Vance Bourjaily Essay - Critical Essays

Bourjaily, Vance

Bourjaily, Vance 1922–

Bourjaily is an American novelist and editor. The Second World War and its effect on the life of a generation of Americans is a central concern throughout his work. He was cofounder of discovery, a literary magazine which he edited from 1953 to 1955. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

"Now Playing at Canterbury" comes from the same source as most of Bourjaily's other fiction, his life. There's no other source for most novelists. That's why so many become repetitious. In Bourjaily's case the life has led to some startling fiction, beginning with his first novel, "The End of My Life" (1947). It came from his experience as an American Field Service ambulance driver in World War II…. It got him into John W. Aldridge's "After the Lost Generation" club in the early 1950's with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and others now famous, forgotten or self-destroyed.

If the promise was great, the glory never really came. Literary New York sent Bourjaily roses at the start and frequently weeds later on….

"Now Playing at Canterbury" is the novel Vance Bourjaily's career has promised us. It hears America hurting and crying. It also hears America singing, feels it changing, sees it swinging and going on and on through fields of Iowa corn, down the Buck Rogers freeways, up over our concrete pueblos spearing the sky. "Now Playing at Canterbury" is Vance Bourjaily at 54 and discovering Breughel populating America.

Bourjaily believes life is good. Perhaps so much literary fiction is depressive because it's written by young consciences yet to be tried. You have to pass 40 to know what not to hope for. Bourjaily celebrates life, incants it right from the start. (p. 3)

Chaucer's Canterbury was a holy place, tomb of Saint Thomas à Becket. Bourjaily's Canterbury equivalent is the cultural center. Art is holy in State City. Whether it will be entombed there, Bourjaily doesn't say. Instead, he shows us how Americans do their work, play with one another, think about art, satisfy lust, fight authority, suffer abominations and otherwise carry on their lives in the years of nihilism and atrocity, the early 1960's to the mid-1970's….

Problems of structure and motivation, questions of attitude, issues of focus intrude on the bawdy and lyrical melodies of "Now Playing at Canterbury." Sex and love seldom find one another. I wonder whether the family may not be at the foundation of the United States as primary authority rather than political combinations. Families don't exist in "Canterbury." Bourjaily's comic-strip dialogue and imitation Chaucerian verse smile from his pages mindlessly. Bourjaily is a crafty entertainer. But … he needs control. "Canterbury" gets windy, even gassy. Yet how Bourjaily can write!

America, Vance Bourjaily has found you. His novel works. It's literature in the service of life, Bourjaily's 12 year vision of the good and the bad in recent United States history, human beings as strong and weak as the social weights that crush them and the animal drives that get them up again. "Now Playing at Canterbury" will be argued. It will be deflated. It will be read and remembered. (p. 4)

Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 12, 1976.

[Now Playing at Canterbury's] considerable heft and the titular allusion to Chaucer are signs that High Seriousness is about to be committed….

The Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales appears only in the author's purloined formula: toss some interesting strangers together and stir….

Bourjaily does not always sense when his powers of invention are flagging. Some of the interpolated tales are simply dull. Others are tricked out with bad mannerisms. One limps along in rhymed couplets. Another makes extensive—and pointless—use of comic-strip balloons filled with dialogue. A young black performer talks and thinks in a free-associating patois lifted and badly fumbled from Finnegans Wake.

Fortunately, Bourjaily has chosen a framework loose and capacious enough to absorb the bad with the good. And his virtues have never been on better display. He can capture American speech and cage it on the page without loss of vitality. His sympathies are generous; his descriptions of the nation's heartland landscapes throb with passion. Because its parts are greater than the sum of its whole, Now Playing at Canterbury will disappoint those who are still searching for that Loc Ness monster of the literary swim, the Great American Novel. No matter. It should be accepted gratefully for what it is: a minor piece, flawed but undeniably alive.

Paul Gray, "American Whoppers," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), September 13, 1976, p. 75.

