Most of the resolutions for the impending New Year are made, need it be said, in order to be broken: less food, more exercise, less drink, more organization. These too shall pass. But one shall not: my solemn pledge to read and review more first novels.
This resolution came about as a consequence of a recent telephone conversation with a friend. She had accepted the thankless task of serving as a juror for an award to be given for the "best" first novel of 1982, and she now found herself in a quandary. Nothing she had thus far read seemed to her of any great distinction; she wondered if I, in my readings and ramblings, had come across a noteworthy book that she had somehow missed.
I hemmed and hawed and at last confessed that, to the best of my memory, I had read only one American first novel this year and had reviewed none. To my enormous embarrassment -- and I do not exaggerate -- I had no help or counsel to offer her. I felt that I had defaulted on one of a reviewer's primary obligations and pleasures: the discovery and celebration of new talent.
Later, I granted myself a small degree of absolution when, upon looking through my files, I discovered that in point of fact I reviewed five first novels by American writers during 1982. But that -- approximately 5 percent of a year's book reviews -- does not exactly constitute a major commitment. It is irrelevant, into the bargain, that none of these five books was in the least way memorable. What matters is that I had fallen asleep at the switch.
Well, not exactly. Though my recent neglect of first novels is not the result of a conscious decision, it does reflect my intense bias against what Gore Vidal has dismissed as "the land of the creative-writing course" and the "university-novel" it most often produces, a creature "stillborn, suitable only for classroom biopsy." Most first novels these days are extruded from these courses, often with helping hands from the professors who ship their prize prote'ge's along to their very own publishers. More often than not the imitations are as bad as the originals -- precious, stilted, self-conscious, "literary" -- and I have no taste for them.
Yet to avoid first novels, whether willfully or otherwise, is not merely to renege on a clear duty but also to deny oneself the thrill -- and that is the word for it -- of discovery. It is with the greatest pleasure that I recall a case in point. A couple of years ago I was under contract with Sports Illustrated to do a certain number of book reviews, a commitment that brought me into contact with many wonderful people and many terrible books. So it was with a deep sense of trepidation that I turned, one afternoon, to the galleys of a novel called "Guys Like Us," by a fellow utterly unknown to me named Tom Lorenz; here we go again, I thought.
You could have knocked me over with a softball, which is the ostensible subject of "Guys Like Us." For an entire afternoon I was reduced to a state of helpless laughter and in the end, as Lorenz led his absolutely real people to the inevitable but heartbreaking resolution of their story, to genuine sorrow. No "university-novel" this, but (again to quote Vidal) a "public-novel," one that deals with real people and real worlds. I was thrilled, and my review said as much. That the book subsequently pretty much died -- incredibly, no paperback house has bought it, which says all you need to know about the paperback industry these days -- is not really the point. I am well aware that my review, and others equally enthusiastic, encouraged Lorenz in the conviction that his is a talent worth developing, a career worth pursuing.
The case of "Guys Like Us" is an instructive reminder that not all first novels are merely "promising," that not all first novelists are possessed merely of "potential." I've got a little list to prove the point, one limited to American writers of the 20th century and assembled entirely haphazardly by a tour through my shelves:
"Lie Down in Darkness," by William Styron. "Invisible Man," by Ralph Ellison. "A Fan's Notes," by Frederick Exley. "Home From the Hill," by William Humphrey. "Wise Blood," by Flannery O'Connor. "The Moviegoer," by Walker Percy. "What I'm Going to Do, I Think," by Larry Woiwode. "The Gay Place," by William Brammer. "The Sheltering Sky," by Paul Bowles. "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," by George V. Higgins. "Three Soldiers," by John Dos Passos. "The Sun Also Rises," by Ernest Hemingway. "The Naked and the Dead," by Norman Mailer. "From Here to Eternity," by James Jones. "The Painted Bird," by Jerzy Kosinski. "Look Homeward, Angel," by Thomas Wolfe. "A Confederacy of Dunces," by John Kennedy Toole.
If that isn't a list to reckon with, I don't know what is. Into the bargain, it is a list that provides another instructive reminder: Sometimes the first novel finds the writer at a peak he or she will never again reach. Ellison hasn't published a novel since "Invisible Man." It was all downhill after the first novel for Bowles, Hemingway, Mailer, Jones and Wolfe. Brammer died without publishing another novel; Toole had been dead for more than a decade before "A Confederacy of Dunces" was published. Even Styron, though he has tried mightily and honorably, has yet to write a novel so overwhelming as "Lie Down in Darkness."
But these novels are, it goes without saying, exceptions to the rule. Most first novels are failures, the work of young and undeveloped minds. To read the first novels of William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald -- "Soldier's Pay" and "This Side of Paradise," respectively -- is to suffer. Paul Theroux now speaks disparagingly of his first novel, "Waldo," and with good reason. For these writers, as for most, the first novel is merely the initial tentative step along a passage on which they gain increasing artistry and confidence over the years.
But it is good to be with them at the beginning, and sometimes it can be helpful. A reviewer's words ordinarily are worth no more than the paper they're printed on, but to a writer making his first attempt to find a readership they can be a crucial indication of the value of the effort and an encouragement to get back to the typewriter. Which is why, quite thoroughly chagrined, I shall resume the defaulted obligation.