DO NOT JUDGE this book by its bland and disingenuous title: Much else about On Not Being Good Enough is very good indeed. Roger Sale, the author of Modern Heroism -- a study of D. H. Lawrence, William Empson and J. R. R. Tolkien -- and, most recently, of Fairy Tales and After , writes in the introduction to this new collection of his essays and reviews that it is not just his own work he wishes were better, but that "moment-to-moment in these essays it must seem I am always a little too deliberate, too measuring, too quick to say when a writer has been not good enough." This is disingenuous too. Sale is, beyond all else, an appreciator of his subjects: contemporary novels; his better-known fellow critics; cities.
One of these essays, "The Golden Age of the American Novel," is a small feat of appreciation, considering that Sale's golden age is the last 20 years, a period during which many critics said the novel had died or had been transcended by everything from new journalism to serious biography. Yet here is Roger Sale: "The novel is alive, of course, was never even close to dead, and seems now to be enjoying something very much like a golden age, a period that people in fifty or a hundred years can look back on as we now do on Victorian fiction, or English Renaissance drama."
Sale backs off from this assertion someuhat, admitting that the age offers no George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, and adding that "it is not so much undoubted masterpieces as abundance of wonders that makes a golden age anyway." But Sale is interesting along the way. He describes many of the most important writers of the last 20 years -- Bellow, Mailer, Pynchon, Heller -- as "imperial": "My aim in using the word 'imperial,' of course, is to suggest an analogy between these writers and their period, and to say that while most of these writers detest the American empire, they were in fact also expressing it, and deriving some of their enormous strength from it . . . These writers share with the empire a ruthlessness in their imaginative assertions, and a tendency to sweep aside or to subsume such external objects as other human beings." quotes a passage from Gravity's Rainbow , about which he says, "As a certain kind of writing I doubt if this can be bettered. It is so assured, so replete, so eager and able to follow its own path as far as it can go, so strong and piquant at once, that one might claim that such writing is, if not justification for the American empire, at least the beginning of an apology for it."
What is so admirable about this essay is Sale's willingness to accept and to appreciate these writers on their own terms without ever losing sight of what those terms are ("the great and obvious flaw of imperial fiction is its piggishness, its nigh scandalous treatment of women . . . )."
Sale is not a critic without teeth. Take the opening sentence of one of these reviews: "John Hawkes' The Blood Oranges fails because it is the work of a contemptible imagination." Or this, from his introduction: "It is relatively easy to face a writer like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., or some other purveyor of the fashionable; with them the task is simply to say why the results seem so distasteful." Or this, about Of a Fire on the Moon : "[Mailer] is committed to trying to see the very big in the very little, to make all events potentially symbolic, because his whole success as a reporter has been based on his ability to do just that. But here, where he really has very little to say about what is happening, we are left, often quite embarrassed, with a technique that suddenly makes Mailer seem a driveler and a show."
Sale is full of pith and free of vinegar. He saves his harshest words for those with the biggest reputations, and even then his harshness is considered. As for writers who are uncelebrated, Sale ignores those who deserve that fate and celebrates those who don't. "Unknown Novels," the first essay in this collection, is a loving work of scholarship on behalf of novels -- many out of print -- which Sale thinks ought to have more readers. This is an act of generosity for readers, as well, because, as Sale writes, "anyone who has known the experience of a book that remains memorable knows that is is impossible to have too many such experiences."
One book in particular among these unknown novels, Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief , Sale mentions again and again, calling it "the best American novel I have read since, say Herzog." Sale continues, "If Weesner goes on writing, I trust he will be recognized, but if not, someone ought to make sure to buy a hundred remaindered copies of The Car Thief to give away as presents." By someone Sale no doubt means himself; this is the mental note of a connoisseur. He is as anxious to discover and to share new novels as any oenophile with a new Bordeaux or gardener with a new day lily.
His enthusiasm boils up in other sections of the book as well. There are a warm appreciation of Marvin Mudrick, his fellow critic at The Hudson Review ; a defense of Hugh Kenner; a favorable review of Irving Howe's The Critical Point . But he does not hesitate to take on such Olympians as Rene Wellek, Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. In the section of -he book about cities, Sale, who has written a history of Seattle, where he lives, shows the same affection for neighborhoods that he has for novels. He deplores the work of planners, and writes, "Since the end of the eighteenth century . . . cities have become more their own masters, more subject to internal rather than external change . . . Constantine or Shah Abbas or Peter the Great could make a great city by command, but after cities become mechanized this could not be done, as Washington, Ottawa and Brasilia show." Sale does not claim to understand cities, but to understand how complex they are, that they can only be known block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood, and that that is the scale on which they ought to be planned.
On Not Being Good Enough left me wondering what Roger Sale would say about many other writers, especially writers who deserve to be more widely read. He is a critic one wants to work harder and harder.