Wilfrid Sheed Essay - Sheed, Wilfrid (Vol. 4)

Sheed, Wilfrid (Vol. 4)

Sheed, Wilfrid 1930–

Sheed is an Anglo-American novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist. His fiction, crisp and satirical, is concerned with social and intellectual encounters and is characterized by an immensely attractive style.

As it happens, Wilfrid Sheed is indeed one of the nation's most gifted writers…. Sheed has been gathering points for years with such novels as A Middle Class Education, The Hack, Square's Progress and the [other] works….

Curiously, Max Jamison has been greeted by most book reviewers as a fair approximation of a critic but a foul caricature of a human being. Apparently, nothing is too bad for a critic, nor too good for a human being. My reaction to Jamison is quite the opposite in that I find him believable as a human being and unbelievable as a critic. I simply can't buy the utter joylessness and egregiousness of the scene he covers. But then,… I have always thought of Sheed as more of a novelist than a critic even when he was writing criticism. Movies and plays do not exist as autonomous entities in his prose, thereby lumpily distending it and blocking its marvelous flow. No, even old Anton Chekhov must be ground down into a joke, a vaudeville routine, or, at most, a controlling metaphor in the ever-ripening process of a sensibility already too refined for most workaday critical functions. Max Jamison is therefore something of a fraud when he sets himself up as the definitive critic striving to be a human being….

What Sheed has isolated in Max Jamison's persona is merely the somewhat comical paradox that as much as the intellect wishes to treat existence as a gloomily speculative Samuel Beckett play, the emotions persist in reducing family life to a mushy Walt Disney movie. Sheed is especially good with children…. Sheed's creative feat in Max Jamison is to make us aware of the dangerous tightrope between art and life, career and family, mind and heart we must all walk in order to fulfill our duties and possibilities on this earth….

The ability to confront the invidious implications of one's own rhetoric at the peak of its persuasiveness is the mark of a fair-minded writer. That too many of his targets are propped-up straw men and sitting ducks attests not so much to Sheed's lack of fairness as to his lack of interest in the logic and nuance of cultural heresies. But that isn't the real problem with Max Jamison as far as certain portions of the literary establishment are concerned. Sheed's real offense against decorum is his minute examination of all the disagreeable details of being a middle-class intellectual in a society where only inherited money is truly admired. How gloriously grubby are Sheed and Jamison on the lecture circuit, in academe, in the corridors of the castrating news magazines, in the cluttered dungeons of avant-garde pretense, and, above all, at dinner with the breadwinning wife who must be kept in her place so that her husband is not as emasculated psychically as he will always be economically. What grubby book reviewer can forgive Sheed for exposing the grubbiness we all share as we lurch onward and upward with the arts?

Andrew Sarris, "Brawling Brotherhood of Critics," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyrighted by The Village Voice, Inc., 1971), August 26, 1971, pp. 23, 52.

At first glance the irony in Sheed's new novel ["People Will Always Be Kind"] seems to flow outward toward its author's life and toward recent public events. In the first part of the novel we read how Brian Casey—athletic, just past puberty—is stricken with polio. Thereafter, "Brian's legs were a wasteland where no life would stir again." In the second part we read an account by Sam Perkins, speech writer, Ivy-league smartie and civil-rights activist, of Senator Brian Casey's campaign for the Democratic party's Presidential nomination.

Sheed has already written how in his own athletic adolescence he was stricken with polio. And he has also written how he traveled with Eugene McCarthy making speeches during the Senator's campaign for the Democratic nomination. But Casey, Sheed and McCarthy are not alike, except in their Irishness, their "Commonweal-Catholicism," and their compulsive wittiness….

The detail-work in Sheed's account of the process by which Casey's contrary wills and many minds are formed is only one of this novel's pleasures. The inside dope on the dealing of politicians and on the sordid highs of campaigning gives the reader another pleasure—the kind that has always addicted readers to the novels of major as well as minor old-fashioned craftsmen. The prose, the pace, the humor are pleasures neither old-fashioned nor new-fangled, but simply unique to Sheed's writing. So is a certain quality of moral intelligence, one graced by an unflappable and chastened sanity, a charity precise and unsentimental.

Robert Graves, who has been called a minor poet for over 50 years now, once pointed out that the distinction between major and minor writers tells us less than the distinction between good and bad ones. "People Will Always Be Kind" is a very good novel by a very good novelist.

George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1973, pp. 1-2.

[People Will Always Be Kind] is the most substantial novel yet from Wilfrid Sheed, and that is saying something. Aside from being one of the finest essayists and critics we have, Sheed is a novelist of depth, complexity and compassion. Though his early work, notably Office Politics, gained him a reputation as a wit, his fiction has grown steadily darker over the years—more interesting, more thoughtful.

