WHAT CRITIC blends Lytton Strachey's sense of irony and D.H. Lawrence's impassioned sensibility? Got it in one, did you? A self-described "literary entertainer," Marvin Mudrick likes razzmatazz; he possesses a Klieg-light mind and a style that jazzily mixes quotation, slang, and allusion with the cadences of a Bible- thumping, place-your-hands-on-the-radio, media evangelist.
For Mudrick is something of an evangelist. Not that he has any truck with Christianity or the holier-than-thou attitudes of Jesus. In his title essay he assails the latter, along with that sex-obsessed, woman-hating Shakespeare ("Beware the foul fiend Hankypanky, from whose crotch and armpit come all diseases--baldness, fallen noses and severe depression"). No, what Mudrick preaches is a personalist morality of "live- and-let-live over stand-or-die, high spirits over low . . . love over charity, irreplaceable over interchangeable, divergence over concurrence, principle over interest, people over principle."
As always, Mudrick views the figures of fiction and history as real people, open to judgment, hero-worship and dislike. Most of the essays in Nobody Here But Us Chickens tend to be arias of admiration, short biographical sketches that elevate retelling to the level of criticism. Alcibiades, Coriolanus, Trotsky, William of Orange, and Hideyoshi, among others, merit reverence because they provide models of human possiblity, lives singularly rich with purpose, political accomplishment, and personal attractiveness.
Love and sex, though, are Mudrick's favorite topics. Consider Henry VIII:
"Randy King Henry is restive because he has noticed that monogamy is the state of having one wife too many and one wife too few, so against the Church's apoplectic opposition he sets his heart on a divorce because he won't do the decent thing and just sleep with his new girl, he insists on marrying her--what a romantic!" Note the Mudrick hallmarks: a bit of alliteration, an aphorism, the juxtaposition of opposites ("decency" and "sleep with"), a slangy exclamation, and irony throughout just to confuse the issue: Is Henry doing a good thing or a bad?
Despite his iconoclasm--he refers to Hamlet as "Mr. Western Civilization"-- Mudrick is charmingly mad about the heroines of Jane Austen (who are "beautiful as heroines have every right to be") and properly bonkers over Criseyde, of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, which he once called the greatest book in the world. Fittingly, Mudrick closes his final essayessors o by evoking that graceful, passionate, heart-breakingly human wonder about to dine with her uncle: "Love, with the help of an occasional miracle, conquers all, and heroes walk in to dinner arm in arm with fair women." What a romantic!