The Cliff

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The central figure of this novel, Jack Smith, is a failed novelist and father as well as a Prufrockian figure of an “adjunct assistant professor,” one of society’s more marginalized figures. Yet here is the hinge of the plot, for “our Jack Smith” is not “the Jack Smith,” a world-class historian whose acceptance by the Foundation for a stay at Villa Sfondrata in casually misdirected by campus mail (a fitting object of any academic’s satiric ire) into the possession of the wrong Jack Smith. To avoid the importunate annoyances of his former wife’s attorney for late alimony, Smith decides to accept the invitation. In due course, he is snugly ensconced, imposturing his way through days of writing, which is not, however, an account of the death of Mussolini, the stated project of Jack Smith the Historian. Instead, Jack Smith the failed-everything writes letters to various former friends, including his estranged daughter, and the subplot of his engagement or re-engagement with her provides one of the few tender elements of the novel. The essential intellectual posture of the novel is, however, provided by Smith’s being an imposter, an outsider who is also inside and thus witness to things without being taken in by them, a superb description of the satirist at work. That Slavitt wrote this novel under the auspices of a foundation similar to The Westchester Foundation and at a retreat rather like the Villa Sfondrata adds a bit of irony, which any reader will surely appreciate.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, July 1, 1994, p. 881.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 133.

Los Angeles Times. November 8, 1994, p. E4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 30, 1994, p. 48.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 25, 1994, p. 34.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 4.