“The Doubter’s Companion” by John Ralston Saul


By Ray Sawhill

The Canadian writer John Ralston Saul is an Enlightenment-style provocateur, a cosmopolitan anti-ideologue. Although not a household name in the United States, he’s a considerable figure in Canada and Europe, where his books — “Voltaire’s Bastards” (1992) is his best-known work here — are often best sellers. His new “The Doubter’s Companion” (Free Press) is an eccentric winner — a highly personal dictionary that’s really a compilation of short essays on topics from Air Conditioning to Zealot. He writes with vigor and thunder, firing off epigrams and bons mots. Deconstruction is “a school of light comedy,” orgasm “a workmanlike replacement for a religious experience.”

Readers are most likely to enjoy “The Doubter’s Companion” by opening it at random and following the highlighted connections. The ride almost always yields surprises. In an entry on Neoconservatives, Saul calls them “the Bolsheviks of the right”; in one on Marxists, he writes that “the only disagreement between the Neoconservatives and Marx is over who wins the battle in the end. This is a small detail.” He doesn’t shy from confrontation, either. “There is no convincing evidence,” he maintains in his entry on Voltaire, “that writers can do their job by being nice.”

There’s a fair amount of verbose harrumphing where there ought to be wit. And Saul — like such other freelance lone rangers as Robert Hughes, Paul Fussell, and Camille Paglia — can occasionally seem oblivious to the pleasures of present-day life. But the book is a remarkably thoroughgoing critique of folly, and the spectacle of Saul blasting away at the conventional wisdom of left and right alike has, in intellectual terms, something like the kick of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” Saul delivers the pleasures of a good argument.

© 1994 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Ishmael Reed


By Ray Sawhill

You don’t turn to Ishmael Reed’s fiction for fully-rounded characters in whose detailed and textured world you lose yourself only to re-emerge refreshed and renewed. You turn to it for zig-zaggy energy, iconoclastic brains, and freaky satire. Novels such as “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” and “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down” — if those titles make you smile, you’ll probably enjoy the books — are less likely to call to mind comparisons with “Middlemarch” than they are with “Krazy Kat,” R. Crumb, and “Richard Pryor Live in Concert.” They’re like underground comix for the literary audience.

Reed, perhaps the premier trickster figure of current American letters, is a whirlwind of industry and deviltry. He has written plays, as well as volumes of poems and essays, and has founded small magazines and a prize-awarding literary organization, the Before Columbus Foundation. Although generally well-reviewed, and turned to by the media for his reliably corrosive observations and commentary, he has seldom gotten the credit he has earned as a literary innovator. (It’s the fate of humorists not to receive the recognition they deserve for their achievements as technicians, let alone artists.) In “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972), for instance, Reed mixed up fictional and historical figures, and spliced newsreel and fantasy elements into his story lines, three years before E.L. Doctorow was lauded for doing similar things in the smoother and more polished “Ragtime.”

Usually at his best in short bursts of invention and ridicule, Reed may be more valuable as a provocateur than for any of his individual works, some of which are reminders of how exhausting and antic ’60s-style writing can be. And recently his attitudes have taken a more earnest, and more predictably multicultural, turn than his fans might prefer. (It’s a lot more fun watching Reed go nuts than it is learning what he actually believes.) But when he’s on his game, no writer has been better at conveying how crazy, man, crazy our racial jambalaya can render a soul. His most sustained performance, and the best place to start, is “Escape to Canada,” in which he plays harlequin changes on the traditional slave narrative.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.

