NEVER IN DOUBT: Critical Essays on American Books, 1972-1985 by Peter S. Prescott

NEVER IN DOUBT: Critical Essays on American Books, 1972-1985

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A collection of narrowly focused book reviews, most of which have appeared in Newsweek. Prescott rarely ventures out of the safe triangle of plot, theme, and character in discussing fiction, which is the focus of this misleadingly subtitled book. Perhaps the problem is Time/Newsweek style, which among other things dictates strong opinion and superlatives for effect's sake, regardless of reality (""Elmore Leonard. . .is the best American writer of crime fiction alive, possibly the best we've ever had""). Likewise this book is replete with energetically reformulated cliches as well as logic that baffles the careful reader (""Yet if The Assassins fails to accomplish what its author intended, it is nonetheless a deliberate enterprise""). And then there are the hokey metaphors (""Faster than a speeding Cuisinart, the reviewer's memory slices through produce pushed into his tube over many years until from the resulting julienne a salient fact emerges""). To top it off, the ""humor"" is usually sarcasm (""Garbage put out in winter will not smell as soon as garbage put out in summer, which is doubtless why Doubleday has put out Edna O'Brien's new novel now""). Moreover, while professing breadth and openness, Prescott seems remarkably closed-minded. His attitude toward women is typical: he tut-tuts certain women writers for their protesting novels, and then lauds Henry Miller because he ""could get across something of the mystery of women."" Sometimes he is just plain sloppy. Reviewing Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer, he comments on the ""irony"" of a character's being named Grace while missing the irony of the name of the Central American country in which she lives--Boca Grande, ""big mouth"" in Spanish. There are some competent critical insights here, for sure, but they struggle under the weight of a self-absorbed personality that stubbornly resists using his reviews as a springboard for discussions of ideas, the state of the world, philosophy--anything.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1986
Publisher: Arbor House