A HUNDRED THOUSAND people, Theodore Solotaroff writes in his "Editor's Notes," read the first few issues of American Review (called New American Review back then). That's not a startling number in the mass-market paperback business. But it's an impressive readership for a literary magazine.
But then something happened. The magazine's popularity fell off, it went through a string of different publishers, and now, finally, AR is going out of business with this last and 26th issue, ten years after NAR No. 1.
Solotaroff believes that a shift in the mood of America is partly responsible for the magazine's decline: "In the late '60s, he writes, ". . . the imagination of alternatives was abroad in the land; much less so in recent years when in our pages, as in the culture itself, private imagination waxed while public concerns waned as objects of creative consciousness." A narrower explanation involves what he calls the "paradox" of "publishing what is essentially a little magazine in the mass market . . ."
Whatever the reasons for AR's failures in the material world, this magazine will be missed. For a decade, it has published well-known and unknown writers and made their work available to a large audience. Although the magazine has shied away from markedly experimental and innovative writing (this is especially true with its poetry), it has consistently presented first-rate work. AR has always mixed poetry, short stories and essays in its pages, with fiction as the magazine's backbone. This final issue (440 pages) is the largest one yet: there are 15 stories, six essays, and 50 pages of work by 20 different poets.
In an essay called "False Documents," E.L. Doctorow analyzes the way fiction results in "a mixing-up of the historic and the esthetic, the real and the possibly real." His own novels, The Book of Daniel and Ragtime in particular, are just this kind of "false documents." Most stories, including those in this issue of AR, are in some way "false documents" - works of fiction pretending to be factually true.
Max Apple's "Disneyad" is a good example of the false document. It is the story, Apple would have us believe, of Walt Disney and his brother Will. Walt is an ineffectual dreamer and Will a fast-talking man of action. Their relationship epitomizes the clash between material and spirtual vision. "Disneyad" is beautifully written - Will's monologues are possible the best piece of writting in the magazine.
In his famous 1961 essay, "Writing American Fiction," Philip Roth wrote that "the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality." This is no less true for American writers in 1977. Robert Stone's "A Hunter in the Morning" is one of the most violent stories in AR No. 26. It is the tale of a speedfreak American sailor's psychotic adventures. Stone reveals Pablo Tabor's damaged psyche in four scenes of vivid, cinematic power.
In "Psychopolis," British writer Ian McEwan explores Los Angeles with the imaginative authority of a Nathanael West. McEwan's characters are dislocated people with dislocated emotions. It is a tense story of people whose violent inner lives are constantly rising to the surface.
Jonathan Baumbach's "The Return of Service" is the story of a spirtual, psychological competition between father and son in the form of a tennis match. Like the ball that almost "arrives" at the end, the story is "a ghost of the imagination" in which human relationships are depicted as a series of strategies and life as a game which you can neither win nor lose. In the face of continuous deception and illusion, all that is possible is an affirmation of the complexities and ambiguities of the game.
The emotional entanglements of love and sex are treated with intelligence by Harold Brodkey in "Two Soliloquies and Several Obscenities." Brodkey has a healthy understanding of how difficult it is to say anything about the depths of human feeling, but the courage to go ahead and try anyway.
There are other excellent stories in this issue - Allan Gurganus's "Condolences To Every One of Us," Grace Paley's "Dreamers in a Dead Language," work by Fred Chappell, Stanley Elkin, Leonard Michaels, and several more.
In its ten years, AR has always been hospitable to the personal essay. Issue No. 14 featured Kenneth Bernard's wonderful piece "King Kong: A Meditation"; No. 13 included Milton Klonsky's memorable work, "Down in the Village: A Discourse on Hip." In this tradition is Robert Coover's essay on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Coover's piece, called "The Master's Voice," holds one's attention by its narrative skill and by the joy and intelligence which Coover brings to his subject.
There are some interesting poems in this last issue - work by W.S. Merwin, David Ray, Michael Lally, Kenneth Koch, Bin Ramke, and 15 others. It is easier to find fault with Richard Howard, the poetry editor, over what he excludes than what he includes. The poems here are good but, with a few exceptions, are all conventional, "academic" works.
There is also a liberal, male-dominated feel to this last issue. That may not be entirely the fault of Solotaroff and Howard. But it seems clear that more work by women writers would have enriched this last issue and added to its diversity and resonance.
But this is not fair criticism - judging something for what it isn't. What AR No. 26 is is a gracious, enjoyable, readable anthology. It is an exit in keeping with the magazine's high standards over the last ten years. Goodbye, (N)AR.