THE CONNECTION to London wasn't very good. Still, merely getting Dan Kavanagh on the phone was an accomplishment. The woman who answered first said he was there, but "he might just have gotten in the bath. But then he might not."
He hadn't, it seemed, although Kavanagh sounded surprised to be talking to a reporter. "I'm rather difficult to track down. People don't often get through my complicated answer-phone service," he said. And no wonder, when you look at some of the biographical details on the back of his latest mystery, Going to the Dogs (Pantheon):
"After an uncompromising adolescence he left Ireland when he was 19 and roamed the world. He has been an entertainment officer on a Japanese super-tanker, a waiter on roller skates at a drive-in eatery in Tucson, a bouncer in a gay bar in San Francisco."
On the phone, Kavanagh confirms that he was "schooled in the university of life. Knocked around a bit. What can I tell you?" A soccer goalie, whose playing made up in aggression what it lacked in finesse. A steer-wrestler. Currently working at odd jobs he declines to specify. He adds that he flew light planes on the Columbian cocaine route. When it's pointed out to him that even his publishers call this a boast, he adds mildly, "Where else would I have gotten the necessary background for Fiddle City?"
Fiddle City, a sly smuggling tale, was Kavanagh's second book about the neurotic bisexual detective Duffy. Going to the Dogs is the fourth. It begins like this: "There was a body in the video library. It was hard to miss, as these things are . . ." It's all a bit strange, and so, on the evidence of these novels, is Britain in the '80s.
The really odd thing is that Kavanagh is a pseudonym for Julian Barnes, who tried to play it straight throughout this interview but did not succeed entirely. Barnes' background -- Oxford, literary and television reviewer for fashionable magazines -- doesn't have much in common with Kavanagh's, and neither do the four rather wild Duffy books bear any resemblance to the four acclaimed novels, which include Flaubert's Parrot and Staring at the Sun, Barnes has written under his own name.
Of course, that's the point. Whereas Barnes' literary hero is Flaubert, Kavanagh says he harks back to Ed McBain and Marco Polo. And Kavanagh also allows Barnes to be less constrained by either the niceties of formal fiction or by reality itself. "Anything you need to add," Kavanagh tells his interviewers, "please invent."
Making Many Books
HERE'S ONE way to measure inflation: When Eudora Welty's classic short novel The Robber Bridegroom was first published in 1942, the author received an advance against royalties of $500. Last month, it would have required the same sum merely to buy a copy of a new edition of the book. Pennyroyal Press, the West Hatfield, Mass., firm owned and operated by wood engraver Barry Moser, printed 150 copies at that price, bound in leather and signed by the author and illustrator. They all sold, too.
This is more than just another fine press story, however. There's a simultaneous trade version of the book, available from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It's done in the same size, with the same moodily effective illustrations, but sells for only $19.95. And, according to Pennyroyal's Jeff Dwyer, one wouldn't exist without the other.
"Harcourt paid for Pennyroyal's production costs, and gave us the rights to the limited edition," he says. "In return, we gave Harcourt a fully designed and illustrated book. In essence, they were able to use a small press as a sophisticated book packager. Meanwhile, Welty got the book back into print in hardcover -- and she'll get royalties."
Pennyroyal had been doing the same kind of thing with classics -- its deluxe versions of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Dante's Inferno, The Aeneid, Frankenstein and other titles were published in scaled-down editions by the University of California Press. Now that the ice has been broken with a contemporary writer, they're moving full steam into the 20th century. Next up: Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and a collection of recipes annotated by Truman Capote.
All in the Family
IN THE beginning, there was Donald Barthelme. His lean, brightly colored, enigmatic stories and novels have been going in and out of fashion for over 25 years, always maintaining a consistent (some would say interchangeable) quality.
Then came Frederick Barthelme. In the last five years, he's written two novels, Second Marriage and Tracer, and two collections of short stories, Moon Deluxe and Chroma. His fiction uses spare dialogue and a fascination with the surface of events to depict banal characters adrift in the New South.