“Pubis Angelica” by Manuel Puig

By Ray Sawhill

Manuel Puig, the Argentine author best known for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” writes novels that contrast the cramped lives people lead with the extravagant worlds they fantasize. A bitter romantic, he’s a fan of classic Hollywood schlock, and his theme is the attraction and impossibility of romance. He can’t get ideal love out of his head, and he can’t forget that it doesn’t really exist. When he recounts a character’s movie-fed memory or dream, his words seem to issue from an ecstatic trance. He takes off from kitsch into something almost visionary, and makes us understand the lure of Dream Factory illusions. When Puig is at his peak — in “Kiss,” “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” and “Heartbreak Tango,” and in sections of his newly translated “Pubis Angelical” (translated by Elena Brunet; Vintage) — his cracked, intense lyricism is in a class with that of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

“Pubis Angelical” is like a jangled parody of a Hollywood weepie. A young woman being treated for a tumor awaits her doctor’s verdict and contends with a lover who wants her to participate in a kidnapping scheme. Sedated against pain, she slips into comalike states. The narrative alternates between her lucid periods and two ongoing reveries — one starring Hedy Lamarr, the other a sex surrogate. Puig tells the “real” story in a bare-bones style and recounts the hallucinations — in which his heroine’s deepest feelings play themselves out on a grand scale — in breathless, purple prose. The lush, piled-on sentences seem to change shape and take on their own life, like dream images: he describes “columns which widened little by little as they rose, suddenly to be transformed into the folds of the golden fabric wrapped around hips that continued into torsos of smiling women of gold, which, with extravagant humor, held up a golden ceiling with their coiffures of infinite curls.”

The novel has more intellectual machinery than it can support, and the framing story is dramatically immobile. But some of the episodes that take place in the heroine’s head can affect you as directly as music. And Puig’s whipped-cream prose in these passages has an absurd, touching overripeness that may remind you of the insides of gaudy movie palaces. Puig can make the pull of the ideal so hard to resist that he gets you wondering if the clichés of old Hollywood might really be the language of pure feeling.

© 1986 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages” by Manuel Puig

Author Manuel Puig

By Ray Sawhill

Manuel Puig’s new novel, “Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages” (Random House), is mostly a series of conversations between an empty shell and a sealed-off vault. The shell is named Ramirez. Once a union organizer in Argentina, he’s been imprisoned and tortured and has suffered a breakdown that’s erased virtually all his memories. A human-rights group has brought him, a blank slate at 74, to a New York City home for the aged. Larry, the vault, is an educated 36-year-old mess who’s making do with a miserable apartment, magazines retrieved from garbage cans, and much embittered Marxist and Freudian grumbling. Wheeling Ramirez through Greenwich Village is his sole source of income this winter. We eavesdrop on their talks.

Puig is a gifted mimic, and his writing has distinctive, lilting rhythms, so “Eternal Curse” skips right along; the two men’s persistent bobbing and pecking can be very funny. Eager to feed on someone else’s emotions and recollections, Ramirez goes after Larry, doing some shrewd doddering and asking question after question. Larry scolds and mocks the old man and, even as he doles out tales from his past, keeps the door to his emotions firmly shut. As Larry’s stories pile up, and as he decodes a diary Ramirez kept in prison (the novel takes its title from the diary’s first words), the two men’s histories merge and Puig’s intention becomes clear. The gap between fathers and sons, Puig is proclaiming, is so poisoned by male pride — by rivalry and disappointment — that it can never really be closed. Ramirez’s mind snapped when the guilt he felt about his son grew too painful; Larry still complains about his dad. The old man’s pursuit of Larry and Larry’s grudging indulgence of Ramirez are semiconscious attempts to atone — attempts that, given the bleakness of the novel’s design, are doomed to fail.

In his earlier novels, especially “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” and “Heartbreak Tango,” Puig showed his feeling for dreams and for their wreckage. To tell his stories, he used whatever came to hand — journals, scraps of conversations, questionnaires, police-blotter records — and he got so far into some of his characters that their sorrow, generosity and terror seemed very pure. As long as an action, no matter how horrible, had its origins in a fantasy of romance, Puig seemed capable of forgiving and understanding; his empathy was lyrical and quick. Intelligent as “Eternal Curse” is, it has little of Puig’s magic; a wind cold enough to make a skeleton shiver whistles through these pages. Puig is in exile from his native Argentina, and this is the first book he has written directly in English. Still, it does seem awfully wrongheaded for a man deeply convinced that life moves on waves of desire and regret to prop a novel on two characters who won’t budge an inch.

