Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Salamanca, J(ack) R(ichard) (Vol. 4)
Salamanca, J(ack) R(ichard) 1924?–
Salamanca, an American novelist, writes hauntingly lyrical prose. Although he is best known for his interpretation of the "mad" girl Lilith, and he has always been fascinated by madness, he has been mainly preoccupied in his fiction with the failure of love. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
J. R. Salamanca's second novel is striking confirmation of the talent which aroused considerable excitement when his first novel, "The Lost Country," appeared three years ago. Although narrower in scope and less resonant in style than his first novel, "Lilith" is a subtler continuation of the author's theme: gentle innocence journeying toward self-knowledge through cruelty and corruption, unguardedly embracing with flaring intensity the secret mysteries of human intimacy….
"Lilith" demonstrates again Mr. Salamanca's rare sense of place, his sensuous, tender evocation of country people and country days, for it is within the setting he has known all his life, among the familiar and beloved hills and woods which nourished his boyhood, that Vincent becomes the victim of his own generosity and violates himself. It would be possible to view this book as it seems on the surface: a chilling exposure of the manipulation of the healthy by the demented (and vice versa). But "Lilith" is really something much rarer in contemporary fiction. As in "The Lost Country," this gifted young novelist has taken the myths of masculine growing-up—the hunger of the immature for involvement with the beautiful, the brilliant, and the unattainable—and woven them into a subtle canvas behind which dance the avid dreams of youth.
It is a tribute to J. R. Salamanca's great skill as a writer that both the surface of this novel—stylish in tone, precise in language, sure in evocation of place—and the unspoken knowledge which lies beneath it combine to produce a work of mature artistry.
Harding Lemay, "The Beautiful and Demented," in The New York Herald Tribune—Books, July 30, 1961, p. 9.
It is difficult to define precisely what the novelist has done [in "Lilith"], and even more difficult to determine what he intends. In the context of a mental institution, and with concepts chosen rather promiscuously from Freud and Jung, he has recast in ironic form and studied poetic prose various conflicting materials; the character of Vincent, that most gentle of Christian saints; the rabbinical legend of the night-creature Lilith, first wife of Adam, who abandoned him for demons; the theme of romantic agony, of heightened erotic sensibility, that the Marquis de Sade, Byron, Keats and others relished in their plots of the innocent corrupted by evil.
All this emerges as a witch's brew that Mr. Salamanca has tried to flavor to everyone's taste. If the reader insists that a novel have a specific meaning, no matter how subtle, he will not find one here. The equations of sense are many and contradictory; thus, at one moment insanity is equated with creativity, then with evil and next with unreality. Yet through this book there shines the light of an authentic talent, darkened though it may be in the mirror of insanity. If this is the novel the author felt he had to write after his brilliant "The Lost Country," perhaps in the next one he will return to that same lost country of his youth and dreams.
E. Nelson Hayes, "Love and Death in a World of Delusion," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 20, 1961, p. 30.
[Lilith] is a beautifully, sensitively written book, a book full of touching and memorable insights, often a moving book. Only its subject matter keeps Lilith from being entirely successful….
The first one hundred pages, in which the hero re-creates his early life in the town, his war years and his return, contain some of the loveliest prose I have come upon in a long while. And the rest of the writing is equally impressive.
However, after Vincent goes to work at the Lodge, as the asylum is called, and meets his co-workers, the novel takes on the aspect of a fairy tale which all the beautiful writing cannot dispel….
Herein lies the novel's flaw: the good, simple, troubled hero is believable; but the heroine's character, however charming, is that of a madwoman and can never be relied upon for any genuine or recognizable motivation. Thus, as Vincent is excluded from her private world, so is the reader. Without this contact there is no sympathy, and combined with the difficulties that the setting itself provides, it is easy to see how shaky becomes the whole edifice.
Doris Grumbach, "Bewitching Madness," in America (© America Press, 1961; all rights reserved), September 2, 1961, pp. 691-92.
There is an entrancing dreamlike quality to the fiction of J. R. Salamanca. In Embarkation as in Lilith and A Sea Change the world he creates is somewhere between reality and fantasy, past and present, the palpable and the mysterious. His novels move slowly, deliberately and powerfully through time, evoking an ambiance of legend and myth. They are tapestries, woven out of deep feeling for character, a keen awareness of the physical landscape, and a fine appreciation of ambiguity.
Embarkation, which may well be the best of them, is a work of artistry about the subject of artistry….
