Commentary Magazine


A Group of Recent Novels

Pseudo-Fictions

The Hate Merchant.
by Niven Busch.
Simon and Schuster. 338 pp. $3.95.

Simple Takes A Wife.
by Langston Hughes.
Simon and Schuster. 240 pp. $1.95.

The Human Kind. by Alexander Baron.
Ives Washburn. 187 pp. $2.75.

Patrol.
by Fred Majdalany.
Houghton Mifflin. 149 pp. $2.00.

A Bargain With God.
by Thomas Savage.
Simon and Schuster. 243 pp. $3.00.

The Good-For-Nothing.
by James Yaffe.
Little, Brown. 249 pp. $3-50.

The Southpaw.
by Mark Harris.
Bobbs-Merrill. 350 pp. $3.50.

White Hunter, Black Heart.
by Peter Viertel.
Doubleday. 344 pp. $3.95.

Martha Crane.
by Charles Gorham.
Farrar, Straus and Young. 250 pp. $3.00.

 

We badly need a name for books that appear to be novels and are not. I would propose calling them “pseudo-fictions,” on the analogy of I. A. Richards’ “pseudo-questions” and “pseudo-statements,” which would not only name them accurately—they are false-fictions rather than non-fictions—but might lend our activities some of the optimistic semantics-will-save-us tone of a quarter of a century ago, as though all these complicated matters could readily be put in order. Here is a mixed bag of nine recent books published as novels, no one of which is a work of fiction if we insist, not on a definition, but on certain minimal requirements: that fiction is an exercise of the moral imagination; that it organize experience into a form with a beginning, middle, and end; and that it center around a dramatic action. A pseudo-fiction can be quite a good work of its sort—one thinks of John Hersey’s reportorial The Wall or Mary McCarthy’s diaristic The Company She Keeps—although most of them are not; what must be recognized is that its sort is not the form we have traditionally called the novel. The appreciation the pseudo-fiction aims at is “Yes, that is just what it must be like”; the inescapable sense any work of the fictive imagination, from Don Quixote to Miss Lonelyhearts, gives is “Life is surely nothing like this anywhere. This is art.”

Niven Busch’s The Hate Merchant is an account of a Huey Long henchman who becomes a preacher specializing in race hatred, a figure suspiciously like the “Reverend” Gerald L. K. Smith. The book starts well with a convincing documentation of its protagonist’s down-and-out beginnings, but soon dissolves into absurdity, labored soliloquies explaining the cash value of race hatred, and the usual preposterous, sexually eccentric daughter of the rich. Busch can write an anti-Semitic oration to give you the creeps, his principles are unassailably liberal and his intentions excellent, but he has neither imagination nor insight, and his book remains, despite its topping of fiction sprinklers, a magazine expose.

Langston Hughes’ new book is, like its predecessor, Simple Speaks His Mind, a collection of columns from the Chicago Defender, the vagaries of American life seen through the eyes of Jesse B. Semple, an uneducated Negro workingman of considerable humor and eloquence. Simple’s opinions, counterpointed by the narrator’s educated reservations, are worth having, and his sly monologues manage the difficult feat of being ingratiating without loss of dignity, but the shreds of plot, laboring the complications besetting Simple’s courtship of a strong-willed woman named Joyce, are a pointless intrusion. Simple’s language is a conventionalized folk speech rather than any Negro speech with which I am familiar; his humor is the sophistication masked as innocence, the fool outsmarting those who patronize him, that is a characteristic note in Negro (as well as Jewish) humor; only the elements of hackneyed “story” betray an honest traditional form, the Folk Sage of the newspaper column, into pseudo-fiction.

The subtitle of Alexander Baron’s The Human Kind is “A Sequence,” and it is apparently meant to be a series of related fiction sketches, centering in the war and adding up to more than the sum of their parts. Actually the sketches are shapeless snatches of life, impressionistic essays, thin slices of experience buttered with the writer’s naive intrusions. Many of them appear to be by-products of Baron’s novels, and one sketch even opposes “the thing that really happened” to a previous fictional rendering. Baron seems to be a kind of English Albert Halper or James Farrell—earnest, honest, decent, rather admirable in his reactions, and utterly without literary talent or perception.

Patrol, by Fred Majdalany, another English soldier, this one demobilized with the rank of major, is a transparently autobiographical account of a patrol reconnaissance in North Africa. As a reporting of a single military action by a participant, it is compact, readable, and convincing; to make it a novel Majdalany has tricked it out with horrible “plucky chaps,” British army sentimentality, some jerky flashback machinery, an infuriating second-person style, and one entire hogshead of cheap irony about headquarters obliviousness to front-line human waste. Patrol’s jacket compares it to The Red Badge of Courage, but of course, Crane wasn’t there, he didn’t know just what it was like.

_____________

 

Some books are disgusting, with the spurious piety of a certain kind of professional beggar, and Thomas Savage’s A Bargain With God is such a book. Savage teaches Creative Writing at Brandeis, and one can only hope that he does not teach it like this. His book is about an Anglican mission church in Boston, condemned to destruction by poverty and saved by a soapy miracle, complete with saintly priest, Robert Nathan parishioners, shoddy religious symbolism (a sparrow on a cross-piece), and arch, tear-jerking prose. Savage has the grace to leave his happy ending implied rather than writing it out, but he has no other grace at all. James Yaffe’s The Good-for-Nothing, disguised as a novel like the rest, is actually a radio serial, a Riverside Drive Goldbergs (“Should Leo be allowed to marry Brenda?”). Yaffe favors the jacket of his book with a bold pronunciamento about “my desire to write about people as I see them,” which would be a worthier ideal if he did not see them as stock family types, speaking unfailingly in character in a curious travesty of human speech. “To my mind,” Yaffe adds, “this is the only legitimate concern of a writer who is really serious about his work.” Thus we have noble, selfsacrificing Norman; worthless, charming Leo; domineering but warm-hearted Aunt Ruth; whining, widowed Aunt Fanny; and the rest of the really serious writer’s embarrassing puppets.

