SPEAKEASY by Nathaniel Benchley


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It's somehow fitting that N. Benchley's last, posthumous novel is a loving, roman à clef-fy evocation of R. Benchley's 1920s--because, while Benchley Jr. at his best (The Off-Islanders) was a genial entertainer, he never really strode out from under the shadow of his father's comic genius. (Not to mention the commercial success of son Peter.) A fellow awfully reminiscent of the young Robert Benchley, then, is the central figure in this near-plotless ramble: Roland Butterworth--who, with ""a bow tie and an embryonic moustache,"" is seen dabbling in assorted night-crawler careers (reporter, theatrical press agent, actor). . . while his neglected wife, off in the country with the kids, grows increasingly impatient for Roly to settle down. And among Roly's pals and acquaintances in the Manhattan '20s are a slew of real and almost-real Benchley comrades: Humphrey Bogart; Ring Lardner; John Barrymore (""Which part are you going to play?"" asks Roly when Barrymore announces plans for a Hamlet production); Dorothy Peters--a faithful mock-up of Benchley's beloved Parker, complete with rotten love affairs, suicide attempts, wisecracks, and boozing; and Nick Baldino, operator (with WW I war-bride Marie) of a speakeasy/restaurant called the Club Circe. There are dib-dabs of action here--a few prohibition raids, Nick's troubles with the Mob. But, for the most part, Benchley cheerfully mixes bits of '20s history (Sacco-Vanzetti) with lots of theater/newspaper chat, plus agreeable food-and-drink details. And, though some of the quasi-biographical material can get confusing for those in the know (Parker's doomed real-life passion, John McClain, is called MacDougall here, while another lover is called McClain), this is a pleasant Twenties-in-New-York pastiche--and an oblique yet revealing portrait of the Benchley/Parker circle in its early days, in some ways more revealing than N. Benchley's 1955 biography of his father.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Doubleday