Jacqueline Susann’s Dolores is her best

It’s no oversight that Jacqueline Susann’s Dolores omits the usual disclaimer that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidence.

Dolores with sunglasses pushed up on her forehead
Sunglasses protect the ex- first lady Dolores Ryan’s privacy.

Title character Dolores Ryan is the widow of a popular U.S. president assassinated in a southern state; details about that assassination are echoed in Dolores as are other society gossip column details about Jack Kennedy.

Susann takes those tidbits, invents a childhood for Dolores, creates a private personality for her, and then proceeds to explore what someone with that personality would do when she suddenly finds herself out of a job as First Lady.

After a discrete year of mourning out of the limelight, Dolores begins trolling for a sex partner with money. When Dolores says money, she means tens of millions.

And she wants those millions attached to someone at the highest rungs of the social ladder.

Can Dolores get what she wants?

Notably for Susann, Dolores is a slender novel, due in no small part to the novelist’s decision to leave the details of Dolores’s sexual encounters to readers’ imaginations.

What’s left isn’t great literature, but it’s a far better piece of fiction than any of her earlier novels.

Jacqueline Susann’s Dolores
William Morrow. ©1976, 201 p.
1976 bestseller #2. My grade: B
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Humboldt’s Gift: A look at a life

Humboldt’s Gift is a ramble through the mind of Charlie Citrine, pejoratively described by friends and relatives as “an intellectual.”

Saul Bellow invites readers to tag along as Charlie revisits his past and explores his options for the future if a gift from an old friend allows him to be more than “a formidable mass of credentials.”

All text cover of Humboldt's Gift
Will the rest of Charlie’s life all sunshine like the novel’s cover?

Charlie came east in 1952 to see Literature being made.

In New York, he met Von Humboldt Fleisher, a poet living on the fame of having published a book of highly acclaimed ballads at age 22.

Due in no small part to Humboldt, Charlie became a writer. But unlike Humboldt, Charlie made a fortune doing it.

When the novel opens, Humboldt has just died penniless.

Middle aged now, Charlie has a good life, aside from lawsuits by his ex-wife, trouble with the IRS, an expensive mistress, death threats by a mobster, and an inability to write.

He says he keeps “being overcome by the material, like a miner by gas fumes.”

As death loomed, Humboldt left Charlie a legacy.

Can it put Charlie’s life to rights?

You may wish you knew only half as many of Charlie’s thoughts as Bellow records for readers, but you won’t escape the odd feeling that you’ve known Charlie.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, 1975. 487 p.
1975 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Choirboys are no angels

The Choirboys in blue carry billy clubs like this one.

Author Joseph Wambaugh knows cops. He worked 14 years for the Los Angeles Police Department until, with two novels and a nonfiction book to his credit, he quit to write full time.

The Choirboys is a about five sets of partners working the LAPD night shift. They are an oddly-assorted bunch, including military veterans, college graduates, do-gooders and do-others-first types.

They have nothing in common except the shared misery of doing a thankless job directed by incompetent supervisors for a public that hates their guts — and choir practice.

Choir practice is what the boys in blue call their weekly booze and broads bacchanals in MacArthur Park.

Officially, choir practice doesn’t happen because nothing LAPD officials refuse to admit happens, happens.

The guys in the patrol cars are on their own with disastrous results.

Less a novel than a collection of episodes, without Wambaugh’s frequent references to the shooting that would happen later The Choirboys would hardly pass for a novel: 10 main characters are about eight too many.

Wambaugh gets the details right, though. The topics of conversation and the language remind me of working the police beat as a newspaper reporter—and of why I hated working the police beat.

Cops are not choir boys.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Delacorte Press ©1975 346 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Looking for Mr. Goodbar: A powerful depressant

The woman’s position is decidedly uncomfortable.

Theresa Dunn is nobody you’d particularly notice. She’s an average looking girl with average intelligence who teaches first grade in a New York City school.

One of five children, Terry like millions of others attended parochial schools and like thousands of others was paralyzed by polio in the decade after World War II.

Polio made Theresa different.

That and the accidental death of her beloved elder brother who was more like a father to her than her father.

Hospitalization warped Terry.

Afterward she yearns for love and fears its impermanence.

In the sixties, she slips into the drug culture, looking to booze, marijuana, and sex to fill the hollow left from childhood.

