One of the dangers of working simultaneously as a journalist and a writer of serious fiction is that a daily diet of the latest sensations -- the new film, play, fire, murder, scandal or trend -- may make it hard to remember that the ordinary reader is not caught up in the world of the new and fashionable, and that books sit on the shelf far longer than newspapers do.
Thus, one of the few annoyances of reading "Unnatural Scenery," the otherwise enjoyable second novel by New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, is stumbling across chummy references to such cultural ephemera as Tatum O'Neal, Margaret Trudeau, Gerard Damiano, Zabar's, and that ever-popular New York couple, "Kurt and Jill." Such breathy name-dropping is not always illegitimate; in a book otherwise devoid of merit ("Blue Skies, No Candy" is an obvious example), it is a solid selling point, offering the reader the delicious illusion that he is hobnobbing with all those lovely names from People magazine. But it is annoying in "Unnatural Scenery" because so much of this book will still be worth reading when no one knows Zabar from Babar.
Make no mistake: Despite this and other flaws, "Unnatural Scenery" is a fine novel featuring living, breathing characters, a beautifully rendered setting and an admirable wit.
The best part of the book recounts the childhood of its protagonist, Marshall Lewis Henderson, son of an exiled Virginia aristocrat and a handsome Chicago embezzler. In his vignettes of summers spent at the family home, Lewis' Landing in "Tatterhummock County," Canby lovingly renders the life of Northern Neck gentry then and now, capturing with hardly an error of tone its "Cherry Orchard" timelessness and its sensual sweetness and ease.
His three female cousins, Cousin Mary Lee, Cousin Annie Lee and Miss Mary Lee, are affectionate and funny portraits of Virginia gentility, and Canby has a nice eye for the details of country life. At one point in the early '40s, Marshall flees to the kitchen to escape from the bustle of preparations for what seems likely to turn into a lynching, and comes across "Aunt Minnie," the family maid, "wearing her hat and coat, apparently waiting to be told she could go home." But there is no time off for servants; instead, Marshall's redoubtable mother sets Aunt Minnie to work fixing drinks, borrows her coat and sets off to foil the would-be lynchers, who eventually settle for a good meal.
The story is solid through Marshall's father's disgrace, his mother's disaffection, his brother's suicide and his own travails at a comically decrepit Episcopal prep school. But after that, the book loses focus and descends into caricature. Marshall loses his virginity to an improbably lovely black girl in an encounter which is zipless enough to make Isadora Wing drool but which may leave flesh-and-blood readers unconvinced. Marshall becomes crippled and spends his adult life as a sort of all-purpose upper-class twit ("I once spent a year looking for a gold mine in Alaska and I found one. I learned how to fly and I spent another year with my first wife going around the world...") Canby tells us that Marshall is caught up in a pattern of perversity, a yearning for failure. Marshall's consuming intellectual passion -- a fascination with the Albigensian heresy of medieval France -- seems like excess intellectual baggage of the most pretentious kind, both for character and author; and Marshall's obsessive sexual antics are remorselessly unsexy.
Canby's sure touch with character deserts him at this point, too: Marshall's two wives, Higenbotham and Utah, his black lover, Gethsemane, and his bastard son, a black militant with the unlikely name of Prud'-homme Shackleford, are little more than shadows. (One minor character, crippled war veteran "Little Bob" Carter is worthy of mention: in background, parentage, career and nature of injuries he is a recognizable caricature of a real Northern Neck lawyer, Lewis J. Puller Jr., wheel-chair bound son of the late Lt. Gen. Lewis W. "Chesty" Puller; but where Lew Puller as a congressional candidate was an ineffectual but somewhat thoughtful Democrat, "Little Bob" is an odiously successful Republican jingo. It seems like a truly cheap shot.)
"Unnatural Scenery" ends with an act of exorcism that might appear in "Absalom, Absalom!" Canby hints that the flames of the ancient manor house may have freed Marshall, like a luckier late-'70s Quentin Compson, from the obsessions which have bound him to perversity, idleness and malice. "I think, I can't be sure," he says on the final page, "I have the feeling -- that I can move my right big toe."
One hopes so; for even with such an unpromising narrator, Canby has given his readers a wonderful ride. If his next novel features a protagonist who can move and think and feel as an adult, I think, I can't be sure, I have the feeling that people may still be talking about it when no one remembers that Kurt and Jill were ever steadies.