This season the Barthelme clan has really gotten its act together, with debuts from two more brothers, Peter and Steve. The first wrote Push, Meet Shove (St. Martin's), a novel featuring an intrepid but indulgent Texas ad man. The second has And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story (Johns Hopkins), a collection of sharp, short pieces about trouble in paradise, talking cats and relationships going bad.
"These kids -- we didn't do anything special with them," says their 80-year-old father, also named Donald. "We didn't control them, or direct their interest in any field. We left them alone and they all still turned out to be writers."
Peter, 48, is a Houston ad man. Steve, 40, taught writing at the University of Southern Mississippi until early this month. ("You could say I'm looking for work," he offers.) Neither remembers his childhood as being excessively literary, although Steve says "ideas were certainly the coin of the realm. And in the milieu we grew up in, jokes were highly prized. They created an affection for language." Adds Peter: "I always say we didn't have a television set, so we all read instead."
The jacket of Peter's novel notes coyly that he is "a member of a well-known writing family." His guess is that initially, with the agent and publishers he showed his work to, "they had a favorable inclination because of the name. If my name were Smith, I could assume it would be more difficult. But in the minus column, I'm writing a very different sort of book than any of my brothers, so I could have raised false expectations."
Steve's jacket doesn't mention his family at all. "I told them not to do that. It's like Caesar's wife -- not only do you have to be righteous, but you have to be above suspicion." Besides, he says, it's not the point. "Here's the book. You either like it or don't like it. Who my family is or what my dog looks like really doesn't have anything to do with it."
Their parents keep track of all these literary efforts. (There's a daughter, too, who's an "executive PR-type person" for an oil corporation.) "For each of the children, there's a folder," says their father. "Some of them are pretty bulky. Pete's was the last to be set up. He's been doing pretty well lately, though." And then he hastily adds, "They're all wonderful. That's a father's statement, of course."
The First Lady
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT transformed and was transformed by the office of first lady. Never again, after her time in the White House, was the president's wife not the object of intense media scrutiny. But Roosevelt also was savvy enough to use the media to advance causes she deemed important. And she turned her newspaper column, radio commentaries and magazine articles into a means of asserting her independence from FDR.
So argues University of Maryland journalism professor Maurine Beasley in Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media: A Public Quest for Self-Fulfillment (University of Illinois Press). "I wouldn't say the subtitle is true about any of the first ladies since Eleanor," Beasley said. "She was trying to be her own person. Since it was a marriage of convenience, her whole life was a search for her own identity."
This wasn't the book Beasley intended to write. She had done her dissertation on 19th-century women Washington correspondents -- the female journalist is not as much of a modern invention as it sometimes appears -- and was seeking to extend the story to the present. Research on reporters of the '30s yielded to an increasing fascination with Roosevelt's own career as a journalist, and to her vast but almost-forgotten influence as a role model.
"Her newspaper column was read by a lot of women, and it helped them see there was a world outside the home," says Beasley. "The kind of articles she wrote, although not radical, would tend to make women more interested in politics, or at least in something other than mopping the floor or raising children."
In the Margin
AMONG THE events commemorating the recent centenary of The International Herald Tribune was the publication of The International Herald Tribune: The First Hundred Years (Columbia University Press), by Charles L. Robertson. In the same manner as Waverley Root's recently published autobiography, The Paris Edition, Robertson's unofficial history offers amusing evidence as to how much creativity there once was in journalism. On at least one occasion in the 1920s, there wasn't enough news to fill up the front page, so seven Herald reporters were told to write stories on a topic of their choosing. Writes Robertson: "The results were interesting -- the reappearance of a bandit believed long dead in Nevada, the discovery of a new monster in the deserts of New Mexico -- and no one ever seems to have known that they were made up" . . .
One of the stranger books to come down the pike in quite a few months is Thomas P. McCann's Why I Don't Jog, Play Tennis, Bicycle, Swim, Row or Dance (published by Boston's Quinlan Press). The book wasn't so much written as assembled; it consists of actual obituaries (with the names and personal details blacked out) of people who have died while exercising. There's even a scholarly afterword by Dr. Arthur Siegel, who makes the point that "while nearly every individual can benefit from a program of regular, moderate physical activity, exercise is not without its hazards." ::