© 1982 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Blues Up and Down” by Tom Piazza, and “Blue: The Murder of Jazz” by Eric Nisenson


By Ray Sawhill

A collection of a writer’s short nonfiction — what in the 18th century was called a miscellany — can be a ragtag thing. It can also be a showcase for the writer’s mind, freed from the effort to make statements for the ages and unbothered with self-consciousness. Even a so-so collection will feature a variety of subjects and attacks, and is likely to have a little of the rowdiness and informality that some readers treasure in 18th century essays.

Which is by way of giving a hand to St. Martin’s Press for bringing out Tom Piazza’s peppery, bristling “Blues Up and Down.” In more freewheeling times, it wasn’t unusual for a major publishing house to release such a collection; in these concept-is-all days, the unkempt miscellany is a rarity, and the streamlined, one-idea theme book is the rage. Piazza’s new book is an inspired grab-bag of features, reviews and profiles that for the most part makes sense of the advent of neotraditionalism in jazz.

What does it mean that young musicians are mastering old arrangements? Does “classic” have to mean “lifeless?” Piazza is exploring territory opened up by Albert Murray in “Stomping the Blues,” and he often takes as his antagonist jazz writers who maintain that jazz is freedom, man, it’s self-expression, the unconscious and the revolutionary. To Piazza, that kind of thinking isn’t just sentimental, it’s one of the reasons why jazz ran into one dead end after another in the ’60s and ’70s.

He tosses off ear-and-brain openers at an exciting rate. On one page comes a throwaway descriptive dazzler — a reference to “the slowly exfoliating logic” of a Thelonious Monk performance. On another is an inspired summing-up passage: “The evolution that was needed at the point when [Wynton] Marsalis came along was not the imagining of a new solo style, but was rather a reimagining both of the nature of ensemble playing and of jazz’s place in the culture as a whole — a reimagining of context.” This is useful in explaining why the ensemble playing of the neotraditionalists is often more convincing than their solo work. Taking on where-are-the-brilliant-new-innovators objections, he makes the often forgotten but essential point that when such legends as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were at their peak, “The language itself was healthy and widely practiced.” (Critics writing for the ages aren’t likely to make such bold and entertainingly provocative assertions.) If you’re one of those people who find Wynton Marsalis cold and reactionary, Piazza’s profile of him may change your mind.

Trying to make a virtue of a mistake — signing up two books that concern the same subject but argue opposing points of view — St. Martin’s is releasing on the same day as Piazza’s book Eric Nisenson’s “Blue: The Murder of Jazz.” Nisenson agrees with Piazza that, with free jazz and fusion, jazz ran itself into a cul-de-sac. For Nisenson, though, it’s the neotraditionalist response that spells the death of jazz; this is a theme book, and that’s Nisenson’s theme. A good attack on Marsalis could conceivably be made, but Nisenson’s argument runs out of gas a quarter of the way in, and he offers only a few pages on the performers he does enjoy. His language — that of a well-meaning, beleaguered social-studies teacher — doesn’t exactly stir the reader’s blood: “Armstrong, needless to say, was a man deeply affected by the society in which he lived and his own hopes and dreams for that society.”

Nisenson is one of the “jazz is freedom” guys, and he doesn’t want to see jazz defined, let alone redefined; Piazza is convincing when he writes that, for such writers, jazz isn’t “something objective to be loved and studied … but an occasion for total immersion in purely subjective affect.” Weighed down by his theme and his one drippy idea, Nisenson seems punch-drunk from the opening bell. Piazza — loose, quick and focused as he dances from one subject and idea to the next — wins round after round. I’d like to think that Piazza’s victory also represents a triumph for the miscellany over the theme book.