Novelist Judith Rossner’s rendition of the vibe of Terry’s childhood trauma felt right to me: I survived a far less serious case of polio.

Whether Terry’s childhood trauma predestined her to adult misery and led to her murder is open to debate — and in today’s opioid epidemic is worth debating.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a slender novel on a serious topic, quickly read but not easily forgotten.

It is, however, a profoundly depressing novel.

Ready your preferred drug—good chocolate, hot tea, or a copy of Pollyanna—for a chaser.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner
Simon and Schuster ©1975 284 p.
1975 bestseller #4. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fan Club: Another name for rape

Depending on your gender, Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club is either about the ultimate high or the worst degradation.

The Fan Club acts out its fantasies.

An interview fabricated by Sharon Field’s PR agent reveals Hollywood’s “Love Goddess” longs for an ordinary man to love her.

Adam Malone, a part-time grocery clerk and wannabe writer, enlists three other  equally ordinary, and equally gullible men to kidnap Sharon believing if she meets them, she’ll willingly have sex with them.

The four agree if Sharon won’t willingly participate, they’ll release her.

Once they have Sharon in an isolated mountain cabin, Adam’s quixotism is trampled by his three accomplices’ sex drive.

The men tie her down and rape her.

One beats her.

Using her dramatic skills and retentive memory, Sharon fights back.

A less skillful writer than Wallace would have reduced the kidnappers to stereotypes. Wallace makes each of them distinct individuals whose behavior is as plausible as it is despicable.

He also makes clear that when sex is used to sell entertainment, the entertainment industry must accept some blame if people believe the stories they’re told.

Wallace blows his superb plotting with what may possibly be the most implausible ending on any 20th century novel.

The Fan Club by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster [1974] 511 p.
1974 bestseller #10. My grade: B.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

I Heard the Owl Call My Name: A Novel

Owl flying across the moon is image on I Heard the Own Call My Name
Cover art has a fantasy feel.

Doubleday says I Heard the Owl Call My Name is Margaret Craven’s her first novel, but that description is a bit overblown. Owl is really a longish short story. All the narrative bones are in place without the flesh and guts to make it a novel.

A Catholic Bishop sends a young, newly-ordained priest to a remote Native American community in British Columbia where running water means a river. There are no roads, no electricity, no telephone, no doctor.

Young Mark Brian has to adjust to a new role in an unfamiliar culture among people whose language he doesn’t know in a rural village miles from anyone he knows.

Mark is quickly captivated by the setting: the sea, rivers, fish, animals, and landscape enthrall him. The children are next to win his heart.

Mark is blessed with ability to listen and empathize, not forcing his ways on his congregation. Unlike most outsiders, Mark realizes the value of the traditional native traditions.

He is as torn as many of his parishioners are at the realization that the community is doomed to extinction.

I wish another writer had attempted to turn this story into a novel. A novel of this sort requires the author get inside the characters. Craven doesn’t do that.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name
by Margaret Craven
Doubleday, [1973] 166 p.
1974 bestseller #8. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Something Happened

All -text cover of Something Happened is not interesting
Its dust jacket is as boring as Something Happened.

Joseph Heller’s 9174 bestseller Something Happened is a long-winded tale told by a mid-level, mid-career company man, Bob Slocum.

Bob talks like a bright sixth grader, bubbling with joy at potty jokes and inserting “ha, ha” to show when he’s trying to be funny.

Bob had an unhappy childhood, which set the tone for an unhappy life.

Bob became a man in a gray flannel suit who wants desperately to have an even better suit, which he probably won’t get, and even if he did it probably wouldn’t fit right, but he shouldn’t worry about the suit because nothing ever goes right for him and he’s already 40 and he has an unhappy wife and an unhappy teenage daughter, and pre-teen son who is a mess of insecurities and a brain damaged son who will never mature beyond a five-year-old’s level.

Bob knows he’s a revolting individual, but he is convinced he’ll never change.

He’s right.

Heller takes readers through 560 pages of Bob’s narcissistic monologues, coming back again and again to the same stories and observations that were boring the first time.

Then on page 561, something happens.

By that time, readers will be a numb as Bob is.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Knopf, 1974, [1st ed.] 569 p.
1974 bestseller #5. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni