Abandoned Books

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

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Budd Schulberg

Schulberg’s great theme is the “why” of success, both on the upside and the downside. He’s certainly a very good observer and reporter of various worlds: Hollywood, Boxing, the Literati.

His books really aren’t what they should be, though. My problem with them all is well-stated by a Mr. Ethan Cooper, who wrote a review for Amazon of What Makes Sammy Run? (giving it four stars, yet):

I liked this book. But I disliked Al Manheim, the narrator of "What Makes Sammy Run?", much more than Sammy Glick, a person Al considers a total sleaze. Al drinks too much, he's puritanical about sex, and uniformly condemning of Sammy, even when Sammy does something -- such as starting a newspaper column about radio (The book is set in the 1930's, folks) that is actually a brilliant business move. Also, I found Al's newspaperman pose -- curt, cynical, seen it all -- dated and annoying. Plus, the critical Al was basically passive and stuck in the bar, crying in his beer, while Sammy grew a career. Sammy Glick is definitely an unethical opportunist. But he was often no worse than those he competed with. My advice: Give a guy a break Al, and stop your whining!

I agree completely, Schulberg interposes a narrator who tells/interprets the story for us, and this guy is much less interesting than the world he’s relating -- here it’s a serious flaw that Sammy Glick is just more appealing, despite being an obvious shark, than the narrator. One feels like somebody trying to enjoy France in the company of an annoying uncle who insists on lecturing you about the Euro exchange rate, you’re being subjected to something pretty much beside the point. Secondly, the morality is uninteresting, there’s a lot of tut-tutting here that’s unconvincing (after all Schulberg writes of Sammy with such relish) and unenjoyable. Read What Makes Sammy Run? and tell me who you’d rather have a beer with, Sammy Glick? Or perpetually whiny Al Manheim?

This isn’t a small thing -- I’m suspicious of morality in fiction, especially when the writer obviously is a secret sharer in what he’s creating. Schulberg wouldn’t do Sammy so well if he didn’t understand, and on some level relate, to Sammy -- so where comes all this disapproval?
Still, for all of it’s problems What Makes Sammy Run? is probably the most enjoyable of Schulberg’s novels. There’s a real snap and patter, especially early on in the book, and Glick comes across as one of those American types that people do tend to like, the guy who’ll put one over on you with but keep a glimmer in his eye while he’s doing it. The novel had it’s roots in short stories, and that’s probably why it’s best in sections -- as it goes on it seems less interesting, and in particular at the halfway point there’s a long excursion in the origin of a Hollywood Writer’s union -- honey, I could care less, truly.

It picks up a bit again toward the end, where we see Sammy’s final fate. It’s an interesting ending -- Glick is successful but isolated -- and rings true. I’m not sure how much of a tragedy it is, though. As enjoyable a character as Sammy is, he’s still kind of one note (probably a legacy from his magazine days). He doesn’t earn tragedy, and the attempt to foist some on him seems…odd to me, honestly. Glick is a cartoon, an interesting one but a cartoon nonetheless. The schizophrenic nature of What Makes Sammy Run? is that Schulberg tried to make him something more; this inability gives the novel it’s constant feel of heavy lifting.

I’m going to dispense with The Harder They Fall reasonably quickly, which is probably a bit unfair but it seems to me to be a very dated novel. Schulberg takes on the boxing world and discovers that hey, it’s a pretty corrupt game. You don’t say? Who knew? On the plus side, the irritating better-than-everyone-else narrator is less clearly on the side of the angels, indeed it’s made clear that he’s as much a part of this world as anybody else. On the minus side it doesn’t have the pure pleasure of Sammy, although some of the boxing world’s more colorful characters are amusing, in small doses. (Though too often we have to hear Lewis sneer at them.) One does finish reading wondering what the point of all this is -- and to be sure there is some lesson to be learned, that’s why we have the interposed narrator there. Boxing is a dirty game. As this paragraph began, you don’t say?

Much more interesting is The Disenchanted, Schulberg’s depressing fictionalization of Fitzgerald’s final washed-up years.

I am of very two minds about this novel. In some ways it’s finely done -- easily the best written of the three books. Schulberg once and for all dispenses with his Mr. Know It All narrator -- the book is split between the Schulberg stand-in viewpoint and the Fitzgerald stand-in viewpoint and we coast between them pretty freely. Fitzgerald is seen as spending most of his time in the past, so we flashback pretty freely, too.

It is a hard book to read. The ending is foretold, and it’s a dismal race to the bottom. That isn’t a strike against it, but it ought to be mentioned: it’s hard for me to believe that anyone outside of the most rabid Fitzgerald fans would enjoy reading this.

I don’t know enough about Fitzgerald to know whether The Disenchanted is accurate, or to what extent. I’m not even sure it’s important. Schulberg chose to write a novel, not a memoir, I think it needs to be judged on those grounds. As for the “artistic truth” of the thing, well, I’m not a big obsessor on the Fitzgerald myth -- more a Hemingway man, myself -- so don’t know if I’m in a particular place to judge that, either. Fitzgerald, to the extent I’ve thought of him, has struck me as that classic case of burnout; stick around long enough and you’ll see others. Burnout is certainly represented on the page here -- whether it has the tragic oomph it’s meant to have is hard to say. (I don’t know if I’d say I’m not interested in the situation of the artistic flameout -- I will say that this is so tied to a specific personality that you have to pass judgment on both.)

