Brief Reviews

Black Ajax

Is it possible that Mr. Fraser has exhausted the supply of satire-worthy Victorian wars? His latest novel concerns boxing in England at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when a former slave from America made a brief but spectacular career in the ring. The subject gives this adroit historical novelist a wide field for period slang, technical explanations in the lingo of the time, and the eccentricities of the Fancy. Most of the book's characters were real people, allowing for deft parodies of Hazlitt and of the sporting press. Prinny makes a brief appearance. The story is told by a number of observers whose voices and points of view are nicely distinguished. The bare-knuckle bouts are bloody and savage. If the novel lacks the excitement and humor of the author's Flashman tales, it is probably because the reader knows from the start that Tom Molineaux, ex-fieldhand, cannot survive in a strange country where "the allegiances and alliances of the prize ring are somewhat more confused than the intricacies of the Spanish Succession, and ... its rivalries and vendettas cast the petty intrigues of the Borgias quite into the shade." Poor Tom is no hero. He arouses the kind of abstract pity that one might feel for a rat in a laboratory maze. He cannot be amusing, and the author does not attempt to make him so. The novel is a story of a march to disaster in a grim world.

Jacob's Ladder

Mr. McCaig's fine novel begins in the mountains of western Virginia shortly before the Civil War, and follows the members of three white families and their black slaves through the hostilities. The whites are all loyal Confederates, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The blacks, equally interesting and important characters, consider the changing world and keep their plans to themselves. All the characters develop as the murderous fighting wears on, modifying beliefs and conduct for better or worse, doing things they had never contemplated and enduring what they had never thought possible. These changes give the book its impressive persuasiveness as a re-creation of realities that underlie much of what has happened since in this country. Mr. McCaig rarely takes the reader inside the heads of his characters. What they do and say shows how they think and forces the reader to think as well, while the lively, and still relevant, action proceeds.

At the Water's Edge

Mr. Zimmer, an honored science journalist, reports what has been learned (and how, and by whom) about two great evolutionary events -- the conversion of fish to land animals, and the subsequent return of land animals to the sea. These studies depend on the discovery of fossils, and fossil hunting, although slow, can be almost melodramatic in the jolts and surprises it inflicts on paleontologists and the entertainment it provides for Mr. Zimmer's readers. The author observes that "there is always a little sadness mixed into great discoveries because they take away some of the confusion that brightens life." Mr. Zimmer avoids confusion but leaves life among the fossils agreeably bright.

The Smart Set

While purporting to be an account of the co-editing of The Smart Set by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Mr. Curtiss's book is primarily a history of the New York theater during the years in which Nathan battled against the prevalence of sentimental stupidity on the stage. Mencken's similar campaign in the publishing world does not get a fair shake, because the author is an impassioned theater buff. With the writer's bias accepted, the book is unpretentious, anecdotal, breezily readable, and essentially superficial.

Gardener Cook

Mr. Lloyd is a well-known gardening authority in Britain. He has learned to cook what he grows. He shares his expertise in both areas. The horticultural advice may not always apply on this side of the Atlantic, but it is clear, simple, often quietly humorous, and no more likely to lead a hopeful amateur to disappointment than the dreams aroused by seed catalogues. Mr. Sooley, an accomplished fashion photographer, presents peaches and parsnips in the highest style. The collaboration pleases the eye and tempts the tongue.

Aubrey Beardsley

Mr. Calloway quotes one Chris Snodgrass -- "Beardsley's stylized irony recuperates the dislocations it reveals, serving to reinforce the anesthetizing effects of his harmonizing aesthetic techniques, adding another veneer of 'style' to distance and mitigate the dissonant metaphysical implications his works expose." Mr. Calloway then promises not to undertake a similar approach -- to the great relief of any sensible reader -- and keeps his word with contemporary sources for the facts of Beardsley's career and a minimum of speculation on possible reasons for the artist's addiction to the sexually ambiguous and the subtly subversive. A precocious success at twenty, dead of tuberculosis at twenty-five, Beardsley was, quite simply, like nobody else in his control of line and his use of black and white space, as the book's illustrations prove. One can only wish there were more of them.


Mr. Hall's poems on the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, are direct, devoid of obvious poetic devices, dependent on ordinary words and the patterns of the speaking voice. That voice, however, is extraordinarily moving as it evokes helplessness amid the tangle of medical equipment, the pain of watching a loved partner die, the feel of a house where "Your presence ... is almost as enormous / and painful as your absence." With the dog on one side of the bed and the cat curled on the other, he notes, "I'm what they've got; / they know it," and leaves the reader to finish the thought. Summed up in "Remembered happiness is agony; / so is remembered agony," the anguish of loss strikes like a fist.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 5; pages 129-130.

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