Brief Reviews



Badge of Courage


Ms. Davis explains, in a graceful preface to her biography of Stephen Crane, that he has been much written about and that her own work derives from her surprise and delight at a belated encounter with his story The Monster.(She had somehow escaped The Red Badge of Courage.) Curiosity led her to research and the discovery that Crane was a versatile professional whose reports (never mind a lot of hackwork) "were forerunners of the brilliant and subjective literary journalism that would distinguish The New Yorker," while he sometimes used a "laconic prose style" that prefigured Hemingway, and his "lines" (poetry, some of it bad) foreshadowed Pound. He began life as the frail son of a hellfire Methodist preacher, became an aggressively bohemian journalist, lived in hand-to-mouth poverty, consorted with Bowery bums and Tenderloin streetwalkers, and by the age of twenty-four had achieved literary recognition and respect as a fiction writer. He acquired a scandalous reputation, a common-law wife, a beautiful and decrepit house in England, and the friendship of Joseph Conrad. As a war correspondent in Cuba, he managed to be the dirtiest and most disheveled of a necessarily grubby group. He died at twenty-eight, of tuberculosis. His biographer is probably right in assuming that Crane realized early that he had that fatal disease and decided to play his own game by his own rules in the short time in which he could expect to do so. Ms. Davis's life of Crane, initially inspired by curiosity and fueled by increasing admiration for the man and his work, is what a life should be -- well-written, fair-minded, and spirited.

Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture


Mr. Skal is a devotee of horror movies. He appears to have seen every such film ever made, barring those that have not survived -- and he has read about them. He divides the genre into the type descended from Mary Shelley's Frankensteinand the type descended from Bram Stoker's Dracula, without much consideration of the disparate origins of those novels -- fear of incomprehensible forces in the first, fear of the malignant dead in the second. Those fears have a long history in myth and folktale. That they now center on the mad scientist is little more than adaptation to current conditions. Although some of Mr. Skal's observations are interesting, they do not require a backlog of old movie plots to make an impression.


Something Happened Yesterday


Until her next novel appears, admirers of Beryl Bainbridge can survive on the wry, witty, irreverent columns she wrote for the Evening Standard.These little pieces are fine examples of the art of making something amusing out of nothing in particular. As the author puts it, "The authoritarian voice, the ring of confidence, is not for me. I'm not bothered with causes or hard facts...." What a relief it is to encounter a voice that does not ring from some ideological bullhorn.


The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty


Mr. Barry's novel covers the entire life of McNulty, a harmless Irishman badgered all the way by evils not of his making. As a youth, "having no desire to loiter the rest of his days," he joins the Royal Irish Constabulary, a terrible mistake at the start of the successful liberation campaign of the 1920s. He becomes an exile, with no safety or comfort to be found anywhere. It is a lively story, however, and compels interest both in Eneas as a character and in the varied, usually savage, circumstances that he encounters. Mr. Barry, who is a poet and playwright as well as a novelist, has a delightful, idiosyncratic, and very Irish way with words.


The First Eagle


Mr. Hillerman's mysteries are set in a decisively real world, as opposed to the kind of novels in which a world is constructed to accommodate a plot. His Four Corners area has weather, enticingly depicted scenery, bad roads, and a tangle of conflicts pre-dating the action and sure to survive it. Hopi versus Navajo, modernists versus traditionalists, new love versus old commitment, superstition versus science, are active oppositions. Even the hostility between local authorities and the "Federal Bureau of Ineptitude" can be considered permanent. In the midst of these rivalries the two Navajo policemen, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (retired) and Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee (overworked), sort out a disappearance and a murder that may or may not be connected. They are a fine pair and are given a fine puzzle.


Magritte 1898-1967


With essays by several specialists and more than 500 illustrations (350 full-color plates), this admirable volume provides a comprehensive view of Magritte's art, from his early experiments with Cubism to his ultimate position as one of the greatest of the Surrealists. The essayists are wary of definite explanations of Magritte, but David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield have retrieved the text of a lecture that the painter delivered in Antwerp in 1938. Titled "La Ligne de vie,"it described a few of the artist's experiences and explained his purpose, which was to destroy the deadly, entrenched conformity of bourgeois thinking -- a reasonable goal for a socialist. He did not explain why he thought the arbitrary juxtaposition of unrelated objects would accomplish that. What the beautifully painted, provocative images unquestionably do accomplish is to lure the viewer into creating for them whatever context imagination can contrive. The result is likely to be unsettling.

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