Wilfrid Sheed Essay - Sheed, Wilfrid (Vol. 2)

Sheed, Wilfrid (Vol. 2)

Sheed, Wilfrid 1930–

A British-born American novelist and an erudite and witty critic, Sheed is the author of Office Politics, Max Jamison, and People Will Always Be Kind.

Wilfrid Sheed's Office Politics resembles more recent novels like Bellow's The Victim (without the anti-Semitism) and Malamud's The New Life (without academia). Another study in modern ennui, it examines the fight for editorial power in the office of a small liberal political magazine, one (we might suppose) like The New Republic, The Nation, or Commonweal…. Office Politics uses the drab world of New York City to intensify the drab, sordid, meaningless routine that turns young men into cynics and romantic expectation into despair.

Sheed's problem is, of course, the problem of most other novelists today—the problem of making unheroic characters heroes, of making the drab and everyday exciting, of making the petty squabbles of the functionary's life the source of deep narrative concern. Like most of these novels, Sheed's main character ends with that empty-pit-of-the-stomach feeling, ready to quit his low-salaried editorial job for a higher-salaried position, ready to join "the fellows called Scott and Perry who worried about crab grass and inflation … working in a clean building for a change, with elevators that got you up there in under five minutes and water coolers that shot the stuff to a decent height." He is saved from such a fate of fates, however, when he gets a chance to become editor of The Outsider and is able to "stuff Scott and Perry and their crab grass." This is supposed to be a solution, but it is about as convincing as a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie, and Sheed sends his hero—really another one of the homeless men—back to the office that for over 300 pages he has described as a modern Hell.

Richard Lehan, in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 445-46.

The plotters in Wilfrid Sheed's comic novel, Office Politics …, are of the soft-boiled kind. The suspense, revolving about the question of who will triumph in the grapple for power over a little literary magazine called The Outsider, is virtually lost in Sheed's delightfully horrifying portrayal of the cruelties, self-deceptions and futility that characterize games people play in the office.

Clarence Petersen, in Book World (© The Washington Post), January 7, 1968.

[The] themes and characters [that] run through both stories [The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic are] near-madness, sinister embraces, pudgy boys at boarding school, affluent and distraught parents. Reading them side by side is rather like spending an afternoon at a double feature and finding several of the same actors in both films. Perhaps they are shocking or terrifying, if you are easily shocked or terrified. If you are more discriminating, no.

Evan S. Connell, Jr., "Sinister Embraces," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 8, 1968.

Wilfrid Sheed proved with his fourth novel, Office Politics, that he is one of the best writers around. The book was a witty dissection of power struggles among the editorial staff of a liberal magazine …, with overtones of damnation for the world in general. Sheed is not exactly anti-world, but he is wary enough to have his stiletto handy at all times. His wit is such a formidably subtle weapon that sometimes one doesn't notice it until the blood flows.

Henry S. Resnik, "The Shattering Self," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 14, 1968; used with permission), September 14, 1968.

In both stories [The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic], Mr. Sheed has where-are-they-now scenes. If you only foresee that yesterday's lonely rebels will become today's intricate sell-outs, you may be wide of Mr. Sheed's true mark. He has a splendid gift for dramatizing the search-and-destroy diabolism of outrageous fortune. His characters are multidimensional without hazing off into the pretentiously symbolic….

In a word, they're real. And that's something very much to Mr. Sheed's credit when you realize that he has some special fish to fry in these post-J. D. Salinger stories. One is the recurring threat of lunacy. Another is a study of the differences between American and English manners….

What's the moral of these tales? It seems to be that excellence or lack of excellence in human character is on the fulcrum at every age in a given lifetime. The vulnerable young are judged as mercilessly as the entrenched old. Generations gaps are portable chasms.

Charles Poore, in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1968.

In The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic, as in such earlier novels as Square's Progress and Office Politics, Sheed constructs a bright, cutting prose from the dross of everyday slang. He wields that prose with a subtle ear for speech rhythms and a sardonic eye for the tell-tale gesture. In this new volume, he also musters a quality that had been somewhat lacking in his earlier, coolly satirical work: a sense of urgency. The milieu of childhood that occupies him here seems to have tapped deep, previously unsuspected currents of emotion. Still the accomplished novelist of manners, he is now taking a more searching look at the matters that those manners reflect….

The mixture in all this of English and American, humorous and serious, is what gives Sheed's writing its characteristic texture. His crisp craftsmanship seems to come from the English satirical tradition, but beneath this veneer the American grain runs deep: he knows his way intimately around the moral and physical landscape of the U.S. middle class. Sheed relishes the ridiculous but champions the sane and normal. His protagonists are ordinary guys desperately trying to fend off the world's idiocies and evils long enough to define themselves and do the decent thing. They rarely succeed completely.

