Book Review – Prime Green by Robert Stone

  • Prime Green – Remembering The Sixties
  • by Robert Stone
  • Publisher – ecco
  • Copyright – 2007
  • 229 pages

Rating – 6/10

Review – About fifteen years ago, I read Robert Stone’s 1974 novel Dog Soldiers. It is a rarity – a successful attempt at a “big book” that captures the zeitgeist. In Dog Soldiers Stone conveys the disillusionment and rootlessness in the U.S. after our failure in the Vietnam War. More surprisingly, Dog Soldiers also succeeds in telling an entertaining story – about an ill-fated attempt to smuggle drugs from Vietnam to the U.S.

From Brooklyn to Stanford

Stone – who was born in 1937 – was a bit older than most of the sixties hipsters. Moreover, he was not the typical, upper-middle class dropout. Instead, he was raised under difficult circumstances in Brooklyn. Eventually, he quit high school and joined the U.S. Navy. The 1950s sections are some of Prime Green’s best material. Stone had some nice adventures while traveling the world in the Navy.

Eventually, the scene shifts back to the U.S. Stone spends time in New York and New Orleans, drifting from job to job and working on the novel that became 1966’s A Hall of Mirrors.  Though Stone had no academic credentials, he eventually won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. At Stanford, he became associated with Ken Kesey and many of the 1960s “big names.”

An Oft-Told Tale

Strangely, the closer Stone moves to the heart of the counterculture, the less Prime Green interests the reader. So many writers have dissected the sixties. So many aging hippies have recounted their youthful misadventures. Finding a fresh perspective on those years is difficult, and Stone – for the most part – doesn’t do so.

I don’t want to be too negative. Prime Green has some nice stories:

  • In 1964 Stone journeyed across the U.S. on a Grayhound Bus. Due to his beatnik apperance, a group of U.S. Navy sailors terrorized Stone, who took a severe beating in Highspire, Pennsylvania. (Stone points out the irony – he had been a Navy sailor). This scene is perhaps the best in the book – tense and dramatic.
  • A bit later, Stone worked for a tabloid in New York City. He interjects humor into Prime Green by describing the fabricated stories that he wrote. (Among the headlines were “Armless Veteran Beaten for Not Saluting Flag” and “Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds”). Unfortunately, Stone lessens the section’s impact by not naming the publication and by using pseudonyms for his coworkers.
  • During the early 1970s, Stone went to Vietnam. Once there, he saw the Nixon administration’s attempt to turn the war over to South Vietnamese while withdrawing U.S. troops. Stone describes the imploding U.S. war effort and the mushrooming drug culture. The reader gets a good idea of Stone’s source material for Dog Soldiers.

What’s Prime Green?

The title of the book was a mystery as I read. Eventually, Stone reveals its source when recounting his time in Mexico with Ken Kesey. At the time, Kesey was “on the lam” from a California drug charge. Stone’s explanation encapsulates his take on the 1960s:

What I will never forget is the greening of the day at first light on the shores north of Manzanillo Bay. I imagine that color so vividly that I know, by ontology, that I must have seen it. In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. When the sun’s rays spilled over the ridge, they discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into smoky rainbows. Then the silence would give way, and the jungle rose to blue heaven. Those mornings, day after day, made nonsense of examined life, but they made everyone smile. All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning. We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo (p. 153).

Moving On

There’s really nothing wrong with Prime Green. Stone was a talented writer who was at the heart of the 1960s counterculture. Prime Green never bores the reader, but it never “catches fire,” either.  The book simply isn’t a “must read.” So much has been written about the sixties that the bar is pretty high for counterculture memoirs. If you’re looking to read something about the decade, you can do much better. For those with an interest in Stone’s work, Dog Soldiers is a much better place to start.

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Book Review – How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
• by Paul Silvia
• Publisher – American Psychological Association
• Copyright – 2007.
• 132 pages

Rating – 8.5/10

Review – My wife and I are both academics. Early in adult life, both of us focused on earning our academic credentials and starting our careers. Then we had kids. Our first daughter arrived in 2009 and the second was born 13 months later. Life changed – a lot. Pre-kids, we never had any trouble finding time to pursue our research agendas; post-kids, it’s been “a whole ‘nother story.”

Way back in 2009, we attended a scholarly conference & Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot caught my wife’s eye.  She bought a copy, read it, and became an instant fan. A few months later, daughter #1 arrived. With the start of fall classes this year, we both resolved to rejoin the scholarly race. I decided that reading Silvia’s little book would help keep me on track.

Short, with Much Wisdom

By Silvia’s admission, the point of his book is very simple. He advises scholars who want to be productive to set a writing schedule – and stick to it. Silvia states that – the title notwithstanding – one does not have to “write a lot.” Rather, he says that you should regard writing time as an “appointment with yourself” to do your research. He points out that – after all – scholars don’t miss our classes due to other commitments; he suggests that we apply the same committed mindset to our research.

The crucial portions of the book deal with the need to set goals and keep track of one’s progress toward them. (Silvia backs his position by citing the relevant psychology literature). Silvia uses an SPSS (spreadsheet) file to keep track of his daily progress. My wife and have both made our own files (using Excel) and they have helped keep us on track during the inevitable rough patches in our research.

Style to Spare

Silvia is an engaging writer. One way that he maintains interest is by giving readers glimpses into his writing life. Silvia states that each weekday he gets up, flips on the coffee pot, and works from 8 to 10 a.m. on his research. That’s it – he doesn’t work on the weekends or at other times. The reader can picture Silvia working away, based on the book’s descriptions of his Spartan writing area that is covered in coffee stains.

How to Write a Lot is that rare academic book that one wants to read. Silvia has a great sense of pacing and doesn’t allow things to bog down. Consider the following passages –

  • On a scholar’s place in the writing world – “Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement” (p. 45).
  • On the mindset that scholars should have regarding rejections – “To write a lot, you should rethink your mental models of rejection and publication. Rejections are like a sale tax on publications: The more papers you publish, the more rejections you will receive. Following the tips in this book will make you the most rejected person in your department” (pp. 100-101).

A Big Can of Worms – Disappointments

While I really enjoyed this book, I had a few frustrations with it. How to Write a Lot’s strength is its brevity. But that can also work against it. Chapter 5 – titled “A Brief Foray Into Style” – is simply too brief to provide much value. Style is crucial, but becoming a stylish writer is a book (or a series of books). No one – Silvia included – can begin to do it justice in a chapter. (Fortunately, Silvia provides a fantastic bibliography that will help readers who want to explore the issues raised in the book in more depth).

I didn’t get much from Chapter 4, either. That material concerns starting a writing group to help encourage you to stay on pace with your research. There’s nothing wrong with this material – it’s just not the way that I work. However, other readers might have entirely different reactions.

Silvia is pictured below.

Summary – So Far, So Good

In research – as in politics – it’s always dangerous to read too much into “early returns.” But after six weeks of constant work, my wife and I are both enjoying our newfound research productivity. We would recommend How to Write a Lot to any scholar seeking to improve his or her research output.

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Book Review – Wallace by Marshall Frady

• Wallace: The Classic Portrait of Alabama Governor George Wallace
• by Marshall Frady
• Publisher – Random House
• Copyright – 1996 (The original edition appeared in 1968).
• 304 pages

Rating – 8.5/10

Review – For better and (mostly) for worse, no figure in Alabama politics looms larger than George Wallace. From his first unsuccessful 1958 gubernatorial run, Wallace dominated state politics until ill health forced his retirement in January 1987.  During that time, Alabama progressed but remained at or near the bottom in comparisons of the 50 U.S. states. (This helped create the old joke that Alabama’s motto should be, “Thank God for Mississippi”).

