Donald Newlove Essay - Critical Essays

Newlove, Donald

Newlove, Donald 1928–

Newlove, an American novelist and short story writer, deals skillfully with unusual material. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

By contrast [with John Barth's short story, "Position,"] Donald Newlove's fictional exploration of Siamese twinship [Leo and Theodore] is exhaustive. He has chosen for the brothers Leo and Theodore nothing less than a Bildungsroman, taking them from early childhood well into young manhood. The odyssey wearies, and often the abrupt fits and jerks of his prose infuriate the traveler, but the journey need be so long because its intention is radically different from Barth's quick in-and-out.

It is Newlove's purpose to take an extreme circumstance and domesticate it. His Siamese twins, joined forever at the hip, of separate inclinations, are to be humanized…. And Newlove succeeds in the larger part of his ambition: he makes the boys over into regular fellows….

As characters they are admirable, and memorable. More the pity, then, that Newlove's execution doesn't do them justice.

His first novel, The Painter Gabriel, is a riot of language. About madness and obsession (read art) in Greenwich Village, it charges through its concerns, overspends, recoups, does odd things and makes them seem fitting. Its primary characters (like the secondary characters of Leo and Theodore) are zanies, fixated ones, extreme metaphors, odds and ends from the inventory of black comedy and the literature of madness. Again, the prose suits its setting.

This time it distracts. Its pyrotechnics are too calculated. The sentences are brutally compressed, squeezed empty of surrounding life and occasion. Leo and Teddy are jazz musicians, and perhaps it is part of Newlove's purpose to suggest by his prose the riffs and improvisations (and never mind standard usage or musical notations) of jazz. Surely he is after a kind of Dylanesque (last name Thomas, if you please) suggestiveness and music: "Wintersweet Lakeview brick porch, ice casing stone railings, morning-blue branches churchbelled." It scans, sure enough, but I'm not at all confident that it works for this novel….

Newlove … [once said] that Leo and Theodore … was to be his "major life-work," and that he would add to it from time to time. Surely it is noble in design and intention, as it is striking in many of its parts. "Major life-works" are tall orders, though, and perhaps when Newlove comes at this one again he will choose to blow easy from time to time, and not kill off his sweet melodies with such hard-blown noise.

Geoffrey Wolff, "The Tie That Binds," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 11, 1973, p. 4.

"Leo and Theodore"—an odd and larky shaggy-dog story about the small-town childhood and boozy young manhood of a pair of jazz-tootling Siamese twins—turns out to have been the opening section of what may be the best novel ever written about alcoholism…. "The Drunks" is harrowing; it's also funny and humane in its portrayal of an inferno whose inhabitants down everything from Sterno to Polynesian Jade after-shave lotion.

Newlove isn't easy reading. Teddy lisps for a full third of the book, having knocked out his front teeth while "in a thtate of dubiouth ebullienthe"; but his talk is more fun to unscramble than you might guess. Characters bob up in the alcoholic haze ("Laura Goldstein now. I changed it legally from Cynara") and mysteriously recede. All is clarified in the complex, brilliantly sustained scene that ends the novel: Newlove is unique in my experience in making an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sound exciting. That he's one of the best American writers is now unmistakable. (pp. 110-11)

Walter Clemons, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.

Donald Newlove's last book, "Leo and Theodore," was a dazzling highwire act about the childhood and sodden, dream-struck young manhood of a pair of Siamese twins. ["The Drunks"] continues the twins' story—which becomes more and more depressing as their alcoholism worsens—and follows them from the upstate New York town where they grew up to the lower East Side of New York, where they burn away their thirties in an ever more sordid, self-destructive alcoholic blaze. As in his previous books, Mr. Newlove takes incredible risks, and his cannonball style is more than a little demanding; not content with the problems inherent in writing about drunkenness (or, for that matter, Siamese twins), he adds the handicap of having Teddy's front teeth knocked out in an accident, so that a full quarter of the book is filled with his lisped dialogue. But the sheer inventiveness and strength of his writing turn risk into triumph, drunken monologues into subtle satire, A.A. meetings into riveting dramas, and what in another writer might be bathos into brilliant comedy…. And though the book might have been even better with a bit more fat trimmed (especially at the beginning, and in a long and hard-to-follow D.T.-hallucination passage), it is probably the most clear-eyed and moving—and certainly one of the most honest—books ever written about alcoholics. (pp. 193-94)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 9, 1974.