FICTION

Back to the Future

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 17, 2008

THE LITTLE BOOK

By Selden Edwards

Dutton. 405 pp. $25.95

What if you could travel back in time, strangle 8-year-old Hitler and avert the Holocaust?

What if you could travel back in time and bring your grandmother to her first orgasm?

Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? These are the bizarre questions Selden Edwards explores in his novel about a family caught in a history loop. When California rock legend Wheeler Burden wakes up in 1897 Vienna -- 50 years before his own birth -- he has no idea how he got there or how he'll get back, but he recognizes the city from the stories told by his favorite prep school teacher. Conspicuous in his 1980s garb, he quickly steals some clothes from an American businessman who turns out to be his future grandfather. Big mistake: Grandpa's not the kind of guy you want for an enemy. But then Wheeler spots another time-traveler: His young father has just popped in from World War II, equally confused about how he arrived. Dad insists that they do nothing to disrupt the future, but he's dying to visit the Hitler family. Meanwhile, Wheeler can't resist the beauty of a young tourist from Boston who will someday become his grandmother. (Even when we learn they may not be genetically related, that doesn't lessen the ick factor much.)

What's weirdest about this weird story is how straight-faced Edwards plays it. As The Little Book jumps back and forth in time, everything here signals the wackiness of John Irving or John Barth, but Edwards moves through his chronology-scrambled fantasy with such earnestness and nostalgia that he smothers its potential comedy.

That problem is particularly egregious in the chapters at the St. Gregory's School in Boston, where Wheeler spends his teen years. There we meet his prep school mentor, Arnauld Esterhazy, nicknamed "the Venerable Haze," who's taught history for more than 40 years. Edwards, who went to a Boston prep school himself and later worked for several private schools, suggests in an author's note that these scenes stem from beloved memories, but that lack of emotional distance leaves no room for irony. The narrator lavishes all kinds of apparently sincere praise upon the Venerable Haze, but to me he sounds like Miss Jean Brodie in drag. Haze refers to his student devotees as his "Jung Wien." When he first meets Wheeler, he says, "We have much to learn from you, Herr Burden, as we begin writing on your tabula rasa." He prattles on about Vienna during its "time of delusive splendor." He frequently reads passages about the city "with great reverence" from "his prized source, the 'Little Book,' " and then asks the kids, "Isn't that writing absolutely exquisite?" This sounds satirical, but it's not meant to be. Edwards claims that "over the years his Jung Wien, sophisticated private school boys who could be cynical about so much in their lives, rarely directed any of their derision at the 'Little Book.' " We never hear anything from this book ourselves, but we're told again and again how great it is.

In fact, Edwards makes so many hyperbolic claims that The Little Book begins to sound rather flat, like a tall tale told without a wink. Edwards can't stop petting Wheeler and reminding us how wonderful he is. Of course, he's incredibly good looking and sexually athletic, but he also writes a foundational work of 20th-century philosophy and inspires "the beginning of the American feminist movement." (You didn't think women could do that on their own, did you?) And he throws the fastest pitch in college baseball (at Harvard, naturally). Then he writes "the most famous song of the 1970s" and becomes "one of People magazine's Most Recognizable." Then he publishes a bestselling book in the 1980s. The whole narrative is soggy with hero-worship, like the fantasy of a skinny teenage boy staring into a mirror.

Edwards does far better describing the coffeehaus culture of prewar Vienna in all its beauty, political agitation and rising anti-Semitism. Some of the historical figures here during the fin de siècle make nice cameos, too, such as Gustav Mahler and Mark Twain. After Wheeler pops into the late 19th century, he supports himself in Vienna by telling the story of his life to a young doctor named Sigmund Freud, who's convinced this strange man is seriously delusional. Their discussions provide an interesting snapshot of Freud's work in progress, but, unfortunately, the doctor never springs to life, largely because Edwards won't allow anyone to upstage Wheeler. Even the founder of modern psychology must take pointers from this brilliant rock-star time-traveler.

In the end we learn that Wheeler's family is responsible for just about every major event in the 20th century. Including the Frisbee. But we never know why or why their "lives weave together in a fatal and continuous and repeating loop." Since most readers will suspect from the outset that Wheeler and his father won't be able to avert the Holocaust, their dilatory adventure doesn't generate much suspense. Instead, the story evolves into a peculiar romance as Wheeler woos his future grandmother and helps her overcome her Victorian inhibitions using Dr. Freud's new talking cure. Their love may be doomed, but who can resist the thrill of watching the two of them "riding the wave of mutual passion to the crest"? Go, Grams! ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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