Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Irving Wallace

After all that highbrow stuff I thought it was time for something decidedly trashy. At first glance it would be harder to get trashier than Irving Wallace – take a look at that picture of The Fan Club and you’ll see what I mean.

But actually, Wallace is kind of dull. This is the odd part about trash – a lot of it isn’t nearly as trashy as it could be, or should be. People really need to get their priorities straight: nobody wants to read something like The Chapman Report to really learn about the academic study of sex. People want to read these things for the lurid details.

That seems painfully obvious to me, although somehow people have missed it along the way. I think there are aspirational issues here: nobody wants to be the sordid smut purveyor, apparently. Even though he provides a humble but real service, while the boring guy trying to make something more out of it is just, well, boring.

I picked four novels from him: somehow it’s impossible to find a copy of The Seven Minutes cheaply, or I would’ve picked that up, too. I think I hit the high spots: Wallace’s dalliances with pre Dan Brown Christian Conspiracies in The Word didn’t interest me, nor his attempt to hook up to the Watergate Conspiracy bandwagon with The R Document. I have fond memories of The Second Lady, which I read when I was an impressionable teenager – it’s a ridiculous spy story where the First Lady is replaced by the Commies with her identical copy, and features a lot of First Lady sex. Probably best that be left a hazy, warm memory, though. After Barbara Bush, no one wants to think about that.

The Chapman Report is roughly based on Kinsey: a sex researcher (or sexologist or whatever ridiculous term they’ve coined for themselves nowadays) goes to an American suburban town to report on what the housewives are doing behind closed doors. Much talk talk talktalktalktalk. Not enough sex. A touchingly naïve belief in the therapeutic power of The Orgasm in between all the talktalktalktalktalk. Really dull.

The Prize – A bunch of ridiculously hot-to-trot Nobel Prize winners have a bunch of ridiculous adventures prior to claiming their prize. Absurd premise might be fun, but it's weighed down with a lot of dreary lectures describing the history of a prize nobody gives a shit about anymore. Avoid.

The Man – through a miracle of screwed-uppedness, somehow an African-American becomes President. Enormous bestseller is truly a case for the existence of God, as it would not have been nearly so successful if it hadn’t appeared in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights era. I rather like Drury’s Advise and Consent, but he has a lot to answer for, as his novel inspired a ton of dull imitators, including this one. And at least Drury understood Washington, whereas I have no feeling Wallace does.

The Fan Club – This was the most interesting of the batch Its also not a very good book, but I’ll explain why it’s interesting before I explain why it’s not very good.

The novel details a plan by four “average American males” to kidnap and repeatedly force their attentions on a sexpot movie actress who they all idealize. They actually accomplish their aims, and the rest of the book describes the mind games the woman plays with the men and vice versa., before she finally escapes.

This is actually a very interesting idea, and in the hands of the right writer – I’m thinking Hollenbecq – one could use it to have a lot to say about masculinity in the post-Sixties age, the was sex has become commodified, the morality of love, inequities, etc. Tart it up a bit – make her a porno actress, say – and you can imagine Martin Amis giving it a go, too.

Unfortunately there’s a lot lacking in the execution. The men are a little too obviously types. Wallace indulges repeatedly in his unfortunate penchant for speechifying. The book resolves itself into a standard genre thriller, in the most banal kind of way, whereas the setup cries out for a heavy French “Eeet is soo meaningless” kind of vibe.

So not good either. But somebody should take another crack at this idea.

Here's the wiki on Wallace:


Dig that cover for Fan Club reproduced there. You want to know what the Seventies were all about in publishing? That's what it was.

Here's the kirjasto piece, rather more literate, although rather more kind than Wallace than probably makes sense:


You can also see Wallace's grave online somewhere, although my slow connection can't load it properly.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Irwin Shaw -- Information

Here's the kirjasto piece:


It's basically the party line on Shaw: esteemed, not much read nowadays. Personally I think Shaw would've preferred to be a little less revered and a little more read.

