SEA BATTLES ON DRY LAND by Harold Brodkey

SEA BATTLES ON DRY LAND

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Brodkey’s self-involved, prolix prose style, which made his long-awaited Runaway Soul (1991) a sacred monster of recent fiction, fails badly to translate into readable essays on art, culture, politics, books, etc. After winning an early niche at the New Yorker with his fiction, Brodkey, like Updike and Barthelme, could always place an essay there—no matter how slight or puffed up the piece. Unlike the latter two writers, however, his New Yorker pieces, which bulk up this collection, read like carbons of the magazine, rather than contributions to it. Often Brodkey seems to be parodying both himself and the New Yorker, such as in a string of preciously insubstantial vignettes penned for “Talk of the Town”; a superannuated New Journalism’style piece on the Academy Awards; pompously irrelevant analyses of the 1992 presidential campaign (Bush as Coriolanus?!); and a review of a biography of Walter Winchell (Brodkey seems to sound a covert endorsement of then New Yorker editor Tina Brown). Even when he suggests an intriguing parallel, such as that between the scandal-wrecked personae of Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin, he always nudges his insight into sub-Proustian “fine” writing. It’s a genuine relief to finish the post-William Shawn New Yorker sections here on celebrity and politics and Brodkey’s impersonal “personal” essays, and get to his attentive, if diffuse, pieces on literature in the book’s final quarter. The collection’s stand-out is not his extended, name-dropping reminiscence of Frank O’Hara in the previously unpublished “Harold and Frank”; rather, Brodkey’s narcissism and competitiveness are there at their worst. Instead, his review of an imposingly large John O’Hara short-story collection at once serves up an acid critique of genteel fiction, as epitomized (ironically) by the New Yorker, and a shrewd analysis of authors’ attempts to attain literary immortality—or fame, at least. A test of Robertson Davies’s plea that people’s bad journalism should not be held against them.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-6052-9
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999




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