"Sheed's Specters of the Past," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1968 by Time Inc.), September 20, 1968.

The prologue and first chapters of "The Blacking Factory" are marvelously rich and carefully crafted. Their portrait of a conservative American Anglophobe has the merit of filling in convincingly a blank spot between our political clichés. The early chapters render the Anglophobe's schooldays in England with supple, spare and concrete drama that neither misses a trick nor calls in a single shoddy one to bend the story line. The slow poison of adolescence is accelerated to meet fictional requirements without being distorted by either melodrama or dilution.

If the concluding chapters were quite as good as the opening, and if a reliable connection were made between the youthful suffering and subsequent fixations of the Conservative, this would be a contemporary classic. It isn't that. It is, nevertheless, a tough and sweet contribution to the real business of fiction, the vindications and consolations provided in continuing abundance by our authors of short fiction.

R. V. Cassill, in Book World (© The Washington Post), September 22, 1968.

Wilfrid Sheed, whose recent novels have dealt primarily with middle-class adulthood (Office Politics, Square's Progress) bats .500 with a pair of stories, combined in a single volume [The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic], about growing up in the early and middle 1940s. No Holden Caulfield or Studs Lonigan here, but one of the two heroes is a small gem…. The Blacking Factory is captivating enough, and almost worth the price of the book.

National Observer, October 28, 1968.

[The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic] is uncompromising fiction. Because Sheed is capable of modulating the grotesque instead of just embracing it, of sympathizing as well as describing, of re-creating man in and out of a social context while skewering the attitudes of aloneness, he makes ritual of his insight. And he makes art of the rites he records.

John Leonard, "Rites of Passage," in New Leader, November 4, 1968, pp. 16-17.

Both as critic and as novelist, Sheed works in the derogatory tradition of Samuel Butler and Diogenes the Cynic, with the difference that by now the world has grown accustomed to the scorn of its critics, having been brow-beaten ever since Diogenes demonstrated his moral superiority for the Athenians by moving into a tub. Sheed's style matches the resilience of his public. His tone is genial rather than polemical or surly, and he attacks with clever phrases free of indignation or contempt. His pleasure with his own talent is always evident….

The most puzzling feature of Sheed's style, considering his treatment in both "Office Politics" and "The Blacking Factory" of Anglo-American differences from an American point of view, is a British accent—the result of his tendency to offer words as though he were holding them in a pair of tweezers. Maybe, like Bannister, whose faint British accent is a mystery to his California associates, Sheed is a man with a shameful un-American past.

Susan Lardner, "Sheed's Tub," in The New Yorker, November 30, 1968, pp. 234-42.

In writing about a British public school [in The Blacking Factory], Sheed has ventured onto the classy turf of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell; in dealing with suburban Pennsylvania [Pennsylvania Gothic], he has edged into O'Hara-Updike country; and in examining the no man's but more-than-a-boy's land of adolescence, he has boldly invaded Salinger territory. It is a tribute to his quiet skills that he nonetheless succeeds in staking out a literary region and area of experience that is distinctively his own.

Playboy, December, 1968.

[The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic] are very funny. Sheed has a fine ear for the wry turns of English and American colloquial speech, for the clipped ironies by which we bring our crises down to a more bearable level of intensity. It is largely due to this stylistic gift that both of his central characters are so well realized. Under pressure, Sheed seems to say, we have much in common with the jaunty, wilfully self-assured stand-up comic of vaudeville, stationed on a high, empty stage, urging his snappy repartee forward into the darkness.

Daniel M. Murtaugh, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 24, 1969, pp. 532-33.

Sheed's work always promises a great deal more than it delivers. He is like the man of impressive voice and bearing, the man of impressive natural talents, who reduces the dinner party to silent, respectful attention by announcing: "Something terribly funny / something terribly sad happened to me the other day," and then proceeds to tell a story which, while certainly never a bore, is also certainly neither terribly funny nor terribly sad. Reading the typical Sheed novel is like waiting for the punch line of a joke; one keeps expecting relief from the tension. Mr. Sheed has many natural talents—an unerring instinct for interesting subjects, a fine sense of timing—but the punch line (the singular details, characters, or incidents), the relief, never arrives.

James P. Degnan, in Kenyon Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, 1969, p. 276.

For some time now, Wilfrid Sheed has been one of our best book and film critics. He has also (as if to keep his hand in) written occasional fiction, distinguished more by the force of intellect he brings to it than by the force of generation. I mean his fiction seems often more thought than felt.

