by Phoebe-Lou Adams
by Anthony Burgess.
Carroll & Graf, 160 pages, $20.00.
The late Anthony Burgess, a man of many talents and many books, did not
leave quietly. His last work is this novel in ottava rima, frankly descended
from Don Juan. Where Byron's Donny Johnny was a hapless wanderer through
a corrupt and hypocritical society, Burgess's Byrne is "a lecherous defective
dreamer" resembling someone in Homer called Margites. "Him the gods / Had not
made skilled in craft or good in Greek. / He failed in every art." Byrne is the
artist as predatory parasite. His musical compositions are hissed. His painting
exhibition is closed down by the police ("The gallery was full of ladies
fainting"). His reliable area of success is the bedroom -- preferably one
belonging to a rich widow with an itch to support the arts, although "to give
Byrne his due, he was a maker, / A natural father far more than a wencher."
Even his versifying biographer may be one of his scattered, multiracial
offspring. Byrne is last seen in Marrakesh, on the run from a bigamy charge,
discredited for cooperation with the Nazis, introducing "'My boys. / I prefer
women, but these make less noise.'" The novel's second half concerns some of
Byrne's offspring and their ludicrous attempt to rehabilitate the paternal
reputation. It is as learned, witty, and wildly rhymed as the first half, and
bloodies sacred cows with similar energy. If Burgess's satire has a single
target, it is those excesses of avant-garde modernism that have led to what he
considered dead ends. Byrne sees his proposed biography as "a cautionary
tale." It is, but a vastly amusing, sparkling, stimulating variation on that
Each highlighted book title can be ordered from Amazon.com.
Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by
by Stephen Jay Gould.
Harmony, 192 pages, $17.95.
Foreseeing much ado over the arrival of the year 2000, Mr. Gould
provides "A Rationalist's Guide" to the countdown. He covers the calendrical
history -- some of it practical, some of it absurd -- that has put us when we think
we are. He implies, courteously, that for much of the world's population A.D.
2000 has neither religious nor historical significance and is, in fact, not
2000 at all. He presents a sound defense against dateline hysteria.
Man on the
by Simon Louvish.
Norton, 576 pages, $27.50.
Mr. Louvish, who teaches at the London International Film School, must
have worked long and hard on this biography of W. C. Fields. Fields was a
superb comedian, but he was also a mischievous, amusing, and habitual liar. The
hard-drinking curmudgeon who hated babies, kicked dogs, and stashed money in
unlikely places under fantastic aliases was a deliberate invention, except for
the drinking. Fields's biographer is faced with the problem of replacing
entertaining fantasy with mere fact, and Mr. Louvish surmounts it very well
indeed, with histories of vaudeville (Fields began as a juggler), of the
extravagancies of Ziegfeld Follies, and of the uncertainties of early
movie-making, while enlivening his text with effective quotations and sketches
of everyone concerned -- a gallery of great clowns. The reader gets a sound view
of Fields and of his world.
by J. M. Coetzee.
Viking, 208 pages, $22.95.
Mr. Coetzee writes, as always, with striking elegance, but it is not
clear whether these "Scenes From Provincial Life" are to be taken as factual
memories or fictional projections. If they are fiction, the author has
afflicted his young protagonist with so many problems, real or semi-imaginary,
that the final family disaster becomes an anticlimax. If they are factual, one
cannot avoid the suspicion that any pleasant memories have been ruthlessly
suppressed. The creation of a self-operated ball-throwing rig for the solo
practice of cricket was a considerable achievement for a boy aged ten, and even
though it usually threw wild, it must have produced a thrill of satisfaction
when it worked accurately. Triumph is mentioned, but no joy is conveyed.
Individual scenes in Mr. Coetzee's text are expertly, even beautifully,
presented, but as a whole the book is ambiguous and may not produce exactly the
reaction that the author intended.
by Geoffrey Moorhouse.
Harcourt Brace, 304 pages,
Mr. Moorhouse's re-creation of monastery life in medieval Ireland is half
fiction and half history. The fiction consists of stories, dated from 588 to
1222, about the activities of individual monks on Skellig Michael, an island of
terrifying austerity and awesome isolation. The history covers the wide-ranging
and sophisticated ideological connections of early Irish Christianity, the
influence of Irish scholarship on the European mainland, the surviving effects
of pagan mythology, and other topics too numerous to list but of equal
interest. The anchorites on Skellig Michael hoped to approach the divine
through martyrdom, of which the Church recognized three degrees -- white, green,
and red. Red, actual death in the service of Jesus Christ, was the most
meritorious but not to be achieved except through outside sources -- not
available in unpersecuted Ireland. The men on Skellig Michael counted on a
combination of white and green -- unheated stone huts, constant hard work,
inadequate clothing, miserable food, and limited sleep. There are no statistics
on life expectancy in the community. Mr. Moorhouse writes with eloquence and a
quiet humor calculated to charm even the blackest of heathens.
by James Mackay.
Wiley, 288 pages, $27.95.
He was "The First Private Eye," a Scottish cooper who came to the United States
in 1842, established a prosperous business in barrels, and was lured into
detection when he accidentally revealed a talent for catching crooks. His
company still exists, and many of Pinkerton's methods are still in use by
police departments and the FBI. A simple success story -- except for the details
of criminal gangs and Civil War espionage, which provide a steady run of lively
The Origins of Angling
by John McDonald.
Lyons & Burford, 286 pages,
"The Treatise of Fishing With an Angle" was written around 1420,
according to tradition by a nun and noblewoman whose name, spelled with
medieval insouciance in her own time, is here given as Juliana Berners. Mr.
McDonald and his assistants (Sherman Kuhn, Dwight Webster, and the editors of
Sports Illustrated) have been unable to document the existence of Dame
Juliana, but why should anyone doubt it? Who in the sixteenth century would have
invented a sporting nun? And why? This handsome book contains a modern English
translation of the treatise, a facsimile of the surviving manuscript with a
printed version on the opposing pages, and illustrations of the flies mentioned
in the treatise. There is also bibliographic and antiquarian detail for the
pleasure of specialists. Modern anglers will find that despite unfamiliar terms
and the English setting, Dame Juliana was sound on the essential requirements
for success on pond and stream: good gear, proper weather, and water with fish
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 4;