C(ourtlandt) D(ixon) B(arnes) Bryan Essay - Critical Essays

Bryan, C(ourtlandt) D(ixon) B(arnes)


C(ourtlandt) D(ixon) B(arnes) Bryan 1936–

American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Bryan's best known work is Friendly Fire (1976), a journalistic exploration of the circumstances surrounding the death of an American soldier and its effect on the young man's parents. In it, Bryan achieved his goal of demonstrating the disaffection of patriotic Americans that resulted from the Vietnam War. Some critics objected to Bryan's loss of sympathy with the soldier's parents at the end of the book, concluding that Bryan cut short his investigative reporting with an easy acceptance of the military's ambiguous explanation of the death. Nevertheless, critical consensus is that Friendly Fire is a compelling story, skillfully told, as well as a revealing study of the behavior of civilian and military Americans during the Vietnam War era. The book was adapted for television in 1979.

Bryan's novels have received less critical approval. Both his first, P. S. Wilkinson (1965), and the recent Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes (1983), are autobiographical or confessional novels. In reviews of the earlier work, the story of a young man returning from the Korean War to civilian life on the East Coast, Bryan was praised for his ability to create a scene and to tell a story. Some critics believed, however, that the impact of the work was weakened by the vague characterization of the hero. Critics also note that P. S. Wilkinson is unfocussed—its message obscured by a profusion of detail. Similar objections were echoed in reviews of Bryan's later novels, including The Great Dethriffe, whose characters, though "exhaustively detailed," did not command interest. The detailed descriptions of suburban life and of the inner thoughts of the protagonist that Bryan provided in Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes drew mixed reactions from critics. While some thought such detail to be an important part of Bryan's conception, others viewed these numerous descriptions as a failure to be discriminating. Several critics also objected to the confessional nature of Beautiful Women; Eliot Fremont-Smith called it "a mixture of boast and plea that is deeply embarrassing."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

John Knowles

The prolonged education and futile-seeming military service young American men must pass through before beginning to call their lives their own are effectively dramatized in "P. S. Wilkinson."…

C.D.B. Bryan, who won the Harper Prize with this first novel, begins showing this frustrating, drawn-out ordeal in—appropriately—post-truce Korea, where Wilkinson is an exasperated intelligence officer….

Young Wilkinson turns and turns at the center of his problems. He does not know what he wants to do with his life; he cannot "communicate"; he is moving from idealism to cynicism without ever touching realism. His affairs with girls are unstable and subject to abrupt terminations by him; he is lonely….

[Much] of "P. S. Wilkinson" may … be autobiographical. That would be irrelevant were it not that the chief shortcoming of the novel is one that occurs so often in fiction which is closely autobiographical: the central character is out of focus, seen in uneven proportion and depth and somewhat faceless. Photographing oneself is difficult.

For example, Mr. Bryan's central character tells us that he is in despair, but he only seems exasperated; exasperation is a useful emotion only in comedy, not in serious fiction. Wilkinson is all caught up with himself, and so he doesn't really catch us. He achieves life only when the force of the episode is coming strongly from outside...

(The entire section is 429 words.)


[The protagonist of P. S. Wilkinson] is tedious, self-pitying, unsufferably sensitive, and a prig. He did not enjoy his Army service in Korea. He also does not enjoy the company of his father, memories of school, sex, lack of sex, working in a bank, or much else. Other characters, some of whom might have been interesting, are perceived only by a kind of melancholic sonar: Wilkinson sends out waves of gloom that bounce off the other people in the book and return to him as angst amplified.

Since this is exactly as dreary as it sounds, the reader may wonder why Harper & Row gave its 1965 Harper Prize to the book. Oddly enough, the award seems a good bet. Bryan is not a vivid writer, but—the character of Wilkinson aside—he is a sound one. His scenes do not sting, but the reader sees them clearly. Time after time in the novel, there is a feeling that if Wilkinson would only go home and soak his head, the party might still develop into something. Bryan's writing suggests the early work of Louis Auchincloss—competent, intelligent, flawed occasionally by pomposity. This year's Harper Prize was given, clearly, for novels that Bryan has not yet written. (p. 114)

"A Prize Case of Angst," in Time (copyright 1965 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 85, No. 6, February 5, 1965, pp. 112, 114.