Legend has it that Hemingway, broken in mind and about to die, spoke well of Vance Bourjaily's talent…. Fifteen years and three novels later, Bourjaily still hovers in that penumbra where able writers try and fail to write a book of real importance. His new novel, twelve years in the writing, is not that book, not the book Bourjaily meant it to be: the Big American Novel that would let him bask finally in the glare of a major literary reputation.

[Now Playing at Canterbury is] a big book, all right, and the talent that Hemingway observed glitters fitfully among its many pages, but as a novel it's a mess—pretentious, shallow, complacent and mannered often to the point of self-indulgence. (p. 81)

To stress the Chaucer connection, Bourjaily includes an animal story and another in lame iambic couplets. But Chaucer had the wit to keep the frame for his tales unobtrusive; Bourjaily has not. His characters, drawn so thin as to be translucent, scratch at each other and constantly change beds; most speak only in the author's tone of voice, so, when everyone changes beds once more at the end, it seems that Bourjaily is straining for confusion, for self-parody.

The idea for the novel that Bourjaily has not written is sound. One could, from such a framework, write stories that illustrate some truths about America. But the novel that Bourjaily has written is not about American truths, but about fantasies: the orgy fantasy, the pot-bust fantasy, the student-power fantasy, the Vietnam-war-resistance fantasy. I do not mean that what Bourjaily writes about is untrue, but that his treatment of what is true, or is a good myth, is false, that he gives us America at the same remove from reality that television gives it to us. His stories offer no narrative or moral perspective that is new or freshly observed, no information about students or blacks or bombings or drugs that could not have been researched from TV news or TV situation dramas. His characters, strong and weak guys all, at their best resemble characters from old movies that we see on late night television. (pp. 81-81A)

Bourjaily has traded in the author's omniscience, as Tolstoy and Hardy understood it, for a smug knowingness. "Billy Hoffman, in he shuffles," is not just a bad sentence, it is corrupt because the author is clearly pleased with it, has worked to make it just as awful as it is. This sort of writing, combined with a plot that is not developed, but simply extended by the yard, results in a book that few caring readers should want to finish…. (p. 81A)

Peter S. Prescott, "The Chaucer Connection," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1976, pp. 81, 81A.

[Vance Bourjaily] has just published his seventh novel, Now Playing at Canterbury …, which is set in "State City" (a midwestern university town). In a way, it's a comic meditation on what happens when art marries into the academic family.

The novel revolves about the production of an opera, composed and written by university people, with a cast of students and faculty members, enacted at the university's opulent theater. The opera is awful—at least judging by its libretto—but no matter, the singers all have other things on their minds. Much of the book consists of long digressions, memories told in the voice of one or another of the troupe. The design belongs to the Canterbury Tales, hence the title….

Bourjaily has always been a life-embracing novelist, and he successfully populates this novel with a set of characters meant to remind you of the world's variety. (p. 111)

Its cleverness and high spirits carried me much of the way through this overlong … book, but before the close another emotion seemed to be creeping into the text, a furtive sadness. The feeling can be located not so much in the book's characters as in the institution that subsumes them, the university with its big-as-all-outdoors generosity toward its artists…. Not that the living is bad: the living is good, as this novel testifies. Money and time, fellowships and fellowship farms on the edge of town, dinner parties featuring home-raised baron of lamb. The living is good, but it causes a bit of free-floating malaise, a feeling of unnaturalness. What all Bourjaily's characters seem to share is a hunger for authenticity, and a sense that real life, however rocky or sordid, lies behind them, or perhaps ahead of them; lies somewhere where they are not.

Bourjaily gazes on this plight with amusement, tolerance, and affection. One truth he wants to remind us of is that mediocrity and genius spring from similar impulses, and that those impulses live in all people…. But there's a wistfulness to this book, a muted-longing for grandness, the emotion of one who wonders what Fitzgerald would think if he came to one's seminar on Fitzgerald. (p. 112)

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1976.