© 1997 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“Joe College” by Tom Perrotta


By Ray Sawhill

Tom Perrotta, the author of “Bad Haircut” and “The Wishbones,” is like an American Nick Hornby: companionable and humane, lighthearted and surprisingly touching. And with his new novel, “Joe College” (St. Martins), he has delivered another sweetheart. Danny, a New Jersey working-class boy at Yale circa 1980, finds himself both enchanted by a schoolmate and dodging calls from a hometown girlfriend. Spring break, and the inevitable crisis, loom.

There may never have been a more unassumingly winning treatment of a young man’s divided loyalties. Danny shares an ease with his old Jersey friends, yet many of them are already going to seed. He values the intellectual rapport he has with his Ivy League chums, yet they’re bafflingly high-strung creatures. And why, these days, does he find himself so often acting like a rat? “I hadn’t been this way before college, I was sure of it,” he reflects. Perrotta has established a slightly befogged comic landscape that’s his alone, though fans of such quirky indie films as “Chasing Amy” and “Dazed and Confused” will feel right at home too.

© 2000 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Wishbones” by Tom Perrotta


By Ray Sawhill

We’ve seen all too much fiction that treats our supposedly postmodern woes — family “dysfunction,” men who won’t grow up, etc. — in solemnly self important tones. Finally, here’s a novel that takes a look at these subjects and does so comically and open-endedly. Tom Perrotta’s “The Wishbones” (Putnam) is like an early Jonathan Demme movie — low key, fond of American forms of eccentricity, and peopled by loony self starters.

It’s basically a scuffed-up romantic comedy. Dave is 31 and still rooms with his parents in their suburban New Jersey home. He’s had the same girlfriend, Julie, for 15 years, and he lives for his weekends playing guitar in a rock band; the big time may have happened to someone else, and the Wishbones may perform mostly for wedding receptions, but Dave still thinks of himself as a rock musician. One night, he almost unintentionally suggests to Julie that they finally get married. She accepts delightedly, then says exactly the wrong words: “there are other things in life besides playing music” — ie., she wants him to herself on Saturday nights. As the wedding preparations proceed, Dave’s life takes a nosedive. A d.j. who spins discs at parties starts to underprice the local bands. Dave stumbles into an affair with a Downtown poet; she has her own troubles. When one of the women he’s made unhappy tells him not to talk to her anymore because “It just makes it worse,” Perrotta writes: “Dave knew better than to ask her to clarify her pronouns.”

Perrotta sets the novel in a landscape of pizza joints, cloverleafs, and chain motels. His characters, their brains equally innocent of zoning laws, are resourceful and animated, and they keep revealing unexpected sides. A guy Dave imagines to be his nemesis turns out to be smart and likable; banal, sweetly bourgeois Julie adores the song “Cocaine.” Perrotta’s special comic tone is slow-burning, rueful acceptance. When Dave anxiously asks an older buddy about being a married man, the buddy says: “I got a house, a wife and kids, and a job that doesn’t make me want to buy a gun and go wreak havoc at the mall. I get to play music on the weekends and drink a couple of beers every once in a while. Things could be worse, Daverino.”

Perrotta may work as a creative writing teacher at Harvard, but he isn’t above doing some actual research; the wedding-reception and wedding-band lore he supplies add a lot to the book’s lived-in texture. And if no-win predicaments keep coming at Dave from out of nowhere, so do happy surprises. One night, drunk and pleased with life, Julie tugs open Dave’s belt. “In the whole pantheon of sex,” Dave reflects, “almost nothing beat a blow job when you least expected it.” “The Wishbones” is a hybrid of the rhymed and the unplanned — a small-scale comedy of accomodation and unresolution that’s full of loopiness and warmth. Like “Bad Haircut,” Perrotta’s 1994 collection of stories, it’s a minor work but a major pleasure.

©1997 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“A Better Class of Person” by John Osborne


By Ray Sawhill

John Osborne’s store of grudges is vast. In his exuberantly bitter “Look Back in Anger,” the 1956 play that gave the staid British theater a kick in the pants, he let fly at what seemed like just about everything: the British Empire, noisy neighbors, boring Sundays. Now, in “A Better Class of Person” (Dutton), his first volume of autobiography, Osborne tears into his mother, relatives, and associates with a fist-swinging vengeance that makes Brooke Hayward’s “Haywire” look like a valentine. The result is a jolly, mean, exultant book.

