Medved and Wallechinsky’s classmates talk with pride, modesty, self-deprecating humor, and a strong and touching interest in each other; they are, all in all, an attractive bunch. The same cannot always be said of the authors, whose oddly self-satisfied stories are also included (did they interview themselves?). The authors condescend to their subjects; like bad social workers, they enjoy judging them. The prose used to connect the various interviews is often characterized by pomposity, smugness, and the stiff, stilted construction that is the mark of the born nonwriter. M & W also share a tin ear perhaps unparalleled in the annals of oral history: I didn’t notice it until my second time through the book, but they have made all the interviewees sound alike. The speech rhythms that in transcribed and edited talk can give the reader a feeling for a speaker’s personality (see Studs Terkel’s Hard Times) have been utterly ignored here. This contributes to the slickness of the book—tone-deaf, it’s all surface. The horrors experienced by a Vietnam vet eome off the page with no more impact than “Mr. Slick”‘s brag about his Ferrari.
Still, I did read it twice; I had fun with it. But there was more to the life I—and probably you—shared with the people in this book than M & W can make us feel, and I expect far better things from an as-yet-untitled book about the odyssey of three women who first met at a Jewish sorority in Berkeley in 1961. Sara Davidson, whose piece on polygamy appeared in these pages in 1975, wrote it; Doubleday will be bringing it out early next year.
GOOD NEWS & BAD
→ The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore (Pocket Books). First class horror. The tale reaches an appalling climax during the rise and fall of the Paris Commune of 1870, when the werewolf meets a young woman whose rich family has fled the city—consciously, she offers herself to an abyss of vampirism and masochism, and it swallows her, piece by piece. Conventional only at first, this is strong stuff—it outstrips its genre. First published in 1933.
→ The Tangent Objective by Lawrence Sanders (Putnam). Deep young African soldier and turned-on (by deep young African soldier) American oil exec overthrow corrupt dictator of mythical African nation. Motives fuzzy, plot fair, dialogue (except when concerning fabulously conceived Jewish mercenary) flat as a board, sexual episodes repetitious and pointless, violence highly effective, sense of menace or dread missing altogether. Close of book, however, suggests possibilities for further, more compelling adventures: D.Y.A.—with oil exec, mercenary, and others along for the ride—wants to conquer all of Africa, and D.Y.A. just may have the stuff to do it. Take this interchange between oil exec and D.Y.A.: “Do you read a great deal, Captain?” “As much as I can.” “Reading can be a wonderful escape.” “I do not read to escape.” Sanders wants to tell us a good long story—and since D.Y.A. and his crew finish off this book looking south, to white-ruled Namibia (South-West Africa), I think—I hope a sequel is not long in coming.
→ Two issues ago, I foolishly claimed that Ann Beattie’s interesting new novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (Doubleday), lacked the sex to attract a book club; naturally, Book-of-the-Month has made it one of their alternate choices… Doubleday has also published Distortions, Beattie’s first collection of short stories; in contrast to her novel, these seem to me very facile—She’s in such control of her material it never comes to life. Writing on Nashville, Paul Krassner mentioned that in one of Polanski’s films “a wealthy archer shoots an arrow into the air, whereupon his servant runs with the target to insure a bull’s-eye”; the characters in Beattie’s stories perform a similar service… Michael J. Arlen’s Passage to Ararat, the deserving winner of this year’s National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs, has just been issued as a Ballantine paperback; a very strong, beautifully written account of the tortured history of Armenia, and of Arlen’s attempt to connect himself to that history, it’s the finest nonfiction book I’ve read since I began this column… A note in passing to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which administers the National Book Awards: one realizes that award-giving requires a certain sense of self-importance. One also feels that the ads taken out this year to announce National Book Award nominees and winners, which showed the hand of God making the selections, overdid it a bit.
Rolling Stone, October 7, 1976