Commentary Magazine


Confusions, by Jack Ludwig; The War of Camp Omongo, by Burt Blechman; and Stick Your Neck Out, by Mordecai Richler

A Survey of Recent Fiction

Confusions.
by Jack Ludwig.
New York Graphic Society. 276 pp. $4.95.

The War Of Camp Omongo.
by Burt Blechman.
Random House. 215 pp. $3.95.

Stick Your Neck Out.
by Mordecai Richler.
Simon & Schuster. 189 pp. $3.95.

It’s all very well for critics to announce that the novel is dying. They dust off their hands, then turn away to cozy exegeses of Joyce or Proust. But what about the unlucky fellow who has been born with novelistic talent? What is he supposed to do? Become a critic? Or take up arc-welding? He knows, at least as well as the critics, what the state of the novel is: more accurately, what the state of society is—its tenuous apposition to the novel. But unless he is to play Miniver Cheevy all his life, he has to find at least partial solutions.

Certain possibilities have been posited. One proposal, already withering, was science fiction. Kosherized by Kingsley Amis and others, s-f was held to be a means of circumventing the present difficulties of the novel; one could simply take off into the blue and invent mirror-image societies. But I know of no serious younger writer who has switched to this channel. Another possibility, used increasingly by younger men of talent, by such writers as J. P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, and the three writers discussed here, is the one labeled, loosely, satire.

The satire guild rules are clear. One starts from certain elite premises: growth of conformity, growth of mass-produced pap for both masses and middlebrows, the faltering of idealism, the limitation of horizons by the mushroom cloud. These premises eliminate the “conventional” novel that depends on hope, freedom of action, fierce belief in the sanctity of the individual, dependable moral response. There is nothing constructive to write; there is really nothing even destructive to accomplish in any old-fashioned, cleansing manner. The only reasonable alternative is, in two senses, enjoyment of your powers—principally with archery from the sidelines. Amuse the few caves of humanity, scattered here and there in the Himalayan apartment developments, with commiserative, savage glee.

The above is meant as descriptive, not pejorative. There is truth in the premises, immediate artistic practicality in the solution. The only relevant questions are: (a) how well is it executed?; (b) granted that it serves as an outlet for writers, are there still rewards in it for readers? For, after the first dozen or so blowtorch satires, we begin to anticipate the targets, mentally reproving those writers who have skipped J or K and jumped to L, comparing Jones’s jab with Smith’s stab as balletomanes compare pirouettes. Camus’s familiar line about judging men today by the quality of their despair could be altered to judging them by their ridicule.

The three writers under review are—it is highly relevant—Jewish. Jack Ludwig’s hero is impaled on the point of convergence of Jewish past and fake-Christian present. Burt Blechman’s summer camp is a theater where the children of lately immigrated Jews mimic the Gentile American frontier that they missed. Mordecai Richler takes an Eskimo as a hero presumably because his urban Canadian Jews are by now too far inside to be observers or catalysts.

Ludwig’s book bubbles from a sort of Cartesian well; his hero’s revision reads: “I am confused, therefore I am.” Joseph Gillis, born Galsky, is the son of a Roxbury, Mass. baker; he goes to Harvard, acquires the appropriate genus marks, and emerges as a Ph.D. in English whose conflict is heightened by his marriage to a Unitarian. (With her own problems. Unitarianism, said Erasmus Darwin in the 18th Century, is “a feather-bed to catch falling Christians.”) Galsky-Gillis juggles his personae to his own wry amusement and, somewhat, to ours, as he meets and marries Nancy, reminisces about adolescent escapades, and proceeds to teach at a small California college. There he is touched to a finer issue: a move to certify a student—a millionaire donor’s son—as mentally incompetent.

High among the novel’s achievements is a party given by a California colleague which is supposed to end with musical beds and from which Joe devises a clever but narrow escape. There are other chapters of sexual and academic comedy in which Ludwig’s vigor, aimed accurately, becomes wit. But when it misses, it remains mere energy, and the book spins into lengthy barroom and campus chat of forced, frenetic marital dialogue. Also there is a tiresome 20th-century Devil accoutred by Esquire. The over-all structure is a patchwork of sharply inconsistent textures, and the epilogue is a shameless attempt to avert criticism of inconclusiveness and lack of theme.

_____________

 

Blechman’s Novel, although it has some funny elements, is a retrospective work of teeth-clenched hate—revenge eaten cold, as the Italians say. Randy Levine is a likeable little boy sent to a summer camp run by a windy faker with a lecherous wife, with a staff that provides a microcosm of contemporary frailties and a group of boys who are the circumcised equivalents of William Golding’s lot. The “war” is an end-of-season contest between Red and Blue teams, and gentle Randy, harassed into belligerence, wins a paper chase, not without having been driven into arson.

