M A Y 1 9 9 8
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
by George MacDonald Fraser.
Carroll & Graf,
Is it possible that Mr. Fraser has exhausted the supply of satire-worthy
Victorian wars? His latest novel concerns boxing in England at the end of the
Napoleonic Wars, when a former slave from America made a brief but spectacular
career in the ring. The subject gives this adroit historical novelist a wide
field for period slang, technical explanations in the lingo of the time, and
the eccentricities of the Fancy. Most of the book's characters were real
people, allowing for deft parodies of Hazlitt and of the sporting press. Prinny
makes a brief appearance. The story is told by a number of observers whose
voices and points of view are nicely distinguished. The bare-knuckle bouts are
bloody and savage. If the novel lacks the excitement and humor of the author's
Flashman tales, it is probably because the reader knows from the start that Tom
Molineaux, ex-fieldhand, cannot survive in a strange country where "the
allegiances and alliances of the prize ring are somewhat more confused than the
intricacies of the Spanish Succession, and ... its rivalries and vendettas
cast the petty intrigues of the Borgias quite into the shade." Poor Tom is no
hero. He arouses the kind of abstract pity that one might feel for a rat in a
laboratory maze. He cannot be amusing, and the author does not attempt to make
him so. The novel is a story of a march to disaster in a grim world.
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by Donald McCaig.
Norton, 448 pages,
Mr. McCaig's fine novel begins in the mountains of western Virginia shortly
before the Civil War, and follows the members of three white families and their
black slaves through the hostilities. The whites are all loyal Confederates,
although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The blacks, equally interesting
and important characters, consider the changing world and keep their plans to
themselves. All the characters develop as the murderous fighting wears on,
modifying beliefs and conduct for better or worse, doing things they had never
contemplated and enduring what they had never thought possible. These changes
give the book its impressive persuasiveness as a re-creation of realities that
underlie much of what has happened since in this country. Mr. McCaig rarely
takes the reader inside the heads of his characters. What they do and say shows
how they think and forces the reader to think as well, while the lively, and
still relevant, action proceeds.
At the Water's Edge
by Carl Zimmer.
290 pages, $25.00.
Mr. Zimmer, an honored science journalist, reports what has been learned (and
how, and by whom) about two great evolutionary events -- the conversion of fish
to land animals, and the subsequent return of land animals to the sea. These
studies depend on the discovery of fossils, and fossil hunting, although slow,
can be almost melodramatic in the jolts and surprises it inflicts on
paleontologists and the entertainment it provides for Mr. Zimmer's readers. The
author observes that "there is always a little sadness mixed into great
discoveries because they take away some of the confusion that brightens life."
Mr. Zimmer avoids confusion but leaves life among the fossils agreeably
The Smart Set
by Thomas Quinn Curtiss.
Applause, 272 pages,
While purporting to be an account of the co-editing of The Smart Set by
George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Mr. Curtiss's book is primarily a history
of the New York theater during the years in which Nathan battled against the
prevalence of sentimental stupidity on the stage. Mencken's similar campaign in
the publishing world does not get a fair shake, because the author is an
impassioned theater buff. With the writer's bias accepted, the book is
unpretentious, anecdotal, breezily readable, and essentially superficial.
by Christopher Lloyd,
With photographs by Howard Sooley.
Willow Creek Press, 256 pages,
Mr. Lloyd is a well-known gardening authority in Britain. He has learned to
cook what he grows. He shares his expertise in both areas. The horticultural
advice may not always apply on this side of the Atlantic, but it is clear,
simple, often quietly humorous, and no more likely to lead a hopeful amateur to
disappointment than the dreams aroused by seed catalogues. Mr. Sooley, an
accomplished fashion photographer, presents peaches and parsnips in the highest
style. The collaboration pleases the eye and tempts the tongue.
by Stephen Calloway.
Abrams, 224 pages,
Mr. Calloway quotes one Chris Snodgrass -- "Beardsley's stylized irony
recuperates the dislocations it reveals, serving to reinforce the anesthetizing
effects of his harmonizing aesthetic techniques, adding another veneer of
'style' to distance and mitigate the dissonant metaphysical implications his
works expose." Mr. Calloway then promises not to undertake a similar
approach -- to the great relief of any sensible reader -- and keeps his word with
contemporary sources for the facts of Beardsley's career and a minimum of
speculation on possible reasons for the artist's addiction to the sexually
ambiguous and the subtly subversive. A precocious success at twenty, dead of
tuberculosis at twenty-five, Beardsley was, quite simply, like nobody else in
his control of line and his use of black and white space, as the book's
illustrations prove. One can only wish there were more of them.
by Donald Hall.
Houghlin Mifflin, 81 pages,
Mr. Hall's poems on the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, are direct,
devoid of obvious poetic devices, dependent on ordinary words and the patterns
of the speaking voice. That voice, however, is extraordinarily moving as it
evokes helplessness amid the tangle of medical equipment, the pain of watching
a loved partner die, the feel of a house where "Your presence ... is almost
as enormous / and painful as your absence." With the dog on one side of the bed
and the cat curled on the other, he notes, "I'm what they've got; / they know
it," and leaves the reader to finish the thought. Summed up in "Remembered
happiness is agony; / so is remembered agony," the anguish of loss strikes like
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 5;