Scott Sommer Robert Towers - Essay

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Even low-rent tragedies demand characters of some definition and grit. Those who populate Lifetime, a collection of three stories and two novellas by Scott Sommer, are, with one exception, too undone, too disintegrated or amorphous, to put up a fight. (p. 38)

Too often Sommer seems to be indulging in Schadenfreude at the expense of his characters; the laying on of woe becomes too easy, like the rhyming of Hertz and Schmertz in German Romantic poetry.

The only protagonist not totally defeated by life is the ten-year-old narrator of "Crisscross." Eerily precocious, Coke tells us about the goings-on among the drug-obsessed inhabitants of a sordid Key West hotel and his own involvement—at first innocent and then "street-wise"—in the cocaine traffic. Though he too is a victim—fatherless, and to all effects abandoned by his promiscuous, drug-besotted mother—the fact that Coke at least is still able to stand up and fight lends a certain hectic vitality to this curious novella. He has some language, too, that rises above the low-keyed monotone of heartbreak that prevails elsewhere. (pp. 38-9)

Sommer is not yet a master of his art. He has not found a voice of his own that he can use with real confidence. He is given to certain jarring mannerisms and a tendency to undermine his effects by cool, throwaway comments and self-consciously literary intrusions…. Above all, he is unable to persuade me that his vision of universal bleakness is fully earned. But in each of the pieces with the exception of "Sickness," which I found vapid and unconvincing, there are passages of real power and incisiveness, phrases that one would like to have written; and two of the stories—"Waiting for Merna" and "Crisscross"—succeed well enough to make Scott Sommer's work worth following. (p. 39)

Robert Towers, "Low-Rent Tragedies," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 8, May 14, 1981, pp. 37-40.∗