IN HIS THIRD NOVEL, C.D.B. Bryan--he is best known for a work of nonfiction, Friendly Fire--wants nothing so much as to persuade the reader of its narrator's fallible humanity and fundamental decency. Every page aches with confession and throbs with sincerity; there's more caring, loving, openness and warmth here than could be found in a convention of Southern California interpersonal-relationship counselors. This, no doubt, in great measure explains why reading Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes is a suffocating, exhausting experience, rather akin to punching one's way out of an enormous bag filled with cotton balls; an excess of confession may be good for the soul, but it is the kiss of death for a work of fiction.
The principal subject about which Bryan's unnamed narrator wishes to confess is his relationship with women. The novel begins: "I used to think I understood women; that I could get along with them reasonably well. Now, I am beginning to realize how many I have infuriated and how, in a sense, I have been at war with women for most of my life." Thus we have Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes, a book "about men and women, about rage and resentment, about role-playing and the devastating consequences of some of the games people play"--a book, in other words, about all the fashionable subjects that rattle around in the brains of people who are determined above all else to prove themselves socially, politically, culturally and sexually hip.
The trouble with our poor narrator is that though he has had the joys of the flesh in substantially more than his fair share, the joys of the heart have eluded him; he's lucky in bed, unlucky in love. "I'll soon be forty-three," he says, "and I've never yet had a truly loving relationship with a woman. I want one. I want to feel close to a woman." His first marriage, which produced a daughter, ended a decade ago; his second, which produced a son, has just thundered to its conclusion with loud claps and peals of acrimony. Alice, from whom he is obtaining this nasty divorce, has found happiness with their neighbor, Arthur, a singularly loathsome psychiatrist; it is with Arthur's semi-ex-wife, Odette, that our narrator hopes to find the love and liberation he so desperately wants.
But before he finds the light at the end of the tunnel, our narrator first takes us on a long, repetitious and on the whole pointless excursion into his past. This of course means the exploration of the narrator's "relationships," a word that seems to appear on every other page. There were, to begin with, his mutually adoring relationship with his mother, recently deceased, and his rivalrous but friendly relationship with his older brother, also recently deceased. These deaths, and several others, have left him "immersed in death," wondering if indeed he may not be "an Angel of Death." More than anything else they have left him feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in a slough of despond that is not made any jollier by the "midlife crisis"--no kidding--in which he finds himself.
In so bleak a mood he turns for comfort to the ladies, who rush to him with an eagerness Lothario would envy. There is Nora, an instructor at a college where he teaches for a time, Nora of the impossible breasts: "When we made love they would flow, crest upward, break across her chest like waves, like surf." There is Barbara T., a cousin of Alice's, whose outbursts of passion defy description in a newspaper of polite circulation. There is Margaret, with whom he never trysts but who, after brief exposure to his radiant charisma, favors him with an obscene telephone call. And there are many others, some named and some not, but all panting to give him pleasure.
There are those who would call this heaven, but our narrator is not among them; as he sees it, in a world where all you really need is love, life is hell if you don't have it. So he lurches along from pillow to pallet, in search of the woman who can help him rise above the stereotypical roles into which custom has placed men and women, a woman with whom he can have a "relationship" in which caring and communicating and all those other nice, squishy things abound. When at last he finds her, his relief is nothing compared to the reader's.
Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes is a silly book. This is a pity, for C.D.B. Bryan has shown himself in the past to be a perfectly capable and sensible writer. But here he lapses--or collapses--into a self-indulgence that rapidly becomes embarrassing; the book is one of those first- person narratives that leaves the reader absolutely convinced, whether fairly or not, that he has been seduced without warning into a work of autobiography, and absolutely certain that the author should have kept all this dirty linen to himself. None of the characters is interesting or appealing; Alice is a harridan of such unrelieved venom that she defeats Bryan's occasional efforts to represent her as the embodiment of mistreated, housebound womankind. The sex scenes, of which there are very many, are clinical, monotonous and joyless. A good theme is introduced--the conflict between the ideal of family life and the reality of it--but nothing of consequence comes of it.
Some readers, I suppose, are going to regard Bryan as a brave fellow for confessing, in such vast detail, the conflicting attitudes, desires and needs that many men bring to their social, sexual and romantic relations with women. But bravery that ends up by saying, "What a great guy am I," has a hollow ring to it; and that, in the end, is what the narrator of Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes has to say.