Undercover: ‘Loon Lake’ a dip in shallow water (10/30/80)

How does a writer follow the success of a lifetime? With Ragtime, E. L Doctorow pulled the double brass ring: nearly unanimous critical acclaim and a monumental best seller. I didn’t like the book: I found it a dolorous massage, a coyly leftish fable about American dreams and American crime, a masterpiece only as a tour de force of chic irony—and I wondered who was going to pay the rather obvious debt to Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (not Doctorow as it turned out). No matter: a classic was needed. Ragtime, so full of history and yet so modern in its mix of real and fictional characters (What? Modern?) filled the bill. So did Doctorow: a respected novelist, not famous but not unread (in other words, ready), he seemed to have moved from the outrage of The Book of Daniel, his recasting of the Rosenberg case, to a telling maturity—an echoing, almost wistful regret.

With Loon Lake (Random House, 258 pp., $11.95) he’s really grown up—there’s not a hint of passion in the book. Set in 1936, the novel brings three working-class characters—Joe, a young hobo and ex-carnival roustabout; Clara, a gangster’s moll; and Penfield, a failed poet—together at Loon Lake, the fabulous estate of F.W. Bennett, a sad, sensitive and ruthless billionaire. Doctorow has dropped the cool and distant voice that made Ragtime a one-note chart-topper (“Plink, plink, plink,” a reviewer wrote with approval), but Loon Lake‘s crucial epiphanies carry no weight: they’re presold and sometimes borrowed images that create profound obsessions only because Doctorow says they do. Joe sees a carnival fat lady fucked by hundreds of slavering hillbillies; later, on the bum, he glimpses a golden girl, naked in a private railroad car, resolves to follow her, and changes his life irrevocably—we’re ready for these images, they suggest nothing new to us, and the stories that follow from them are enervated, at once foreshortened and padded, as if they held no more secrets for Doctorow than for us.

The fat-lady scene, shying as it does from the brutal detail needed to burn it into a reader’s mind, plays off a memory of the “Tra-lala” episode in Hubert Selby Jr “s Last Exit to Brooklvn—and collapses under the burden of that memory. The girl in the railroad car is familiar to us from Fitzgerald, even if he never wrote the scene—that girl is simply Gatsby’s green light, an image long since frozen, made flesh.

The language in Loon Lake is pumped up with toney, naturalistic, run-on-sentence prose; there’s a lot of bad poetry (Penfield’s voice, presumably) and plenty of keen lovers-on-the-run suspense (Bonnie and Clyde inevitably comes to mind, and it’s probably meant to). Thus the book is superficially entertaining and superficially literary: elevated (the double brass ring hoves into view once more). As has been his wont since the success of Ragtime, Doctorow slips often into the voice of the sage: “If death exists, life has to be suffering.” And yet the characters all fall flat. Never creatures their inventor must struggle with, they’re merely pawns in a vague allegory about moral compromise. Doctorow moves them about, perhaps betting few will remember They Shoot Horses, Don’t Thev?, The Postman Always Rings Twice, or “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”

Blessed Relief

Diana’s Second Almanac (Diana’s Bimonthly Press, 71 Elmgrove Ave, Providence RI 02906, $4.95 paper). A mixed bag of avant-garde collages, fiction and poetry, notable for Harrison Fischer’s “A History of the Rock & Roll Phenomenon in Japan” and “Dagwood’s Day of Wrath.” The former is a twisted bit of cultural history in which Rodan, Reptilicus and other monster-movie stars (why no mention of the Smog Monster?) stand in for the forces that led inevitably to the complex electric circuitry of modern amplifiers, on the one hand, and to punk rock, on the other (I may have this backward). “Dagwood’s Day of Wrath,” a two-pager written in the voice Hollywood used to give its slant-eyed villains, rips the veil from our most cherished illusions—I mean, who would have guessed America’s favorite sap had an unconscious? Fischer:

Through window. Dagwood spy furious Herb running cross lawn, swinging lawn mower blade like samurai. Dagwood mutter. “No-good sponging bastard.” and rocket from bedroom for battle. fly out front door. collide with mailman Beasley.

Beasley never see Dagwood like this. stay down and play possum. Dagwood sniff Beasley, make sure he dead. “Yes, he dead. Now neighbor Herb die too.”

Rolling Stone, October 30, 1980

2 thoughts on “Undercover: ‘Loon Lake’ a dip in shallow water (10/30/80)

  1. Pingback: Mumbo Jumbo cuarenta y cinco años después – Katedral Mumbo Jumbo

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