But state governance has little to do with the continuing interest in Wallace. Instead, it is his four runs for the U.S. presidency from 1964 to 1976 that make him a political player worth remembering. By becoming a factor in those races, Wallace shocked the pundits and sent a clear signal that conservatism was on the rise.

In Wallace, journalist Marshall Frady uses his extraordinary access to Wallace to craft an intimate portrait of a man whose political ambitions controlled every aspect of his life. Frady openly states that Wallace is Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark come to life. More precisely, Frady’s Wallace is pure demagogue, a man who forms his stands on the issues soley for political expediency.


Frady’s timing was perfect. By the mid-60s, it had become apparent that Wallace was a force. At the time of Wallace’s original publication, Wallace had convinced Alabama’s voters to make his wife, Lurleen, the governor in 1966. (At the time, Alabama governors were not allowed to serve consecutive terms, so George was ineligible to run). Also, Wallace was gearing up for his 1968 run for president, which would confirm his mass appeal. In short, Frady catches Wallace at the height of his political powers, just as his wave was starting to crest.

But the strongest aspect of the book is Frady’s prose. The “new journalism” of participant observation was just coming into vogue in the mid-60s. I’ve always thought that this was a feast-or-famine technique – it’s great if the writer has the chops to pull it off, but it’s miserable if the writer is mediocre or worse.  Fortunately, Frady meets the challenge. He captures the elusive Wallace out on the stump, interacting with voters, the press, and fellow politicians. Frady, a Southerner, also has a great feel for Alabama and its people.

I once read some advice from the famed writing instructor John Gardner. He said that great, insightful writing makes the reader say to him- or herself, “Yes, that’s the way it is.” I had that feeling reading Frady.

Finally, and this may be Wallace’s most-important quality, it’s a book that you want to read, a page turner. I checked it out from my local library late on a Saturday morning and was done by Sunday night.


While I enjoyed Wallace, the book isn’t perfect. One irritant is that Frady often repeats details. I tired of descriptions of Wallace’s cheap suit, oily hair, smelly cigars, and butchered pronunciations of the same words. (Over 300 pages, Frady’s decision to spell Wallace’s dialogue phonetically is like a toothache that gets worse with time. This device would have been more effective had Frady confined these spellings to an introduction or a conclusion).

I was also let down by Frady’s follow up to the original 1968 edition. At the end of the original book, Wallace is just “feeling his oats” as a potential national figure, considering his possibilities as a candidate for 1968 and beyond. The story of the 1968 election and what came after it have much potential. But Frady swings and misses on this opportunity. His postscript seems tacked on and other authors have offered more insight on this phase of Wallace’s career. Twenty-twenty hindsight says that it was Frady’s access to Wallace that made the original book special; without that intimate perspective, his follow up is flat.


With the exception of four years “abroad” in other U.S. states, I’ve lived in Alabama since 1977. It requires no great insight to say that the damage that Wallace caused to Alabama continues to this day. Prior to reading Frady’s Wallace, I had already enjoyed several books on “The Governor”:

  • Stephen Lesher’s George Wallace: American Populist,
  • Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage,
  • Jeff Frederick’s Stand Up for Alabama,
  • Michael Dorman’s The Wallace Myth,
  • And several others.

Frady’s book is the best of the bunch. The vivid portrait of the public and private Wallace, Alabama and its people, and a lost point in time make this the place to start.

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Book Review: Be Cool by Elmore Leonard

• Be Cool
• by Elmore Leonard
• Publisher – Dark Alley
• Copyright – 1999
• 275 pages

Rating – 5.5/10

Review – Elmore Leonard “sends up” the entertainment industry again in Be Cool. In the finest Hollywood tradition, Be Cool is a sequel to Leonard’s successful novel, Get Shorty. As with Get Shorty, Hollywood adapted Be Cool into a movie (in 2005).

The Return of Chili

Even if the book didn’t have a blurb on the back cover, fans would recognize that Be Cool was a sequel right away. Once again, the spotlight is on Leonard’s Miami-loan-shark-turned-Hollywood-insider Chili Palmer. For those who missed Get Shorty, Chili is a “stock” Leonard character – an ever-cool, hustler with a gift of gab. At the beginning of Be Cool, Chili’s star has risen and fallen in Hollywood as his latest film flopped.

In Be Cool circumstance thrusts Chili into the music industry, which – if anything – proves to be even shallower and meaner than was the film industry. Chili falls in with a band of wanna-be rock stars named Odessa and tries to help their career. At the same time, he’s dodging some violent, low-life criminals who are tracking him with some bad intentions.

Pretty Good Leonard

There’s nothing wrong with Be Cool, but there’s nothing great about it, either. It’s fine piece of fluff, easy reading about not-too-bright characters playing for high stakes. Be Cool would make some nice, lightweight beach reading if you wanted simple escapism.

But Leonard has written much-better books. While Be Cool has some of Leonard’s trademark, snappy dialogue, there aren’t many great lines or passages. Those who read Get Shorty have already experienced Chili’s cool-guy rap, so his lines in Be Cool just don’t have the same punch. (Chili’s love interest, Elaine, has some witty, tongue-in-cheek lines: “Tell you the truth… I’m smoking more now since I quit” p. 232).

The plot is only mediocre. Leonard’s characters have always seemed more interesting than his plots, and Be Cool doesn’t make the reader care about what happens. Be Cool also suffers from one of Leonard’s persistent weakness – the tendency to shift abruptly from laid-back, semi-comedic storylines to graphic violence. The effect is jarring and – while I like Leonard’s writing – he has a cavalier disregard for horrible, violent death. For instance, in Be Cool one character begins wearing a little black dress as an ironic statement after her husband is murdered by a hit man who shot him in the head outside a restaurant.

A final quibble is that Be Cool seems like, slick “Hollywood” version of Leonard. One touch that I particularly disliked was Leonard plotting to his characters “hang out” with real-life celebrities (such as Aerosmith). It reminded me of TV’s The Simpsons continually using celebrity guest stars to inject life into the show. Also, over the years, many of Leonard’s characters became increasingly cartoonish. For instance, Be Cool features a gay, 6-foot-5, part-Samoan, part-African American killer and aspiring entertainer. You get the idea.

Whatever Leonard’s motives, Be Cool is a far cry from Leonard’s gritty tales of low-life nobodies stuck in dead-end cities. (For some terrific Leonard, try 1976’s Swag, which is set in Detroit).


Be Cool is a fine, lightweight novel. While it doesn’t have any fatal flaws, it’s well below Leonard’s best and that keeps me from giving it more than a lukewarm review.

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Book Review: Finder Keepers by Mark Bowden

  • Finder Keepers – The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million
  • by Mark Bowden
  • Publisher – Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Copyright – 2002
  • 209 pages

Rating – 9/10

Review – What would you do if you found $1.2 million? It really happened to a Philadelphia man in 1981. The money fell out of an armored car, Joey Coyle found it – and never seriously considered turning it in. Mark Bowden tells this remarkable tale in Finders Keepers.

Bowden first wrote Coyle’s story in a three-part, 1986 series in the Philadephia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine. In the years that followed, Bowden became a “name” journalist with the success of 1999’s Blackhawk Down. Finders Keepers has the feel of a quickly-published, “reheated” version of Bowden’s 1986 series for the Inquirer. But it doesn’t matter because – wherever it came from – Finders Keepers is a terrific read.


For readers, Coyle is a frustrating protagonist. Bowden details Coyle’s dire circumstances before he found the money; Coyle’s desperation drove him to conclude that the money was his only big chance in life. (Keeping the money was a crime; in Pennsylvania, anyone finding anything worth more than $250 was obliged to try to find its owner). In 1981, Coyle was 28, a high school dropout who could find little work on Philadelphia’s docks. He still lived in his mother’s house. Methamphetamine, which he’d injected so often that the veins in his arms were collapsing, took his meager income. (In fact, when Coyle found the money he was on the way to his drug dealer’s house in the car of two friends who agreed to give him a ride).

After finding the money, Coyle’s decisions were awful. First, he “stiffed” the two friends who were with him, giving them nothing. Then, while the story was front-page news in Philadelphia, Coyle told dozens of people about it, some of whom he barely knew. Even worse, Coyle contacted a local mafiosi, the brother of Philadelphia’s best-known gangster (Harry “The Hunchback” Riccobene); Hunchback’s brother took a few hundred thousand off Joey’s hands, promising to take it to Las Vegas and “clean” it. Finally, Joey went on a wild spending spree, passing out hundreds, and going to Atlantic City’s casinos – all while binging nonstop on speed (to the point that he never slept).

But for all of that, Coyle is still, in some ways, likable. We’ve all known people like Coyle – those with “good hearts,” but very bad judgment. In a twist, being a likable “screwup” – an everyman – actually helped Coyle as the case unwound.

Bowden the Penman

Simply put, Bowden is a terrific writer with a terrific story. The pacing of Finders Keepers is perfect, as Bowden provides enough detail to make the story work without letting it bog down. He also has a good sense of detail, choosing facts that make the story “come alive.” Here, from the book’s opening pages, is how Bowden describes Joey’s neighborhood, South Philadelphia in 1981 –

His home on Front Street was at the tattered edge of the tight matrix of South Philly’s streets. To the west was the neighborhood’s strong, nurturing core, its churches, schools, markets, and corner restaurants, and bars. It was the oldest part of the city, low houses in row after brick row, most of them just two stories high. Kinship was sewn tightly in its even blocks. Brothers lived across the street from brothers, fathers from sons and nephews and grandsons. In the narrow alleys folks would grin at the way they could sometimes see in the awkward way a boy ran or squinted or threw a ball the reflected image of his grandfather or great-uncle. When a man from South Philly said he knew a fellow ‘from the neighborhood,’ it meant something more like family than an acquaintance. South Philly was Catholic. It was proud and superstitious, pragmatic and devout.

The world had changed around South Philly. The jobs that had built it were mostly gone. … Out Joey’s back door, to the east, was… a wasteland, a vast expanse of weedy, trash-piled lots, junkyards, old brick warehouses defaced with graffiti, the discarded remnants of a once thriving port and manufacturing giant. Rusting hulks of old boxcars crouched in forlorn rows… [they were] between the fenced-in lots around the trucking yards and dwindling industrial works along the Delaware River waterfront. (pp. 4-5)

(South Philadelphia is almost as much a star of this story as Joey Coyle).

Hollywood Touches

Bowden includes an excellent followup that completes the tale. (Hollywood eventually got interested & based an unsuccessful John Cusack film on the case). While Bowden tells us what became of Joey after 1986, I wish that he had updated readers on some of the other characters.

The End

So, what would you do with the $1.2 million? Bowden strongly suggests that Joey was never going to get away with it, no matter what he did. But Joey’s story is still terrific.

Finders Keepers reminds you of why you love nonfiction. Novels are great, but real life is better than any fiction. Finders Keepers is short and terrific – find a copy and read it.

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Book Review: The Warriors by Sol Yurick

  • The Warriors
  • by Sol Yurick
  • Publisher – Dell
  • Copyright – 1965
  • 218 pages

Rating – 7.5/10

Review – Way back in 1986, I was in a bind. High school started the next day & I hadn’t read any of the three books that I’d been assigned to read over the summer: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Jesse Stuart’s The Thread that Runs So True, and George Orwell’s 1984. I had to turn in a paper and take a test on each of those three books on Day One. Grimly, I stayed up late to finish in one night what I hadn’t done in three months.

But – I reasoned – you can’t work well unless you’re relaxed. So, I flipped on our TV and surfed through the late-night wasteland while on an extended study break. I ended up watching an old movie about a New York City street gang trying to make its way home to Coney Island after being blamed for a murder at a big rumble.

Waaaaarriors, Come Out and Plaaaaaay! Of course, that movie was the cult classic The Warriors. It wasn’t great art, but it’s stayed with me all of these years. (I’ve seen the film a few times since then). When I saw a dog-eared, water-damaged copy of Sol Yurick’s novel in a thrift store, I bought it.

Hollywood Touches

The first 50 pages or so are consistent with the 1979 movie. On July 4th, gangs from across greater New York City head to Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx for a meeting. The plan, by a gang leader named Ismael, is to unite the region’s 100,000+ gang members into an army that will rule the streets. Of course, Ismael’s plan doesn’t quite work out. Violence flares and our heroes have to navigate their way back to Coney Island through the mean streets.

From that point forward, the material in the novel won’t be very recognizable to those who’ve seen the movie. Unlike in the film, the gang is known as The Coney Island Dominators (not The Warriors). Also, in the novel the Dominators are not blamed for the violence at the rumble & they are not hunted by the other gangs.

In the film, the violence is cartoonish and it’s easy to root for our heroes to make it home to Coney Island. The gang members in the book are much more flawed people. The book’s Dominators are violent – engaging in murder and gang rape. Moreover, the Dominators are ignorant, functionally illiterates. One of the gang members (who enjoys comic books) is “the reader” for the others, but even he struggles to read a subway map.

A Twisted Quest for Manhood

The teenaged Dominators are in a warped search for manhood and every interaction can be understood by how it affects someone’s perceived manliness. The Dominators are often pathetic in their attempts to prove themselves. In one scene, they pull out their penises to see who is the best endowed, then compete to see who can pee the farthest. It’s not hard to see why much of this material didn’t make it into the film – these guys aren’t that likable.

(Given the graphic violence in the novel, I’m surprised that it was marketed as a “young adult” book. While the novel concerns teenagers, it’s rough stuff).

Nice Prose

Though The Warriors will never rise to the level of Hamlet among literary scholars, it’s well written. According to the ‘net, Yurick based his novel on the ancient works of Xenophon (as well as his experiences working with troubled youths in New York City). He also includes some good, literary touches. For instance, the group’s reader (Junior) continually looks at a comic-book version of an ancient tale of Greek warriors. The material in the book is symbolic of The Dominators’ journey. Consider –

“The Junior had followed the adventure story through the pictures. They had fought every inch of the way; the heroes were on the way home. The heroes were, The Junior could see, the hardest men in a hard world, admirable but, he thought, he wouldn’t like to be in their place, even though he envied their adventures. He sighed, turned back to the beginning as the train went through the echo-y tunnel, and the roaring darkness was getting hotter and hotter” – (p. 135).

There are some drawbacks in Yurick’s presentation. First, The Warriors contains too many indistinct characters for such a short book. It is difficult for the reader to remember which character is which. Also, Yurick didn’t really know how to end the story. The novel’s end is more realistic than is the film’s ending. However, the film – in true Hollywood fashion – ends in a way that wraps everything up & satisfies the viewer.

End of the Rumble

On the first day of high school, I pulled out acceptable grades on my papers and tests. (Thanks Cliff Notes!). The Warriors film stayed in my memory much longer than did any of the books that I had half read.

Both the novel and the movie versions of The Warriors are worth your time. However, you almost have to view them as two separate works. There isn’t that much overlap. (The iconic line “Waaaaarriors, Come Out and Plaaaaaay!” never appears in the book). The film is a fun adventure story. The book asks tougher questions, particularly about violence; for readers, (as for The Coney Island Dominators) there are no easy ways out.