Thus, one of the two novellas that made up the book prior to this new novel—"Pennsylvania Gothic"—described the young protagonist's encounter with his own unresolved Oedipal lusts and with necrophilia—and left him a man of middle age, able to forget but settled into a measured dread. The other novella, "The Blacking Factory," probed an American boy's militant refusal to comprehend his life in an English public school, and his subsequent conversion into a genial but equally militant political conservative. Both stories were studies in closed minds, minds devised darkly to ward off the horrors of introspection.

"Max Jamison" considers the nature of criticism and the nature of the critic in a drab age. Max, like his creator, is a successful reviewer, risen (or declined, as the case may be, and Mr. Sheed pleads both cases well) from a New York literary magazine to a national magazine that might be Time. A critic bored with theater but condemned like Sisyphus to roll first nights up the newsprint hill.

Richard Rhodes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1970.

Wilfrid Sheed set himself formidable problems with this novel [Max Jamison], and has solved them beautifully. Because the narrative is slight, the burden of sustaining interest falls squarely on Max, and Max is not the kind of character one would normally want to live with for very long. Most of the book consists of Max's interior monologue, but this never becomes monotonous or repellent. The tone and texture of the prose is skilfully varied as Max's consciousness veers between perceptions of the real world and paranoid fantasies of his place in it….

This technique, as well as generating much excellent comedy, has the effect of disarming the reader, for Max is his own most devastating critic….

Max Jamison is a fascinating case-history of a certain kind of temperament charged with strong but negative energy; and of a certain profession, also perhaps doomed to negativity, about which Sheed knows a great deal. But Jamison is a more widely representative figure, representative of the contemporary intellectual in early middle-age, acutely critical of his culture, but unwilling to embrace apocalypse, exasperated by post-Gutenberg youth, yet dismayed by the applause of the old. He fully justifies the attention Sheed gives him….

Max Jamison is impressive evidence of the mature poise and skill Wilfrid Sheed has achieved as a novelist.

David Lodge, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 8, 1970, p. 197.

Considered from this point of view [portraying the daily life of a critic], Wilfrid Sheed's new novel, Max Jamison, may receive something less than its due from critics, for it contains one of the most unhappily accurate accounts of a critic's day-to-day life ever committed to paper. There are the endless screenings and opening nights; two movies and a play in a single day do tax the digestion just a little. There are the reviews written to deadline so hastily that every qualifier is lost and only what is smart and snide remains. And finally there is what passes for social life within the fraternity—the constant abrasion of egos rubbing each other raw. Mr. Sheed comes about as close as anyone has to telling the truth about it all.

National Observer, May 11, 1970.

Wilfrid Sheed is a writer in transition, but he is not a writer fumbling for a new voice. The distinction is important. Mr. Sheed seems to know precisely where he is going and what he is doing. He has moved from the deliciously brittle satire of the opening chapters of Office Politics toward a fiction which, while the dazzle remains, has gained measurably in depth and subtlety. Some of this new depth can also be seen in his relatively recent novelettes, Pennsylvania Gothic and The Blacking Factory, though in the latter Mr. Sheed is guilty of uncharacteristic didacticism.

Max Jamison combines the world of Office Politics with the mood of The Blacking Factory, and draws together thematic elements of both. It is also Mr. Sheed's best book. It is funny, sad, tough, compassionate; its title character is realized in every nuance of personality; and the writing is splendid….

The focus of Mr. Sheed's work is narrow, concentrating on small worlds and delicate scenes. In some respects he is heir to the tradition of Marquand (Max Jamison and Allen Southby rather resemble each other), but he is moving that tradition into new and perhaps more complex patterns. Even at his darkest, he is a joy to read. His wit and perceptiveness are marvelous; he is a literary Buddy Rich, tossing off brilliant rimshots with off-hand abandon. It is a measure of his achievement that we only rarely feel that the glitter is for its own sake.

Jonathan Yardley, "Literary Lion," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 23, 1970, pp. 26, 30.

Max Jamison is Wilfrid Sheed's most successful novel to date. Sheed writes excellent criticism but his fiction hasn't always been able to live up to the promise of its prose. The style is intelligent, fluid and highly distinctive but the results have often been thin. Perhaps the very cleverness of Sheed's prose has defeated him. His subject matter has always had to subordinate itself to the style. Although Max Jamison shows Sheed at his most stylistic, the novel is nevertheless successful. Perhaps it's because the style so aptly defines the central character. Jamison is a critic on the verge of insanity, and Sheed can validly allow his prose to take control. The book is largely a dramatization of Jamison's interior monologues, hilarious but agonizing.

P. S. Coyne, in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 9, 1971, p. 157.