Breakfast of Champions: Quirky, possibly brilliant

T-shirt with slogan "Breakfast of Champions"
A Kurt Vonnegut Jr. drawing

Breakfast of Champions has nothing to do with breakfast or champions. It has a lot to do with what it means to be human. More precisely, it has to do with what it means to be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a human and a writer.

For his fiftieth birthday Vonnegut decided to clear his head of all the junk that was in it, including setting free the characters in his previous novels.

Discussing his plot with readers and appearing in his own book have been done before but Vonnegut makes them integral to his story. Vonnegut’s drawings have that same sense of belonging.

Writing in the first person, Vonnegut tells only one of his characters of his new freedom: Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer whose voluminous writings had been published, with no remuneration to him, wrapped around pornographic photographs.

The other characters from in Breakfast don’t know they have been freed or that they were once characters. That’s because humans other than Kilgore Trout are really just machines.

If this sounds nonsensical, maybe it is. But if it’s nonsense, what accounts for the lack of humanity people exhibit?

Kilgore Trout's final resting place.
Freed from Vonnegut’s books, Kilgore Trout became a popular lecturer on mental health.

I can’t decide if Breakfast is brilliant or just quirky, but I’ll definitely read it again.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
with drawings by the author
Delaworte Press/Seymour Lawrence, Book Club ed. 304 p.
1973 bestseller #3. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the sort of book that would-be novelists with beer and beards discuss in existential terms.

Drawing of The French Lieutanant's Woman on the cover of the novel.
 The French Lieutenant’s Woman 1st ed dust jacket.

The woman of the title is Sarah Woodruff, a young English woman enamored of and jilted in 1867 by a Frenchman, whose whore locals in Lyme Regis assume her to be.

Charles Smithson, an English gentleman enough funds to indulge his scientific avocation and a finacée who’s the adored only child of a wealth merchant, finds Sarah irresistible.

She’s equally besotted.

After a brutal mating, Charles breaks his engagement and returns to Sarah who he’s recognized as his soulmate.

She’s disappeared.

Fowles interrupts his story periodically to offer commentary on Victorian culture, the history of Dorset’s Lyme Bay, and his own authorial process, even appearing as a character in the story.

When Charles finally finds Sarah, Fowles offers two endings to the story.

One would have been quite enough.

Nothing Fowles reveals about Sarah makes her believable as anything other than the psychological case the local doctor pegs her as. Charles is nothing to write home about either.

If The French Lieutenant’s Woman had been written by anyone other than Fowles it would be called pretentious.

Because Fowles is Fowles, it’s called literary.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Little, Brown. © 1969. Book Club Edition. 480 p.
1970 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Arrangement: an Elia Kazan production in novel form

The Arrangement is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit without any clothes on.

Elia Kazan’s story gets off to a fast and sordid start.

The Arrangement: A Novel by Elia Kazan
Stein and Day, 1967, 544 p. My grade: C+.

car hit by tractor-trailer truck
Who does this deliberately?

“Indispensible Eddie” Anderson, an advertising executive (also known as Evans Arness, muckraking magazine writer, and as Evangelos Arness, son of a bankrupt Greek rug merchant) is having an affair from a girl from his office, Gwen Hunt.

Helped by a psychiatrist, wife Florence has learned to not notice Eddie’s profligacy.

Eddie leaves nude photographs of himself and Gwen where they’ll be found and brought to Florence’s attention.

Florence convinces Eddie to try to repair their marriage.

Some months into the reconciliation, Eddie drives his car into the side of a trailer truck.

While Eddie’s body heals, his mind gets increasingly unbalanced.

He ends up in a mental institution.

When he’s released, Eddie moves in with Gwen. They both work part time at a rural Connecticut liquor store. Eddie starts writing to clear his mind, moves on to writing short stories.

Eddie and Gwen are repellent characters. They don’t grow up; they just grow tired.

In the end, Eddie wonders if all the drama was necessary.

I wonder too.

Is writing fiction more noble than telling stories about consumer products?

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Of Time and the River is a tough slog

Thomas Wolfe is one of the great exemplars of the “writing is rewriting” school of literature.

Wolfe’s editor appears to have gotten tired of waiting for him to finish reworking the material in Of Time and the River and published several rewrites before Wolfe figured out what he wanted to say.

 Of Time and the River   by Thomas Wolfe

A Legend of Man’s Hunger in his Youth. Charles Scribner, 1935. 886 pages. 1935 bestseller #3. My grade: C-.

Dust jacket for "Of Time and the River" by Thomas Wolfe: white type on wave-like pattern.A southern boy, Eugene Pentland, is studying play writing at Harvard. After his father’s death, Eugene returns home.

On that slender thread, Wolfe hangs odd bits of writing, but there’s no actual plot.

