A Novel of the Literary Life by Mary Bringle (St. Martin’s: $11.95)
Mary Bringle knows it all and tells it all. But who will want (or need) to read it?
Everyone who has written down scraps of dialogue on a napkin in a restaurant, gone shamefacedly to a writers’ conference, written his or her own name and imagined it on a book.
Also: Every human being who has rolled a piece of paper into a typewriter and then looked at it. Everyone who has exaggerated a romance, or a goodness, or a villainy. Everyone who has bought a word processor because it “makes everything so much easier” (except that it doesn’t).
Let’s up the ante to “real” writers. Everyone--every writer--who ever took a magazine assignment to pay the rent should read this. Or you who thought that writing was glamorous and fell in love with it, but when glamour wore off, that other attachment remained, so you stay in, hanging on like a punch-drunk boxer.
Watch Yourself Reading
Everyone who has a second self (a person who watches as you put on makeup, hit the home run, slip on the stairs, take the dancing lesson, see your spouse in a restaurant with someone else, and feel it, feel the pain, but watch yourself feeling it); everyone with a watcher should read this book. As should everyone who creates a second world and then gets stuck in it and hates to come out.
And this is a book that should be required in every creative writing class, because this is what it can come to if you aren’t John Updike. And even Mr. Updike may suffer from the ailments of these “characters"--how could he not, and be a writer? Because it’s all there, even down to the ritual visits to your first novel in the (branch) library, to prove to yourself that your “second self” is still alive; frail and under an oxygen tent, OK? But alive.
Four people meet twice a month at a nice Irish bar on New York’s Upper West Side--there used to be more of them, 10 at least, but they’ve fallen away. The four writers who continue to meet, over a low-budget lunch and a couple of Bloody Marys, have been deserted on the one side by defectors to Hollywood and its easy money, and on the other side--even more horrible--looms the specter of their former colleague who died at the typewriter at the age of 53, after having penned 111 novels.
A New Grub Street
These people are not John Updike, nor were they meant to be. These are--by their own designation--"hacks,” writing pseudonymously, churning out genre fiction on a 20th-Century New Grub Street.
Clare, age 38 and still beautiful, pretends she has an interesting life, and does, compared to the people she grew up with. She writes historical romances and is obsessed with her handsome fictional hero. Joseph, a gentle man who wrote his dissertation on Christopher Marlowe, writes a desert warfare series featuring Hawk Matthews, who walks across rooms “with the animal grace of a panther pursuing its quarry.” Sigrid, who is blond and in her 20s, doesn’t care for sex and--like Lurene in “From Here to Eternity"--has a master plan for getting out of this literary house of prostitution: She writes bodice-rippers. And Douglas, the oldest and meanest, writes hard-boiled novels “in the tradition of Raymond Chandler.”
Do they publish in hardcover? No. Do they get reviewed? No. They write original paperbacks and exist on checks of $5,000 every six months or so. Two questions inevitably arise from this material: Why do they do it, and how are they different from the ordinary barflies who belly up to Eugene McClory’s bar?
Fact and Fiction
Mary Bringle answers the second question repeatedly and ingeniously, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning figuring out how she loved her husband. Bringle brings each one of the four up for our inspection, and then, for contrast, shows us Eugene, who--for better or worse--lives in a “real” world, of drama and manners, loss and love, but with no watcher to record it all.
There is life, Bringle says, and Mr. McClory lives it. And there is genre fiction, where men punch each other and don’t muss their clothes, and women get raped and don’t seem to mind it. “You are being explicit about things that do not exist,” the bartender thinks. But genre fiction is with us--as are television, drugs and hard liquor--to blot out the things that do exist. (In this book, it’s wives who leave, or men who abuse their children, or Alexander Haig--who surely in his relatively short life as a public figure must have been mentioned snidely in almost as many novels as Nixon himself.)
Nobody Wants It
Yes, there is a third, almost unspeakable alternative for these soi-disant “hacks.” That way is the equivalent of putting your hand palm down on the waffle iron when the plug is in. It hurts . Truth, art, reality hurt. And when your “real” book is done, “Nobody will want to buy it, Joey dear. All that work and personal Angst , all those lovely words and pages of stuff you could weep over . . . nobody wants to read them, Joey.”
Why do they do it, then--stand sadly outside the Palaces of Art? Bringle takes the position that if you don’t already know, she can’t tell you. If you do know, she lays out the psychic map of why with perfect precision, perfect compassion.