A New Fictional Hero
The Noble Savage.
by Saul Bellow, Keith Botsford, and Jack Ludwig.
Meridian Books. 255 pp. $1.50.
Love and Like.
by Herbert Gold.
The Dial Press. 307 pp. $3.95.
by Richard Stern.
Criterion Books. 221 pp. $3.95.
After paying his dollar and a half, the reader who prides himself on keeping up with the most promising new fiction (the person who bought the revived Dial and waited impatiently to see what New World Writing would be like under its new imprimatur) may wonder just what the rather ambiguous title of this new literary magazine means. Who is the Noble Savage: perhaps the image of some hero who emerges from the collective efforts of Bellow and his associates? Or possibly the archetypal Noble Savage Rousseau had in mind when he observed, “I do not want to make him a savage and send him back to the woods, but that living in the whirl of social life it is enough that he should not let himself be carried away by the passions and prejudices of men; let him see with his eyes and feel with his heart. . . .” It may be unfair to look for signs of a new “movement,” but diverse as the contents of this first issue are, one senses a unifying preoccupation not unlike Rousseau’s: how does one get along in this particular, mid-century social whirl; how much is it safe to see or feel?
Unfortunately the platform articles are the weakest. Harold Rosenberg writes with unparalleled obscurity about the threat of the middlebrows and their literary representatives, who mistake the laws of social climbing for the “metaphysics of identity.” The exclusion of such writers as Capote or Auchincloss from the Noble Savage or those younger writers influenced by them (or for that matter influenced by Fitzgerald or Faulkner, whom Rosenberg miraculously links together) suggests that the Noble Savage is offered as an alternative to the Palefaces of American fiction. Herbert Gold, on the other hand, attacks the Beats, a literary creation of the Luce-papers, responsible, he maintains, for driving out the real thing—the Hipster. One can be sure, then, the Noble Savage is no Holy Barbarian or reconstituted wild man from California, but in attacking the public relations image Gold is betrayed by his glibness and indulges in a series of cheap puns and jibes which might well embarrass Time. Until further notice, therefore, I think it is fair to expect a new, middle-of-the-road hero, a hero one might compare, that is, with Bellow’s own Augie March or Eugene Henderson, with Herbert Gold’s man of feeling, or possibly even with the central figure of Richard Stem’s first novel, Golk.
The best pieces in The Noble Savage are those which successfully resist easy classification. The issue would be worth getting solely for Josephine Herbst’s reflections on the Spanish Civil War, for Miss Herbst responds to the Hotel Florida in Madrid and the front lines at Jarama as Isherwood did to Berlin and Henry James did to the American scene: “through the skin.” Her account of the hotel, the glimpses—often sharp and revealing—of Hemingway and Dos Passos, the little world of the noncombatants which seems to a British correspondent so like Bloomsbury, are handled in a nerveless, almost listless fashion that contrasts vividly with her powerful account of the front, the bombings, and, always, the people themselves. “About the most important questions,” Miss Herbst concludes, “I felt sickeningly at sea. As for being valiente, who wasn’t? If I wrote it down in my journal, it was to put heart in myself, if only to say, come now, be muy intelligente, be valiente.”
Ralph Ellison’s parable of the white changeling once the charge of a Negro preacher but now a rabid Senatorial opponent of civil rights, is a good idea gone wrong. The exposition is so ineptly arranged and the flashbacks so rhetorically forced that the effect is ruined, especially for the reader who remembers The Invisible Man. Nor is Wright Morris at his best. Surely the selection included here, “The Scene,” a long and static description of the waste land of Lone Tree and a grotesque named Tom Scanlon, is part of a longer work in progress. And if so, we have the depressing prospect of Beckett in the Midwest, reducing character to spleen and action to tired shades of disgust. Mark Harris’s odd story of play therapy between a bewildered cop and a butcher (a kind of neighborhood Harcourt-Reilly) is disquieting and effective enough in its own way, but reflects the annoying split one notices in Harris’s recent work. For the paperback trade Harris turns out the Henry Wiggen baseball novels and Wake Up Stupid!, and at his best is a genuinely funny writer; but for the quarterlies, in stories like “The Iron Fist of Oligarchy” (in a recent Virginia Quarterly Review) and the present piece, “The Self-Made Brain Surgeon,” the humor becomes troubled and obscurely portentous. Harris seems preoccupied with the fringes of sanity and judgment, concerns which in Something About a Soldier—ostensibly a funny, popular book—caused a lack of focus and a serious confusion of tone.
The other stories are too slight or embarrassingly bad (Arthur Miller’s contribution unhappily manages to be both) to warrant criticism. A typically gnarled and uncongenial poem by John Berryman and a first-rate bit of popular culture analysis by Harvey Swados complete the issue. Somehow Samuel Butler is admitted (in the role of “Ancestor”), and his “Ramblings in Cheapside,” along with Miss Herbst’s piece, makes the Noble Savage worth noting, if not exactly a notable event. On the whole Bellow and his initial patrol fail to bring their man back alive.