Look, I'm not saying Shaw's short stories are bad. They're well crafted, esteemable attempts at what he tried to do. I just don't think his goals were that interesting. "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is a well wrought, even fussily wrought, piece of nothing, ultimately.

Speaking of "Girls", if you google Shaw you'll find a link to read that story online. I have my doubts the Shaw estate knows and approves, hence my not including the link. But in the interest of the free flow of information and all that.

Here's a tedious review of Five Decades. Hackwriters indeed:


Mr. Schneider alternates between plot summaries and the usual airy nothings that get written about this kind of fiction. See? This is where non-engagement ultimately takes you.

The Paris Review is very nicely putting out all of their old interviews online for free. Here's the Shaw one:


He comes across quite nicely, in a humorously curmudgeonly kind of way. Outside of the no-doubt inevitable romanticization of his past, I thought he had a lot of wise things to say about writers and failure, writers and success, how one thinks about writing. He's also (unusually) wise about his own writing -- I quite agree, Shaw is anything but a moralist. Miss that and you miss him completely.

And finally, the best is saved for last. I introduce you trembingly to the great Ramesh Avadhani, who's living and loving it up in Bangalore India.


I think this is going to be a regular stop for me from here on out.

Irwin Shaw Part Two

Shaw wrote a lot of novels, and I’ve read a few of ‘em: The Top of the Hill, Two Weeks in Another Town, part of Acceptable Losses. None of them were especially good, and really it doesn’t matter, because the two novels Shaw is known for are The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man.

A writer like Shaw generally shines when he’s given a prefab storyline: all of the nuts and bolts of plot development are pretty much a given, and he has the freedom to display his gifts in the best possible light. So a big World War Two novel from him seems in retrospect really like a given, and I would venture to say The Young Lions is one of the better of that group.

You may have seen the movie, during one of its interminable plays on American Movie Classics, during the days when it actually was a decent station. The book, a sprawling epic, follows three men throughout the war: one an idealistic German who’s gradually corrupted by Nazism; an earnest, idealistic young Jew; and a cynical entertainer who sees the war as a kind of redemption.

I think this is mostly a pretty good book. The Nazi sections are exceptionally good: as was always the case with Shaw, the emotional distance seems to have done something for him aesthetically: I truly think this is one of the better portrayals of a Nazi in American fiction. Christian (the irony is a little heavy) starts out the war as a Nazi, but also as an idealistic young man who sees in Fascism some kind of hope for his country. By the end of the story he’s a war-ravaged mess, given over soley to killing. James Salter, who was always a sap, got it exactly wrong: the real emotional crescendo of the book isn’t Noah’s (the saint manqué ‘s) death, it’s Christian’s exhausted flashback, for a second, to the man he once was. I just reread it again, and it still packs a punch.

The second storyline – Noah’s – and the third storyline – Michael’s – aren’t as powerful, but both have their moments. I get a little sick of Shaw’s ridiculous Heroic Ethnic Jew, but despite that some of the early basic training sections of Noah’s have their moment. Shaw also gives us a glimpse of his pop potential: it’s important to understand Young Lions was not originally thought of in those terms (and still isn’t, hence the U Chicago reprint and Salter’s intro.), but the romance here is sentimental. In a good, satisfying sort of way. I also like some of Michael’s early scenes which showcases very wisely the ambivalent posture of the leisure classes in America before the advent of the War.

Shaw’s reliance on the “true plot” of WW Two carries him through most of the rough stuff – with, again, Christian’s sections packing the most punch. The book falls apart near the final quarter, when the plot demands suddenly slam down hard on the narrative. This, I think, tends to be an abiding weakness with writers of this sort: they’re unfamiliar with plot, and so when they have to exercise it they overcompensate. Marquand, who slogged along for many years in the pulp underground, would never have gotten so heavy-handed at the climax.

