Richard B(ruce) Wright Essay - Critical Essays

Wright, Richard B(ruce)

Wright, Richard B(ruce) 1937–

Wright, a Canadian novelist, worked for several years as a journalist and radio copywriter.

[Wright's first novel, "The Weekend Man," is] a crisp, quite nastily passive first-person narrative, its characters viewed with a disingenuously snide eye. "In the Middle of a Life," is third-person, sweeter, sadder (and a small middle-aged spread of clichés has appeared in Wright's style). But readers of the first one, if they should come across the second, may well wonder if they are reading a revision.

As a suspicious youth, I thought that writers who repeated themselves were a gyp. Then I began to understand that, exceptions and complexities granted, it is the writers with the most prolonged impact on society who are likely to repeat themselves, whose themes are obsessive, and lesser writers who are bound to give you something new each time. But it's all according to how you do it…. [Nothing] could have prepared me for the literalness of Wright's repetition.

But Wright is clearly a thoughtful and honest novelist, not trying to palm off a second-hand model as brand new. One must suppose that he is so involved with salesmanship as a concept that he just can't help himself [from writing consistently about salesmen], and that if he is that obsessed, then salesmanship must be for him a clamorous metaphor—man as salesman: if successful, a suffering fraud, if a failure, left behind.

Wright's great gift is that of titillating authenticity. At his best, he gets types, situations, conversations, down so sharply that we chuckle at recognizing what we may have never, in our own experience, seen. In the process of creating life this precisely, art often shows the happy capacity for making the boring glamorous—glamorous because so vivid and, sometimes, funny. (pp. 7-8)

Where the book is weak—more conspicuously so than "The Weekend Man," which distracts from the same weakness with its greater frequency of witty observation—is in its commitment to being colorless. Wright in his best moments shows that the boring is more interesting than the boring he usually gives us here. His novel scrupulously refuses to provide any surprises of behavior. Only in physical descriptions does the unexpectedly appropriate ever appear. "In the Middle of a Life" is so solemnly faithful to the surface of the ordinary and the average that, especially given Wright's bright talent, it makes a reader impatient. (p. 8)

Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1973.

[The Weekend Man] was a brilliant first effort, a breathtaking stylistic tightrope act where a single, small misstep (never taken) could have sent the author plunging into lugubrious bathos. Among contemporary stateside writers, only Hannah Green in The Dead of the House has made such masterful use of the voice of prose or has tailored it with such exquisite economy. The Weekend Man is a tale of terror—the uniquely American terror of a man trapped in an existence at once absurd and inescapable, where every alternative is false and all action meaningless. Seldom have the cliches of ordinary speech been used with such utterly heartbreaking effect or the words of false cheer rung with such strange, sad courage. It was a haunting book and very nearly a perfect one. Needless to say, it has also proven to be an extremely tough act to follow.

In the Middle of a Life is not merely a disappointing book. It isn't even a very good one; at best, it might be termed transitional. It is as though Wright is searching desperately for something pleasant to say, however slight, to extract some drop of comfort from the human condition, however cold that comfort may be….

It is all rather much of a muchness, a novel that seems to have been written in a fit of absence of mind. In place of the shredding despair of The Weekend Man, we are given little but a sort of amiable chuckleheadedness, and although there are occasional brief flashes of the faultless stylistic control of that remarkable book, the general tone is one of slackness and fumble—a niceness, if you will, that simply prevents the author from coming to grips at all meaningfully with his material. Perhaps a mediocre novel like this is the price an immensely talented man must pay, occasionally, for perceptions that are too terrible to be borne. (pp. 6-7)

L. J. Davis, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 23, 1973.

Richard B. Wright is a Canadian who published a perfect first novel in 1971 ["The Weekend Man"] that too few people noticed….

[He has now published a solid, moving second novel, "In the Middle of Life".] Wright has the gift of making ordinariness enthralling. He can make an indelible scene out of getting a 1950s De Soto started and backing it out into a snowy street for a trip to the hospital; trying to sell an unsalable house to an affable husband and his stony wife; considering seducing a woman and being deterred by a glimpse of her white, knobby kneecap. He has the even rarer ability to arouse affection for his characters.

Walter Clemons, "Frederick the Good," in Newsweek (copyright 1973 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1973, p. 96.

With [In the Middle of a Life] we are in the over-written territory of the male menopause….

In hands less sure than Mr Wright's—and that means most hands—… this would be the last word in threadbare boredom; and any attempt to say why it does not work out like that will lead to cliché. What are we to say? Tragicomedy? Smiling bravely through our tears? The human condition? The human predicament?

The crude unanalysable fact is that Mr Wright has a top-quality eye, mind and sensibility, as was made clear in his first and not dissimilar novel, The Weekend Man. He is indeed talking about the human predicament, in this middleaged, unsuccessful, and timid version; and an enemy might say that he dawdles, has no real story to tell, wastes our time with long flashbacks which only scrutinize the complexity of life and the sad flavour of memory. He would certainly be one of the worst possible models for an aspiring novelist of limited talent; and he offers tiresomely small scope to the coruscating critic, since there aren't many clever things to be said about him.

He is just there to be relished. All the clichés come to life again: irony, pathos, compassion, "the awfulness of life, the brute facts of living, the terrible day-to-day griefs which must be borne", a steady quality of love and humour, all sustained by a wealth of narrative invention. The moral is that for many kinds of novel-writing, the mere quality of the author's mind can be decisive, which is why it is difficult to reply candidly to the unsuccessful novelist who asks to have his failure explained to him.

"Bearing Up," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 15, 1974, p. 149.