C(ourtlandt) D(ixon) B(arnes) Bryan Sara Blackburn - Essay

Sara Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 that world of "the other side" which so fascinates him in the work of Julio Cortázar….

The novel's real flaw is its author's ambivalence about his characters. How much really are we to care about these Fitzgerald-O'Hara people, their exhaustively detailed super-WASP backgrounds and values? Absorbed with his Gatsbyism and his othersidedness, Bryan presents these backgrounds and values in such loving detail that it's hard to believe he's actually critical of them, only that he deplores the fact that they turn out sad, rigid people who are brought to life, if at all, only by chance events that turn them around: an acid trip, the witnessing of a suicide, etc. Like Fitzgerald? But Fitzgerald didn't pretend to reject these values; Bryan does, and what made us care about Gatsby and his young biographer doesn't obtain for Dethriffe and Moulton. In the 1960s, when this novel is set, they're fossils, neither tragic in their rigidity nor even very interesting in their redemption.

Bryan has given himself a mammoth job here, but we're simply unable to trust the perspective with which he goes about it. I hope his next novel will be in a voice closer to his own, whatever that is. He's surely one of the most talented and interesting writers around.

Sara Blackburn, "Down with Class," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), December 27, 1970, p. 6.