So not perfect. An unfamiliarity with plot and a curious reluctance to fully commit to the most interesting character of the book (this book would’ve been much improved if it had centered on Christian), is a problem. But it mostly works, and allows Shaw to show off his talent for minature scenes while pairing them up against a storyline of real power and import, the kind of thing I think his short fiction too often lacks.

Rich Man, Poor Man was Shaw’s big hit: it was one of the first mini-series (maybe the first) with Nick Nolte and I think Peter Strauss. I don’t remember watching it, a tad before my time, but I vaguely remember the ads. It’s a popular take on that old standby, the sweeping family saga – we watch our family as their destiny ebbs and flows through the years.

The book has the same basic flaws that The Young Lions had, but worse. Whereas Lions only really fell apart in the final quarter or so, I’d say Rich Man's second half is mostly pretty shabby all around. Family sagas aren’t interesting in and of themselves, you know, except maybe to the participants concerned. They’re only interesting if they actually do something interesting, and while Shaw gives it the old college go, he’s not a good enough plotter to make the second half of Rich Man interesting. (A lot of things happen, but none of it has a lot of weight. It’s a lot of incidents strung together – here we see Shaw’s primary weakness of writing in minature.) It’s a strangely dull book, for all of the contrivances these poor saps fall into.

There’s also a curious unwillingness to fully explore the unpleasant characters: the two most interesting of ‘em are the father and the “bad” son, but the father dies off quickly and the bad son gets more complicated and less interesting as time goes on, and we spend too much time on the dreadfully dull, self-involved sister.

Some of the early sections do work, especially the “bad’ son’s odd semi-incestuous class rage on discovering his sister’s dalliance with the local richboy lush, and the father’s death, which has a genuine grim kind of power. But there’s better stuff out there than this shambling failure.

I am curious about the mini-series, though.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Irwin Shaw

When I was talking about John P. Marquand, I was talking about “directed” writers, writers who are looking to tell the reader something, who sit down not just with pen and paper, but with a definite theme in mind. I contrasted that with “non-directed” writers, who care more about the other aspects of fiction: characterization, scene-setting, and the like. Yes, admittedly this division is somewhat arbitrary, but people who read a lot know what I mean. It’s not hard to tell the difference.

It’s not a value judgement, though it might seem that way at first glance. Yes, I guess all things being equal I would prefer to see writers who care about the art of fiction, not a message. There’s nothing entertaining about somebody preaching to you. But it’s very easy to think of great writers who were “directed”, and lousy writers who were not. And it should be said that at least a directed writer isn’t going to waste your time. Good, bad, or indifferent, you’re at least sitting down and standing back up and something’s been accomplished in the interim. Whereas non-directed writers, the one’s who suck, anyway, do tend to make one weep out of tedium.

Irwin Shaw is a good example of a non-directed writer. He had real talents, but they tended to be in minature – it’s not a surprise that to the extent he’s remembered at all nowadays he’s remembered as a short story writer. His novels tend to fall apart, especially when the plot demands kick in. Yet he grew rich and famous off of these books: Rich Man, Poor Man was the source material for one of the earliest mini-series. Unlike Marquand, who’s success I still see as something of a puzzle, it’s not hard to understand why Shaw became famous. People love big books you can just drop into and disappear. I do, anyway.

But for now the short stories. Are they any good? Well, do you like the typical sort of New Yorker short story? The one where all the action is revolved around a kind of epiphany for the main character? Shaw’s stories all tend to follow that formula. I personally am skeptical of that kind of story, mainly because for it to work the writer has to really have an observant take on the human condition, and Shaw doesn’t strike me as having anything especially important or interesting to relate. I read through the Five Decades collection and some themes do tend to repeat themselves: a mistaken notion that ethnic Judaism is in and of itself interesting; a mistaken notion that athletics, especially football, have something to say about the human struggle; a notion that defeat lies in the heart of even the happiest moment, which I guess is true more or less but seems rather banal to me.

