Vance Bourjaily

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Bourjaily, Vance

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bourjaily, Vance 1922–

Bourjaily is an American novelist and editor. The Second World War and its effect on the life of a generation of Americans is a central concern throughout his work. He was cofounder of discovery, a literary magazine which he edited from 1953 to 1955. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

"Now Playing at Canterbury" comes from the same source as most of Bourjaily's other fiction, his life. There's no other source for most novelists. That's why so many become repetitious. In Bourjaily's case the life has led to some startling fiction, beginning with his first novel, "The End of My Life" (1947). It came from his experience as an American Field Service ambulance driver in World War II…. It got him into John W. Aldridge's "After the Lost Generation" club in the early 1950's with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and others now famous, forgotten or self-destroyed.

If the promise was great, the glory never really came. Literary New York sent Bourjaily roses at the start and frequently weeds later on….

"Now Playing at Canterbury" is the novel Vance Bourjaily's career has promised us. It hears America hurting and crying. It also hears America singing, feels it changing, sees it swinging and going on and on through fields of Iowa corn, down the Buck Rogers freeways, up over our concrete pueblos spearing the sky. "Now Playing at Canterbury" is Vance Bourjaily at 54 and discovering Breughel populating America.

Bourjaily believes life is good. Perhaps so much literary fiction is depressive because it's written by young consciences yet to be tried. You have to pass 40 to know what not to hope for. Bourjaily celebrates life, incants it right from the start. (p. 3)

Chaucer's Canterbury was a holy place, tomb of Saint Thomas à Becket. Bourjaily's Canterbury equivalent is the cultural center. Art is holy in State City. Whether it will be entombed there, Bourjaily doesn't say. Instead, he shows us how Americans do their work, play with one another, think about art, satisfy lust, fight authority, suffer abominations and otherwise carry on their lives in the years of nihilism and atrocity, the early 1960's to the mid-1970's….

Problems of structure and motivation, questions of attitude, issues of focus intrude on the bawdy and lyrical melodies of "Now Playing at Canterbury." Sex and love seldom find one another. I wonder whether the family may not be at the foundation of the United States as primary authority rather than political combinations. Families don't exist in "Canterbury." Bourjaily's comic-strip dialogue and imitation Chaucerian verse smile from his pages mindlessly. Bourjaily is a crafty entertainer. But … he needs control. "Canterbury" gets windy, even gassy. Yet how Bourjaily can write!

America, Vance Bourjaily has found you. His novel works. It's literature in the service of life, Bourjaily's 12 year vision of the good and the bad in recent United States history, human beings as strong and weak as the social weights that crush them and the animal drives that get them up again. "Now Playing at Canterbury" will be argued. It will be deflated. It will be read and remembered. (p. 4)

Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 12, 1976.

[Now Playing at Canterbury's] considerable heft and the titular allusion to Chaucer are signs that High Seriousness is about to be committed….

The Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales appears only in the author's purloined formula: toss some interesting strangers together and stir….

Bourjaily does not always sense when his powers of invention are flagging. Some of the interpolated tales are simply dull. Others are tricked out with bad mannerisms. One limps along in rhymed couplets. Another makes extensive—and pointless—use of comic-strip balloons filled with dialogue. A young black performer talks and thinks in a free-associating patois lifted and badly fumbled from Finnegans Wake.

(The entire section is 1,601 words.)