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An intelligent, briskly styled, but badly overblown first novel that takes on academia, literary dog-eat-doggery, power politics, and moral responsibility--a heavy load (500 pages worth) for skin-deep prose and an essentially thin plot. That plot begins when failed poet Eleazar Hastings commits suicide and bequeaths his papers to the Literary Archive of Sheridan University, the domain of El's old ""friend"" and protÉgÉ, stuffy super-prof Alden Lundy, ambitious seer of the ""Appositivist movement."" But along with the papers come all of El's possessions--mildewed junk--and his widow Susannah, who's determined to salvage a posthumous book of poems and a revived reputation from the boxes and boxes of scribblings. However, the really essential items lurking in all those papers are letters that describe what a cowardly ""sonofabitch"" Alden Lundy was in his youth, how he abandoned literary lady Nora Serepedian as she lay bleeding from a botched Mexico abortion. Unfortunately, though author Kalpakian postpones this revelation as long as possible, it simply isn't profound or shocking enough to serve as the framework for a huge novel. Some of the narrative on that framework is admirable: Alden and Eleazar were part of an early Fifties gang of avant-garde writers (the BarRoom Brawl Press), most of whom slept with or married Nora (""you can't betray anyone with your body""), and these overlapping flashbacks are richly detailed (though the portrait of wild, deteriorating Eleazar inevitably invites unfavorable comparisons with Humboldt's Gift). Some of the other flashback subplots are annoyingly extraneous: e.g., the murder-mystery scandal in the life of Sheridan University's founding father. And some of the excessive length represents good ideas worked to death, as when Kalpakian takes a marvelous image--the University uses the dead poet's non-literary leavings as an excuse for a garage sale--and then writes a little essay to explain it (""the odds and ends of diverse American lives""). However, if the ungainly structure and unfulfilled ambitiousness here mean that Beggars and Choosers may go begging for a wide audience, Kalpakian's sprightly gifts--her lint-free dialogue, vivid supporting cast, and firm grip on academia's jugular vein--promise less bulky, more personalized books ahead.

Pub Date: May 11th, 1978
Publisher: Little, Brown