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Boy Talk : DEAD LANGUAGES by David Shields (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 248 pp.)

June 25, 1989|Thomas Cahill | Cahill was for 12 years editor and publisher of the Cahill & Co. Reader's Catalogue. He is author of the new "Looking for Books" (Ampersand Associates). and

It is hard work nowadays to write what the Germans call a Bildungsroman , an autobiographical novel of growing up. Though it is a form that most first novelists find inescapable, the great challenge is to make something new, something that cannot be labeled merely an also-ran to Joyce or Hesse or Spark or Salinger. Each year the competition grows fiercer as the unexplored portions of this particular literary rain forest shrink in size. One must find either a new way to say the old things (in a time when new ways seem to have been exhausted in the frenzies of modernism and post-modernism) or, even more difficult, something new to say.

Basically, there appear to be three solutions. One is charm. Even if you are only saying the old things in the old way, the charm of your youthful self, the fresh and tender haplessness of your own true exploits, just slightly exaggerated, can carry the day and delight everyone but the purse-lipped purist. Another, less common solution is to offer new subject matter. But this usually depends on the author having grown up illiterate or a white slave or suckled by wolves--though, I can hear the weary voice at the editorial conference, wolves have been done. The third route is to resist the temptation to begin with your own childhood--or, barring that, to write the damn thing and lock it in a drawer. Then having got the rite-of-passage business out of your system, you can go on to explore your real subject matter.

David Shields nearly chose the third route. He wrote the first draft of "Dead Languages" while a student in creative writing at Iowa but could not get it published. His second novel (and first to be published) is called "Heroes." It concerns the moral dilemma of a middle-aged sportswriter (hardly Bildungsroman material), and it received excellent notices. But Shields could not resist the temptation to take "Dead Languages" out of its drawer and rework it.

The result is not charming. Shield's protagonist is Jeremy Zorn, a lifelong stutterer in a family of female overachievers. Mother, articulate to a fault, is a leftish political journalist, whom the boy both idolizes and dreads. Sister Beth, "too fat to have fun," wins all the medals, gets her thesis published, and plays classical guitar. Father, an underemployed manic-depressive, must occasionally be put away and "juiced." Out of such material one could of course make anything. But Shields cannot make of it either comedy or tragedy, just 200-odd pages of low-grade pain. Pain may be too noble a word. Irritation is closer to the mark.

I wish Shields could enjoy his characters more--they are so obviously up for it. I could imagine Mother played by an imperious Bette Midler with lines written for her by Geoffrey Chaucer. But Shields seems not to have heard that characters can be both outrageous and lovable. His protagonist keeps saying such things as: "I have always had too many anxieties of my own to have much patience with other people's problems." Sigh.

The stuttering is supposed to provide us with a post-modern metaphor for the inadequacy of all language and the impossibility of genuine communion ("Between me and life that can be touched there has always been a fence"), but it does nothing of the sort. Despite Mother's black swimsuit, which is "ugly," and the sand dunes, which are "hideous," and the "slime mold" that clings to the dock, and many similar touches, it is not possible to believe that privileged little Jeremy is really a character out of Camus.

Sometimes the Angst -striking seems so relished that one can't help howl (with laughter). I am reminded of Chesterton's lines:

Now you mention it

Of course, the sky

is like a large mouth

shown to a dentist,

and I never noticed

a little thing

like that.

Jeremy's problem, after all, is that he stutters a little. He too achieves in class, on the playing field, in his chosen work. He has nothing of his poor father's affliction--which the reader has more sympathy for than Jeremy ever exhibits. No, he doesn't connect awfully well with the opposite sex (none of the extra-familial females are anything but transient vapors), but the problem is not sexual dysfunction. Jeremy has no trouble masturbating. Jeremy just loves Jeremy.

In a book in which language is portrayed as "eclips(ing) life," it would be nice to report that the language is overpowering. Instead, it makes the reader feel like "mixed pickles," as the English say. Here is a young writer straining for Irving's facility or even Updike's airy grace but, for all his bench pressing, just giving himself a literary hernia. Toward the end, he makes a terrible mistake. After scores of cutesy hommages to great modernists ("rain was general all over Los Angeles"), he gives us an extended quotation from "To the Lighthouse"--and the passage rises like a mesa in a desert and thrills us with the mysterious power of real creativity.

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