The dead man whose funeral is the social event that kicks of the novel is a rich, ruthless Hollywood producer. Mourners come to impress other mourners—no one had any respects to pay— and to see if there’s any way they can profit from Harry Bell’s death.
Davis’s “beautiful people” are losers with more money than brains and more ego than money.
The novel has a huge cast of characters playing unmemorable roles badly. There’s a lot of sex, little plot, and nothing that is either worth remembering or memorable.
The Pretendersis the only one of the nearly 70 years of bestsellers I read for this blog that I wasn’t able to finish. I gave up somewhere around page 200, and I refuse to try again.
John Ashley Nail read the entire book and has intelligent comments about it on Amazon.
Alexander Portnoy, Assistant Human Opportunity Commissioner for New York City, is a psychological mess, and it’s all his parent’s fault.
At least that’s what he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, in Philip Roth’s aptly named Portnoy’s Complaint.
Alex suffers from stereotypes.
He’s the brilliant and personable only son of a New Jersey Jewish couple. Alex’s eighth-grade educated father slaves for a Protestant insurance company, selling life insurance in the black slums. His mother cooks, cleans, kvetches.
Alex grew up being alternately praised to the hilt and told he was a disgrace to his family.
At 33 he’s still unmarried. His professional life is devoted to doing good for others.
His nonprofessional life is devoted to activities discussed primarily in four-letter words.
Alex’s monologue mixes exaggeration with self-deprecation. His occasional flashes of insight are masked with jokes.
He tells his shrink, “I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public.”
Roth’s novel is genuinely funny, but as he lets Alex makes readers laugh, he makes them see how emotionally frail Alex is.
Roth’s technical skill and his humanity — plus the final punch line — combine to produce a hopeful portrait of a damaged man.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Random House, 1969. 274 p. 1969 bestseller #1 My grade: A
Eponymous Myra Breckrenridge is as repellent a character as you’d ever not want to meet.
And she’s absolutely fascinating.
Gore Vidal presents Myra’s story as her confidences in her diary, written as therapy on the urging of her dentist and analyst, Randolph.
Myra is in Hollywood to attempt to get money she believes owed to her by Buck Loner, her late husband Myron’s uncle. Buck had built a flourishing acting school on land willed jointly to him and his late sister, Myron’s mother.
Buck says he’ll get his lawyer on it; meanwhile, he invites Myra to join his faculty to teach courses in Empathy and Posture.
Myra and Buck set out to swindle each other without dropping the pose of family bonding.
Myra for 20 of her 27 years in imagination cast herself as a the female lead in films she saw while growing up.
But Myra doesn’t want the subservient roles: Myra hates men, and she’s determined to dominate them.
Despite his heavy hand with satire, Vidal makes the transgender Myra believable and human.
I didn’t like Myra the person or Myra the novel, but I felt I did something necessary and respectful just by exposing myself to Myra’s perspective.
Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown,  264 p. 1968 bestseller #7. My grade: A-.
Handsome, aimless Elmer Gantry is sent by his mother to small Baptist college where he plays football, drinks, and chases women.
By a fluke, he becomes the champion of the campus preacher boys and is sucked into becoming a Baptist preacher.
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1927; 432 pp. #1 on the 1927 bestseller list; My grade: B.
Elmer escapes a shot-gun wedding at his first church, blows his chance at another church by getting drunk, and ends up as a traveling salesman for a farm equipment company.
On the road, Elmer falls in with a female evangelist, then with a “New Thought” lecturer until he attracts the notice of a Methodist bishop.
Elmer converts to Methodism, and uses his considerable talent for promotion and publicity to good advantage.
There’s money to be made in religion, plenty of applause, and lots of willing women.
Elmer comes close to catastrophe more than once, but he always seems to land on his feet.
The term “Elmer Gantry” has become synonymous with clerical hypocrisy. However, Sinclair Lewis is less concerned with Elmer’s womanizing than with the mercenary religious establishment that shelters him.
The novel is more satire than exposé. Elmer Gantry is too funny for anyone to take Lewis seriously.
I laughed out loud at lines like, “He had learned the poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”
Chucking the workaday world for tropical beaches is a paradise most of us only dream about.
Norman Paperman tries it—and his inventor, novelist Herman Wouk, tells the tale.
Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk
Doubleday, 1965. 395 pages. 1965 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.
Norm is bored with his work as Broadway publicity agent when a mild heart attack signals he needs a change of pace.
With encouragement from millionaire Lester Atlas, a hard-drinking slob he can’t stand, Norm buys the Gull Reef Club on the island of Amerigo, which Lester assures him will be a gold mine.
Lester gets the gold and Norm gets to do the heavy digging.
Norm knows nothing of the hospitality business.
He’s unprepared for the loonies and eccentrics on whom he must rely to make the hotel run.
In addition, he finds certain aspects of life in the West Indies—such as hurricanes, earthquakes, lack of drinking water—too far off Broadway for his liking.
Norm finally learns to put his managerial skills to work in the strange surroundings. He’s on the verge of a success of the hotel when a series of tragic accidents produce a shocking ending that upon closer examination appears entirely reasonable.
Wouk makes the boisterous story laugh-out-loud funny, but the guffaws cover some serious growing-up for the middle-aged non-hero.
According to notes in the Book-of-the-Month Club’s edition of Candy, Terry Southern in his pitch to his novel’s eventual publisher said, “Candy satirizes American culture.”
He might more accurately have written, “Candy satryizes American culture.”
BOMC says the novel is “a lusty romp” — I’ll accept it’s lusty — “centered around the impossibly sweet Candy Christian.”
Candy, a luscious university sophomore, is every parent’s definition of impossible, but she’s not sweet. She’s just dumb.“Good grief” is Candy’s favorite line, which shows her intellectual and emotional range.
Candy spends her days Thinking Deep Thoughts about How Best to Serve Mankind and usually ends up merely servicing men.
She isn’t particularly choosy about the men.
Southern ran into problems finishing the story, so he called in Mason Hoffenberg to help. Together they managed to get the thing stopped, but the damage was already done.
The fact that my regional library system had culled all its copies of the 1964 bestseller is indicative of how little merit the novel had.
I rarely throw out a book, but Candy is going in the trash. It isn’t worth the 99¢ I paid for it.
By Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
Book-of-the-Month Club edition, 1994
1964 bestseller #2