THIS MASSIVE, GRIPPING study of Clifford Odets by the wife of playwright William Gibson, a psychiatrist and now a writer who can legitimately claim to be a challenging new force in "psychohistorical biography," is one of the few $30 books I know of which is easily worth $50. As a matter of fact, if you had to shell out $100 for this red hot cannonball of a book no one would think you daffy. Ten years in the making, a cultural history of the radical '30s as well as the long-shattered but never forgotten Group Theater, it is such a thorough and sustained examination of the blistering psyche of Clifford Odets (through which an era is seen) that it keeps us in a constant state of disbelief.
How could Brenman-Gibson get so close to the secretive and tormented Odets? How could she handle the thousand bits of information--his diaries, letters, random scraps of paper that detail Odets' lifelong submission to his tyrannical father, L.J. Odets--and weave them all into a more than coherent whole without drowning under the sheer tonnage? And more, how could she keep her bold psychiatric probings so fused with the actual events in Odets' dipsy-doodle life that they make a seamless runway for our theoretical minds to take off on, even while our senses are soaking up the narrative?
Painstaking work far beyond the call of duty--the author is the "official" biographer--brought it off, but this first volume of what will ultimately be a two-part blockbuster almost never got finished. Dr. Brenman-Gibson tells us herself in the preface that if she had "forseen the time and trouble" involved in her heroic project she never would have "undertaken it." But her mentor, Erik H. Erikson, who probably initiated the entire field of psychobiography with Young Man Luther (1958), wouldn't let her throw in the towel--the entire laundromat, in this case. She persevered, somehow, and the result is infinitely more stunning than even those of us who have been aware of this project from the start could have hoped for.
Clifford Odets was one of a kind to anyone who grew up Jewish in New York during the '30s. His explosive, lyrical language--"I'd tango on a dime for you"--rang like a clarion for the thousands of urban American Jews who, until plays like Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Golden Boy and Rocket to the Moon, had no true voice to represent them in American life and literature. Even though his plots were often flimsy, and his flirtation with '30s Communism seemed grafted onto his steamily authentic lower middle-class family scenes, there was such propulsive energy and invention in his lines that people literally got up and cheered during his first plays. It was like coming home, and to any young New York Jew who lost his or her literary virginity to Odets in the '30s, the later pale earnestness of even such writers of stature as Arthur Miller seemed like compromised white bread rather than the authentic, seeded rye.
But there was another off-stage Clifford Odets who was ashamed and split about his Jewishness, guilt-ridden towards his young withering mother and crippled sister, and fearful "as a girl" when he had to confront his brutal, aggressive father. There was Clifford Odets the confused high-school dropout who wanted to be an actor and flowery declaimer of verses, and who lived for almost 10 years in a haze of fantasy and seedy rooming houses, running away from his family in both the Bronx and Philadelphia and only returning when he was homeless and hungry. All this Brenman-Gibson convincingly details for us, from Odets' birth in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906 to--as she projects ahead in one chilling flash- forward--his wild death in a Hollywood hospital in August 1963, when he accused the nurses of his last hours of trying to poison him.
But it is the in-betweens that make up the meat of this book, the almost daily births and deaths that an incorrigibly theatrical human being like Odets experienced. While never stinting on the soap-opera details that bathed Odets' life, the author's originality lies in the way she can translate significant facts (his compulsive hunt for big-breasted women, the frantic need for substitute parents and family, near-suicidal auto wrecks) into deep pre-conscious patterns that recur in his work. Sometimes Brenman-Gibson almost smothers us with the richness of her psychodynamic approach, pouring out such a stream of speculative insight that we get impatient, but that is only a short-run reaction. Before the book is finished, and even when we twist and complain that she is stuffing us with more conceptual possibilities than we can use, we are nonetheless urging her on. We are saying to ourselves, Yes, yes, only this kind of total, excessive effort can do justice to a phenomenon like Odets and those "fervent years" of which he will always be an indelible part!
Apart from the density and daring with which she unravels the irresistibly neurotic Odets--a plump, fascinating pie for someone with Brenman-Gibson's gifts-- our biographer also proves to be a very good reporter. She takes on a cast of literally hundreds of people, from those simple everyday Jews in Philadelphia and the Bronx who gave Odets the basic sour cream and chicken fat for his work to world-wide celebrities like Einstein and Franklin Roosevelt. Odets himself married the Academy Award-winning actress Luise Rainer before he was 30, seduced Frances Farmer, was intimate with Tallulah Bankhead--famous names of every description criscrossed his life like streamers from the age of 28 on, when he exploded out of the belly of the Group Theater with Waiting for Lefty. The author handles it all with care, poise and responsibility, never overly dazzled by any of the names and never losing sight of her human- rocket subject, either flying high or off-course. These first 34 years of Odets' life were not only his most creative, they are also a test of fire for any biographer. Brenman-Gibson comes through like the best of the Odets heroines, undaunted, and one looks forward to the next volume--Odets' bitterly unfulfilled years in Hollywood --with the confidence that she will redeem those years for him by the depth and devotion of her involvement.
With a teeming mural this size, however, there have to be a few faint spots. In this first volume I was surprised by the comparatively cool two or three pages given to Odets' cruel affair with the young Frances Farmer, thought by many to have triggered the actress on her seven-year trip to the unfunny farm; also by the fact that Brenman-Gibson quotes from Farmer's unsparing autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? (1972), without acknowledging it. I also missed any notion of Odets' passionate involvement with novelist John O'Hara, especially when J. O'H. is pungently quoted in Frank MacShane's recent biography, The Life of John O'Hara, as saying of Odets: "It was he, the Jew, and not I, the Irishman, who would shake his fist in the other's face. It was I, the Irishman, and not he, the Jew, who kept the peace."
But these are petty nitpicks. What truly counts is that Odets has found the best biographer his hot Jewish paprika blood could want--a woman who loves him, but also understands him in all his feverish complexity better than he understood himself--and we have just found the first half of a gangbuster biography that makes one angry the second part isn't already here for devouring.