For this rich, dense, uneven but remarkable autobiography, playwright Miller has chosen an unpredictable, free-associative...



For this rich, dense, uneven but remarkable autobiography, playwright Miller has chosen an unpredictable, free-associative format: eight long chapters (over 600 pp. in all) that jump forward and back in time, mixing major events with odd anecdotes, famous personalities with curious strangers. At its best, this approach works brilliantly, adding irony and resonance while protecting a long book from the plodding linearity of most memoirs. Sometimes, however, the floating focus allows things to remain hazy--as Miller, indulging a tendency toward lofty detachment, keeps his distance. The opening sections are entirely splendid. Miller offers an earthy, droll closeup of his 1920's childhood, part of a nouveau-riche Jewish/immigrant clan in Harlem, prosperity blighted by family deaths and anti-Semitism--with flashforwards to the Millers' 1930's poverty, to a 1970's cab-ride through the old neighborhood. Memories of his 1940 marriage to a Catholic girl (hilarious, touching evocations of her Ohio family) lead back into the 1930's--to Miller's naive embrace of Marxism, to the Brooklyn friends and relatives who inspired the Willy Loman figure in Death of a Salesman. The opening of his first success, All My Sons, ushers in recollections of a decade of part-time jobs (the Navy Yard, an auto-parts warehouse) and free-lance writing (a dandy radio-play encounter with Orson Welles). There's a triptych of impressions of tragic Clifford Odets ('40/'49/'58), a vivid glimpse of director Elia Kazan at work, a dramatic account of the genesis of The Crucible--which had as much to do with sexual guilt (his affair with Marilyn Monroe) as with the McCarthy hearings. Once Marilyn takes center-stage, however, the book's montage-technique begins to seem a bit evasive. Miller writes eloquently about MM's vulnerability, her ""terror of abandonment,"" the collapse of their marriage: ""Each had failed with his magic to transform the other's life, and we were as we had been before, but worse."" There are harrowing accounts of two filmings: The Prince and the Showgirl with Olivier; The Misfits with Huston, Gable, and Miller's script (an intended ""gift"" of dignity to Marilyn). There are enough details--the barbituate addiction, the creepily possessive Strasbergs--to transfix Marilyn-watchers. Yet there's something blurred and oddly unsatisfying about the presentation, with its unclear chronology and many omissions (e.g., the Montand affair). And though there are inspiring pages from Miller's efforts to make PEN the ""conscience of the world writing community,"" bitterness dominates the book's final section: persuasive attacks on Norman Mailer, the banker-mentality that doomed the first Lincoln Center Rep, the American demand for ""instant culture,"" the Broadway status quo: sweeping, iffy laments on Western civilization; and unconvincing responses to criticism of his later plays. Far from perfect or fully endearing, then, but a grand, engrossing memoir nonetheless--warmly illuminating a lifetime of fascinating people and places, if not the man himself.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1987


Page Count: -

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1987