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Salamanca, J(ack) R(ichard) 1924?–

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An American novelist, Salamanca writes hauntingly lyrical prose. Although he has often explored madness and the limits of human consciousness, he has been mainly preoccupied in his fiction with the failure of love. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Joyce Carol Oates

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J. R. Salamanca's A Sea Change, though it is a conventional enough study of the disintegration of love and marriage, has a few moments of derangement as well. It moves along smoothly and conversationally, told in the first person by a young-old man, prematurely pedantic and smug, blighted by personal disappointment and yet not enlightened, not provoked into manhood by his suffering. It is the sign of our sophisticated times that even an ordinary love story can be told in so clever and complicated a style; though the style ultimately adds nothing to the story, and perhaps strains the reader's patience, it argues for a certain ironic intelligence that partly redeems the disappointing narrative itself.

A Sea Change is a Jamesian treatment of a love relationship, between Michael (who ages into shrill, exasperating coyness) and Margaret (whose character remains exasperatingly out of focus), the two of them so close, so mercilessly intimate, that they share one name—"Mickey." Time is mixed up in A Sea Change; everything is past tense; we move freely from the early years of love and marriage to the later, disenchanted years, coming to know the sound of Michael's voice all too well, and sharing with his wife a gradual contempt for his prissiness. The surfaces of this novel are extremely polished, the author's sentences so urbane and effortless that one is drawn into accepting outrageous things: for instance, the sudden transformation of Michael, the scholar and specialist in Eastern languages, into a passionate lover, a forty-year-old with no experience beyond that within his conventional marriage suddenly blossoming into an amazing lover. It is sheer fantasy—as if James's later heroes were to attempt the exploits of Stendhal's operatic young men, with no change in their diction. (p. 306)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Realism of Distance, Realism of Immediacy" (copyright, 1971, by Joyce Carol Oates), in The Southern Review, n.s. Vol. 7, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 306-07.∗

Pearl K. Bell

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[J. R. Salamanca's Embarkation poses a] problem. Although the main character, Joel Linthicum, is called an artist, the word doesn't quite fit. He is a master boatwright of the Maryland tidewater, a demonic perfectionist who has dedicated his life to designing and building ever more beautiful, sleek and elegant racing sloops. The story of Joel's family, an innocent sacrifice to his "art," is told by his elder son, Aaron, a talented but failed actor who feels that his father has drained him of courage for either work or love.

After Joel is lost in a storm at sea, Aaron comes home to settle the dead man's affairs, and as he broods nostalgically and bitterly on past and present, we gradually take the full measure of Joel Linthicum's zealous, ruinous dedication. When his debts threatened the loss of his shop, he burned the family house to the ground for the insurance money. Nothing and no one could ever matter as much to him as the "one perfect boat that he had an idea of, somewhere back in his mind, that he was working toward."

The best thing about Embarkation is Salamanca's richly affectionate descriptions of rural Maryland, the smell and texture of the Chesapeake shore, of fast boats in dark water. He has an expert's fondness for the mechanics and accouterments of a boatwright's craft…. None of the human beings in Salamanca's landscape attains the dense, tangible solidity of the implements, wood and boats. Yet precisely because Embarkation is really a book about a craftsman rather than an artist, it demands not faith but concrete knowledge—highly specialized information about the way boats are designed and constructed—if one is to appreciate Joel Linthicum's mastery. Thus, to the landlubber, much of Embarkation is inaccessible. (p. 18)

Pearl K. Bell, "The Artist as Hero," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 5, March 4, 1974, pp. 17-18.∗

Patricia Meyer Spacks

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[A] discrepancy between grand theme and limited accomplishment mars … [Embarkation, a novel] concerned with the painful intricacies of parent-child relationship … [concerned particularly] with the connections between imagination and love. (p. 294)