“The man who masters his isolation—comes through joyfully and sternly—will be the greatest hero of our time”: so Herbert Gold maintains in his notes on Love and Like. Such a man, however, is conspicuously absent from this collection of fourteen stories and the over-all effect is so joyless that one wonders if the author still believes in him, even as a remote possibility. Gold writes too much too quickly and his stories suffer (though somewhat less than his novels) as a result; but the real difficulty, the serious flaw in his fiction, seems to me to lie elsewhere. The earlier stories, written from that “spasmodic impulse which grips the short story writer—find the truth by finding the truth of childhood,” are extraordinarily effective. “The Heart of the Artichoke” deservedly has become a young classic, and two other stories from this period, “The Boy and the Burglars” and “Aristotle and the Hired Thugs,” are almost as good. These stories bear up wonderfully well, not because of any particular formal skill on Gold’s part—he seems to be indifferent to that Paleface characteristic—but because of the humor and pungency of his language and the unsentimental yet affectionate criticism he makes of his world. Together the stories form a kind of portrait of the artist as a very young man, doing for Cleveland and Detroit Avenue what the rush of language does for the childhood memories of Wales in Dylan Thomas’s best short stories.
But the truth of childhood, whatever it was (perhaps simply that people must be looked at in this way), fails to sustain Gold’s adults. These later stories are almost obsessive in their concern, the painful probing, largely without joy or satisfaction, of “the unheroic isolation of the bachelor,” Gold’s rather arbitrary emblem of “various esthetes, hedonists, Platonists—lonely and ambitious and failed and reduced to brutal egotism.” The stories trace with single-minded intensity failed husbands and lonely bachelors in their various guises and through the courses of their unhappy marriages and seamy affairs; they isolate, in short, the kind of person La Rochefoucauld damned for all time when he observed that there are people who would know nothing whatever about love if they hadn’t come across it in some book.
The title story is evidently one of Gold’s own favorites (he chose it for inclusion in the excellent anthology Fiction of the Fifties), yet this story in particular seems to me to illustrate all of his weaknesses. The narrative is held together only by Shaper’s protracted inability to decide how he feels about his estranged wife. The situation simply cannot support the importance Gold attaches to it; boredom threatens at every turn, self-pity eats away at whatever structure the idea once may have had. And as if sensing that action as a principle of exploration has failed, the prose itself tries to take over the responsibilities of analysis; sententious and at the same time diffident, it alternates between pseudo-Jamesian interior analysis and an unconvincing Hemingway pose (“We didn’t make it, kid,” seems to be all Shaper can articulate).
At other times, however, the sense itself simply collapses, along with the syntax (“If they had finally made out, it would all have been remembered as the progress and process of love; with failure it could seem all bad; he was determined to hold in retrospect a mixed verdict—some pretty, some unpretty, and nevertheless the long Sunday afternoon habit of lovemaking spoke for a true intimacy”). The prospect before Gold’s heroes is still a bleak one, but what matters is that he allows his disenchantment to override his sense of form and gives in too easily to the pressure of his subject matter.
Like Gold’s early stories, Richard Stern’s tough and comic object lesson about the nature of privacy in an age of mass media, Golk (an unlovely Elizabethan word meaning “a fool disguised”), fairly kicks with vitality. I think it was the late John Lardner who once demolished—at least in print—the Candid Mike, an insidious and mean-minded radio and TV show which, as Stern implies, is straight out of 1984. Stern takes up where Lardner left off and uses this central device of an insulting voyeur to explore the weakness and vanity of his three main characters: Hondorp, the guileless but soon corrupted assistant; Hendricks, a kind of Holly Golightly without the charm of Capote’s heroine; and Golk himself, the inventor of the gimmick. “There are two pivots to the golks we’re doing these days,” he blandly tells his colleagues. “The hook in the worm is one. You dangle a prize before a victim . . . and while he watches, turn the prize to dust. The other kind is . . . stepping in between a man and his legitimate pleasures.” From simple golks, “centered about such situations as people opening letters informing them that they have been fired, children at the beach seeing their pails and shovels in the grip of sea monsters, women noticing suicidal types balanced on their living-room ledges,” Golk goes on to more grandiose—and ultimately ruinous—ventures, the exposure of presidential aides and racketeers, not from any desire to hold the mirror up to vice and folly, but simply to invade and embarrass: “We’re getting out of the cages and going into the jungle. That’s where we live.”
The descriptions of Golk’s campaigns are so sharp and so funny that the novel is almost over before the reader begins to wonder whether or not something vital is missing—dignity, call it what you will the sense that after all something has been violated. True enough, Golk, Hondorp, and Hendricks are destroyed by their monster, but one has never known enough about them to care or to take much satisfaction in their defeat; and the reader may be left with the uncomfortable feeling that in some obscure way he too has been golked. Much of Stern’s humor is fresh and original (although so topical at times that one wonders if the book will be intelligible a few years hence), but it is directed too indiscriminately against Golk and golked alike. The degree of one’s sympathy, and in the long run one’s interest, is inversely proportional to a writer’s dependence on caricature and the grotesque. And inevitably Golk fails to establish its point.
These failed and disillusioned figures, then, serve as the curious heroes of this new fiction. One wishes Stern and Gold and Bellow and his associates, all gifted and serious writers, believed in them a bit more, though surely they cannot invent what society fails to provide or at least suggest—art is independent but not separate. Yet it would be foolish to deny that these authors often see a good deal more than did earlier generations of American writers. And so perhaps it is true that these new heroes, however dismal their failings, do represent a true sigh of how one gets along in our particular American whirl.