JOHN WAIN'S new novel, The Pardoner's Tale , is a Very Good Book. That is to say, it is neither a great book nor an unusual book (except in the somewhat specialized context of the world's growing illiteracy), nor is it a particularly remarkable and arresting book; rather, it is sturdy, solid, and executed with grace and craft.
Nobody on this side of the water seems to write Very Good Books anymore; it may be the only monopoly the British still possess. American novelists in these latter days seem to divide themselves into three rough categories-either writing a lot of hysterical junk and dreaming of millions of bucks from the paperback sale, or attempting with enormous earnestness to turn themselves overnight into F. Scott Fitzgerald (and, like Upton Sinclair who aimed for the nation's heart and hit its stomach), producing reams of stuff that sound like The Boy Scout Handbook written by Thomas Wolfe, or opting for the dreary sort of avant garde writing that largely consists of writing about how hard writing is.
There is none of this fuss and feathers in The Pardoner's Tale ; it starts in one place and goes to another, obedient to the laws of physics and the norms of humman behavior. No one is killed, inventively or otherwise, although there is a death; no tedious exterior point is being proved; there are no windy implausible speeches. The protagonist is a novelist, usually a bad idea, and he is composing a novel within the novel, usually an even worse one. Wain nevertheless pulls it off, and if the ending is a trifle sentimental, it can only be said that people are far more apt to have sentimental things happen to them than they are to be murdered in discotheques, slaughtered with horse pistols by demented teenagers, or possessed by the devil, to name only a few of the things American writers have been putting their characters up to recently.
Wain's protagonist is Giles Hermitage, a 50-year-old writer shattered by the defection of his girlfriend to a bounder in Australia. Hermitage's protagonist, in turn, is Gus Howsam, an aging waif separated from his wife and on the verge of an affair with a beautiful runaway actress. No sooner has this development began to take shape beneath his pen than Hermitage is summoned to the bedside of a dying admirer, where he finds himself inevitably drawn to the daughter of the house, a somewhat stunningly compulsive professional guitarist and, needless to say, ravishing beauty. So far, so good. Summarizing a novel's plot tends to make the whole undertaking sound shallow and tricky if not down-right silly, but to this point Wain's hand is sure and his grasp of his material is firm. True, not a very great deal has happened, most of it entirely predictable, and The Pardoner's Tale is clearly not going to set the world on fire, but this is more than offset by the tremendous relief one feels at encountering a novel inhabited by intelligent people who also happen to be entirely sane. Then the trouble begins.
In his recent fictions Wain has been a great one for resisting temptations; it has been his consistent undoing as a novelist, and it again proves so. The book's most conspicuous and successful device-the novel within the novel-remains stubbornly and flatly that: a contrivance that certifies Hermitage as a practicing member of his profession, revolving about a character whose adventures sometimes parallel those of his creator and far more often do no such thing. While this doubtless has a great deal to do with how certain kinds of novels (novels such as this one) manage to get themselves written, it is also the sort of non-event that George Bernard Shaw used to call an unfired gun; that is, if the author places a pistol on a table during the course of Act I, he is obliged to have someone pick it up and fire it before the final curtain rings down, even if nothing comes out but a little flag.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of Wain's admirable restraint getting the better of him or perhaps it is something else, but he seems unable to explore the rich possibilities of the contiguous worlds he has wrought. He has achieved surprise, established tension and secured the reader's attention only to leave the novel hanging in the air. Its major confrontation-that of Hermitage with his creation, Howsam-not only unresolved but virtually nonexistent. We end where we began, with a Very Good Book, a civilized artifact that fits snugly into the contours of the mind like a well-made piece of country furniture whose purpose has been lost.