Osborne has an explosive gift for denunciation and invective, and what he’s written is — deliberately, nakedly — a tantrum. Disguised bile turned the studiously dispassionate “Haywire” sour; bile, straight, is to Osborne high-octane fuel. He can blow meanness and pettiness up so large that they acquire a looming majesty and a spacious, dreamlike sensuality, like a slow-motion movie scene. His relish can be so palpable that you share his enjoyment of the dynamics of rage.

For its first half, the book is a horror story about a boy at war with his mother. (His sweet-natured father, whom he adored, died young.) Like some fairy-tale ogre, Osborne’s barmaid mother — he calls her Nellie Beatrice — scrubbed and washed as if hoping to eradicate all signs of life. “She talked about germs,” Osborne writes, “always as if they were like ants that could be made to writhe in a miserable death, gasping on their backs, in the cauldrons of her fortress home.” The one activity that afforded her furious soul passing relief was packing and moving; Osborne guesses she uprooted her little family — he was an only child — more than 30 times during the seventeen years he lived with her. Nellie Beatrice “liked the drudgery of moving for its own sake,” he explains.

He found no solace with relatives. His mother’s working-class family snarled and gnawed at each other. His father’s prissy, grim mother — a suburban order freak — hectored people and emotions into line with thin smiles and sharp little intakes of breath, daring even to sneer loftily at Nellie Beatrice. (That Scourge of Filth secured her revenge years later, when she planted the old lady in a nursing home.) Writes Osborne: “Comfort in the discomfort of others was an abiding family recreation.”

Sickly with rheumatic fever, Osborne gritted his teeth through a childhood of convalescences, playground bullies, and boarding school. Then he found work as an assistant stage manager and discovered the theater. The gypsy atmosphere unbridled him. He wrote his first plays, dumped a hopelessly middle-class fiancée and formed a troupe of his own. Not yet 21, he capped his season by starring in a scenery-chewing “Hamlet.” He married an actress, lost her to a dentist who had pulled two of his teeth, and wrote “Look Back in Anger” in just over a month. The book ends with the purchase of an option on the play by the English Stage Company for 25 pounds.

Lazy disdain mars this memoir’s last chapters, which are hurried and sketchy, and the unwritten next volume casts a shadow. The plays Osborne has written since the nightmarish, desolate “Inadmissible Evidence” (1964) have been little more than dismissive shrugs, and his defensiveness about this work gives sections of “A Better Class of Person” a beleaguered tone. But the story of his embrace of the theater has the fascination of accounts of wild boys taken from wolves to live in town, and his most bilious passages, as in his great plays, seem to erupt in your own mind. When John Osborne’s blood is up, he can make outrageous unfairness seem a bizarre state of grace.

© 1981 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Time and Tide” by Edna O’Brien


By Ray Sawhill

“Time and Tide” (Farrar Straus Giroux), the Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s 11th novel, is her harshest yet most beautiful work. She has a touchy, rich theme: the sexuality of the bond between mothers and sons. In D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” this was seen from the son’s point of view; here, it’s seen from the mother’s. O’Brien’s heroine, Nell, has fled her Irish country upbringing, moved to England and married a stern, angry man. In the course of the novel, she leaves her marriage and finds her way among the constricted English.

A lusciously indulgent mother, she looks to her two sons for a kind of enduring entanglement they can’t give her once they’re no longer small children. She “let them get away with murder … they were her stronghold.” The boys adore her yet finally have to shut her off. You sense how distraught this makes Nell, and experience her feelings and needs while registering how she drives people from her. Even after her sons go to boarding school and she has romances and adventures of her own, the boys are the center of her life; she covets their approval like an anxious lover. O’Brien brings together the earthy and the delicately poetic: she has the soul of Molly Bloom and the skills of Virginia Woolf.

© 1992 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.