Undercover: The Horror of Terminal Niceness (10/18/79)

Terry Davis’s Vision Quest (Viking, 197 pp., $8.95) is a first novel about a high-school senior preparing for a big wrestling match: he struggles to cut his weight, tries to make light of his fears, worries about his girlfriend and his dad and his friends… The publishers are putting twenty-five grand in ad money behind this book, and I can see the copy now: “Tired of gloom-and-doom, life-is-a-bust fiction? Light up your life with Vision Quest! Makes Breaking Away seem like The Brothers Karamazov!”

It does, too: what we have here is a case of terminal niceness. Everyone acts from the best, the purest of motives; all pain seems like a practical joke that got out of hand, but no hard feelings, right? When the hero talks about his parents splitting up, it’s as if he had to give up half an eclair. After a hundred pages, I was begging for someone to commit a murder, strangle a cat or just piss on the floor, but no such luck. For that, I had to read Ian McEwan‘s In Between the Sheets (Simon and Schuster, 153 pp., $8.95).

McEwan eats gloom-and-doom for breakfast, and there is indeed a great deal of urine in his second collection of short stories. In “Psychopolis,” a man is seated in a restaurant across from a woman. He says he will do anything to prove his love. “I want you to urinate in your pants, now. Go on now! Quick! Do it before you have time to think about it.” Well, it’s not the same as rescuing one’s love from the heathens, but this is the modern world, so the man does it:

“Have you done it?” says Sylvia “Yes,” says Terence. “But why…?”

Sylvie half-rises from her seat and waves prettily across the restaurant to the couple standing by the door. “I want you to meet my parents,” she says. “I’ve just seen them come in.”

Now, that’s pretty good, but McEwan pulls back. Just as you’re trying hard to believe what you’ve read, he says you needn’t bother: Terence is a flake; he makes up stories like that all the time. This was just “the perfect formulation of his fears or, perhaps, of his profoundest desires.”

Ah, the copouts of psychological fiction. It’s like going to a bad psychiatrist: “You seem miserable—but then, perhaps your misery makes you happy?” Like a bad patient, perversity is all McEwan needs to justify a story, but he never bothers to justify his material, to see it through. In the title story we meet a man whose marriage has broken up because the fervor of his wife’s orgasms terrifled him. This is a rich theme, but McEwan does nothing with it—it’s just a weird effect, a platform for more weird effects. McEwan plugs in a second weird character and hopes the combination, pointless though it obviously is, will be “unsettling,” “disturbing,” “alarming” or that it will at least elicit such adjectives from reviewers. It has in the past.

Terry Davis’ lollipop ultimately seems to me more worthy of respect than McEwan’s hokey bleakness; Vision Quest may be silly as a version of life, but it does build detail about wrestling, does chase after a story and attempt to ride it out. McEwan merely plays with the formula that unpleasantness equals seriousness—what’s worse, he’s cute about it.


The Seventh Babe, a novel by Jerome Charyn (Arbor House, 347 pp., $9.95). In 1923, a young third baseman appears at the training camp of the hopeless Boston Red Sox. Calling himself “Babe,” pretending to come from the same orphanage as Babe Ruth, he’s soon unmasked as the heir to a copper fortune, but the fans don’t care—his playing can make the blind see, the lame walk. Soon, Babe is pressured into marrying the “godniece” of the team owner, but it’s a bust right from the wedding night, and the boss, furious, sets the boy up for a gambling rap and gets him kicked out of organized ball. Almost relieved, the kid goes south and becomes the first white player with the Cincinnati Giants, a bunch of itinerant black barnstormers so good Major League teams are afraid to play them. Years pass…

This is a long way from being a first-rate novel. Incident merely follows upon incident: the characters are made to jump through hoops. One cannot write a novel about baseball and use the Anglicism “arse” for “ass.” But once Charyn moves from the Sox to the Giants, the tale becomes a myth: the white boy enters a hoodoo world he will never more than half understand, but that he will convincingly refuse ever to leave.

Over the decades, the Giants keep playing, slipping, breaking down, almost fading out: their story becomes like a dream from which you awake, try to recover, and then, a few nights later, dream again. As Charyn slowly lets out the secret of the novel, your disbelief grows along with your hope that Charyn can suspend it. To say any more would be to give the game away.

Rolling Stone, October 18, 1979

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