Born-Again First Novels
BY BENJAMIN DEMOTT
PROSPECT by Houghton Mifflin, $17.95..
DEXTERITY by Simon and Schuster, $17.95..
SOMETHING HAPPENED to conventional first novels on the way to postmodernism: taste turned against them. Their protagonists—youngsters coming of age, feisty artists claiming their space—were understood to be ‟thinly disguised” versions of the authors; identification was invited; litr’y-leaning audiences empathized. But inevitably, rude questions arose. Why the disguise? Why the epistemologically naive distinction between “masks” and “real selves”? Why not go straight, in autobiography? And with the questions came a certain taunting—whose influences ranged from sexual permissiveness to the death of God—of the basic coming-of-age materials. So you lost your faith: big deal. So you discovered sex, art, and learning: tell me about it. So you want to be a great writer: who needs this?
Filmmakers continue to employ the coming-of-age story; set within its frame, fornication and violence recover shock value—as in the 1986 movie Blue Velvet. Brat-packer novelists allude to one or another of the story’s conventions in the course of composing dopehead guides. Poets poach on its turf, running up life stories in anapests, recalling first seductions and related occasions in campy tones that tease portentous dawnings. (Daryl Hine’s In and Out, a 300-page “confessional poem,” is an amusing recent example of the mock first novel in verse.) But jeux d’esprit are one thing and truly serviceable aesthetic forms are another. After an extended run in adaptations by various hands, still unforgettable in the original, the Thomas Wolfe-Eugene Gant show is off the boards; people have moved on.
One result of the movement is the appearance of first books that betray few signs of firstness—trim, skillfully arranged, un-self-indulgent narratives that get on with entertainment and instruction while directing zero attention to their authors. Bill Littlefield’s Prospect is such a work. It’s about Pete Estey, a prematurely retired baseball scout foundering in a Florida rest home, and Louise, a black maid in the home, who recovers Estey for the game of life. An energetic, giving woman and an old Dodger fan, Louise believes not only that Estey has been sidelined for no cause and is sinking into self-pity but also that if he stirs himself, he can help her grandnephew Jack, who wants to play pro ball. Part of Prospect tells how the maid entices the scout back onto the trail of talent; the rest shows us what happens when a baseball man self-defined as over the hill bends to the task of guiding one last youngster through the maze to the majors.
In a note Bill Littlefield—hitherto best known for sports features on National Public Radio—acknowledges that some baseball gossip in his book is borrowed from earlier works, including books by Roger Angell and Eliot Asinof. But no stale stuff is admitted. Littlefield is alert to the respects in which majorleague ball clubs are businesses, as computer-dependent as banks and racing stables. His insider talk feels authentic. (“Build up to your fastball. Bring it in as close to knee high and straight as you can. I want to see if it naturally does anything on its own.”) Spikes on concrete, bats rattled on a bat rack, and other sensations are vivid. So, too, are attitudes: “Sometimes [reporters and broadcasters] were so full of self-loathing in the presence of these movie-star handsome kids that it would ooze from them like blood from a wound.” What’s best about the book, though, is the current of affection flowing through it. Pete Estey needs only brief prodding to recover his caring nature. The figures who populate his memory—from the wife he’s divorced to his fellow scouts—live in his remembrance as generous and selfless. The youngster he’s currently helping is admirably unsnorty as well as gifted. Prospect is the sort of work in which other people’s good luck is celebrated with singing and dancing and grownups put the word love in play without embarrassment. People who, like myself, remember old-style first novels fondly nevertheless know better than to deny that they were one-person shows, long on Self-panegyrics. But this new-style first novel—informed, kind, touching—introduces a half-dozen characters (including one or two dotty aged) who are both solidly specified and easy to like. Bill Littlefield’s career on the fiction field opens with a standup double to center.
ANOTHER RESULT of the decline of the me-first coming-of-age story is that new writers dare to pay attention to nonliterary—even to non-middleclass—aspirations. The dream of ascent finds fresh settings; nonmaterial desire is democratized. In Douglas Bauer’s first novel, Dexterity, an oppressed young woman barely out of her teens struggles to lift herself from extremely bleak experience. The scene is Myles, New York, an imagined going-nowhere, “desolate village” in real Columbia County. The heroine, Ramona King, conceives as a school kid the hope of “stay[ing] above the common moments” of the place, believes unremarkably that she can realize that hope by marrying her high school sweetheart, suffers unremarkably a swift disillusionment—yet doesn’t capitulate. Her first attempt at flight ends with a car accident and the loss of a hand; helpless and wretched, she’s returned to her stony husband. After bearing him a son, she strikes out once more as a runaway, minus her child, this time for good.
The book’s distinction derives from the author’s own audacity; he possesses the courage of respect. He knows that wherever it occurs—among the rural or urban dispossessed, accompanied or not by clarity about or interest in the beautiful and good—the hunger to take control of one’s life, to risk all for a vision of promise, lays strong claim to dignity. He knows, further, that people rejected when the will to “stay above” asserts itself may themselves suffer humiliation, and that this deserves better than shrugging dismissal. Rage and frustration drive Ramona King’s husband hard when she deserts him. He moves out of his house into a lean-to built of junked car doors, violently attacks his best friend (a co-worker on a road crew), and commences a drunken, revenge-obsessed, hamlet-by-hamlet search for his wife. Nothing in his behavior warrants heroicizing, and nothing is heroicized; Ed King is a product less of demons than of bar-and-grill machismo, the wasteland called school, the conditions of working life. But Bauer evokes both his pride and his erratically exacting self-discipline in ways that shatter stereotypes; in place of a “representative figure” or “culturally deprived” rough diamond we’re given a believably and pitiably tormented man.
The same scrupulosity about inarticulate but substantive feelings marks Bauer’s treatment of his heroine. Early in her flight Ramona King can afford no thoughts except of survival; she’s homeless, jobless, skill-less, terrified of being returned to Myles. Later, as she begins to make her way in a job and a dwellingplace that allow her to hide her past, she meets the fiercest punisher: isolation. Attempting to imagine herself into connectedness, she spies on lives led in an apartment across the street. She joins a crowd on a station platform, pretending that, like the others, she’s awaiting an arriving passenger. She puzzles a coffeeshop waitress acquaintance by talking abstractedly—and poignantly—about babies (“A baby’s head, it’s like an egg. You think of it bein’ round, like a ball, while you hold it. . . . But it’s really like an egg”), using words that simultaneously claim and deny her identity. The novelist pauses patiently over the working world’s spare, wary sympathy with the runaway’s monologues, at once honoring the decency of it and defining its limits. “You do know something about kids,” the waitress remarks, watching Ramona quizzically. “Well, I better get hustlin’ here.”
On occasion the language of Dexterity waves for attention (“the snow was a particulate wall beyond his windshield”). Those dropped g’s and the like kowtow to stereotypes that the author at his best rejects. We’re told too little about the origins of Ramona King’s aspirations. Even by the upper Taconic the tides of life may not run as nasty, brutish, and obscene as they do in this book. Both these new novelists are, in fact, a shade monochromatic (Bauer too uniformly blackish, Littlefield too uniformly bright).
But each is strikingly accomplished. Old-style first novelists fought the depersonalizing culture their way, dramatizing the force of their feeling for their own unique young selves. New-style first novelists (to judge from the pair at hand) continue the scrap, dramatizing the force of their feeling for others. Tastes vary and time moves; the resistance is all.