Commentary Magazine

Baxter Bernstein, by Stephen Seley

Hero on the Loose
Baxter Bernstein: A Hero of Sorts.
by Stephen Seley.
Scribner’s. 239 pp. $3.00.


The first part of this book is first rate. There is a form of social criticism, inevitably increasing in vogue, that consists in affirming the very opposite of the virtues and aspirations that one is supposed to approve (this is criticism of mores), or even that it is common sense to approve (this is metaphysical dismay, despair, disgust). Where the accepted values are not spectacularly successful in making us happy, it is reasonable to energize our heroes with different values. This “transvaluation of values” is either rationally proved, as by André Gide; or lyrically proved, as when Jean Genêt waves his red rag in front of the bulls; or proved by overwhelming the scene with feces and foolishness, as Louis-Ferdinand Céline does. Now Seley presents us with his “hero of sorts” more quietly, simply affirming him by refusing to regard anything else as interesting, or justified or especially unjustified; very simply, avoiding also the theatrical stoicism of the Existentialists. Baxter is a real no-good, about to run out, explaining his present defections by a past defection (not having fought in the Spanish Civil War), not even callous or guiltless but his guilt will not move him, rationalizing and not believing in the rationalization yet not tempted to analyze any deeper, etc., etc. In fact Baxter promises to be a devastating hero who could bring the world to a salutary standstill; and also a by no means impossible ideal for men to attain to.



So our hero, who believes that he cowardly ran away from the more justifiable Spanish war (but perhaps his instincts served him well there too), now is dodging the draft, hibernating in Mexico; unbuoyed by principles he drifts back to New Orleans; but he ends up in Mexico after all. In each place he tends to be deserting some other man’s wife who relies on him for her rescue; and he is in full flight from the homosexual threat; but there is always plenty of liquor.

Unfortunately, instead of ponderously sagging on to ever new failures that leave himself and the world rather like they are, Baxter soon begins to repeat a pattern, and this pattern at once reveals rather banal underlying psychological causes that become clear to the reader and therefore must be treated, but they are not treated. There is a boring compulsion to repeat. So Baxter does not have a viable way of life after all, and it is not he that we can follow to glory.

In style, this book is so old-fashioned, in the pseudo-stream-of-consciousness of the 20’s, that I at least am completely disarmed. It is a pleasure to meet this choppy-picturesque again. But Seley’s forte is plain fun, and he is often very funny.



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