Abandoned Books

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

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Irwin Shaw

When I was talking about John P. Marquand, I was talking about “directed” writers, writers who are looking to tell the reader something, who sit down not just with pen and paper, but with a definite theme in mind. I contrasted that with “non-directed” writers, who care more about the other aspects of fiction: characterization, scene-setting, and the like. Yes, admittedly this division is somewhat arbitrary, but people who read a lot know what I mean. It’s not hard to tell the difference.

It’s not a value judgement, though it might seem that way at first glance. Yes, I guess all things being equal I would prefer to see writers who care about the art of fiction, not a message. There’s nothing entertaining about somebody preaching to you. But it’s very easy to think of great writers who were “directed”, and lousy writers who were not. And it should be said that at least a directed writer isn’t going to waste your time. Good, bad, or indifferent, you’re at least sitting down and standing back up and something’s been accomplished in the interim. Whereas non-directed writers, the one’s who suck, anyway, do tend to make one weep out of tedium.

Irwin Shaw is a good example of a non-directed writer. He had real talents, but they tended to be in minature – it’s not a surprise that to the extent he’s remembered at all nowadays he’s remembered as a short story writer. His novels tend to fall apart, especially when the plot demands kick in. Yet he grew rich and famous off of these books: Rich Man, Poor Man was the source material for one of the earliest mini-series. Unlike Marquand, who’s success I still see as something of a puzzle, it’s not hard to understand why Shaw became famous. People love big books you can just drop into and disappear. I do, anyway.

But for now the short stories. Are they any good? Well, do you like the typical sort of New Yorker short story? The one where all the action is revolved around a kind of epiphany for the main character? Shaw’s stories all tend to follow that formula. I personally am skeptical of that kind of story, mainly because for it to work the writer has to really have an observant take on the human condition, and Shaw doesn’t strike me as having anything especially important or interesting to relate. I read through the Five Decades collection and some themes do tend to repeat themselves: a mistaken notion that ethnic Judaism is in and of itself interesting; a mistaken notion that athletics, especially football, have something to say about the human struggle; a notion that defeat lies in the heart of even the happiest moment, which I guess is true more or less but seems rather banal to me.

They’re not badly written by any means. They’re smooth and they bop off the page nicely and the whole thing’s carefully crafted to showcase the epiphany in the best possible light. I just think it’s an uninteresting thing to try and do.

“The Eighty Yard Run” is probably his most famous story: A football hero has the highlight of his moment in a big college game and it all goes downhill from there. Every painful moment of his slide is carefully and painstakingly presented, with every last bit of empathy carefully wrung out of the situation, but in the end it all seems pretty meaningless to me. Nobody’s on top forever – this is profound how, exactly? It doesn’t help that our protagonist is so unlikable at the start of the story: One spends one's time sort of hoping the guy would fall, and fall hard, just to get that smug self-assurance off of his face.

(One of Shaw’s peculiarities is that he’s rather better at writing unsympathetic characters than ones he obviously feels something for. We’ll touch on this later with The Young Lions, but for now I’d like to point out that he obviously clearly identifies with his faded sports hero, and seems to take for granted a kind of identification that in fact he needs to earn.)

Shaw did write one short story that I really like, and would recommend to anybody. In “Sailor off the Bremen”, a group of men and a woman take a violent revenge on a sailor who had seriously wounded one of theirs. It is more Hemingwayesque in tone than many of his others, and all the better for that . But more, it transforms Shaw’s general feelings about the endless cycle of pain and loss in life into something active. It’s always better when you can dramatize a feeling, rather than crystallize it into an epiphany. Stories should flow, move. “Bremen” is also worthwhile for showcasing one thing that Shaw does very well: writing about violence and its effect on men. This was something Shaw understood first hand.



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