[Important is the] powerful image of the father-artist: one of the few forceful, self-seeking, energetic males around, in this era of the hero-as-helper. Joel Linthicum, builder of boats, already dead as the novel opens, survives, bigger than life, in the imaginations of his children, imaginations long since shaped and marred by him, the image of his effect always before us in the presence of the brain-damaged twenty-five-year-old Jamed. Joel is no hero, or a dreadfully ambiguous one. The novelist can imagine him, but cannot keep him going. Joel builds beautiful boats, sacrificing all human ties for their sake…. He drinks Scotch, fornicates, shouts Shakespeare. He dies. His wife has long since gone dead within, his idiot child still plays with sand. The brilliant daughter and actor-son find it impossible to achieve fulfillment. The son, Aaron, sees himself as a helper, a lover of the maimed and unsuccessful; the daughter cannot completely leave home.

Accurate characterization, powerful writing, ingenious invention—but no driving novelistic action: half an action, perhaps. Despite the great vitality of the central character, the novel lacks vitality of conception…. Joel Linthicum is compelled to his destruction, but his children's lives come to nothing in particular. Inconclusiveness, of course, is an up-to-date effect. But one may regret that it apparently has to generate so much inconclusive work. (p. 295)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, "Fiction Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 283-95.

John Mellors

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Aaron, the first-person narrator in Embarkation, spends most of his time sitting in the dark with his sister, drinking Jack Daniel's whisky and reminiscing about their childhood. Poppa, a hairy Old Man of the Sea, has just gone down with his boat 'where they could lie together till they were undressed to their very bones, rocking slowly back and forth for ever in their endless ecstasy'. Did Poppa have a heart of gold or of flint? As a boat-builder, he was an idealist; as husband and father, he was selfish and sly, burning down their home for the insurance he needed to pay off a mortgage on his yard. Did he love his retarded younger son? Or was he too mean to pay for medical treatment?

Because one of the two important events in Embarkation is never described and has happened before the book opens, the story lacks strength. It is carried by the quality of Salamanca's writing, exuberant, delicate, sardonic and tender. He paints an unforgettable picture of the Chesapeake Bay coastline. Episodes and sketches will stay vivid when the story has vanished into the mist, with the diesel clam boats thumping through the soft south-east drizzle. (pp. 753-54)

John Mellors, "Brotherly Lust," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), Vol. 92, No. 2384, December 5, 1974, pp. 753-54.∗

Charles Baxter

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[Unless] some effort is made to examine Salamanca's work more closely, he may be turned into a passing interest of the middlebrow audience, which would be a pity, for Salamanca is a kind of American John Fowles, and his fictional works have a high degree of sophistication and skill.

Like Fowles, Salamanca is in neither the realistic nor the postmodern mode, though he has certain traits of both. If he must be pigeonholed at all, he would be more accurately placed in that line of twentieth-century novelists (including Djuna Barnes, Malcolm Lowry, Fitzgerald, and Fowles) who have perceived a loss of "presence" in consciousness and who have tried through various means to retrieve it, an effort that usually results in failure and disillusionment. The best cross-reference for these novelists is not, therefore, to other novelists but to the Romantic poets. Like them, these novelists tend to write about artists or artist-figures who cannot be satisfied with the abstractive process that converts all landscape into concept, or the subsequent play of comic (or nightmarish) self-reflection, which usually collapses under the weight of its own solipsism. Salamanca and Fowles, in particular, stand in opposition to these procedures by claiming for their art the possibility of momentary physical illumination, which is wholly self-justifying, no matter how much despair and destruction it may leave behind. Such illumination, which would unite language to thought and object, is difficult to achieve (to say the least): it may be found only in the arms of an uncontrolled sexual urge, or in madness, or alcohol, or a mystery that defies labels altogether. When the moment of illumination is over, it may leave the survivor in a state of continuing mystery or with the death of desire. Fowles is the novelist of the former, Salamanca of the latter.