Salamanca tells this wise and provocative tale with grace and feeling and no small amount of humor. Joel Linthicum [the protagonist of Embarkation] is a charming and wholly fascinating character, whose clumsy attempts to express love are as believable as his gusto and his genius. As so many of Salamanca's characters are, he is a man of the sea, and Embarkation contains passages of nautical description that are truly brilliant. Throughout, it is a novel that engages the reader, as the best fiction does, in the lives it unfolds.
Jonathan Yardley, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 2, 1973, p. 3.
Goethe, who was fascinated with the image of the superior man long before Nietzsche gave him romantic and mystical trimmings and called him Zarathustra, believed that if we are strongwilled and know our goal people will step aside for us. In [Embarkation] Joel Linthicum, the boat-builder as artist, would pass any test for the superior man … and his older son Aaron compares him with the Elizabethans. Most Englishmen and Americans today would be intimidated if a Drake or a Raleigh came swaggering among them, sea salt in his beard and blood on his hands. Aaron, the narrator of Embarkation, admits he's intimidated and his growing up—one of the major themes of the novel—is a quiet struggle to crawl out from under the shadow of a man who belongs to a time when there were giants in the earth.
Though Salamanca gave the title character of his best-selling novel Lilith a rich fantasy life, he is no maker of fantasies himself. Lilith was based on a year's work in an asylum and its success was owing not only to its Gothic atmosphere but also to its finespun details and its author's power in identifying with the occupational therapist who served as narrator. In Embarkation Salamanca … dipped into his own experiences as well…. Whether he is describing London or the odds-against struggle of the Linthicums with a gale off the Maryland coast, Salamanca writes with a lyricism that persuaded a critic of his first novel, The Lost Country, to chide him as a Thomas Wolfe cub.
Salamanca differs from Wolfe, however, in ways important enough to indicate that he doesn't have to crawl out from under the shadow of that giant. Since The Lost Country he has been curbing a taste for verbiage and rhetoric and producing novels that have been progressively shorter. He is more inventive than Wolfe, never using nostalgia as an excuse for disguised and interminable autobiography. Most important, perhaps, he turns to mythology as Joyce and Faulkner and John Updike did before him but avoids the obtrusive parallels that became a wearisome trick in Updike's The Centaur. The Genesis story of Noah furnished Salamanca with hints for the primitive vigor and alternating scrupulousness and waywardness of Joel Linthicum….
Joel Linthicum is not entirely credible—no semi-mythic hero could be—if measured by the standards of realistic fiction…. [He] is above all a contrast to the anti-heroes that have long dominated fiction and an answer—if one is wanted—to the despair of the '70s. His delight in living and eagerness to take risks limit him as a human being only in that they prevent him from understanding what the whimpering of the J. Alfred Prufrocks is all about.
The artist as a comic hero rather than a sensitive plant on Shelley's model is an uncommon theme and it is handled by Salamanca with romantic overtones that would jar if his lyricism weren't under delicate control. In moving from the Gothicism of Lilith and the overinsistent sexuality of A Sea Change, he has arrived at an artistic maturity that puts Embarkation first among his works.
James Walt, "No Wolfe Cub," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), January 5 & 12, 1974, pp. 28-9.
Salamanca, J(ack) R(ichard) (Vol. 15)
Salamanca, J(ack) R(ichard) 1924?–
An American novelist, Salamanca writes hauntingly lyrical prose. Although he has often explored madness and the limits of human consciousness, he has been mainly preoccupied in his fiction with the failure of love. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
J. R. Salamanca's A Sea Change, though it is a conventional enough study of the disintegration of love and marriage, has a few moments of derangement as well. It moves along smoothly and conversationally, told in the first person by a young-old man, prematurely pedantic and smug, blighted by personal disappointment and yet not enlightened, not provoked into manhood by his suffering. It is the sign of our sophisticated times that even an ordinary love story can be told in so clever and complicated a style; though the style ultimately adds nothing to the story, and perhaps strains the reader's patience, it argues for a certain ironic intelligence that partly redeems the disappointing narrative itself.