Eugene attracts, or is attracted to, eccentrics, weirdos, and nutcases. Wolfe tells their stories without weaving them into Eugene’s.

While the stories are often compelling — the description of Eugene’s father’s death is a prime example — the stories cannot stand alone and serve no clear purpose in the overall book.

Some of Wolfe’s writing is sure and clean, but large portions are sluggish and bloated: I counted 149 words in one sentence.

Certain descriptions, like that of the Boston train station, appear more than once, giving the impression that Wolfe hadn’t decided where to put it.

The novel is an “interesting” book rather than a good one. In the last analysis, Of Time and the River accomplishes nothing except to prove that great writers don’t necessarily write great books.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Old Wine and New Is Pleasure for Mature Palates

Tyne Cot World War I Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery

Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New is an unexpected and rather extraordinary tale about the making of a novelist in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

Timid, gentle to a fault, scarcely able to make himself a cuppa, Spenser Scarsdale is as unlikely a hero as a protagonist can be. He blunders along through life, finding almost by accident something he’s sufficiently interested in to put in the effort to make a success of it.

Scarscale serves as a medic in France, caring for victims of the trenches. As the war winds down, one dying man gives Scarsdale an envelope to deliver to his daughter. Scarsdale falls for the girl. He leads her to believe, as he does, that he’s a reasonably well-off literary gentleman.

Scarsdale is unaware that, at 45, he’s considered a washed-up editorial hack. In the post-war slump, Scarsdale loses his job, his savings, and the girl, who never was his anyway.

Scarsdale ends up renting a room from a woman who does domestic work for wealthy Londoners.

Eleanor takes Scarsdale in hand, tactfully helping him to see that he needs to write about real life. With her encouragement, advice, and occasional behind-the-scenes manipulation, Scarsdale writes a successful first novel and follows it up with a second.

Unlike the typical novelist-protagonist, Scarsdale has no passion to write. He writes because it’s the only thing he has the least bit of ability to do, and he must eat.

Deeping’s realistic characters and believable plot will delight readers. Perhaps they may even inspire a few who are blundering into middle age still wondering what they want to do when they grow up.

Old Wine and New
Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1932
387 pages
1932 Bestseller #6

Photo credit: Tyne Cot WW1 Cemetery uploaded by ssaanen

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A White Bird Flying Lets Your Spirits Soar

A White Bird Flying is formulaic, predictable, and utterly enchanting.

Laura Deal is a sweet girl, but odd. A keen observer of life in Cedartown, Nebraska, she’s too young and innocent to understand much of what she sees. Readers more mature than Laura draw their own conclusions.

After the death of her grandmother, who encouraged her literary ambitions, Laura vows never to marry but to devote herself to writing.

Laura  lives so much in her imaginary worlds that she doesn’t know her own mind. When her friendship for Allen Rinemiller deepens into love, Laura sticks to her vow, choosing to be a spinster writer and heir to her wealthy aunt’s and uncle’s fortune.

Predictably, Laura comes to her senses, marries Allen, and becomes a farm wife just as her grandmother was.

Bess Streeter Aldrich plots the novel well; her characters are distinctive, quirky, and thoroughly human. Her musings on marriage, aging, and cultural change are warm and perceptive.

Though Aldrich does everything right, she lacks the talent to make her novel great; however, I don’t think you’ll mind too much. Laura is a sweetheart and there’s enough food for thought to almost make up for the novel’s failings.

A White Bird Flying
By Bess Streeter Aldrich
D. Appleton, 1931
336 pages
1931 bestseller # 3
My grade B
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Young Man of Manhattan, Grow Up!

In Young Man of Manhattan, Katherine Brush shows how a talented writer can make a scruffy boy-meets-girl plot sparkle.

The boy in the story is a young sportswriter, Toby McLean. The girl is Ann Vaughn, a film reporter for another newspaper. Both are still tied to the apron strings of their upbringing.

In Toby’s case there wasn’t much in upbringing. His father was an alcoholic. Toby has a reputation for being fond of the bottle himself.

Ann is ambitious. Toby is  talented but not really concerned about getting to the top of his profession.

Ann  lives within her means. Toby lives from day to day.  His pockets are always at his friends’ disposal.

Obviously this marriage is going  to require some major adjustments.

When Ann  begins to be successful, Toby knows he should be pleased for her. He tries to be, but deep down he is jealous. He would like to be successful, too, if only it didn’t require so much work.

Any writer who can make a plot this threadbare into a bestseller is good.

Brush makes these kids so young, so earnest, so hopeful that readers can’t help wanting them to grow up and be happy.

Young Man of Manhattan
by Katherine Brush
Farrar and Reinhardt, 1930
325 pages
1930 bestseller #9
My grade: B

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni