By Harold Pinter
224 pp. $17.95
THE DWARFS is Harold Pinter's only novel. He wrote it early in the 1950s, before turning his hand to plays. In 1960 he distilled from it a short play also called "The Dwarfs," but this is the first time the earlier work (somewhat polished and considerably cut, Pinter tells us) has appeared.
I am a fervent, grateful admirer of Pinter's plays and screenplays. I suspect, though, that he probably did not miss a calling as a novelist. Like the play "The Dwarfs," the book centers on three old friends -- Len Weinstein, Mark Gilbert and Pete Cox -- all young Londoners searching for their adult selves. Len plays violin, writes poems (and bits of a grim, cryptic narrative about two dwarfs named Pete and Mark), tinkers with mathematics and works at Euston Station as a porter. Mark is a womanizer and sometime actor, often unemployed. Pete has an office job in the city. His girlfriend Virginia (excised from the play) teaches school.
Not a lot happens. The friends sit. They talk. They argue. Eventually Len goes to Paris, where he gets sick after eating some Camembert. Eventually, too, Virginia breaks up with Pete and takes up with Mark. In the manner of very young people, all three men use one another as yardsticks to measure themselves.
More interesting than the story are the many influences that can be sniffed in the prose. Pinter's spare, strangely freighted dialogue was already (with some exceptions) all his own, but the narration -- what little there is of it, anyway -- shows traces of writers as various as Joyce and Beckett, e.e. cummings and J.P. Donleavy. Shakespeare, "Hamlet" especially, is littered throughout -- rather chaotically though, like the aftermath of a pillow fight. And there are puns and amusing non sequiturs of the kind that not long afterwards enlivened the dialogue of the Beatles' movies.
This is the work of a palpably young Pinter. One feels his pleasure in his own cleverness and that of his friends. Sometimes this youthful quality verges uncomfortably on adolescence, as when Pete, groping to define himself, admits, "I once thought I was a genius." Yet some of the author's enduring themes -- notably, sexual jealousy and betrayal -- are already present. Only once, though (when Pete confronts Mark after he and Virginia have gone to bed) does the novel approach the rich, menacing tension of the plays.
Two other hallmarks of Pinter's later work are notably missing here. The first, necessarily, is the "Pinter pause" -- and I suspect it is this, and the brooding richness it contains, that he could never have developed as a novelist. The other is attribution of dialogue. The reader spends an awful lot of time counting back through pages of speech to find out who said what.
By Max Schott
155 pp. $17.95
MAX SCHOTT'S Ben is a brief, gentle novel about a boy with a dying mother. Max is 11 or 12, the only child of Myron, a well-to-do scientist, and Kate, whose brain tumor has reduced her to a state of helplessness Max would quite naturally rather not think about. (The fact that the boy's first name is the same as the author's inevitably lends an autobiographical poignancy to the book). So he spends as much time as he can with Ben, the easygoing stablehand who sees to the horses on Max's father's ranch in the hills of Southern California.
In telling his story, Schott also spends as much time as possible with Ben and Max, so much so that the wrenching drama of Kate's illness unfolds off to one side, like a pantomime, while Max's friendship with Ben and Ben's own difficult marriage take center stage. Eventually, Ben leases a spread for himself up north, near Stockton. Max spends a summer there during which Ben, struggling with heartache and alcohol, loses a good deal of his shine in the boy's eyes. A few last pages move the story forward a year and a half to allow for a somewhat unsatisfactory -- because slightly sentimental -- resolution.
Schott, who is best known for his first novel, Murphy's Romance, used to train horses himself before taking to writing and teaching. His style is clear, simple and unerring, and to this tenderfoot, at least, his scenes of trick riding, livestock auctions and ranching are totally persuasive and engaging.
Michael Lee West
335 pp. $18.95
CRAZY LADIES, a wonderful first novel by Michael Lee West, is both intensely Southern and intensely female. It tells of the lives of three generations of Tennessee women: Miss Gussie Hamilton; Queenie, who comes to keep house for her; Miss Gussie's daughters, Dorothy and Clancy Jane; and their daughters, Bitsy and Violet. Each of these women narrates a part of the novel, then lapses into silence for a while as another continues the tale. Miss Gussie begins it with a terse account of one harrowing day in her life in 1932; Queenie speaks next, jumping the story to 1938. The third section is narrated by the teenaged Dorothy in 1945, and so on up the years to 1972. It's a very tricky way to write a book. West (like Clancy, the author is a woman with a traditionally male first name) manages it flawlessly.
In fact, I can't think of enough nice things to say about Crazy Ladies. The voices are sharp, wry and utterly convincing. The story -- which takes Clancy out to San Francisco in the heyday of the Haight while Dorothy settles in with a vengeance to relive her mother's life in the house next door -- is absorbing. The characters are original. The book is funny. It is moving. And West has a splendid ear for language. My one complaint is that the title makes these strongly drawn women, who for the most part are neither crazy nor "ladies," sound marginal and weak.
THE SUMMER OF THE PAYMASTER By Alfred Nielsen Norton. 379 pp. $19.95 OF ALL THE symbols of lost American innocence, perhaps none seems so thickheaded just now as the old-fashioned service station, the kind with a squadron of eager gas jockeys and a free set of glasses with every oil change. Alfred Nielsen's first novel, The Summer of the Paymaster, begins with its young narrator pumping high octane at such a place on Staten Island in the spring of 1968.
At 21, Andrew Hapanowicz is a one-eyed, ponytailed hippie better known by his nickname, Chun. He grew up on Staten Island but moved away, first to a couple of colleges (no degrees), then to Oregon, where things fell apart with a girlfriend. He has come back now, he tells us, only because Jimmy Dietz, "my best friend and blood brother," is about to return from Vietnam.
In the time-honored -- and honorable -- tradition of coming-of-age novels, the two boys who are its protagonists are in many ways opposites. Chun is reflective, empathetic, an observer; Jimmy is direct, fearless, a natural leader. Chun interweaves the story of their boyhood friendship (in particular, how Chun lost his eye and how Jimmy ended up a soldier) with his account of the summer of '68.
Staten Island itself is almost a third protagonist in The Summer of the Paymaster. (The "Paymaster," by the way, is a sort of cosmic Good Samaritan who travels through space and time stopping occasionally to talk with Chun. He is one of Nielsen's more surreal and less successful inventions.) Like the two friends, the island loses its semirural innocence in the mid-1960's, when the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connects it to Brooklyn. Nielsen manages to make this plotline fully as poignant as the others.
There's a homespun feeling to The Summer of the Paymaster. Chun's voice is immensely likeable, and though Neilsen's energetic style is often plain to the point of clumsiness, it is effective and often a pleasure to read.
Ellen Pall, the author of the novel "Back East," writes frequently about theater, film and television.