Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Irwin Shaw Part Two


Shaw wrote a lot of novels, and I’ve read a few of ‘em: The Top of the Hill, Two Weeks in Another Town, part of Acceptable Losses. None of them were especially good, and really it doesn’t matter, because the two novels Shaw is known for are The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man.

A writer like Shaw generally shines when he’s given a prefab storyline: all of the nuts and bolts of plot development are pretty much a given, and he has the freedom to display his gifts in the best possible light. So a big World War Two novel from him seems in retrospect really like a given, and I would venture to say The Young Lions is one of the better of that group.

You may have seen the movie, during one of its interminable plays on American Movie Classics, during the days when it actually was a decent station. The book, a sprawling epic, follows three men throughout the war: one an idealistic German who’s gradually corrupted by Nazism; an earnest, idealistic young Jew; and a cynical entertainer who sees the war as a kind of redemption.

I think this is mostly a pretty good book. The Nazi sections are exceptionally good: as was always the case with Shaw, the emotional distance seems to have done something for him aesthetically: I truly think this is one of the better portrayals of a Nazi in American fiction. Christian (the irony is a little heavy) starts out the war as a Nazi, but also as an idealistic young man who sees in Fascism some kind of hope for his country. By the end of the story he’s a war-ravaged mess, given over soley to killing. James Salter, who was always a sap, got it exactly wrong: the real emotional crescendo of the book isn’t Noah’s (the saint manqué ‘s) death, it’s Christian’s exhausted flashback, for a second, to the man he once was. I just reread it again, and it still packs a punch.

The second storyline – Noah’s – and the third storyline – Michael’s – aren’t as powerful, but both have their moments. I get a little sick of Shaw’s ridiculous Heroic Ethnic Jew, but despite that some of the early basic training sections of Noah’s have their moment. Shaw also gives us a glimpse of his pop potential: it’s important to understand Young Lions was not originally thought of in those terms (and still isn’t, hence the U Chicago reprint and Salter’s intro.), but the romance here is sentimental. In a good, satisfying sort of way. I also like some of Michael’s early scenes which showcases very wisely the ambivalent posture of the leisure classes in America before the advent of the War.

Shaw’s reliance on the “true plot” of WW Two carries him through most of the rough stuff – with, again, Christian’s sections packing the most punch. The book falls apart near the final quarter, when the plot demands suddenly slam down hard on the narrative. This, I think, tends to be an abiding weakness with writers of this sort: they’re unfamiliar with plot, and so when they have to exercise it they overcompensate. Marquand, who slogged along for many years in the pulp underground, would never have gotten so heavy-handed at the climax.

So not perfect. An unfamiliarity with plot and a curious reluctance to fully commit to the most interesting character of the book (this book would’ve been much improved if it had centered on Christian), is a problem. But it mostly works, and allows Shaw to show off his talent for minature scenes while pairing them up against a storyline of real power and import, the kind of thing I think his short fiction too often lacks.

Rich Man, Poor Man was Shaw’s big hit: it was one of the first mini-series (maybe the first) with Nick Nolte and I think Peter Strauss. I don’t remember watching it, a tad before my time, but I vaguely remember the ads. It’s a popular take on that old standby, the sweeping family saga – we watch our family as their destiny ebbs and flows through the years.

The book has the same basic flaws that The Young Lions had, but worse. Whereas Lions only really fell apart in the final quarter or so, I’d say Rich Man's second half is mostly pretty shabby all around. Family sagas aren’t interesting in and of themselves, you know, except maybe to the participants concerned. They’re only interesting if they actually do something interesting, and while Shaw gives it the old college go, he’s not a good enough plotter to make the second half of Rich Man interesting. (A lot of things happen, but none of it has a lot of weight. It’s a lot of incidents strung together – here we see Shaw’s primary weakness of writing in minature.) It’s a strangely dull book, for all of the contrivances these poor saps fall into.

There’s also a curious unwillingness to fully explore the unpleasant characters: the two most interesting of ‘em are the father and the “bad” son, but the father dies off quickly and the bad son gets more complicated and less interesting as time goes on, and we spend too much time on the dreadfully dull, self-involved sister.

Some of the early sections do work, especially the “bad’ son’s odd semi-incestuous class rage on discovering his sister’s dalliance with the local richboy lush, and the father’s death, which has a genuine grim kind of power. But there’s better stuff out there than this shambling failure.

I am curious about the mini-series, though.

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