“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.

“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.

“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.

“Nobody’s Angel” by Thomas McGuane


By Ray Sawhill

In his new novel, “Nobody’s Angel” (Random House), Thomas McGuane tries to get beneath the surface of hip nonchalance. His early books — “The Sporting Club,” “The Bushwhacked Piano,” and “Ninety-two in the Shade” — were literary stunts performed with an attitude of stoned obliviousness that gave them a mocking pizzazz. In their best passages, McGuane seemed to have perfected his own kind of aristocratic cool — evasive and laconic and loaded with crafty surprises. “Nobody’s Angel” is full of his usual pop-surreal situations and wacko characters, but it shows a new willingness to try to look them in the face; it represents an attempt to bring direct emotion into his fiction. If the novel doesn’t work, it’s because he doesn’t go far enough. When desperation and terror are demanded he manages to beckon forth only their pallid stand-ins: timidity and skittishness. The book seems abashed: apologetic, even repentant.

McGuane’s hero is Patrick Fitzpatrick, 36. Ex-juvenile delinquent, ex-prep-school student, ex-Army captain in Germany, where he chased Frauleins and raced his high-speed tank, he has suddenly been overcome by melancholy. Time to grow up, he decides: “By your late thirties the ground has begun to grow hard. It grows harder and harder until the day that it admits you.” He returns to his family’s Montana ranch, and what he has so diligently avoided all these years — grief, guilt, remorse, pain — catches up with him.

Patrick tends his grandfather, a dotty cowpoke, and his loony sister, and feels exhausted, depleted, bewildered; he’s afflicted with what McGuane calls “sadness-for-no-reason.” He has the side-stepping, wise-guy reflexes of a McGuane hero built into his system, but it has come to the point where they rather appall him. Self-consciousness has him in a stranglehold. Under the vastness of the Western sky, Patrick indulges his taste for wistful reverie, consoles himself with booze and waits for a new, more congenial value system to descend upon him. At a party he meets Claire, a young Oklahoma woman who’s beautiful, oil-rich and married. The action moves between Patrick’s attempts to keep his family and ranch shipshape and his struggle to find the emotional wherewithal to woo and conquer Claire.

McGuane gives Patrick plenty of reasons to feel bad, but he hasn’t located and released his hero’s latent energy; the awful, lurking rage of true misery is missing. If you’re going to show a burnt-out case reviving his flame, giving him some fuel doesn’t hurt: remember the Bill Murray comedy “Stripes”? But McGuane wears his literary skills like a surgeon’s mask — Patrick seems anesthetized by the fastidious wordplay. So a vexing question hovers over much of the book: why should a honey-haired dream like Claire bother with a morose loser like Patrick? Even his desire for her seems willed. And McGuane’s writing gets wispy and precious when he lets the couple make love; the sex they have is so hushed and reverent it would go unnoticed in a church. Readers with a horror of sappiness know enough to run for the hills when a put-on artist tries in all sincerity to be sincere, especially about love.

©1982 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Slapboxing With Jesus” by Victor D. LaValle


By Ray Sawhill

Victor D. LaValle has the kind of talent and energy that would make him a star in almost any writing workshop. Your reaction to his first collection of stories, though, is likely to depend on your reaction to his ambition for it, which appears to be to make the book approximate an hour or two of hip-hop videos.

The stories are grouped in two sections, both as portentously titled as the book itself. The first, “The Autobiography of New York Today,” offers a mini-panorama of the city and has the more extreme subject matter: a hustler eager to change his life, a young man obsessed with his ugliness. The stories in the second section, “One Boy’s Beginnings,” are more familiar: a long-absent father makes awkward attempts at conversation with his son; some bullies steal a kid’s bike.

LaValle’s writing, full of peculiarities of punctuation and phrasing, creates effects impressively close to the scratch-and-sample effects of rap; he has devised all kinds of ways of forcing the eye and mind to skip, stutter and retrace themselves. A case could be made that LaValle has found a way to give linguistic form to the brain patterns of media-soaked, post-PC street youth.

But readers less taken by the idea that literature should come out of a boombox are likely find the book tediously juvenile: full of attitude and posturing, tough/vulnerable in an overly familiar way and top-heavy with edgy production values.