Brian Wilkie

Depending on what one believes a novel ought to be, one could either praise P. S. Wilkinson for not being ridden into the ground by its "theme" or attack it because it muddies its own waters by digressions and (on a smaller scale) incongruous witticisms which one suspects are in the book because the author just couldn't resist them. In any case, it is not always easy to decide when the novel is simply trying to tell its hero's story and when it is trying to develop a structural idea…. [The] idea here seems to be the conflict between a man's own insights and standards and those that are officially imposed, whether by a tradition-defined Old Family, by a prep school that inflexibly worships its half-hollow Honor Code, by an Army that demands of its officers a ludicrous sense of noblesse, by government service, or by marriage. Thus most of the episodes in the book can be thought of as explorations either of personal dilemmas or of institutional ethics.

Oddly enough, in view of Bryan's sympathies and his point, he does better by institutions than by people, at least in making them convincing. He writes best when his subject is a well-defined milieu like the prep school or Baltimore or the Army; indeed, veterans of the peacetime Army will find that Bryan has portrayed truthfully and without satiric distortion the peculiar dreamlike misplacement of emphasis that consistently characterizes Army life.

But when...

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Jonathan Yardley

To anyone who came to maturity in the fifties the sentiment of Alfred Moulton, narrator of the first half of "The Great Dethriffe," will ring engagingly true: "without any stylish era to call my own I had become an heir to a previous generation's myth, content to keep up appearances until something grander came along." C.D.B. Bryan's point is essentially true: the legend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is more or less the subject of this novel, in many respects had more meaning to us children of the Ike Age than to those of the Jazz Age. Unhappily, the novel has not much more to offer than that premise, itself not especially original.

Check that. "The Great Dethriffe" holds some interest also as an attempt to rewrite "The Great Gatsby"; if nothing else, Mr. Bryan deserves admiration for his cheek. The rewriting attempt is indirect, of course, an effort to translate the Gatsby story into contemporary terms. Though the ambition is admirable, the result is, at the very best, merely diverting.

Mr. Bryan's Jay Gatsby is George Dethriffe, a gentlemanly young business sort whose detached exterior conceals a somewhat muted Gatsbyesque concern with image and a decidedly Gatsbyesque yearning for the Daisy Buchanan of this novel. She is Alice Townsend, an incandescently beautiful Daisy-Zelda who turns out to be a classic bitch. (p. 46)

Purely as domestic melodrama and suburban-bedroom sociology, "The Great...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Sara Blackburn

There are some superb moments in [The Great Dethriffe]—its closing chapter is, on its own, a powerful, self-contained work of fiction—but the book itself becomes a victim of its intentions, and eventually emerges as a lightweight entertainment that is an impressive failure. In its first half, the narrator, young and upper-class novelist Alfred Moulton, sets out to write a present-day Great Gatsby about his contemporary and class mate, George Dethriffe. And Bryan's imitation of the Fitzgerald Gatsby is beautifully, almost eerily, on target. But what if Gatsby had married Daisy? In Bryan's version, he does; that is, Dethriffe marries the debutante Daisy character here, and Bryan is then free to explore...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

The Great Dethriffe takes Gatsby as an ironic model in order to extract a moral point from simple nostalgia. Its two principals, Alfred Moulton and George Dethriffe, live in a world where chic has become radical and where the latter-day Scotts and Zeldas are seen as often on the hustings as on the dance floor. They look back, though, to the days when style and concern were not necessarily contradictory, with an enthusiasm which seems to summon images and effects from that lost age. Phrases heavy with déjàvu, images like the green light on the dock at which Gatsby gazed night after night, like Tom Buchanan's stables: tiny clues for the merely literate, but flashing neon arrows for the Fitzgerald...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Jane Howard

Friendly Fire, a stunningly ironic title, tells of the death by misfired American artillery of an American soldier, an Iowan, in a leech-ridden jungle foxhole in Vietnam. It is Bryan's third book and his first of nonfiction, and in it he flexes that writerly muscle Henry James described as "the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern." What's seen is how their son's early death affected the parents of Sergeant Michael Mullen; what's implied is the tarnishing not just of a state's but of a whole nation's comfortable self-image.

