness. Often he appalled me. Yet he faces life with a combative insistence on his worth as a man and a writer, and this refusal to relinquish the tattered shreds of his dignity gives him a tragic aspect. Shep plays a role larger than the space he occupies on the pages. He finds himself intimately responsible for the burden of someone who’s bent on self-destruction. Though Shep responds at times with anger and disgust, he’s moved by what he witnesses and experiences. Since I felt the burden of Manley, I wondered about the effect this ordeal would have on a decent, caring young man. That issue is not explored, though the fact that Schulberg revisited the trip in his writing may indicate its impact. Also, the degree of the author’s involvement is evident at the end, when the prose gets excessively emotional. But this, like other faults, is understandable: Schulberg couldn’t be detached about a person he idolized. The clout this book delivers came at a price.

Butcher’s Moon – Donald Westlake (under pseudonym of Richard Stark)
The best parts are the ones in which we get sketches of secondary characters: “Adolph Lozini, at the wok, said, ‘The trouble with a lot of people is, they don’t understand about Chinese cooking.’ ” Trouble with this book is, I related better to Lozini than I did to the main character, a professional crook by the name of Parker. Lozini (the boss of the city of Tyler) is human; Parker is a machine of destruction. He engenders an automaton effect that the author may have been trying to offset by making his sidekick a pastiche of contradictory and colorful traits. Neither character came across as credible, and they’re on stage most of the time. When Parker recruits his criminal pals to come to Tyler to – I suppose – plunder it like the barbarians did Rome, I found this gathering of toughies to be fatally silly. As for fatalities, we get them in abundance; also, to keep true to the hard-boiled genre, Westlake throws in gruesome details (fingers are severed, etcetera). The dialogue is sharp and smart, but the action sequences didn’t come across (film may be the medium that can get that right). Westlake was a pro, a writer who produced work that sold, but for my tastes he set the bar too low. In the best crime novels – The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Asphalt Jungle – the reader can identify with flawed people caught up in moral dilemmas of their own making.

A Horse of Air – Dal Stivens
Laurence Sterne is the archetypical self-indulgent author; in Tristram Shandy the labyrinthine prose induces bafflement, and the book’s content is made up of a character’s outlandish and free-floating thoughts. Though Stivens writes lucidly, he joins ranks with the self-indulgers because he constructs things in a way that allows Harry Craddock free rein to carry on capriciously. Since what we’re reading is a memoir that Harry writes while confined in a mental hospital, there’s a built-in excuse for his bizarre musings. And because he’s wealthy he’s able (in the prior life he’s describing) to pursue to fruition any whim that pops into his head. There’s a pitfall that derails most works like this: what are we left with when the eccentricities lose their luster? In Horse we can’t fall back on feelings because Harry is merely a fabrication through which Stivens has been dispensing what he considers to be amusing and inventive incidentals. When Harry follows his passion and sets off into the wilds of central Australia to find the elusive (and perhaps non-existent) night parrot, I declined to join the expedition. So I never found out who Harry shoots. On the first page the psychiatrist says, “If you shot this strange man, you must know why.” Harry replies, “I often get impulses to do something outrageous. I don’t know why.”

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