Fiction Matters

Article excerpt

As A YOUNG MAN, the now rather forgotten Thomas Hill Green, a Christian Hegelian philosopher whose influence as an Oxford don exerted itself on numbers of students, wrote a strongly-argued essay, "The Value and Influence of Works of Fiction." The main claim of this polemical piece was that while poetry-by such as Milton or Wordsworth or Green's contemporary Matthew Arnold-provided ideal alternatives and corrections to what Arnold in "The Scholar-Gypsy" called "this strange disease of modern life," novelists and novels encouraged us rather to see, as Green put it, "our own sickly experience modified in an infinite variety of reflections," until we fancy that this disease is instead "the proper constitution of God's universe." For Green, summing up, "Novel-reading thus aggravates two of the worst maladies of modern times, self-consciousness and want of reverence."

Before dismissing Green's youthful effort as the outpouring of a moralist insufficiently acquainted with, say, Jane Austen, we should remind ourselves that his words have direct application to 90 percent at least of the fiction reviewed each week in Publishers Weekly, often in glowing terms. The commentary that follows, directed at nine novels and two volumes of stories from a period of a few months, represents a serious winnowing out from the total output of that period. Whatever qualifications, reservations, or dissatisfactions expressed about individual titles should be prefaced by the admission that each is serious about itself as an artistic product and each is at least comparable to the best work being done currently in Anglo-American fiction.

This may seem an improbable claim to make for a first novel by a writer hitherto known only for his nonfiction treatments of aspects of American life (baseball, nature, jazz). But Frederick Turner has brought off something more than commendable in his "novel of the jazz age," centered on the rise and fall of the cornetist Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke.1 Beiderbecke's story is juxtaposed with various doings of Al Capone's outfit (an invented character named Herman Weiss connects the two narratives), and the places associated with Bix and his cohorts in the Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman bands-Hudson Lake, Indiana; Hollywood; Davenport, Iowa and others-are vigorously sketched in. Turner provides fine vignettes of what might have happened the night Beiderbecke met his idol Maurice Ravel, or how he came through a sexual experience with Clara Bow, the "It" girl, or what words Bix and Louis Armstrong might have exchanged when they jammed together. But Turner is most impressive in imagining convincing voices for band sidekicks like Bing Crosby, Frank Trumbauer, Hoagy Carmichael, or Whiteman himself, and his inwardness with Beiderbecke's recordings (trust me) is superb.

In the following outburst to Crosby-stimulated by meeting Ravel and flaring up in self-contempt at the large amount of Whiteman schlock he must endure to have his occasional solo- Bix tries "to work up through the gin towards something he senses is serious":

"You think I want to spend the rest of my career-my god-damned life, for Christ's sake-thinking up different ways to play In My Merry Oldsmobile? Felix the Cat? Dolly Dimples? Too Much Banjo? By The Waters Of The Minnetorika, for God's sake! Baby Face? Five Foot Two? Makin' Whoopie? They call for this crap night after night, and it's getting worse . . . Japanese Mammy! Krazy Kat!-Krazy Kat! You think I want to end up a forty-year-old geezer with bad teeth playing sophomore sock-hops for a bunch of brainless, beaver-coated, pimple-pussed college kids? O, come on, Bix!'"

And he proceeds to mimic the college enthusiasts. There's not great variety of tone in Turner's presentation overall, but it's filled with excellent and finally chilling glimpses of its hero.

Although Zoe Heller, a Brit living in New York City, has published a previous novel, I know her only through a very mordant and funny review she did in The New Republic of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal. …