The Southpaw is an Inside Baseball bookwhen an illegal spitball is thrown, why you don’t play Dom DiMaggio in a drizzle, what the catcher says to the pitcher when he goes to the mound, etc.—in the form of a first-person narrative told by a brash left-handed wonder somewhat resembling Dizzy Dean, employed by a composite New York team. The plot is inane, involving the narrator’s psychosomatic back ailment, the beautiful and dissolute daughter of the club’s owner, an unprincipled sports writer, and such cardboard; the language, with “swang” for “swung” and “ivory” for “major leaguer,” is the affectation of broadcasters, not the diction of players; and the baseball sentimentality, full of plays executed “like a fine machine,” is not only out of character but a constant irritation. The book’s one attractive novelty is its approval of the hero’s physical cowardice—his response to any fight is to go into his “Coward Crouch” and protect his face—which is as surprising in a book celebrating the Great American Game as it is rare and welcome at a time when conformity to an American ideal indistinguishable from Scouting seems so overwhelming.

_____________

 

Peter Viertel, who went to the Congo to work on the script of The African Queen for John Huston, tells in White Hunter, Black Heart (surely the year’s worst title) of a script writer named Peter Verrill, who went to the Congo to work on the script of The Trader for a director named John Wilson. I doubt that the veneer of fiction has ever been quite so thin since Herr Issyvoo gave us his Berlin experiences. There is a genuine gossip interest in learning about John Huston’s outsize quirks, with special bus trips to see Miss Hepburn and Mr. Bogart, and a long stopover to hear the white racists in Africa get ticked off, but after a while the book’s obsessive concern with the writer-director relationship as a complicated emotional courtship becomes overpowering, and the book dissolves into bathos. If we are looking for the aesthetic of pseudo-fiction, Viertel is delighted to phrase it for us: “Form had always baffled me,” Verrill says. “There’s no plot. Peoples’ lives are simply exposed,” Wilson says as his highest praise of his idol, Hemingway. It may also be the last word on White Hunter, Black Heart.

Finally, we have Charles Gorham’s Martha Crane, which is a tabloid feature story on the Jelke case. How did Sandra Wisotsky, or whoever, get that way, the great panting public asks, and what held her to Mickey? Gorham is perfectly willing to tell us. His Martha Crane had a father complex; she was drawn to Farkas, the Jelke character, by his evil beauty and brutality, her masochism responding to his sadism; she fitted into the call-girl life beautifully, since she was a Radcliffe girl, and the work gave her plenty of time to study Greek in the afternoons. Martha Crane is ludicrous in just that too-much-of-a-good-thing fashion, with an abundance of sex and beating women into insensibility for the circulating library ladies, parlor psychoanalysis for the reviewers, melodrama for the movies, and trade tips for all us girls from Radcliffe.

_____________

 

Reviewing a novel by Patrick Hamilton in a recent New Statesman, Walter Allen wrote: “Mr. Hamilton has very cunningly dodged the novelist’s real issue by going back to the prehistory of the novel, going back, in fact, to that seventeenth-century literary exercise, the Character.” These nine writers have not so much gone back to pre-history as created novels (or permitted their publishers to create them) out of other forms—the impressionistic essay, the collection of newspaper columns, the religious parable, the magazine exposé the first-person account of a battle—which once had a market in hard covers and no longer do. An act of conscious deception is not necessarily involved; the novel as the literary form with an audience and the concept of “fictionalizing” are oppressive in our cultural climate. (Now that the novel no longer sells as it did, in comparison with non-fiction, it will be interesting to see whether the next decade reverses the process, and gets us our Moby-Dicks as The Whales Around Us.) Many of these authors are good men, full of excellent intentions: Hughes, Busch, and Viertel clearly abominate racism, and strike doughty blows in their various fashions against it: Baron and Yaffe patently love and understand their fellow man, and want to put in a good word for these virtues; Harris and Majdalany are in reaction against the romanticizing of their respective sports, and desperately want to give us “the lowdown” on them. Most of these writers have theories about the real world their books mirror: Gorham wants us to know that Pat Ward must have been unmoral and masochistic, and Jelke perverted; Viertel that John Huston is a sick and suffering personality; Harris that professional sport is not glamorous but tough, dirty, and nervewracking; Yaffe that the victims in family relations want to be victimized; Majdalany that war is mostly pointless butchery; Baron that people are fundamentally decent; Hughes that an uneducated colored man is as rare and valuable a personality as yours or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s; Busch that professional rabblerousers are less shrewd than mentally warped. It is good to know those things, if we do not already know them, and we may even act on some of them. But if we want to know other things about man, about the deepest places of the human heart, the things that Ulysses or Karamazov tell us, we will have to go elsewhere. If we insist that even learning comes, not from the telling, but from an experience, in this case an aesthetic experience, the symbolic living through a moral and imaginative drama that a work of art represents, we will not find it possible to be content with pseudofictions.

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