Such themes do not develop overnight, and they are not entirely in evidence in Salamanca's first novel, The Lost Country, a first novel in more ways than one. The story of the growth in rural Virginia of a young man, James Blackstarr, shares with other Bildungsromans the necessity of naming and dramatizing the first of everything: Jim's first swim across a river, his first girl, first rifle, first fight, and since he is a budding writer, his first poems and stories. All these introductions are set in a narrative that reflects his innocence and eagerness to see: the book contains many paragraphs detailing his physical and spiritual education, whose sentences all begin "He loved…." In the novel desire soaks every impulse, making both the act of the imagination and the act of physical love reciprocal. As Jim grows, he develops strength, honesty, manliness, and courage, in addition to his intelligence. Such novels are often called "torrential" and compared to Thomas Wolfe's; they live on, seemingly, only to embarrass their creators.

In one respect, though, The Lost Country initiates some themes that are to haunt Salamanca's later work, and they have to do with what happens to the objects of desire. Since these are mostly women, the relationship between a man and woman defines the self of both and further defines the nature of the social world in which they live (or are caught). If desire sets the self into motion in the world, the movement of desire then substantializes it. The individual may be poisoned by either an excess or a deficiency of desire, but without it the self cannot be defined at all. (pp. 75-6)

[In his next novel, Lilith,] Salamanca has constructed a fictional version not only of [its epigraph] "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" but of "Ode to a Nightingale." The self travels to a realm where a different language takes over (Lilith has invented her own), where music fills the silences, and where the ego does not know where it is or where reality takes place—inside the head or outside in what others call "the world." If and when the ego comes back to itself, it thinks in dreams. (pp. 78-9)

If it were not for the luminous prose of [Lilith], the mesmerizing aestheticism might get beyond the talking stage. If the style fails, the novel's preoccupations cannot even begin to convince, but Salamanca's prose manages in an uncanny way to combine both the ordinary and the bizarre; it is both ornate and flat, like a farmer telling fairy tales….

At the heart of the dramatic situation [of A Sea Change] is the question of what an individual is to do about or with the person he loves when his desire for her, quite simply, dies out. The sea change of the novel spans the passionate beginning of a relationship to its dismal mid-term (in which love heaps guilt upon itself) when needs are not being satisfied by desire. The result is a brilliant, sun-lit, and tremendously expressive novel whose central action involves terrible cruelty and self-deception. (p. 80)

In a way, A Sea Change concerns a couple who have adapted too well to what they consider the objective world; in the process, they lose entirely their capacity for passion (which is mal-adaptive in the social world though not in the subjectivist one). Having done so, they can live publicly but not privately, where the loss of desire leaves no bond but language. In effect, Margaret is the opposite of Lilith: she kills passion for the sake of refinement and adaptability…. If Lilith is the extreme, a kind of mad muse, then Margaret is the counter-norm, who does not perceive that some kind of public riot aids private happiness. Having adapted so well to the social world, Michael can satisfy her only through the social world's medium—money, paid to a gigolo. This act, provoked by misconceived pity (a crucial term), creates a shimmer of nightmare in the last section of the book that is as frightening in its sanity as Lilith is in its derangement. Michael, again, survives the drowning of his passion and pity, but he ends, like the narrator of Lilith, as a husk. (pp. 81-2)

[At] the end of [A Sea Change] we are asked to wonder about the package that Margaret has sent him and which he has refused to open. What is inside does not matter; the package is a black box, both Michael's and Margaret's, which cannot be opened by either the reader or Michael himself. The box is a substitute for the mystery Margaret has lost. Lilith and A Sea Change illustrate, between them, the monstrosity of both desire that feeds on itself and the absence of desire, the illness of "romanticism" and "adjustment." The extraordinary popularity of Lilith simply indicates that more readers are enticed by the romance of romanticism than the horrors of adjustment; nonetheless, both novels answer one another. (p. 83)

[Embarkation], concerning a passionate boat-builder father and his impotent children, seems to be a recasting of these same subjects, but since the narrator is not especially articulate, the novel cannot rise above the weight of its subject—weakness. Much of the novel focuses on the act of selling out…. Since the story is told by the passionless son, the father cannot be made to come alive. His shouting, drinking, and wenching seem so much cardboard noise, perhaps because Salamanca's narrative strategy compels him to tell the story of a passionate man through the voice of a zombie…. The effect of the entire novel is that of a man talking about emotions, rather than feeling them; the narrator's voice comes in a whisper—aware that he is damned, he cannot say why.