They’re not badly written by any means. They’re smooth and they bop off the page nicely and the whole thing’s carefully crafted to showcase the epiphany in the best possible light. I just think it’s an uninteresting thing to try and do.

“The Eighty Yard Run” is probably his most famous story: A football hero has the highlight of his moment in a big college game and it all goes downhill from there. Every painful moment of his slide is carefully and painstakingly presented, with every last bit of empathy carefully wrung out of the situation, but in the end it all seems pretty meaningless to me. Nobody’s on top forever – this is profound how, exactly? It doesn’t help that our protagonist is so unlikable at the start of the story: One spends one's time sort of hoping the guy would fall, and fall hard, just to get that smug self-assurance off of his face.

(One of Shaw’s peculiarities is that he’s rather better at writing unsympathetic characters than ones he obviously feels something for. We’ll touch on this later with The Young Lions, but for now I’d like to point out that he obviously clearly identifies with his faded sports hero, and seems to take for granted a kind of identification that in fact he needs to earn.)

Shaw did write one short story that I really like, and would recommend to anybody. In “Sailor off the Bremen”, a group of men and a woman take a violent revenge on a sailor who had seriously wounded one of theirs. It is more Hemingwayesque in tone than many of his others, and all the better for that . But more, it transforms Shaw’s general feelings about the endless cycle of pain and loss in life into something active. It’s always better when you can dramatize a feeling, rather than crystallize it into an epiphany. Stories should flow, move. “Bremen” is also worthwhile for showcasing one thing that Shaw does very well: writing about violence and its effect on men. This was something Shaw understood first hand.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Short Takes: A. J. Cronin's THE CITADEL

A. J. Cronin was one of those writers that your grandmother might've read, assuming she read anything, of course. A testament to the ephemerality of fame, he was once an extremely well-known writer with a bunch of best sellers and sales to the movies. Now nobody really reads him anymore, although a Catholic press is trying to resurrect The Keys to the Kingdom. I have my doubts, but hey, who knows.

I probably should've gone with Keys, as it's First Things recommending them and they're more right than wrong, typically. Instead I went with The Citadel, which was the only one of his I ever heard of, mainly because years and years ago Masterpiece Theater did an adaptation of it, with Ben Cross as the upwardly striving Dr. Manson.

(Back in the day, boys and girls, Cross was a well-known actor, with Chariots of Fire just behind him and the world at his feet. Now no one remembers who he is, either. Lord, this whole post is an object lesson, huh?)

Cronin's book is a quiet melodrama-cum-social protest novel, as we follow Manson starting out his practice in a repressive Welsh mining town, faces ignorance and prejudice, fights nobly for scientific advancement, suffers nobly, almost loses his soul to Mammon but recovers just at the brink...only to punished and vindicated within a few pages of each other at the climax.

It's pretty blah. Although rather better written than later examples of its type, like most novels of its type it gets pretty shrill in spots. The kind of book where people stand up and give self-conscious speeches Expressing The Point.

You'll be able to predict the twists and the turns of the thing rather easily, too, and the poor things that are done to the long-suffering wife in order to fulfill Cronin's Grand Plan makes me weep for the fate of such doomed cardboard characters.

It's not an awful book: Cronin had a certain degree of literacy that later popular writers mining this lode didn't, and it shows -- the style burbles along well and it isn't insulting to read. He's particularly good with sketches of the Welsh countryside and the small incidents of a doctor's life. I've encountered worse.

Here's the First Things piece on Keys:


I dunno. I respect First Things, it's an intelligent publication, but this seems like a case of special pleading to me. Still, adventurous souls can check it out. I think the notion of Cronin as a skillful hack is essentially right on the money.

Here's the wiki:


Our man looks pretty dashing here, I think. Like a young Richard Attenborough.

And here's the always literate kirjasto entry: