Joyce Carol Oates: Mysteries of Winterthurn; E. P. Dutton; New York.

When it’s literary gee-whiz time, people like Isaac Asimov — the man who produces books, stories, and essays the way that McDonald’s cranks out Big Macs, fries, and Cokes — are trotted out. In the face of Asimov, many literate persons, most of whom have trouble inventing and penning a complementary closing on the bottom of a Hallmark card, feel as if they are witnessing something truly amazing — as awesome (or awful) as a peasized moon rock. Joyce Carol Oates isn’t in the same league as some of those word-processing wonders, but when it comes to high-level belles lettres, she is without a peer. Given the number of books that she simply writes about — to say nothing of those she generates — it’s hard to imagine that a woman has time to attend to more minor things like eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene. Perhaps she doesn’t have time and this explains why she is so, well, cranky. After all, whereas a Janet Dailey can spin out a few dozen romances that will go on to sell a few million copies, she doesn’t have to worry about being serious, but simply about making sure that things are appropriately tempestuous — and it’s a fine line that she must trod. Still, the footwork isn’t too complex, so Dailey can appear glamorous while chatting with Johnny, Merv, or whomever. Oates, on the other hand, must continually stay au courant with the entire body of literature that has been produced at least since Hoover sang, as well as with the important marginal commentaries made in the foregoing works. It should come as no surprise, then, that the promo shots of Oates tend to show a woman whose hair appears coiffed by a towel and whose eyes sparkle with a patina of obsession.


Virtually all American adults with a high school education (including the dubious schooling of recent years) have heard of Asimov, Dailey, Robert Ludlum, and Louis L’Amour. Each of these writers concentrates on a particular genre that appeals to a specific segment of the book-buying public. Wealth has been the result. Would-be Prousts, Kafkas, and Becketts could, contrariwise, starve to death. Oates would probably like to be remembered along with the names in the last-mentioned group, but she seems to be seduced by the siren’s song of royalty checks that’s commonly heard by the first-named group. The tension of the situation, the simultaneous pulls from Art and Cash, makes her angry. So Oates writes genre books that are serious novels, grist not only for the front page of the New York Times Book Review, but also for the mechanics on the inside of the New York Review of Books. Oates, in effect, wants to extract revenge from book-buyers: she has, after all, spent hours in libraries pouring over classics, mediocrities, forgotten works, etc., suffered eye strain and writer’s cramp, but yet, darn it!, there’s Ludlum making American Express commercials, and even corny old L’Amour was asked to contribute to the first revamped issue of Harper’s. Talk about indignities! She’ll get her piece of the action, she implicitly vows. But with books like Mysteries of Winterthurn, it’s not likely. As the title indicates, it’s a mystery, one set during a few decades on either side of the turn of the century in new England. It has a high tone and a stylistic complexity that renders it opaque or, more to the point, virtually unreadable. Highbrow readers would, no doubt, be more inclined to stay with Henry James if they’re in the mood to puzzle out dark nooks and crannies in prose. General readers have racks and racks to choose from that bulge with better (i.e., more engaging) yarns. One could almost feel sorry for the hapless Oates. Almost.  Cc



Dirty-Scalpel Politics

Bella Abzug with Mim Kelber: Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women; Houghton Mifflin; Boston.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, radical feminists no longer perform abortions in poorly lighted rooms. Instead, they now evidently use those obscure and unhygienic locations to perform surreptitious and coercive sex-change operations on nonfeminist women. This sort of illicit surgery takes place repeatedly in Bella Abzug’s Gender Gap. Any female Ms. Abzug encounters who takes the wrong stance on so-called “women’s rights” — i.e., ERA, “abortion rights,” opposition to nuclear power and multinational corporations, concessions to the Soviet Union, and larger welfare benefits — is, ipso facto, not really a woman. Exactly what gender political leaders such as U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick or Senator Paula Hawkins have become in Ms. Abzug’s perception is not clear; however, it’s clear that they are not women. For all her strident rhetoric directed against those who want to “put women in their place,” she herself has a clearly defined political place within which she demands women stay, on pain of excommunication from the sex.

As deceitful and hypocritical as this strategy is, it works well with a credulously liberal media eager to believe that all women are on “their” side. Something like this same duplicitous semantic ploy has long been at work in racial politics, permitting anyone with left-liberal views and the correct skin pigmentation to be a “black spokesman,” while denying black conservatives any public racial identity. Jesse Jackson automatically speaks for “the black community”; Thomas Sowell can only express “his own views.” Apparently, blacks, too, must “stay in their place.” And unfortunately, until this oppressive neo-chauvinism is effectively exposed, more and more Americans will find that choosing political wisdom means confronting media-ordained authorities, stripping them of their gender, race, and ethnicity. (BC)  cc


Who Cares?

Roy Blount, Jr.: What Men Don’t Tell Women; Atlantic-Little, Brown; Boston.

Any man who has spent any time in a line at a grocery store checkout counter has undoubtedly gazed upon the headlines of the tabloids (e.g., “Michael Jackson Found Hiding Elvis!”, which tells of a 13-year-old boy named Mike who must hide his hound dog from his landlord, and “Woman Loses 20 Pounds in One Day!,” which describes an American tourist who had her purse lifted in London) then moved his orbs over to the cover of the seemingly always-present Cosmopolitan. Certainly, a man has to wonder how the cover-girls, who always make Playboy’s really look like the girls next door, can move — nay — breathe in what there is of their outfits without falling out of place. Cerebration on that subject usually lasts no longer than the point at which the coupons are surrendered. We cite the situation of males not out of some incipient sexism, but simple because we realize that the fair sex knows a few things that the other can only wonder about. (Besides that, consider: just who are those Cosmo covers designed for?)

One man whose thoughts about UFO’s captured by the Soviets and quasi-rampant cleavage continue long after the groceries are packed away is Roy Blount, Jr., a humorist of sorts whose good-ol’-boy brand of sweetly liberal barbecue sauce has made him a sensation from People to the New York Times to the Washington Post — not to mention the rouge slimnast that can be fitted somewhere amid the three. Ponder this comment written by a woman for the slight, middling, The Nation about a piece in Blount’s One Fell Soup: “One really understands testicles after reading ‘The Family Jewels,’ and one is grateful.” Acknowledging and capitalizing upon such gratitude, Blount lays out much of the same type of saucy bilge in What Men Don’t Tell Women, a book which has its roots in a magazine: not Cosmopolitan, but the Ladies’ Home Journal, a magazine which, our grocery-store cover browsing tells us, typically runs covers that have little to do with Cosmo, The Nation, or private portions of the male anatomy. While this state of affairs seems to prove that you can’t judge a publication by its wrapping, the Blount tome indicates otherwise: there he is, a well-fed, middle-aged man, wearing a tweed sports coat and an opened-neck button-down shirt who is looking very Cosmo. This is not to say that the glimpse of his neck or the cleavage formed by his second chin are sexy. But the man is wearing makeup. He is no Boy Roy, but foundation appears to have been applied to his visage with a trowel. Trendy? You bet.

Blount’s subjects — sports, drinking, chopping wood, more drinking, economics, living in the country, sports, still more drinking, sexual relations — are, more or less, masculine topics, so it might seem as if he is being true to his title: the inside stuff, though with the proper ideological spin, of course. But women, who instinctively know that cardboard can’t cure cancer, no matter what the tabloids claim, and that the Cosmo girls can’t in- or exhale during shots, certainly have Blount’s number — unless they work for The Nation or Ladies’ Home Journal.   cc


Puppets for Propagandists

Jackie DiSalvo: War of Titans: Blake’s Critique of Milton and the Politics of Religion; University Press, Pittsburgh.

Among the worst indignities inflicted upon the working classes is that of being manipulated as a ventriloquist’s dummy by bourgeois Marxists. Indeed, the suspicion lingers that were it not for middle- and upper-class radicals who hide their own list for power by projecting their self-serving opinions into a hypothetical “proletarian consciousness,” Marxism could never have been born, nor could it now survive. As literary critics, Marxists have proved even more disingenuous, casting their dialectical voice back and forth between the proletarian dummy on one knee and the badly mutilated corpse of the great writer awkwardly situated on the other knee. If Shakespeare were alive to hear what some Marxists are now glibly saying in his name, he would likely begin the renewal of the fine art of tongue excision as demonstrated in Titus Andronicus.

The lengths to which this kind of perverse deception may be carried are evident in Jackie DiSalvo’s War of Titans, an attempt to establish William Blake as a certified Marxist. As an ally to “the Devil’s party” opposed to Western religion, metaphysics, and social institutions, Blake was anything but a conservative. But as an artistic and spiritual iconoclast who “in mind and thoughts traveled to heaven” and who scorned Science as “the tree of death,” he was also anything but a political activist for the pseudoscience of dialectical materialism. As an utter anarchist, Blake was the sort of “useful” tool that communists hail as a comrade during the revolution and send to the Gulag immediately after their victory. Blake, though, would probably prefer Siberia to being linked by Ms. DiSalvo’s “mind-forged manacles” to that dreary materialist Karl Marx. Wedding Marx’s logic of “inevitability” to Blake’s “inspiration and vision,” Ms. DiSalvo announces that Blake was “a class-conscious materialist mystic — whatever that might mean.” Just as obscurantist is her attempt to endow Blake with a greater religious stature than Milton by labeling him a “Christian atheist.” Within Blake’s Beulah land, where all passionately held “contrarieties are equally true,” such self-contradictory statements — as well as Ms. DiSalvo’s delirious sloganeering for primitive tribal societies and modern technology, for community solidarity and the dismantling of every existing social order — might somehow sound harmonious. But un the world of truth and reality, it sounds merely like a self-serious Charlie McCarthy show put on by an academician who throws her voice with a forked tongue. (BC)   cc