Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Morris the Magician: A Look at in Orbit

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Morris the Magician: A Look at in Orbit

Article excerpt

1.

What has to be said first of all is that there are precious few if any novelists alive and working who are as able as Wright Morris to make both sense and art out of the brute, raw, flashing, shifty facts, the material of the American present. Which is what he is up to in In Orbit.

Of course many other writers, young and old, talk about doing this a great deal. Like the hucksters of soap, soft drinks, patent medicines, cigarettes and underwear etc., they talk a great game and let their lives depend on it. Not that it matters very much whether they ever really deliver. At a time when the image, almost any image, is more important, even more "real" than any truth it may reveal or deftly conceal, it is only natural that your successful image-maker should be deeply appreciated. He is the fascinating sleight-of-hand magician and, thus, an image of the times himself. The things he can do with a deck of cards are only tricks, but we all know that, don't we? It's curiously reassuring. We know the deck and the names and suits of the cards, and we are comfortable with the game. There are no wild cards to worry about except the inevitable Joker, and we know all about him too. We are ready for him. Shuffle and riffle. Bright tricks in two dimensions. We can admire the learned dexterity. And he, the smiling or poker-faced card sharp, is really just one of us after all. Art-smart! It is a relief to be reminded that, talent or not, the artist is just another hustler. It is more fun to read about Norman Mailer's antics in the newspapers, to hear what Gore Vidal is saying about the Kennedys, to turn on the T.V., educational T.V., and to look at John Updike's extraordinary profile etched against the wind and surf of Cape Cod than it is to read their novels. Even Ginsberg, wrapped in something like a stained bed sheet, banging gongs and muttering the old mumbo jumbo, is finally just one of the boys. Buy the kid a drink, anything he wants. He talks a lot but he talks a pretty good game. He can make you laugh. And, you know?, once in a while he can make you think about different things. We can afford to pay for a little culture these days. The fast-talkers, the hustlers, barkers, the image-makers, get what they deserve. Which happens to be a share of the white meat and good gravy, albeit after the grownups have left the table.

Here and now, in this context, ours, it would seem that Wright Morris has practically everything going against him. For one thing he works so hard. Fifteen novels since My Uncle Dudley in 1942. That comes perilously close to being, pardon the expression, prolific. Which is not a good thing for a serious novelist. What is he trying to prove? What does he want? He doesn't even write journalism or instant history. He has had a few grants, and back in 1977 they gave him the National Book Award for The Field of Vision. Of course, as serious as he is, he's never hit it with a real best seller. But even that can be arranged. The publishing houses are full of bright young editors with all kinds of ideas. If it's money he's after, there's money, at least enough for all the good guys, the reliable ones, to have a piece of the action. You do have to be cool, clean, discreet, keep your ear to the ground, and above all be patient, though. Morris won't stand in line. He can't stand still. Take a look at the checklist of his published books. Note how he goes from publisher to publisher. Whatever else that may mean, it's a sure sign of a troublemaker, an agitator. Maybe even a sore loser. And all the time he keeps writing these books. He comes from Nebraska, a tube, and maybe nobody told him the novel is dead and art is for kids.

All that activity is embarrassing. For one thing, it makes it tough on the critics. They have a hard time keeping up anyway. So many books are published every year. Mostly trash, of course, that you can skim or ignore. Even a real reader like Granville Hicks can't begin to deal with them all, as he is the first one to admit. …

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