At the same time, however, the novel concerns possession, like Lilith and A Sea Change…. [The] dead father, possesses his son, Aaron, so completely that the son has no room left to grow; such a father can build beautiful boats, but he cannot nurture his offspring. The force of his personality prevents it, and they are all, one way or another, deformed or eccentric, radically imperfect creations. As in the previous novels, the crucial question involves who possesses language. In Lilith, Lilith owns a language and gives it to Vincent; in A Sea Change, Margaret learns a language from her paid tutor and lover and leaves her husband, stuck with the old language of their ruined marriage. In Embarkation, the father owns all the languages and teaches none to his children, who in a semi-articulate way must adopt the sounds of the marketplace. The father recites Shakespeare; the son, a failed actor, cannot. Since the son is also writing the book, the entire story is dispossessed of presence. In a curious way, Embarkation becomes an impossible novel, a story that cannot tell itself; it deconstructs its own life, and since it does not pretend to be an act of restitution or education for the narrator (as Lilith and A Sea Change are), what the past has to give the present is washed out of expression. All of Salamanca's novels look back at something dead; in Embarkation the deadness infects every word of the telling. (pp. 83-4)

In all of Salamanca's works, someone is trying to evade his or her character, a process which usually finds itself in the metaphor of the actor. The novels always have a crucial scene with actors…. The denial of the self, however, can take more extreme forms: Lilith's madness is partially the result of a refusal to confront the self (her own) that would commit incest. Her wild inventions and beautiful artistry delay but cannot eliminate the confrontation. When Michael cannot make love to Margaret, he paints her with lipstick and rouge, transforming her into "the tattooed lady" (he says) but actually putting her into disguise. He paints the body with which he cannot come to terms.

In this sense, the actor is a hero of sorts: in performing he allows the imagination to permeate his daily existence. When he evades his own character, he enters into a new world, no matter whether he recites memorized lines or acts in a role he himself has thought up. To keep the sense of potential alive, the actor becomes (for a moment) what he can be, always the instrument of his imagination or somebody else's. Only when a man is unable to perform (A Sea Change) or cannot get off the stage (Lilith) do we begin to see the hazards of both acting and the imagination. If he can do nothing but act or if he lives entirely in the world of the imagination, he is fated to live outside the given world, its laws, and his own character. He becomes, then, either schizophrenic or psychopathological.

To drown is to evade the self; to survive is to confront it again. The paradox of Salamanca's work is that his characters are most alive when they are drowning and most dead when they are "just living"—facing up to what they are and what fate has made them. In drowning, they go mad, are dispersed, or sink deep inside their performances, their "acting." In surviving, they also die. At times the confrontation with the self—Lilith's facing up to the trauma of her incest—is so horrible that the self simply does not outlive the confrontation. Unlike Hawkes, whose works begin with the dreamworld of subjectivism and stay there, so that character can be evaded forever (the exception is The Lime Twig), Salamanca plunges his reader into a world where the self tries to establish its boundaries, loses them, and then faces up to the wreckage. To this extent his characters are cursed with ambition, to find a "presence" that disappears as soon as self-consciousness begins. They are defeated, both ways. As a consequence, Salamanca's work has little of the fancy and wit one associates with contemporary fiction. What it loses in wit it gains in emotional depth, in the risks it is willing to take. (pp. 84-5)

Charles Baxter, "The Drowned Survivor: The Fiction of J. R. Salamanca," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1977, pp. 75-86.

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Salamanca, J(ack) R(ichard) (Vol. 4)