To read this book, as many first did in a three-part New Yorker series, is to weep, to...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Robert Sherrill

Bryan, a 40-ish novelist who is probably tired of being identified as the late John O'Hara's stepson, relates the Mullens' evolution and torment in "Friendly Fire," which has just finished running piecemeal in The New Yorker. Never mind if you read it there: buy the book. The magazine treatment did not do it justice for two reasons. First of all, The New Yorker's hopelessly anemic typography distracts from the strength of the story, and, secondly, this is one tale that should not be chopped into pieces separated by week intervals.

The great war stories do not deal solely with the death of soldiers but with the death of idealism, and Bryan's handling of that theme is certainly the finest that has come...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Amanda Heller

C.D.B. Bryan … was attracted by the journalistic possibilities in the Mullens' story—the radicalizing of the Silent Majority, so he thought. He soon found himself recording [in Friendly Fire] not the neat political morality play he thought he had discovered but a frantic and unsettling psychodrama. He does not conceal his frustration that his antiwar paragons turned out to be grieving human beings with an increasingly shaky hold on reality.

The Mullens' obsession is not a pretty one, and Bryan does little to soften it in this overstuffed, melodramatic account, full of unlikely third-person omniscience. But Peg and Gene Mullen were casualties of the Vietnam War as surely as their son was....

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Diane Johnson

[Friendly Fire is an] interesting work, which is concerned, finally, with more than just whether the army misled grieving American parents from a wish to conceal its own errors, or simply through the ineptness and bureaucratic insensitivity which the author sees as characteristic of war; or whether the judgment of the parents was distorted beyond reason by their sorrow. From the interaction of the reporter, C.D.B. Bryan, the Mullens, and the military, there emerges a significant and subtle reflection on the moral conditions of the society which produced, and variously tolerated or rejected, the war in Vietnam. (p. 41)

C.D.B. Bryan wrote the Mullens' story because, concerned about Vietnam, he...

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James Atlas

Told in a casual, ruminative first-person voice, Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes is an eyewitness report from an affluent old town near Princeton, the kind of suburb that real-estate agents call picturesque…. Life would be idyllic if only the couples living in these painstakingly renovated houses could get along. "But Alice and I had not even really liked each other for some time," confesses Bryan's narrator—"nor had we met any other couples who did!"

The hero of this utterly absorbing novel, a documentary-film maker dedicated to "the courtship and seduction of beautiful women," is in the midst of what he shamelessly calls a "mid-life crisis." His second marriage is foundering; he's...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Jonathan Yardley

[In his third novel, C.D.B. Bryan] wants nothing so much as to persuade the reader of its narrator's fallible humanity and fundamental decency. Every page aches with confession and throbs with sincerity; there's more caring, loving, openness and warmth here than could be found in a convention of Southern California interpersonal-relationship counselors. This, no doubt, in great measure explains why reading Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes is a suffocating, exhausting experience, rather akin to punching one's way out of an enormous bag filled with cotton balls; an excess of confession may be good for the soul, but it is the kiss of death for a work of fiction….

Beautiful Women; Ugly...

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Alice Adams

["Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes"] begins rather in the manner of Ford Madox Ford's "Good Soldier," which is to say almost at its end, with the narrator reflecting on events that have already occurred…. The "ugly scenes," then, are presented in a somewhat random, circular fashion, which is fairly confusing, Mr. Bryan not having the taut, impeccable control of Ford.

Not only are all the women beautiful, they are all under 35, and none of them have aspirations toward professions or even jobs until under duress. They have, however, wonderful breasts….

One of the narrator's problems that is dwelt upon at considerable length is that he is frigid, if that is the proper word for male...

(The entire section is 455 words.)