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.