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October 11, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Malcolm, James Purdy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $7.95). Readers of popular fiction usually can tolerate protagonists who are lost, so long as the characters maintain a dynamic life style; conversely, if the protagonists aren't on the move, we prefer that they have something to offer in mind or soul. Fourteen-year-old Malcolm is neither active nor spirited. He sits on a bench in this book's early pages because he has "nothing better to do" and because he "belongs nowhere and to nobody." "Malcolm," nevertheless, became a hit when it first appeared in 1959. The paradox of its popularity becomes less puzzling when one realizes that Malcolm is more periscope than protagonist; he is not as important as his movements, which allow James Purdy to observe people in an American community, painting lively and funny, if ultimately tragic, portraits.

Malcolm's adventures begin when an astrologer tries to lure him from the bench by sending him to meet a series of people so he might be "a little less inclined to feel lonely." While the astrologer's game is first mysterious and then heartening (after Malcolm meets several parental figures), it is finally alienating, for Malcolm chooses to retreat inward once again, this time through marriage, which, he finds, is "a unique way of leaving the world in which he had perhaps never belonged in the first place." By implying that Malcolm is too innocent for this world, Purdy thus leaves readers with a somewhat sour feeling about the human community that was, heretofore, heartingly portrayed. The novel's strength also is undermined by Purdy's chauvinistic, dated portrayals of whining women. Still, most of this novel is well-crafted, an entertaining, picaresque journey through fluctuating emotions in the lives of ordinary people.

Ten Years After: Vietnam Today, Tim Page (Knopf: $18.95). Despite the still-hardy stream of books about Vietnam, the efforts of Americans to forget the war have been largely successful. The readership for these books, then, seems to consist either of Americans with an atypically sensitive political conscience or vets who derive some satisfaction from seeing acknowledgment of the physical and psychological fallout that followed them after the war. Tim Page is one of those survivors who will, as William Shawcross writes in the introduction, "never get Vietnam out of what remains of his head." Page has, nevertheless, ventured beyond the despair that can alienate vets and composed a book that will appeal to those of us who are more reluctant to remember.

While not whitewashing darker remnants from the war (a coffee-shop veranda paved with 105-millimeter howitzer shell casings; Agent Orange victims in an orphanage), Page sees signs of a new "spirit of reunification," such as a bike race from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh Ville (which, as he describes it, is still sassy Saigon, with girls flouncing around in bonnets and dynamic, energetic traders trying to prosper on the black economy). Page is sanguine about U.S.-Vietnam relations, pointing to recent instances of close cooperation in the search for MIA bodies. His portrait of the nation--sketched through abundant, vivid photographs and a fluid, concise text--derives some of its hope from the belief that the "delightful, entrancing" Vietnamese people triumphed despite "the American intervention." But Page's bias is rarely this palpable; more often it is implicit, as in an opening picture of a handsome, young, smiling Vietnamese artillery officer, his soft green uniform contrasting with the tattered symbols of the old Vietnam seen in later pages, such as a bombed-out cathedral in a vacant panhandle that had been a vibrant port city before the war.

The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America, Daniel J. Kevles (Harvard: $12.95). This colorful, thoughtful and accessible survey of individuals, institutions and ideas forwarding American science begins just after the Civil War. Then, as Kevles writes, "to applaud science was to set oneself apart socially in a country so exuberant over mere gadgets and machinery." Yet this elitism eventually proved impractical, for, after World War II, "a physicist's war," scientists had to contend with "conservatives (who) wanted to spend less money and liberals (who) grew less willing to accept a degree of political elitism that insulated the governance of science from accountability and . . . permitted the Defense Department so large an influence in the academic world."

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