C(ourtlandt) D(ixon) B(arnes) Bryan Jonathan Yardley - Essay

Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 Scenes is a silly book. This is a pity, for C.D.B. Bryan has shown himself in the past to be a perfectly capable and sensible writer. But here he lapses—or collapses—into a self-indulgence that rapidly becomes embarrassing; the book is one of those first-person narratives that leaves the reader absolutely convinced, whether fairly or not, that he has been seduced without warning into a work of autobiography, and absolutely certain that the author should have kept all this dirty linen to himself. None of the characters is interesting or appealing; Alice is a harridan of such unrelieved venom that she defeats Bryan's occasional efforts to represent her as the embodiment of mistreated, housebound womankind. The sex scenes, of which there are very many, are clinical, monotonous and joyless. A good theme is introduced—the conflict between the ideal of family life and the reality of it—but nothing of consequence comes of it.

Some readers, I suppose, are going to regard Bryan as a brave fellow for confessing, in such vast detail, the conflicting attitudes, desires and needs that many men bring to their social, sexual and romantic relations with women. But bravery that ends up by saying, "What a great guy am I," has a hollow ring to it; and that, in the end, is what the narrator of Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes has to say.

Jonathan Yardley, "Wife-Swapping and Other Outworn Joys," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1983, The Washington Post), August 21, 1983, p. 3.