Undercover: The Sun Never Sets on the Literati (12/30/76)

Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Them­selves, from the collec­tion of Burt Britton (Random House paper­back, 271 pp., $6.75).
Britton, who works at the Strand bookstore in New York, has here assembled the self-portraits of around 700 literary people whose work he likes (plus those of a few professional artists and cartoonists, though in this context that seems a bit unfair to the writers). A lot of the drawings are dull, some are dumb (Erica Jong’s) and a surprising number are wonderful. Who would have guessed that William Gaddis could draw such a clean line, or that he would picture himself without a head? Or that Edward Abbey, whose latest novel is about ecology guerrillas in the Southwest, would come through as a desert vulture? (Rolling Stone fans can find Jon Cott on page 159 and Ellen Willis on page 195.) Graduate students will be plumbing this volume for hidden meanings for years, but for now, it’s simply a delight.
The English Sunrise by Brian Rice and Tony Evans (Flash Books paperback, 76 pp., $2.95).
Color photos of various examples of the English sunrise motif—on tobacco cans, doorways, car interiors, cookies, ovens, radios, and just about everything else you can think of. This stunning collection came out a year ago, and I resurrect it now because it would make a superb Christmas present for anyone with the slightest bit of taste. Rice and Evans trace the diffusion of a very simple design all across a culture; they show how a subtle beauty was inserted into the most prosaic objects of daily life by designers, craftsmen, commercial artists, architects—and how a single image may well have brought a modicum of unity to a culture. A beautiful little book.
A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson (Morrow paperback, 629 pp., $7.95).
Unlike most film reference books, this one is made up of critical rather than strictly informational entries (though place and date of birth, plus useful if incomplete filmographies, are included for each figure). Thomson buys the standard director-as-auteur line (he’d junk Renoir and Murnau and everybody else in favor of Howard Hawks if he had to), and this makes his opinions, and his choice of who to put into the book and who to leave out, rather predictable. Still, he writes well, and he’s opinionated enough to be consistently interesting across short essays on more than 800 directors, performers and others, most of them English-speaking and most of them from the sound period. The book is fiendishly seductive; you can pick it up in search of a fact or an idea and find yourself turning pages two hours later. My favorite entry is on Cary Grant, where Thomson claims that the star of I Was a Male War Bride “is the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” Makes his case, too.
The Perfect Jump by Dick Schaap (Signet paperback, 153 pp., $1.75).
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Bob Beamon leaped 29′ 2-1/2″, demolishing the world record in the long jump by nearly two feet. It was a performance unprecedented in the history of organized track and field, and in this modest little study Schaap examines Beamon’s life before, and more interestingly, after his extraordinary feat (Beamon never came within two feet of his record again); the jump itself is also explored, psychologically, physiologically and aerodynamically. The Perfect Jump is no classic; Beamon turns out to be a mature man without any sensational neuroses, and his jump retains its mystery. I suppose I liked the story mainly because I found the idea of an entire book organized around a single, one-second event so appealing.
Do You Want to Talk About It? by Edward Koren (Pantheon, $7.95).
Koren is the New Yorker cartoonist famous for weird beasts drawn with a squiggly line, and his great triumph in depicting the foibles of contemporary middle-class life is his ability to convey the sense that a long contemplation of his subject matter has driven him pleasingly, certifiably nuts. One after another, his characters offer the sort of brilliant smile that implies they have left their brains in the medicine chest; nobody seems to mind. I particularly like the cartoon in which a nice wife asks her bearded, pipe-smoking, paper-reading husband if he’d like anything at the store. Their expressions imply complete trust and affection; this is a perfect marriage, except that the husband lives in a dollhouse and is only a foot tall.
Speedboat by Renata Adler (Random House, 178 pp., $7.95).
Regional novelist, Manhattan Division, steers a tricky course between the Scylla of fey paradox and the Charybdis of terminal irony.

Rolling Stone, December 30, 1976

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