William Kotzwinkle Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kotzwinkle, William 1938–

Kotzwinkle is an American novelist and writer of books for children. His work ranges from the urban fiction of The Fan Man, with its authentic dialect of New York's hippies, to the high-class pornography of Night Book. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Richard P. Brickner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While technically sportive and sometimes successfully lyrical, William Kotzwinkle's novel about man's inhumanity to rats, dogs, snakes, lions, elephants, bears, whales, turtles, etc. is so recklessly sentimental in its argument as to be food fit for Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and other such fauna children. "Doctor Rat" did not quite make me want to go out and shoot dachshunds; but it did not persuade me, as it seems to have meant to, that laboratory research, using animals, into the causes of cancer is the equivalent of Dr. Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz….

The novel drips with gruesome experiments committed by humans on animals…. Kotzwinkle acknowledges that snakes are dangerous to rats, and badgers to elephants, but there is not a mention in his book of snakes biting people, or dogs biting people, or lions eating people. There is, for "balance," a bunch of musicians on board a ship playing lovingly to whales and then musically warning them of a harpooning expedition. But the heaved burden of the novel, so irritatingly easy to dodge, is that animals are beautiful (not dumb; they all talk or think here, talk or think like people) and humans hideous with lip-smacking sadism….

Kotzwinkle has us fail to realize we are all one, as if a sense of all-oneness among all animals were the answer to human or zoological problems, as if the problem (and necessity) weren't differentness and the answer the intelligent handling of differentness.

In "Elephant Bangs Train," his short-story collection of a few years back, Kotzwinkle performed subtly and with conspicuous skill and charm. Here he appears to be the Marx of zoology, hoping to inspire the proletariat to revolution (and mass death?). Is "Doctor Rat" to be sold to animals in research labs, slaughterhouses, zoos? Or are we, shamed by reading it, to turn universally vegetarian, close down our labs, slaughterhouses, zoos? In that case, we'll get creamed. This novel, which appears to be so feeling, is in fact disturbingly frivolous. It is zoö-radical-chic.

Richard P. Brickner, "Fiction and Poetry: 'Doctor Rat'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1976, p. 8.

Robert Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doctor Rat is a very contemporary novel by a writer who knows what the contemporary novel is for, and it tries to deliver what the times demand—an examination of modern society and a little conscience-forging for the race. It's an unashamed moral statement which upends verismo to get at basic truths. Although it's often funny, it's a very serious work which demands to be taken seriously. In spite of the respect for the author's talent that reading it inspires in me, taking it seriously involves me in a fundamental quarrel with the validity of its posture.

It's a novel about the Revolt of the Animals. Its principal character is a laboratory rat who has been castrated and driven mad by rat-running vivisectionists. (p. 97)

In the lab, where oppression is most acute and the rat population highly socialized, something like a classical Marxist uprising takes place—and Kotzwinkle has a good time making some amusing comic analogies as the rats transform themselves into rodent fidelistas to smash the unspeakable status quo.

All this throws the insane and embittered Doctor Rat into paroxysms of antisocial reactionary rage, and he single-handedly sets out to crush the life-affirming struggle of his fellow victims, with considerable energy and resourcefulness…. Kotzwinkle is what would ordinarily be called a humanist and he does not want a full-scale horror story on his hands, so The Man never shows his hated face. (pp. 97-8)

In part, Doctor Rat is about the phenomenon of revolution….

What I find...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Anne Larsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[I imagine that Doctor Rat] is going to sound funny as hell (it isn't). I imagine that we will be told by some otherwise intelligent people that it's the kind of funny book that's going to make a lot of angry people a whole lot angrier (it won't). And worse, it's simply a bad book, a puffed-up book, claiming humility.

An animal fable with a presumed moral purpose behind it, the book, at a glance, might seem promising enough. A satire on the atrocities of human experimentation on animals, it does have behind it the traditions at least of Aesop and the allegorical satire of Orwell. But for this, for what Kotzwinkle has really given us, I was not prepared. I am not speaking of the grotesqueries of the science lab, though there are those, many of those, but of the out-and-out shallowness, the sophomoric arrogance of the book itself. It's worse than banal; it is finally, I would say, a misleading, manipulative book that is likely to pass for a highly "moral" statement, when, in fact, it has nothing very moral in it, and little that's even good. I include especially those intended-to-be moving and "eloquent evocations of animal consciousness" that are used throughout the book as interchapters punctuating the main story.

The better half of the book is its main story….

[The story] is heavy-handed satire, though occasionally worth a laugh or two. It becomes after a time repetitive and dull, but there is a point in it that anyone can sympathize with. After all, nothing is really asked of the reader: nobody is in favor of maiming and pain.

Yet the...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Hollis Alpert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is nothing that says a suspense novel need not be well written….

As familiar, even overly familiar, as the form is, it nevertheless allows for wit, cleverness, displays of arcane knowledge, daring invention, and, every now and then, good writing. A case in point is Fata Morgana, by William Kotzwinkle, a fine young writer previously known for such "serious" novels as The Fan Man and Doctor Rat. The title of this new work is taken from the Italian and means a mirage, especially one that is the work of a sorceress or, as employed here by Kotzwinkle, a sorcerer. (p. 23)

[Kotzwinkle takes] us on an almost dreamlike journey. The details seem real enough, but...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Jerome Charyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Fata Morgana" is a curious mingling of genres: detective story and fairy tale. It manages to pull the reader in, because William Kotzwinkle, who has written for both children and adults, is able to move from the mundane to the grotesque, from magic to hard-nosed fact, without bruising his story….

Toys form a constant motif in the novel. They are "much finer than men, and much worse." The men and women in the book have all the appearances of animated dolls, with a system of "springs and balances."…

The novel itself reads like a small, relentless engine, fueled by whimsy and a powerful froth. The intentions are narrow; the realities are nearer to cardboard than to flesh,...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Roberta Tovey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kotzwinkle knows that mysteries are the most satisfying of books not because everyone gets his just deserts but because in the best of them there are no gratuitous elements, no existential occurences. [In Fata Morgana] Inspector Picard follows the trail of the gypsy Lazare, and the elements which emerge from the fraudulent glitter of Paris—the abandoned lavishness of the masques, the tarot cards, the jeweled gowns trailing in the filth of the Paris streets—fall magically together. The world created has a sensuous order; the ending is a necessary irritation, and Kotzwinkle rather gracelessly disregards it. But the chase itself is perfect.

Roberta Tovey, "Books...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Kotzwinkle has done the unforgivable [in Fata Morgana]; he has bailed out of a fantasy by turning it all into a dream. Naughty, naughty—and besides, the climactic scene is pilfered from an old movie.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'Fata Morgana'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 240, No. 1, July, 1977, p. 87.

(The entire section is 60 words.)