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Sheed, Wilfrid 1930–
An Anglo-American novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and editor, Sheed writes witty, satirical novels in which the bite is tempered by his compassion. A frequent target for his sarcasm is the contemporary obsession with self-analysis. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
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"Transatlantic Blues" … is fictional autobiography structured as a general confession in the old-Catholic sense of the term. This confession is stimulated by a mid-life crisis or breakdown stemming from the hero's self-condemnatory conviction that the work he does is despicable and immoral, even a symptom of diabolism. Pendrid ("Monty") Chatworth is a television host-interviewer toiling for both a major American network and the BBC, specializing in celebrity interviewing of the pseudo-candid type and in "searching" documentaries. (p. 1)
"Transatlantic Blues," written in the familiar Sheedian vein of dark comedy, is worth reading for its wealth of insight into the two societies during and since World War II, an insight further developed by the unusual inside-outside vantage points available to the narrator. As a novel about family life, it tells a touching story of how four people, including the sister, Priscilla, whose struggles to achieve a viable identity are sketched with real poignancy, deal with fundamental dislocation and uprooting. And as a novel on religious themes it offers an unusual look at the endlessly complex ways Catholicism in both its New and Old World forms affects the lives of bright children growing up in an exceptionally religious household.
Yet Sheed's strongest suit, as it always has been, is his mastery of voice, of tone and of style. One wants constantly to quote him, and this seems to me important at a time when many ambitious novels come out that display ragged syntax and a sludgy style as though these disabilities certified the value of their contents. (p. 19)
Julian Moynahan, "Anglo-American Attitudes," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 15, 1978, pp. 1, 19.
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Chalices, confessionals, crucifixes—every page of Wilfrid Sheed's new novel Transatlantic Blues … is sprinkled with strained jokey references to Roman Catholicism. Like the father in Looking for Mr. Goodbar who tears around the house in a Notre Dame jacket, narrator-hero Pendrid "Monty" Chatworth isn't merely intensely Catholic, he's pathologically Catholic—God is his co-pilot, and together they're strafing the countryside. The novel opens with Chatworth on a 747 flight above the Atlantic, boozily asking other first-class occupants to hear his confession. After a Jewish passenger sarcastically obliges him, Chatworth growls, "Fuck you, you secular pig. You had a great religion once. What'd you do with it? Boiled it down to make wisecracks." Isn't that what Wilfrid Sheed has done with his talent? Transatlantic Blues is nothing but wisecracks, a grinning swarm of locusts….
As the name "Chatworth" indicates, Sheed's protagonist has exploited his conversational gifts to the fullest. He's a transatlantic TV celebrity, like David Frost or Alistair Cooke, and he prides himself on being a million-particled Machiavelli. Chatworth is a master of fine modulation: sincerity, integrity, gravity, all are projected into the television camera with creamy precision. Yet though wealth and fame are firmly his, he is a spiritually tormented creature, and he pours his God-haunted thoughts into a tape recorder that he has nicknamed Father Sony. It's a promising premise for a novel, and I hoped that Sheed would do in Transatlantic Blues what poet Clive James did in his verse narrative Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage: take the reader on a satirical tour of highbrow Celebrityville…. Here, however, the story is monotonously single-voiced: Chatworth fancies himself as a cruelly proficient mimic but only his voice penetrates the static. Which isn't surprising since there aren't any characters in the book except the narrator. Chatworth's father is a vague pink cloud of benevolence, the women in his life are little more than skirts rustling by, and his schoolmates are Welcome Back, Kotter rowdies, ethnicity spurting from every pore.
As in every Sheed novel, there are jokes and metaphors and loopy insights that leap from the page like novelty-shop snakes. A quick example: "For all her transparent wackiness, Maureen [Chatworth's sweetie] had also frightened me a little about the interviews, and the ones I did in the East were like fake surgery: all white gowns and rubber knives. Candor was already in its decadence, and a display of flying elbows was all you needed." Flying elbows, rubber knives—his command of comic detail is often astonishingly sure. But despite Sheed's slangy, offhand style, the novel moves with a mastodonic plod….
What's most bewildering—and exhausting—about Transatlantic Blues is that Sheed has strip-mined so much of his earlier work. Chatworth—born in England, educated in America—feels displaced on both shores: a dilemma handled far more movingly in The Blacking Factory (Sheed's best fiction, I think). Later Chatworth uses his tweedy Englishness to outfox America, a tactic described at Trollopean length in Office Politics (his worst fiction, I think, though Max Jamison comes perilously close). And the animadversions about Selling Out seem to have been sifted not only from Max Jamison but from essays in The Morning After. Indeed, a stray sentence from that collection—"The syndrome of 'making it' is directly connected with the loss of personal immortality"—says immeasurably more about success and embattled spirituality than all of Monty Chatworth's fizzy soliloquies. Despite the sound effects—the whirrs, flashbulb pops, and flutterings of angelic wings—the book lacks orchestral design. Transatlantic Blues finally is an expression of pure writerly will, of Wilfrid Sheed's determination to produce a novel. Nothing is alive on these hundreds of pages except the author's desire to drag sentence after sentence from shadowy silence into the noisy world.
Yet this book, brimming with schmaltz and small amusements, will hardly bruise Sheed's reputation. (p. 68)
The truth is that Sheed's style—springy, alert, kittenish—isn't really suited to the novel; it lacks steel and music. As a critic, working with a text, he can be almost frighteningly observant, and his wisecracks are both stinging and illuminating. But in fiction he works in a self-created void: the characters are store-window mannequins, the scenery consists of painted back-drops. Nothing is at stake, no giddy risks are taken, so the jokes become only curlicues in his elegant doodling…. All through this latest novel Chatworth's father implores him to be "first-rate." As a critic Wilfrid Sheed is consummately first-rate, yet he's worrying away his time with thickly trivial fictions. That's the real sell-out of Transatlantic Blues. (p. 70)
James Wolcott, "Wilfrid Sheed's Stations of the Cross," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), January 23, 1978, pp. 68, 70.
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I found it impossible to identify [Transatlantic Blues'] real subject or to guess the impulse that led to its writing. Much of the Oxford material reads like a retread of Sheed's first novel, A Middle-Class Education (1960). And the differences in English and American attitudes and style that so agitate the adolescent (and collegiate) Pendrid have been more poignantly dramatized in The Blacking Factory (1968). It is not helpful to think of the novel as a kind of Bildungsroman, since the central character undergoes no real development; he merely tries on a series of less than adequate identities. It is then the story of a sell-out, an anatomy of guilt? The portrait of a once zealous (if slightly phony) Catholic in a post-Vatican II world? A satire on the mindlessness of television, the meretriciousness of fame? It is all of these things but only sporadically and half-heartedly. Somewhere within Transatlantic Blues there is, I believe, a real and potentially moving story of fathers and sons. Pendrid's gentle, honorable, rather unworldly father is one of the few appealing characters, and his injunction—"Be first-rate"—continues to haunt his son throughout the novel. But this strand is never sufficiently disentangled or drawn out. The book seems to be caught in a rip-tide of cross purposes, and much of it, I am afraid, is tedious.
A large part of the problem lies with the way in which Monty-Pendrid is allowed to present himself. Sheed's male characters (and in a sense there are no others) have always been prone to extreme self-consciousness. Their lengthy interior monologues tend to alternate between self-analysis and self-accusation, with very little scope for the spontaneous or serendipitous. The unremitting commentary frequently stops the action in its tracks. Consequently, the novels read more like demonstrations than imaginative works of fiction…. His novels seem stronger in documentation than in invention and regularly give the appearance of autobiography only slightly transmuted—even when the characters and their circumstances are obviously "made up." They have trouble progressing beyond their initial premise or situation into a freely moving story, with the result that their denouements are often unconvincing (Max Jamison's reconciliation with his wife) or melodramatic (Jimmy's breakdown at the end of The Blacking Factory).
These characteristics of Sheed's fiction become especially obvious in Transatlantic Blues. Monty's confessional style is heavily facetious, falsely intimate, cute, and shrill. And the voice never lets up, even when it is sometimes attributed to one of the two alter egos, Plunkett and Snead, whom Monty invents to represent, respectively, the pious and profane sides of his personality. But since the piety is false, Plunkett gets very few lines and the squinty-eyed Snead ("the meanest sound in the language") does a fair amount of the talking. (pp. 17-18)
It seems unfair that a writer of Sheed's industry, intelligence, and experience has not yet been able to produce a novel that sustains the promise of its conception. One keeps hoping that the next one will finally clear the ground. But Transatlantic Blues is not the redeeming book. It unaccountably lacks the wit, the cleverness of phrasing, the eye for aesthetic and moral dilemmas that in the preceding novels have offered the reader a generous compensation for their inadequacies as works of fiction. (p. 18)
Robert Towers, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), January 26, 1978.
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As a satirical tour de force, Transatlantic Blues has its moments. Like Chatworth, Wilfrid Sheed is also a transatlantic personality and his barbs slash both ways, skewering British dilettantism and American pragmatism with equal gusto. Of British heroism: "Fearfully brave. Group commander at Dunkirk. Made tea while the bullets sang. 'Oh dear, they've ruined our best pot. I am vexed.' Stamps foot, giggles." Of American nomadism: "Americans are so good at being homeless, they must practice it at home." And yet I did not find it a very funny book. Like Chatworth himself, the humor is too contrived, too much like a talk-show monologue. The constant play of mirrors and echoes that makes the hero so unsympathetic also vitiates much of the book's comic purpose. In sum, a flawed performance by an important novelist….
