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 He must travel on a forged, out-of-date Eurail pass and uses part of the proceeds from selling some paintings for back property taxes that he owes in California.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 –

THE DIVIDING LINE IS SO FINE, SO
HARD TO SEE, NOT BETWEEN LIFE AND
DEATH; THAT’S EASY; BUT BETWEEN
LIVING AND NOT; THAT’S HARD (P. 121)

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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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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