BENJAMIN DeMOTT

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

Can a chilly, misanthropic, half-crippled, middle-aged, twice-divorced, multimillionaire WASP whose hobby is researching the Albigensian heresies find happiness with a radical Jewish journalist who's 20 years younger than he, depressed by his money and resolved "never, never [to] marry a goy?"

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Yes and no is the answer delivered in ["Unnatural Scenery"]…. Marshall Lewis Henderson, the WASP multimillionaire, and Jackie Gold, the Jewish journalist, commence living together at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas…. Their lovemaking is animated (Henderson is half-crippled, repeat) as is their talk, and over a period of nine years the culture gap narrows a bit….

Finding happiness is one thing, though, and preserving it is another. Miss Gold shows up late for dinner one night, and objects when Marshall Henderson punishes her tardiness by pummeling her with lobster salad. She turns to an Esquire editor for comfort and, soon thereafter, splits for good.

Such personal disasters are an old story for the hero, a loser, despite his money, almost from birth…. Adding things up after the Jackie defeat, Henderson decides that "something has to be done, a gesture made." And the book culminates in his search for an ideal late-20th-century American gesture of protest against things as they are.

"Unnatural Scenery" is shrewdly paced, nimbly written and full of ingenious cross-cutting, fast forwards and the like. And, as Marshall Henderson's wit races through the early pages, indignantly slicing up mother, father, brother, in-laws, preppies, nostalgic Southerners, textbook publishers, liberals, the liberated and Florida retirement villages, many high-gloss Broadway gags are struck off….

But there is a serious problem with the book: the hero's imperviousness. Marshall Lewis Henderson is ever on the attack, and comes across less as a vulnerable human being than as an ice-cold Spirit of Satire or Criticism, superior to all misfortunes and also to everybody on earth….

If the author were content to let Henderson stand as a savage, or hardnose, the problem could be shrugged off. But instead, Vincent Canby asks the reader at the crisis to care about this hero, to treat him as though he could be hurt….

The root of the trouble, clearly, is mistaken faith in the ease of commerce between literary opposites…. And great effort toward this end isn't expended here. In its absence we notice not just critical intelligence and humor in "Unnatural Scenery," but also, I'm afraid, a measure of tonal and moral confusion.

Benjamin DeMott, "Henderson the Loser," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 28, 1979, p. 15.

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