SORROWLESS TIMES: A Narrative by James Herndon

SORROWLESS TIMES: A Narrative

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Herndon's books about teaching (The Way It Spozed to Be, How to Survive in Your Native Land) displayed his earthy, free-floating, impressionistic style--a style which suited those mosaics of reportage and insight. This time, however, Herndon's material is much more conventional: autobiographical memories, age 15 to 18. And, though his talents as an evoker-of-moments is never in doubt, his busy, artsy attempts to refract and layer those memories into some sort of literary objet are largely self-defeating. Herndon never uses the first-person here. At 15, playing in local wartime bands (which were forced to use ""kid musicians""), he calls himself ""Herndon""--and the two short, boisterous ""Herndon"" chapters are his best, most immediately involving sequences. Except for those flashbacks, however, Herndon is, pretentiously, ""the Explorer"": age 17 in 1945, undraftable on account of his one glass eye, he has signed on the SS Malibu with the Merchant Marines--who relegate him to ""messman"" because of that disability. There's a boozy, B-girl stopover in Panama City--after which the Explorer wakes up with the inevitable tattoo: ""Hey One-eye! See your tattoo! Obliging, pleased, apprehensive (be there a long time if nobody likes it) shoving up his T-shirt sleeve. Looks good!"" There's standing watch, getting into fights, playing poker, eating his first curry, drinking home brews, listening to his messmates' raunchy stories. There's a brief taste of the real war when, with a scornful Navy crew aboard, the Malibu heads for the Philippines. And there's a sort-of-idyll while the Malibu spends six months sailing back and forth between Ceylon and the Tigris-Euphrates (where ""smack dab in the delta of the Tiggress-Oifratess, near the wild Persian hills, in the middle of the Mate's seminar, some asshole had caught a fucking catfish!""). But, while several individual scenes are made raw and vivid by Herndon's rhythmic, free-associative prose, the Explorer's inner journey is too self-consciously fragmented to give this narrative shape or punch. Not only is the presentation mannered, but the point-of-view keeps shifting from that of ""the Explorer"" to that of ironic, wise Herndon-the-writer looking back--with often-arch results: ""An Explorer has to keep a certain distance between things or suffer a loss, i.e., stop exploring. . . . Real or imaginary, kept pure, it's all the same. But let the two merge and tremendous loss is certain. The Explorer didn't know any of this, but now we do."" One can't help feeling that if Herndon had written a plain old straightforward memoir, this might have been a thoroughly engaging book. As it is, the straining for literariness drains the story of much of its impact; and the result is occasionally funny or atmospheric, but usually more affected than affecting.

Pub Date: Nov. 18th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster