Scott Spencer Katha Pollitt - Essay

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Readable and swiftly paced, "Preservation Hall" surmounts some potentially major weaknesses. The obvious plot, for instance: one sees … disaster coming for at least 100 pages, and Virgil and Tracy are so smug and so cute (they name their pond Veronica Lake) that at least one reader could hardly wait. But the strengths of the book are what stay in the mind, and they center around Earl. He emerges as a complex, original figure—a difficult, aloof and oddly formal man whose misfortune is to possess the energy of genius without its gifts. He is that rare person who wants from life at 50 exactly what he wanted at 25, and his persistence lends something heroic even to his monstrous self-pity.

It's a mark of Spencer's skill that although we hear the whole story from Virgil's point of view, ultimately Earl's resentment of his son's success seems less mean-spirited than Virgil's shame at his father's failure. Since the first-person voice in fiction nowadays is all too often the voice of sheer self-justification on the part of the author-as-hero, Spencer deserves a good deal of praise for having the imagination to know more about his characters than they do themselves.

Katha Pollitt, in a review of "Preservation Hall," in The New York Times, January 2, 1977, p. 12.