Reading List January/February 2005

Easier Said Than Done

Five novels by critics who learned their lesson

I Thought of Daisy, by Edmund Wilson (1929). Even Wilson later found this story of a man torn between a poet and a chorine "very schematic, and the scheme does not always succeed, for it is sometimes at odds with the story." Wilson was torn too, between Proust and Joyce. Neither triangle's resolution proved satisfactory.

The Chariot of Fire, by Bernard DeVoto (1926). Wallace Stegner once wrote of his fellow essayist and westerner (and Atlantic contributor) DeVoto, "He died of a heart attack in New York City, where he would not have wanted to be found dead …" This forgotten novel about an itinerant evangelist wasn't DeVoto's last or his worst, but publication the following year of Sinclair Lewis's vastly superior Elmer Gantry effectively consigned it to oblivion.

The Flight to Lucifer, by Harold Bloom (1979). When asked how she could judge movies without ever having made one, Pauline Kael would answer, "You don't have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good." With this "gnostic fantasy," whose very flap copy is a potent soporific, America's best-selling literary critic proved he could lay an egg with the best of them.

Crybaby of the Western World: A Novel of Petit Guignol in Long Beach, California, by John Leonard (1968). Both Susan Sontag and John Leonard grew up in southern California, and then hastened to Manhattan to make up for what they saw as lost time. Leonard wrote one mediocre novel and, unlike Sontag, took the hint.

The Rock Pool, by Cyril Connolly (1936). In his review George Orwell sniffed, "Mr. Connolly rather admires the disgusting beasts he depicts." The writer William Boyd recently called this novel of a British artists' colony in France "an interesting failure," and found it "self-conscious, straining for effect"—and that's from a Connolly fan. This book and I Thought of Daisy are the only two on this list in print; it's hard not to suspect they'll go out before the others come back in.

David Kipen is the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR's Day to Day.
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