© 1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

Raymond Carver


By Ray Sawhill

Writing in the 1960s was generally a matter of exuberance, insolence, drugs, and experimentation. Raymond Carver, who began publishing his terse short stories in the 1970s, helped bring fiction back to small facts, won with difficulty and painfully expressed. As he became better known, readers grew familiar with “Carver people” — aimless and bewildered blue-collar souls between marriages and between jobs — and “Carver’s world” — all stray ends, polluted streams, and rooms rented from widows. He was celebrated as the leader of a school of “minimalist” fiction, and was often described as America’s Chekhov, delivering not the corniness of mere stories but the real stuff itself: what comes between stories. For a few years, talk was abroad of a Carver-led short-story renaissance. By the time he died — at the age of 50, in 1988 — he was probably the most influential literary writer in the country.

Though he didn’t hide from the press, Carver became as mythical a figure as Salinger or Pynchon. He had worked at dead-end jobs, he was an alcoholic, and he smoked too much, too; lung cancer was what finally killed him. In photos, he didn’t look like a writer, he looked like a laborer — so, for some, he became a saint of authenticity, telling us the straight dope about stunted, one-day-at-a-time lives. The fact that he kept to short forms (essays, poems, stories) enhanced the myth: such brutal honesty about such hard truths could hardly be asked to fill out looser forms. He was so securely canonized that by 1993, when the filmmaker Robert Altman was publicizing “Short Cuts,” his adaptation of a number of Carver stories, he did so in the company of Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, and spoke often about his feelings of inadequacy in the face of his material.

Some of the stories do have an ugly power. If you’re in the mood for a downer, “The Calm” and “So Much Water So Close to Home” should hit the spot. And Carver’s touch with humor — particularly of a sad-one-moment, pugnacious-the-next, headed-nowhere-fast kind — is usually skillful. But most of his writing is mannered. The repetitions signifying a stumbling exasperation (“Will you please be quiet, please?”), the sentences that start on a high note only to give way beneath you, the foot-dragging rhythms, those not-an-epiphany epiphanies … It gets to seem mighty gimmicky mighty fast.

And since he repeatedly said that he wanted to be thought of as a realist, not a minimalist, maybe we should ask: who are these “Carver people” who do nothing but brood, drink, and watch their lives fall apart? For his fans, of course, Carver nailed the essence of loser America. But if you strip people from any class of their pride and energy, it’s inevitable you’ll be left with little but despair. It’s hard not to find his work monotonous and bathetic: all that booze, all those cigarettes and lonely failures to connect, that tenderly-highlighted inarticulateness. Carver flattens out his characters and their lives, then invites us to admire how humane and truthful he’s being. Story after story wants to do little, finally, but wipe you out and make you feel desolate — to give you a good, long look at the raw nothingness of it all.

How then to explain his reputation? It may be that, for writing students, Carver’s (easily mimicked) approach suggested a quick way to achieve the appearance of heavy truth. A little misery here, a broken family there, an awkward attempt at god knows what before all dissolves into entropy once again — voila, Insta-Depth. And for readers? My guess is that, for some of them, “literature” is a kind of faith always in danger of succumbing to evil forces (mammon, vulgarity, indifference). For such readers, Carver’s stories-which, if you buy into them, have an aura of misery reluctantly illuminated by shafts of radiance — can be occasions for worship and prayer, religious services for those still hoping for redemption by art.

The Carver myth of course wasn’t Carver’s fault. He did indeed grow up working-class, and he did know tobacco and alcohol all too intimately. But by his own account he was a bookish, sensitive guy who had wanted to be a fiction writer from his teens. He studied writing at a number of colleges, did a stint at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and spent much of his life as a teacher of creative writing. He worked closely (as the journalist Dan Max has shown) with the editor Gordon Lish on shaping his early stories for maximum lit-world impact, and won many big-deal prizes and grants. We might do better, in other words, to remember him as a writer, not an oppressed hod carrier, and as one who did remarkably well for himself.

The easiest way to sample Carver is to pick up “Where I’m Calling From,” an anthology of the stories he considered his best. If you want to explore further, try the individual collections. His early stories, gathered in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1976) and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981) have a menacing, off-balance feel. The later ones, collected mainly in “Cathedral” (1984), are more relaxed but, perhaps, less compelling. Skip the poems, which are embarassing, and the essays, which are worse.

If your tastes run to the minimal, you’ll also want to sample Anne Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Bobbie Anne Mason. If you prefer painful themes churning beneath mundane surfaces, then Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Russell Banks may please. If you’re drawn instead to writers who aren’t so officially sanctioned, you might try Charles Bukowski and Charles Willeford, gifted lower-depths wallowers who wrote with comic-book gusto yet could also summon up currents of bitterness and melancholy. For sweet and funny visions of stray-ends America free of authorial gloom, you aren’t likely to go wrong with the work of Tom Perrotta, William Price Fox, Sarah Gilbert, or James Wilcox.

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