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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Evelyn Waugh

by Selina Hastings.

Houghton Mifflin, 724 pages, $40.00.

Ms. Hastings begins her excellent life of Waugh by acknowledging that her subject is widely considered both a great prose stylist and personally "a monster." She does not dispute either opinion. The first is unquestionably true: Waugh was a fine writer and, at his best, a splendid novelist. The second is, thanks to the memoirs of friends, relatives, and enemies and his own savage diaries, also well founded. When not writing, Waugh was a social climber, a toady, a parent whom his son Auberon "would willingly have swopped . . . for a bosun's whistle," a drug addict (although he probably thought he was merely taking sleeping aids), and an alcoholic whose binges lasted for days and involved an epic variety of poisons. He could be sadistically rude, usually to people who had done nothing to provoke it and were in no position to retaliate. On the other hand, when holed up working at his trade, he was reasonably quiet. He was regularly and unobtrusively generous to friends in need and to the Catholic Church, and there is much testimony to his wit and charm in conversation, although nobody seems to have recorded anything to demonstrate it. Ms. Hastings discusses the writer intelligently, with no attempt to elevate Waugh's potboiler travel pieces to classic status, but it is the doings of the monster that provide the compelling interest of her book. Whether Waugh attracted trouble or found it, the two met often and were inventive companions, remarkably rewarding to the reader safely out of reach of either of them.



My Dog Skip

by Willie Morris.

Random House, 136 pages, $15.00.

A good dog, smart, cooperative, humorous, and devoted, unfortunately grows old as his young owner grows up, but that owner's later recollection of games, pranks, near disasters, social disruptions, or just ambles around a small town on a long summer day will affectionately and extensively include his dog. Mr. Morris's Skip was a very good dog.



Polite Society

by Melanie Sumner.

Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 204 pages, $21.95.

After an opening section on marital discord in the diplomatic service, Ms. Sumner's fiction shifts to an unrelated character in the same area. Her heroine, Darren, has joined the Peace Corps for want of any better idea, and finds herself in Senegal with inadequate French and nothing to do, because the university is shut down. This may be just as well for the students, because this volunteer has no training or experience in teaching, and her notion of suitable material for a Senegalese English class is the work of William Faulkner. Her rootless situation bewilders Darren, who resorts to gin and local lovers and general blundering about in an alien society. Some of the action is funny and some is brutal, the African background and characters are always interesting, and the writing is always adroit. One may, however, eventually become a bit weary of a heroine totally devoid of common sense.



James McNeill Whistler

by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval.

Carroll & Graf, 544 pages, $30.00.

The authors have given no more attention than necessary to the dandified wit who could hold the floor with Oscar Wilde and have concentrated on the highly independent painter who battled England's smug artistic establishment, strongly influenced composition and methods, and was a major participant in the revival of serious practice in etching. His biographers assert that "in almost every genre of art, and in virtually every aspect of its production--its techniques, display and commercial marketing--his contribution was profound and lasting." They make this claim only after their fine text has provided extensive and fascinating information to support it.



The Quest for Becket's Bones

by John Butler.

Yale, 192 pages, $25.00.

Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in 1170 and subsequently honored with a bejeweled casket and shrine that were destroyed in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII. It seems a little late to seek the location of his bones, which contemporary sources report were burned and "scattered to the wind," but the discovery, in 1888, of a most peculiar burial inside Canterbury Cathedral has led over the intervening years to a marvelous lot of theorizing, speculating, arguing, publishing, and redigging, all of it most soberly reported by Mr. Butler. The affair is, in its odd way, a touching example of the hopeless pursuit of unattainable knowledge. The illustrations are plentiful, handsome, and irrelevant.



Moo

by Jane Smiley.

Knopf, 416 pages, $24.00.

Ms. Smiley's novel describes faculty intrigues and student confusions at a cow college that has developed into a state university without altogether outgrowing its agricultural past. The place is in an uproar over finances. The blatherskite governor considers Moo U. a nest of liberal vipers who waste taxpayers' money. The academics consider the governor a malign nincompoop and scramble to cut costs. An entrepreneur sees an opportunity to camouflage his latest piece of international chicanery. The cast of characters includes the pampered hog Earl Butz, surreptitiously maintained in a building known as Old Meats. Earl is one character who knows exactly what he should do and does it. He eats. He also appears to be a cannon cracker with a smoldering fuse, and it is typical of this not-quite-serious, not-quite-satirical, multi-targeted novel that his explosion, when it finally comes, amounts to no more than a damp fusee.



Flashman and the Angel of the Lord

by George MacDonald Fraser.

Knopf, 400 pages, $24.00.

In Mr. Fraser's disrespectful revision of official nineteenth-century history the abominable Flashman has arrived, altogether against his inclination, at Harper's Ferry. Flashman is as randily irresponsible as ever, and his sexual adventures satisfactorily grotesque, but the general tone of the text is less cynically irreverent than usual. It seems that Mr. Fraser has been unable to take John Brown lightly.



It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture

by Wendy Kaminer.

Addison-Wesley, 292 pages, $22.00.

Portions of this book were first published in the May and June, 1994, issues of The Atlantic.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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