The book is composed of a large number of short sections, each with a sub-title, each laid down like a tile in a mosaic of utter loathing. Its virtues are its purity of hate and its parsimony of means—there are few superfluous words. Its chief defects are that its points are early taken, most of its lampoons quickly perceived. Despite the tidy execution in general, the director’s gaseous orations become predictable; parodies of a war movie and of Elvis Presley are weak because these subjects are parodies in themselves.

Stick Your Neck Out, in Richler’s novel, is the name of a TV quiz show that the contestant plays with his head on a guillotine block. The hero does not play it until the last chapter. The scene is Toronto, and the story concerns a wised-up young Eskimo poet. While Toronto hucksters preserve his image as a primitive, he has imported a clutch of relatives to turn out native artifacts in a cellar at a nice profit. He is surrounded by a gallery of moral grotesques that includes a mistress who was the first female to swim Lake Ontario in less that twenty hours, a bulldozing tycoon, a vicious lady columnist, an elderly sociology student named Panofsky who poses as a doctor, and his high-pressure son who has changed his name to Peel and introduces himself: “Hi, my name is Peel. I’m Jewish.”

The sick hustle of advertising, television, salesmanship, streamlined religion, the face-to-the-camera attitudes of everything from publicity itself to gymnastic love-making—these are some of Richler’s somewhat familiar butts. The proof of his quality is that he is as amused, and amusing, as if he had just landed on earth and were sending us back a report. (An old Eskimo complains of Toronto people that they eat “artificially frozen foods.”)

_____________

 

Thus these three writers have found ways to write in and for a world which, more or less, they despise. Ludwig, an intellectually superior Peel, finds roots as a writer in his rootlessness. Blechman, who presumably will never forgive the past for what it has done to him, rubs the present in it. Richler is unprejudiced; he thinks everything is funny. The latter two novels, one can fairly say, are devoid of hope; and Ludwig is hiply nervous about his relatively rosy ending.

One does not ask hope of them; why should they know answers just because they can write novels? Their service, these three and their fellow satirists, is to make us consider what lies beneath their gallows humor: the individual, buffeted and shrunken, in an increasingly industrialized society. His future, his fate. As cities zoom, he becomes physically smaller. What is worse, his feelings, his once spontaneous responses, even his animosities, are mass-communicated into molds. (Juvenile delinquents imitate TV hoods; small-town politicians utter newsreel-size pronouncements; the brother of a slain New Jersey policeman, informed of the murder, voices his anguish in imitation James Cagney phrases.) It is now reasonably clear that the mushroom cloud is by no means the only threat to the survival of humanity. In a society that seems able to breathe only in the iron lung of production and selling, inhale and exhale, men not only have to move together, as in enormous calisthenics, they have to choose and think and feel within predictable, happy, product-consuming boundaries; or the pattern is upset, the economy undermined. If enough people didn’t want the plastic soap-dish or the Reader’s Digest book selection, their individuality of taste would make a mockery of electronic computation.

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Since the industrial age cannot be uninvented, any more than the Bomb can be, what are the chances for a man? For one man, however many of them there may be. Marx, who foresaw the inevitability of the machine age, hoped that socialist humanists at the controls would make all the difference. It has not happened yet, here or elsewhere; but perhaps our affluence (though less affluent than popularly thought) is only a brief, fatty delay in a huge political-social change that will at least give a man a fair chance against the machines. Or perhaps, basically unchanged, we will plunge into an air-conditioned industrial wilderness and will wander a figurative forty years before we insist on emerging in some kind of rebirth.

Meanwhile, honest and gifted writers have to face the present facts, among which is the diminished relevance of the novel to a society stunned by 20th-century catastrophe and threat of catastrophe, increasingly unconfident of divine guidance, increasingly herded by mechanized shepherds. Some writers, very well aware of these matters, nevertheless plump for historical humanism in relatively unaltered form and—often with success—carry the “old” novel into the present. Others feel that the hostilities and irrelevancies are too patent and powerful, that seriousness is mocked, and the only recourse is to laugh. Their laughter is different from any in the chronicle of literary laughter on this continent, which has always had a strong pessimistic strain, because it does not have even the relative sanguineness of pessimism. Their chief hazard is ennui—ours, not theirs. There is a limit to the amount of laughing we can do at ourselves in wretched circumstances, the same set of wretched circumstances, no matter how real they are and even if laughter is the only available relief. If these writers forbid us to hope for significant improvement in society, then at least, for the sake of their future books, we must hope to develop some new faults.

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