IT'S NOT EXACTLY that the old typewriter won't start up on this review, nor am I flushed a bewitching shade of crimson from the roots of my thinning hair to the points of my wingtip collar. It's just that, well, every once in a while a book comes along that causes a parting of the ways between the reviewer and many of his readers, and my hand is hesitant because I fear such a sundering of our little fellowship is about to occur. I realize that these enlightened times have been characterized by many great advances in taste -- conceptual art, discotheques and nouvelle cuisine being examples of a telling pertinence -- but in these matters one also has to consider the mothers of America, to say nothing of the sensibilities of Senator Garn. Therefore, before embarking upon the dark waters of this essay I subjected the book in question -- Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald -- to one of the most stringent acid tests known to contemporary man. I lent it to my mother. My mother is a respectable Republican lady of settled habits and a certain age. By a happy chance, she also happens to be a constituent of Senator Garn's. I am pleased to reveal that Mom had a whale of a time.
Steeled by this outcome, I feel at liberty to reveal that Dahl, who has written a number of delightful children's books in addition to gratifying quantities of hair-raising short stories for the older set, has seen fit to undertake a children's book for grownups, a sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory featuring sex instead of fudge. In a way, it is an answer to the secret prayer of every literate parent who has ever succumbed to the literate parent's besetting vice: i.e., reading ahead in T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose rather than curling up with a good Mailer after the little ones are safely abed. Breathes there a mommy or a daddy with soul so dead who has not done just that?
Of course, there are rules to such an undertaking; we will not have our pleasures simple, and they must conform to certain hard and fast rules, largely of British inspiration. The fantasy should be exotic, but not so exotic that we can't imagine ourselves in the thick of it. Ideally, it should also begin with the discovery of a talisman possessing unusual powers. With this talisman, the ingenious hero will then set forth on a quest, from which he will emerge laden with riches and knowlege and, perhaps, an interesting wound. Along the way, he will encounter adventures, overcome adversity, behold wonders, confront perils and never be called upon to meet a dental appointment. He will acquire companions scarcely less qualified than himself, but they will be specialists with handy skills, whereas the hero is a generalist rather along the lines of Buckminster Fuller. In the most adult versions, he will also wench.
There is nothing very profound in any of this, but it's a lot of fun. It has been left to Roald Dahl, however, to introduce the element of gender -- beyond, that is, the element of gender as represented by the hand of the princes, to which the rest of the princess is attached only by implication. Otherwise, the mixture conforms to type, but with certain inevitable modifications.
As his hero, he has chosen a youthful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's detestable Basil Seal. He calls this creature Oswald Cornelius and obtains for him a quantity of Sudanese Blister Beetle powder, the world's most powerful aphrodisiac (the talisman). This event occurs in 1912, in Paris, in the highest diplomatic and social circles, and, needless to say, young Cornelius is not only in luck but, almost immediately, in the bucks. Reality intervenes in the form of World War I, but by 1919 our unscathed protagonist is back at the same old stand, assisted by a poverty-stricken Oxford don named A. R. Woresley and a luscious handful of jailbait named Yasmin Howcomely.
Woresley has invented a secret process for diluting and indefinitely storing fertile sperm. Howcomely is a sort of, er, mailbox. Once a hidden cryogenic vault is established in England under Woresley's supervision, Cornelius and his lissome companion sally forth into postwar Europe to obtain samples from the likes of King Alfonso of Spain, Jean Monnet, Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw (the quest), using a forged letter from George V as a foot in the door and Cornelius' magic powder as an icebreaker. The idea, noble in its simplicity, is to hold onto the stuff for a few years and then sell it for outrageous sums to royalty- and genius-crazed women whose husbands will, presumably, be none the wiser for having ostensibly sired an offspring with a Hapsburg lip. The reward (the reward) is riches beyond the dreams of avarice.
Frankly, I though the seduction of Proust was in bad taste -- Proust's. Shaw got what was coming to him, though, and Puccini was a dreamboat. As for the rest, the reader will doubtless have his own favorites. I suspect that Dahl's lighthearted little fairy tale will not exactly be all things to all men, if only because so many people take sex so much more seriously than they take, say, trees, nor does it have much to offer to the slap-and-tickle crowd. Alas, it is less than this, a delightful tale trimly told, all about sperm and greed and cunning and stuff like that. No pun intended, but I had a whale of a time, too.