John B. Breslin, "Confessions of an Ex-Non-Catholic," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 5, 1978, p. G3.
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Chatworth's voice, shrewd, sardonic, reductive—he is on to himself and on to everybody else—presents the Anglo-American scene, and particularly the Catholic scene, afresh [in Transatlantic Blues]…. Class plays its usual murky role, and Chatworth's voice reaches new levels of satirical irony as he confronts and rings the changes on all the traps of American anglophilia and anglophobia, of English pro- and anti-Americanism. The voice gets sharper still as yet another excruciating Catholic struggle with sex is rehearsed. Cheerfuller comedy comes in his account of self-prostitution for the media. Chatsworth is too "vibrantly superficial" to engage in the trapped masochisms of a Mauriac or Greene protagonist; he is too buoyant for the sin of Despair. Yet the poles of his confession are self-hatred ("I satirize myself, a Catholic vice"), and self-esteem (once starved, but now well-fed by his audiences), and it becomes clear as his brilliant nervous gabble goes on that a more or less desperate search for a self is involved … with a real fear that once the onion is peeled away there will be nothing left.
For these are exercises in contrition as well as confession. Chatworth does not want psychiatrist couch stuff; sin is real. It is not only that, with his carefree TV specials on the world's trouble spots, he has publicly sinned against sincerity and authenticity. These true confessions provide a history of crushing private failures as well: failing his father and sister at crucial moments in their lives for example, or dishonestly wielding his thin Catholicism as a twisted weapon against his disturbingly honest lover (a brilliant chapter of dark comedy tells that story), and of course, failing himself, notably in relation to his father, who quietly dominates his conscience with his distant challenge of love. All these are failures of love, and a great success in this novel is the balanced way in which sympathies are involved…. (p. 248)
But wit is the general solvent. Chatworth's ultimate ironic blasphemy, for instance, is to use his light Catholic training, his "spiritual insights" to get ahead in his TV shows, becoming a kind of public father confessor…. Wit is never set adrift from feeling, though. In the most poignant moments it still controls feeling. I think here of Kingsley Amis, who from the English end, in I Want It Now (about a TV personality) and in One Fat Englishman (about transatlantic encounters) has profitably explored somewhat similar territory. Amis also uses satirical wit to explore feeling. Yet (and there is a large issue here about secular and non-secular habits of mind) at the crucial moment he is likely to lower the cruel sword and let sentiment in. Sheed never lets this happen. The insistent hardmounthed control ("When the M.C. called me a wit with a heart, I broke into that silly grin again and it wouldn't go away") only underlines the novel's seriousness of purpose.
The last chapters make the point. As he completes his tapes Chatworth knows that, at the height of his success, he is on the brink of decline; in twenty years time he will be "a trivia question; and then if I still haven't taken the hint and died, nothing at all." The novel ends in serious black comedy. On a sort of private secular retreat in New Jersey he plays all his tapes to a young ex-nun, a visiting journalist. Baring his soul to her he also bares his body and in a climactic passage, with Father Sony still working away, with his dead father (expert in primal scenes) there in spirit, and perhaps his quick-witted sister hinted at in Sister Veronica, a Mailer-ish procreation take place. With whiffs of incense and incest wafting around Chatworth is reborn and reconciled. (pp. 248-49)
Sheed is better than ever in this novel, and funnier. Hard to single out examples, but I'll recommend the accurately savage encounters Chatworth has with an awful American TV journalist and another with an awful English Underground newsman. Sheed is uniquely expert at playing one dialect's incongruities off against its transatlantic opposite—though my wrinkled ear did catch a few slips. And, as for a moment I'm carping, "Father Sony"—the name—sounds a mistaken bit of whimsy to me. But it's no problem. There's another problem that really isn't a problem either…. Sheed has never cared much about cultivating a detailedly consistent point of view. Never mind. It doesn't matter. It never caused insoluble difficulties. By contrast in this complex novel the flashbacks and flashforwards the rapid sceneshifts and timeshifts, the movement from historic present to real present as we nip in and out of Chatworth's personality at various ages—in short the general jet-laggery—generates an atmosphere in which the fusion of past and present attitudes, of naiveté and sophistication, of confused half-lost boy and raddled successful middle-aged man, brings Chatworth to life in extraordinarily effective ways, a triumph of the Sheed method. (pp. 249-50)
Bernard McCabe, "Bless Me, Father….," in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 14, 1978, pp. 248-50.