Short Reviews



Updike: America's Man of Letters

This study of John Updike's body of work can't match Nicholson Baker's brilliant, eccentric meditation on Updike, U and I. But although William H. Pritchard's chronological approach can be plodding and his prose pedestrian, his is nevertheless a valuable, quietly passionate work. By examining every genre of Updike's writing -- fiction, criticism, memoirs, poetry -- comprehensively, keenly, in a style free of academic jargon, Pritchard amply demonstrates Updike's "fearsome articulateness, at all moments, on all subjects, in all forms"; his extraordinary writerly gift of transforming "homely" materials (what Updike characterized as "the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America") "into radiance"; and his place beside William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson as a critic "committed to speaking with conviction, wit, and authority about the intellectual and moral condition of his native land," who relies on "nothing more than a cultivated intelligence and assiduous reading." Pritchard is a perceptive critic in large ways (he judges Updike's greatest strength as lying in "his capacity for admiration") and in small (he effectively uses Updike's hilariously subtle depiction of the junk food that the incorrigible Harry Angstrom unhedonically ingests in Rabbit at Rest to illuminate what he calls that novel's "metaphorical, figural density"). Unsurprisingly, Updike's more than fifty books are of uneven quality, but Pritchard's measured examination of them justifies applying Updike's judgment of Nabokov to Updike himself: "the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship, the only writer ... whose books, considered as a whole, give the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly."




The People of the Sea

David Thomson's nonesuch of a book, originally published in 1954, recounts his intermittent travels along the Atlantic shores of Ireland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, and the Shetlands in search of old-timers who could tell him about legendary relations between mankind and the seal "people." Atlantic gray seals (selchies), with their huge eyes and mournful voices, have for ages seemed closer akin to our species than to any other that swims under the waves, and many old songs carry refrains like "I am a man upo' the land, / I am a selchie in the sea." Thomson (1914-1988), who was a documentary writer for the BBC, began his literary career with the publication of this perfectly pitched book. It carries the smell of the seaweed, the scratchiness of the crofters' life, the bitterness of their beer, and its very sound is music. The People of the Sea should raise the sights of any reader who relished, for example, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia.




The Wild Frontier

This inelegantly written and poorly argued book makes an important point: More atrocities were committed in the nearly 300 years of what William M. Osborn calls the American-Indian War than in all other U.S. wars combined. And Indians committed many of them -- in fact, Osborn estimates, more than whites. His study, which is based on secondary sources, points out that many Indian tribes had ferociously fought one another and seized one another's land long before the white man came. Rape, torture, and the murder of women and children were regular features of Indian warfare against whites, and Indians were responsible for an enormous number of white civilian casualties -- 1,500 along the Ohio River alone from 1782 to 1790. Osborn doesn't exonerate the whites, of course, and he soberly chronicles the well-known massacres of Indians at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, among other sites. Refreshingly, he concentrates on the Colonial period rather than the Plains wars, but this means he gives short shrift to perhaps the fiercest of the American-Indian struggles -- that which pitted the clannish and violent Texans against the lethal and often sadistic Comanches. Nearly three centuries of savage war exacted a terrible price on white Americans no less than on Native Americans. D. H. Lawrence wrote, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." After reading Osborn's harrowing, if often awkward, account, the reader better understands how that soul froze.




The Haunt

This is another of those dryly amusing novels -- like those of E. F. Benson and Barbara Pym -- that make one grateful not to live in an English village. A. L. Barker trains an unsentimental eye on her myriad eccentric characters, who trip and entangle one another as they bowl along, intent on their selfish whims. The action centers on the guests of Bellechasse, a modest pension on the Cornwall coast, most of whom are pining for love they've been denied. Barker snaps breezily from one point of view to another, shifting scenes every few pages, but just when the narrative seems no more than a hodgepodge, she begins to weave the characters' stories together and reveals unexpected and satisfying thematic connections. There's humor at the surface here, but darkness at the heart.

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