I think in the end I’ll have to just reserve judgment. Not every book is for every reader -- sometimes there’s things out there that you’re just not the audience for. I just think I’m not the audience for The Disenchanted. As far as it goes, it seems to be at least a well-meant, worthy endeavor, but I confess to simply being deaf to the notes it’s trying to sing.

(Which raises an interesting point, to me, about what I’m doing here versus critiquing in a formal sense. For the most part this blog, at least right now, is an ongoing conversation with myself about what works and what doesn’t work for me in fiction, and why, with the focus on books I might not normally gravitate to. It’s meant to be something more than just a review, as I’m mainly writing for myself, but not exactly a critique either.

Which is to say I think I could, if I wanted to, sit down, force myself to read The Disenchanted, and, whether or not I was actually sympathetic to the story -- I’m not, again -- evaluate it according to my critical standards. The fact that I don’t has everything to do with the fact that that sounds like work and I don’t think the prize is worth the effort, at least in this case. I can imagine coming across a book here that I might treat in that way, though.)

There’s an entire website devoted just to What Makes Sammy Run? I don’t know why, either:


An interesting interview in The Guardian, complete with a Hemingway story. I love Hemingway stories:


There’s some stuff about his movie work, too. He’s also known for naming names at HUAC.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Robert Ludlum

There was a time when that name really meant something. Ludlum was one of the most popular writers in the world, and the notion of a big beach thriller called “The [Adjective] [Noun]” was almost a cliché. Now? Does anyone really cop to being a Ludlum fan anymore? I see his books are still in print, but I don’t ever see anybody buying them or reading them. Maybe they do, and they just hide them whenever I pass by. I’m a terrible snob that way.

Certainly he seems to have cast no real influence on thriller writers -- the stuff that can be generally classed as “espionage” today either falls into variants of Ambler/Le Carre, Tom Clancy-esque “look at my gun”, or, most interestingly, hardboiled-ish stuff (Lee Child, say). To the extent Ludlum is remembered at all nowadays, he’s probably remembered for the Bourne novels, but that equals “being remembered for the movies” -- like Peter Benchley’s Jaws, our sense of these things come from the film, not the story.

On the other hand, if there’s going to be a time for a Ludlum revival, it’s probably now. We live in a conspiracy-saturated age, and obviously the notion of sinister cabals masterminding things is comforting, in a weird sort of way, to a lot of people. If that’s what you’re looking for, Ludlum will provide it to you in spades.

Reading through a raft of this stuff recently, the thing that struck me hardest about Ludlum was that he had great ideas. Seriously great ideas. He played the “what if” game as well as any SF writer. What if you woke up one morning and discovered you were James Bond? (the Bourne books). What if the Ivy League saved itself in the Sixties by dealing drugs? (The Matlock Paper). What if somebody kidnapped the Pope and held him for ransom, one buck from each Catholic (The Road to Gandolfo)? My all time favorite book of his remains The Matarese Circle, just because of it’s killer premise. What if all terrorist groups were controlled by a shady organization intent on taking over the world? Wait, that’s not a good premise, that’s kind of corny clichéd. But wait again! The good part of it is: what if this group was a bunch of mad Corsican bandits right out of Dumas?

Yeah, you heard me. Corsican bandits.

The Matarese Circle just comes this close to be the great pop thriller epic, an ungodly smashing together of the spy story and the Dumas Romantic epic. The conception is so delightfully nutty on it’s face that I’m smiling now just writing about it.

The problem with Matarese isn’t the idea, it’s the execution. Look, Ludlum has dropped out of favor in part because the writing really blows. Or, rather, not the writing itself, which is hardly stellar but passable/serviceable enough in a pulpish kind of way. The storytelling blows. The Matlock Paper has a fun idea, but takes itself really serious in that ridiculous, now-campy late Sixties/Seventies kind of way (this is a story that somebody should really remake as a comedy) and suffers from the fact that the bad guy is ridiculously obvious. Gandolfo tries hard to be funny and is lighter in tempo to most of Ludlum’s writing, but it ain’t that funny. Matarese unwisely kills the story momentum about halfway through, splitting up the novel’s odd couple and descending, once again into preachiness. (One of the great myths of modern writing is that bad books are empty-headed, when in fact often they’re bad because they’re full of ideas -- just not very good ones. How much would’ve I paid to have Ludlum just shut up and blow something else up or do another grotty sex scene! How much! Instead lengthy descriptions of “why can’t we all just get along”, blahblahblah, all very earnest and well meant and deadly dull.)

Like many of the folk we talk about here, Ludlum was an odd duck. A popular novelist who frankly, missed his calling. This is an idea man -- he should’ve written for the movies.

There's a lot of Ludlum on the web -- if you want to read gussied up ads. They're still flogging his stuff long after his death -- and of course ghostwriters have gotten into the act too. I can't find it now, but there was a really good post out there on a blog somewhere about the ghostwritten Ludlum and whether that represents a "rip-off" for the reader or not. I've seen some of these books, and while I think they could do a better job of hinting at the reality of the situation (a lot of those Gold Eagle books put the real author's name on the dedication page, for instance) I hardly think it's something to get exorcised about. I would suspect even the Ludlum fans who are buying these books -- well, they're probably foggy about whether or not the guy's alive, but if told he was dead and it was ghostwritten? I doubt most of them would care.

Here's some weird webpage detailing how many times Ludlum used "archives" in his books:


And here's a fun page where you can generate your own Ludlum title: