Tag Archives: John Updike

Nowhere Man

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Three Rivers Press, $15.99, 352 pages)

Ethically, it was never a problem for me…

The noted writer-reviewer John Updike once said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   If this memoir had been written by an average Joe, it would likely draw comparisons to James Frey’s fake memoir (now labeled fiction), A Million Little Pieces.   Like that work, this account is filled with descriptions of inhaling massive quantities of illegal substances, of dangerous behavior and of hurting oneself and others no matter the consequences.   But this memoir is written by a multi-millionaire musician, one who treats near-priceless Ferrari automobiles like disposable coffee cups, one who walks on 30-story hotel ledges, and one who repeatedly and tragically hurt others:  “I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving…  I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions…”

Suffice it to say that the Eric Clapton found here is not a very nice or likeable person.   He’s a person, who until the end of this account in near present times, sees the world as existing to serve only his own pleasures; so this is at times both an immoral and an amoral telling of the events in his life.   If this sounds too harsh, here are Clapton’s own words:  “I was off having one-night stands and behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way, so my moral health was in appaling condition and only likely to get worse…  I was already trying to sabotage my relationship with Pattie, as if now that I had her, I didn’t want her anymore.”   (emphasis added)

The person who knows little about Clapton prior to picking up this book – something that is not recommended – likely is aware that Clapton took Pattie Boyd Harrison away from George, one of Clapton’s very best friends.   That says volumes about his behavior, behavior which is only ampiflied in the 328 pages of this autobiography.   One might hope that this version of events, written by a spirited musician, would contain some life in it, but it’s flat and omits many of the details that were provided in Pattie Boyd’s earlier-penned memoir, Wonderful Tonight.

We must presume that Clapton wrote this memoir on his own as there’s no attribution to another writer (“Eric Clapton with…”) nor an “as told to” credit.   Frankly it reads as if it were dictated to a stenographer or into a recording device.

There’s little for the rock music lover to discover here, as Clapton’s accounts of playing with certain bands/musicians are sparse, and he never does describe how he came to learn his own brand of playing.   A lot of time – too much, it seems – is devoted to explaining his love of the blues, even though (despite his insistence here) most of his career has centered on playing rock rather than traditional blues music.   And there are many odd and questionable statements throughout the book…  For example, when Cream plays one of its first dates opening for The Who.   Clapton wonders then whether Cream could possibly succeed with just three musicians in the band, even though they saw that The Who (a musical trio – Roger Daltrey generally being just a vocalist) had already proven the success of this musical business model.   Odd.

Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.

Ah, yes, Clapton (in a style reminiscent of John Lennon) blames his bad choices in life on the fact that a parent abandoned him “all those years ago.”   This seems like an excuse that was used for far too many decades.   In his mind, because his mother abandoned him, he was free to seek revenge by abandoning everyone who came into his life; except, of course, that he’s now happy with a third wife and four daughters.   Good for him.

I remember when I was considering reading Boyd’s memoir Wonderful Tonight, and I came across an online comment to the effect that if one read her book one might well cease to be a fan of the musician Eric Clapton.   I feel the same way here – it will be much harder to listen to Disraeli Gears or 24 Nights or Derek and the Dominoes or Journeyman after this.   At one point, Eric Clapton seemed like Forever Man.   In this autobiography, he comes across more like Nowhere Man.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was lent a copy of this book.

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Sequels and Prequels

“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.”   Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books

One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases.   Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer.   Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.

The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with.   One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it.   Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD.   Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO).   Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.”   But what happens when Triple Whammy is released?   PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists.   (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)

An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character.   One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky.   Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels.   (Was V. I. getting soft?)   Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books.   Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!

So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character.   He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives.   Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?

There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough.   What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income?   What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles?   This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point.   That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.

The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating.   The key word, though, is skill.

Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel.   This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character.   In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…

Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones.   When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties.   If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural.   But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow.   The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this?   I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”

Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different.   Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version.   But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”

The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character.   But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love.   These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough.   One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon.   It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one!   But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks!   Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now.   Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”

A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant.   Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome!   Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   This article is one in a continuing series.

Pictured:   Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.

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Homer and Langely

Home & Langely: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

“I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.”

I believe it was John Updike who said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, has a great reputation as a writer and it is well deserved.   In Homer & Langely, he writes beautifully – in a style that often calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger – but there’s simply so little story to be told that the words are wasted.   It’s as if a musician were given a score to play that hid all of his strengths and talents.

This is a 208-page novella that runs on too long; the basic tale could well have been told as a 30- to 40-page short story.   Two brothers, wealthy by birth, become hermits while they’re living in a mansion across the street from New York City’s Central Park.   One brother is blind and the other is either bizarre or mentally ill.   This is not only a summary of the plot, but of almost everything that happens in H&L.   The most interesting scenes come when the brothers are visited by a tribe of hippies.

Doctorow’s latest was, for this reader, a novella that was far too easy to put down.

Random House, $26.00, 208 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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