A Sea Change is a Jamesian treatment of a love relationship, between Michael (who ages into shrill, exasperating coyness) and Margaret (whose character remains exasperatingly out of focus), the two of them so close, so mercilessly intimate, that they share one name—"Mickey." Time is mixed up in A Sea Change; everything is past tense; we move freely from the early years of love and marriage to the later, disenchanted years, coming to know the sound of Michael's voice all too well, and sharing with his wife a gradual contempt for his prissiness. The surfaces of this novel are extremely polished, the author's sentences so urbane and effortless that one is drawn into accepting outrageous things: for instance, the sudden transformation of Michael, the scholar and specialist in Eastern languages, into a passionate lover, a forty-year-old with no experience beyond that within his conventional marriage suddenly blossoming into an amazing lover. It is sheer fantasy—as if James's later heroes were to attempt the exploits of Stendhal's operatic young men, with no change in their diction. (p. 306)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Realism of Distance, Realism of Immediacy" (copyright, 1971, by Joyce Carol Oates), in The Southern Review, n.s. Vol. 7, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 306-07.∗
[J. R. Salamanca's Embarkation poses a] problem. Although the main character, Joel Linthicum, is called an artist, the word doesn't quite fit. He is a master boatwright of the Maryland tidewater, a demonic perfectionist who has dedicated his life to designing and building ever more beautiful, sleek and elegant racing sloops. The story of Joel's family, an innocent sacrifice to his "art," is told by his elder son, Aaron, a talented but failed actor who feels that his father has drained him of courage for either work or love.
After Joel is lost in a storm at sea, Aaron comes home to settle the dead man's affairs, and as he broods nostalgically and bitterly on past and present, we gradually take the full measure of Joel Linthicum's zealous, ruinous dedication. When his debts threatened the loss of his shop, he burned the family house to the ground for the insurance money. Nothing and no one could ever matter as much to him as the "one perfect boat that he had an idea of, somewhere back in his mind, that he was working toward."
The best thing about Embarkation is Salamanca's richly affectionate descriptions of rural Maryland, the smell and texture of the Chesapeake shore, of fast boats in dark water. He has an expert's fondness for the mechanics and accouterments of a boatwright's craft…. None of the human beings in Salamanca's landscape attains the dense, tangible solidity of the implements, wood and boats. Yet precisely because Embarkation is really a book about a craftsman rather than an artist, it demands not faith but concrete knowledge—highly specialized information about the way boats are designed and constructed—if one is to appreciate Joel Linthicum's mastery. Thus, to the landlubber, much of Embarkation is inaccessible. (p. 18)
Pearl K. Bell, "The Artist as Hero," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 5, March 4, 1974, pp. 17-18.∗
[A] discrepancy between grand theme and limited accomplishment mars … [Embarkation, a novel] concerned with the painful intricacies of parent-child relationship … [concerned particularly] with the connections between imagination and love. (p. 294)
[Important is the] powerful image of the father-artist: one of the few forceful, self-seeking, energetic males around, in this era of the hero-as-helper. Joel Linthicum, builder of boats, already dead as the novel opens, survives, bigger than life, in the imaginations of his children, imaginations long since shaped and marred by him, the image of his effect always before us in the presence of the brain-damaged twenty-five-year-old Jamed. Joel is no hero, or a dreadfully ambiguous one. The novelist can imagine him, but cannot keep him going. Joel builds beautiful boats, sacrificing all human ties for their sake…. He drinks Scotch, fornicates, shouts Shakespeare. He dies. His wife has long since gone dead within, his idiot child still plays with sand. The brilliant daughter and actor-son find it impossible to achieve fulfillment. The son, Aaron, sees himself as a helper, a lover of the maimed and unsuccessful; the daughter cannot completely leave home.
Accurate characterization, powerful writing, ingenious invention—but no driving novelistic action: half an action, perhaps. Despite the great vitality of the central character, the novel lacks vitality of conception…. Joel Linthicum is compelled to his destruction, but his children's lives come to nothing in particular. Inconclusiveness, of course, is an up-to-date effect. But one may regret that it apparently has to generate so much inconclusive work. (p. 295)
Patricia Meyer Spacks, "Fiction Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 283-95.
Aaron, the first-person narrator in Embarkation, spends most of his time sitting in the dark with his sister, drinking Jack Daniel's whisky and reminiscing about their childhood. Poppa, a hairy Old Man of the Sea, has just gone down with his boat 'where they could lie together till they were undressed to their very bones, rocking slowly back and forth for ever in their endless ecstasy'. Did Poppa have a heart of gold or of flint? As a boat-builder, he was an idealist; as husband and father, he was selfish and sly, burning down their home for the insurance he needed to pay off a mortgage on his yard. Did he love his retarded younger son? Or was he too mean to pay for medical treatment?