People Will Always Be Kind continues that trend. It is a very funny book, but its wit is essentially a decoration; Sheed is concerned here with a considerable range of subjects, and he has woven them into a sympathetic, convincing study of political man—one of the best political novels we have….

People Will Always Be Kind is, in its refusal to see Casey or any of its other characters in simplistic terms, admirably appreciative of human complexity. The first section seems more deeply felt on Sheed's part than the second, and it touches the reader more directly, but the novel is consistently persuasive throughout. Sheed gets better with each new novel, and there are few writers of whom that can be said.

Jonathan Yardley, "Wheeling and Dealing," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 29, 1973, p. 3.

People Will Always Be Kind seems a before-and-after book with a hole in its middle, just where readers would want to look for the connection….

Probably one should forget Part One while reading Part Two, which may suggest something less than the economy of means one hopes for in a novel. It may be that Sheed's experience—as a polio victim and a campaigner for Eugene McCarthy in 1968—has led him to write two stories. The first, a compassionate but unsentimental picture of a young mind bewildered by the sudden, inexplicable loss of its anticipated future, strikes me as imperfectly suited to Sheed's talent as a writer, though not to his intelligent, self-mocking Catholicism. His account of how it feels to gain self-consciousness through a suffering that estranges you from family, friends, community, God, all the modes of love and security most people are permitted to give up or redefine more gradually, is rather too reminiscent of Joyce, who after all did it without giving Stephen Dedalus a crippling disease on top of everything else. Like Stephen's, the young Brian Casey's experience has no ending compatible with fictional convention; but where Ulysses proceeds from A Portrait (without in any simple way being predicted by it), the story of the mature Casey seems disjointed.

But Casey II comes off very nicely on his own. Sheed's treatment of the tantalizing gap between the behavior of public men and our understanding of them capitalizes upon the recent intense interest in practical politics without descending to the melodramatic banalities of popular "political" novels…. Sheed makes no appeals to vulgar paranoia. There are no lurid conspiracies, no shocking scandals, no patriotic sermons to tie it all together. The hectic, duplicitous, improvisational hubbub of real political business is theater enough for a novelist like Sheed, part farceur and part theologian—like Brian Casey himself….

People Will Always Be Kind [is] what is rare these days, a convincing political novel.

Thomas R. Edwards, "Surprise, Surprise," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), May 17, 1973, pp. 35-7.

[People Will Always Be Kind] is an unusual and provocative novel. It is often compelling, intuitive and funny, yet, in the outcome, one is uncertain as to its purpose and development. It is difficult, in short, to decide whether it is a book about politics or one about the effects of illness. Perhaps it is both….

In drawing out the essence of the politician, in its humor, satire, and ultimate anguish, Mr. Sheed's book is brilliantly contrived, a tour de force. It makes one wonder whether, in terms of the individuals who operate the system, pluralist, liberal politics are any less nightmarish than the patterns of totalitarianism with which we have been presented since the thirties in the writing of Koestler, Orwell and others whose communist idealism turned into disillusionment and dismay. In this sense, People Will Always Be Kind is indeed a political novel for our times….

Is it, in fact, a political novel exploring the psychological make-up of this politician in this political context? Does it, in other words, seek to give us a particular explanation of a generally interesting question, namely, what psychological characteristics and experiences account for the development of the politician, given the morally debilitating pressures which are placed upon such an individual? If this is the case, then the long exploration of Casey's adolescence and coming of age shows us how such characteristics might develop, and his illness is a spectacular (and symbolic?) catalyst. Or, is it an exploration of the traumatic effects of an illness which, in this case, leads the victim into politics, and ends with the imposition of his trauma on the political scene? In either case, the linkage of the parts of the book is uncertain unless, of course, in his cleverness Mr. Sheed intended it to be so.

David Cox, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974, pp. 66-7.

If being a New York Jew, born preferably in the Bronx, is worth a cliché's headstart to any aspirant American novelist, then at first sight Wilfrid Sheed is tied to a handicap somewhere below the horizon. Not only an Englishman but a certain sort of Englishman, an expatriate Oxford-educated Catholic, Mr Sheed lives in New York and now writes ostensibly American novels about Americans. As such he is competing on strange terrain against the best the East Coast has to offer, and that best is very good indeed. Mr Sheed, let it be said, positively flourishes on the comparison….

The danger for an English novelist writing about a cast of high-powered Americans is that, culturally speaking, he's likely to sound either patronising or over-impressed, where he wouldn't be with a comparable group of Englishmen.

One negative measure of Mr Sheed's achievement is the critical distance he has put between himself and the run of novels with an American setting. He writes with the authority and insight of a native American but there is a precision and traditionalism about the structure of his novels that is very English. However, environment has its effect…. He [Casey, the protagonist of People Will Always Be Kind,] is Mr Sheed's finest creation so far, the creation of a novelist of great power at the top of his form.

Timothy Mo, "Sick Fantasy," in New Statesmen, January 18, 1974, p. 86.