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Book Review: Scumbler by William Wharton

  • Scumbler
  • by William Wharton
  • Publisher – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Copyright 1984
  • 256 pages

Rating – 6.5/10

Review – After decades of obscurity, artist/author William Wharton (a pen name for Albert Du Aime) was riding high in 1984. His previous three novels (Birdy, Dad, and A Midnight Clear) had all been critically acclaimed. (Filmmakers eventually adapted all three for movies).

Wharton’s strength as a novelist is his brutal honesty. I once read that the key to great writing is holding nothing back, “writing as if you were dying.” In Birdy and Dad, Wharton did this and both books are amazing. (I haven’t read A Midnight Clear, though I saw and liked the movie).

With his fourth novel, Scumbler, Wharton manages to “up the ante,” with a story that cuts even closer to the bone. As with much of Wharton’s work, Scumbler is highly autobiographical, focusing on a neurotic, middle-aged American artist who scrapes out a life in Paris.

A Strange Bird – What is this Book?

Scumbler is a bit different, which makes it hard to explain, though the novel tells a coherent story. Scumbler is fifty-something, married with many kids. He is obsessed by death, his failing physical abilities, and the specter of encroaching old age and infirmity. He rides his motorcycle throughout Paris, finding adventure, tilting at windmills.

Scumbler sees himself as “The people’s painter.” He prefers painting outdoors in Paris as crowds mill about and interact with him. Out on the streets he encounters interesting, bohemian characters; many of them are people who refuse to live what Scumbler terms “the automatic life” (p. 41) of the bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately for Scumbler, his art does not pay the bills. He makes additional money by finding unused spaces and converting them into “nests” (illegal apartments), for which he finds tenants. Even with the rent money, Scumbler has little. He must travel on a forged, out-of-date Eurail pass and uses part of the proceeds from selling some paintings for back property taxes that he owes in California.

In the midst of the narrative, Wharton often breaks in with two or three lines of (ALL CAPS) verse that he has composed to make philosophical points. Each page of Scumbler has about one to of these three verses on it. Surprisingly, the verses don’t break the novel’s momentum. Though they vary in quality, many are quite insightful –


Ambivalent Character

For most readers, Scumbler will be a hard guy to figure. Wharton’s not going to give easy answers, and his protagonist comes across as a real, flawed, human being searching for the unattainable.

Wharton’s brutal honesty is apparent in the many occasions when Scumbler admits that he wishes that he were a woman so that he could get pregnant and have babies to nurse at his breasts. I doubt one man in ten thousand would admit to this in print. Still, the lack of restraint gives Wharton’s writing its power.

Other aspects of Scumbler’s character are particularly hard to take. For instance, on a trip (without his family) to Spain, Scumbler “fools around” with a much-younger woman. Given that Scumbler’s wife, Kate, has given up everything to follow his dream and support him, it seems exceptionally selfish. At the end of the novel, Kate confronts Scumbler with his selfishness and its impact on their family.

Predictably, Scumbler saves some special venom for the bourgeoisie. In visiting an art museum, he muses on how an artist must have hated painting royalty’s “stupid-looking little girls” (p. 122); in another passage, he discusses how his neighbors’ stupidity and materialism forced him to sell a property in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Scumbler’s musings on society’s “straights” reveal that – for all his wanderings – he has not found peace.

The End – Scumbler’s Dream House

The worst aspect of the book is the close. It is a chapter-long description of Scumbler’s “dream nest,” with no clear point. Given the novel’s loose plot, perhaps Wharton didn’t know how to end. Still, you leave feeling that you’ve just worked a big jigsaw puzzle only to find that there’s still a hole left and the last piece doesn’t fit it.

The End – of My Review

Scumbler is the fourth Wharton book that I have read. (In addition to Birdy and Dad, I read Shrapnel, Wharton’s excellent, nonfiction account of his World War II experiences). Scumbler is the weakest of the four. I give Wharton credit for originality, but his execution simply wasn’t equal to his ambition. Scumbler’s well worth a look, but it’s a cut below Wharton’s best.

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