Because one of the two important events in Embarkation is never described and has happened before the book opens, the story lacks strength. It is carried by the quality of Salamanca's writing, exuberant, delicate, sardonic and tender. He paints an unforgettable picture of the Chesapeake Bay coastline. Episodes and sketches will stay vivid when the story has vanished into the mist, with the diesel clam boats thumping through the soft south-east drizzle. (pp. 753-54)
John Mellors, "Brotherly Lust," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), Vol. 92, No. 2384, December 5, 1974, pp. 753-54.∗
[Unless] some effort is made to examine Salamanca's work more closely, he may be turned into a passing interest of the middlebrow audience, which would be a pity, for Salamanca is a kind of American John Fowles, and his fictional works have a high degree of sophistication and skill.
Like Fowles, Salamanca is in neither the realistic nor the postmodern mode, though he has certain traits of both. If he must be pigeonholed at all, he would be more accurately placed in that line of twentieth-century novelists (including Djuna Barnes, Malcolm Lowry, Fitzgerald, and Fowles) who have perceived a loss of "presence" in consciousness and who have tried through various means to retrieve it, an effort that usually results in failure and disillusionment. The best cross-reference for these novelists is not, therefore, to other novelists but to the Romantic poets. Like them, these novelists tend to write about artists or artist-figures who cannot be satisfied with the abstractive process that converts all landscape into concept, or the subsequent play of comic (or nightmarish) self-reflection, which usually collapses under the weight of its own solipsism. Salamanca and Fowles, in particular, stand in opposition to these procedures by claiming for their art the possibility of momentary physical illumination, which is wholly self-justifying, no matter how much despair and destruction it may leave behind. Such illumination, which would unite language to thought and object, is difficult to achieve (to say the least): it may be found only in the arms of an uncontrolled sexual urge, or in madness, or alcohol, or a mystery that defies labels altogether. When the moment of illumination is over, it may leave the survivor in a state of continuing mystery or with the death of desire. Fowles is the novelist of the former, Salamanca of the latter.
Such themes do not develop overnight, and they are not entirely in evidence in Salamanca's first novel, The Lost Country, a first novel in more ways than one. The story of the growth in rural Virginia of a young man, James Blackstarr, shares with other Bildungsromans the necessity of naming and dramatizing the first of everything: Jim's first swim across a river, his first girl, first rifle, first fight, and since he is a budding writer, his first poems and stories. All these introductions are set in a narrative that reflects his innocence and eagerness to see: the book contains many paragraphs detailing his physical and spiritual education, whose sentences all begin "He loved…." In the novel desire soaks every impulse, making both the act of the imagination and the act of physical love reciprocal. As Jim grows, he develops strength, honesty, manliness, and courage, in addition to his intelligence. Such novels are often called "torrential" and compared to Thomas Wolfe's; they live on, seemingly, only to embarrass their creators.
In one respect, though, The Lost Country initiates some themes that are to haunt Salamanca's later work, and they have to do with what happens to the objects of desire. Since these are mostly women, the relationship between a man and woman defines the self of both and further defines the nature of the social world in which they live (or are caught). If desire sets the self into motion in the world, the movement of desire then substantializes it. The individual may be poisoned by either an excess or a deficiency of desire, but without it the self cannot be defined at all. (pp. 75-6)
[In his next novel, Lilith,] Salamanca has constructed a fictional version not only of [its epigraph] "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" but of "Ode to a Nightingale." The self travels to a realm where a different language takes over (Lilith has invented her own), where music fills the silences, and where the ego does not know where it is or where reality takes place—inside the head or outside in what others call "the world." If and when the ego comes back to itself, it thinks in dreams. (pp. 78-9)
If it were not for the luminous prose of [Lilith], the mesmerizing aestheticism might get beyond the talking stage. If the style fails, the novel's preoccupations cannot even begin to convince, but Salamanca's prose manages in an uncanny way to combine both the ordinary and the bizarre; it is both ornate and flat, like a farmer telling fairy tales….
At the heart of the dramatic situation [of A Sea Change] is the question of what an individual is to do about or with the person he loves when his desire for her, quite simply, dies out. The sea change of the novel spans the passionate beginning of a relationship to its dismal mid-term (in which love heaps guilt upon itself) when needs are not being satisfied by desire. The result is a brilliant, sun-lit, and tremendously expressive novel whose central action...
(The entire section is 2001 words.)