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Sunday, January 06, 2013

A Frolic of His Own

From the Bookshelf Dept.: I spotted a clean copy of this novel at Saratoga’s Lyrical Ballad Bookstore not long ago, reminding me of the pleasure I had reading it – and reviewing it – in 1994. William Gaddis (1922-1998) wrote five novels, beginning with the difficult but rewarding The Recognitions. A Frolic of His Own, published in 1994, won him his second National Book Award (his first went to 1975's J.R.)


A Gaddis plot is never the straight narrative line of easygoing literature. His first novel, The Recognitions, published in 1955, took on the world of art while dovetailing the resultant ideas with something much more spiritual; J.R. (1975) was a rollicking look at high finance. The impressively unprolific Gaddis produced only one other novel, Carpenter’s Gothic before addressing our litigious society in A Frolic of His Own, which returns to the feel of The Recognitions in its rich, intricately-woven tapestry of obsessive characters each pursuing the legal righting of a particular wrong.

At the heart of it are the two lawsuits chased by Oscar Crease, a professor who once submitted a play about the Civil War to a television producer and is dismayed to discover that the same producer has gone on to make a full-length feature on the same topic. But Oscar is housebound as he pursues his suit, thanks to an accident in which he was hit by his own car, a Sosumi.

Meanwhile, Oscar’s father, 97-year-old judge Thomas, is writing controversial opinions on a case where a dog is trapped inside a piece of contemporary sculpture and has incited townspeople into warring factions.

Oscar’s sister, Christina, is married to an attorney with the firm Swyne & Dour; he’s after a partnership and is trying to smooth ruffled feathers when the abovementioned producer hires Swyne & Dour to defend his company.

Complicated as they are, these storylines are secondary to the narrative style, in which dialogue reveals both character and goings-on, and creates a sense of momentum you’ll be caught up in despite the apparent opaqueness of the style.

Here’s a description of television news: “...Scenes of mayhem from Londonderry to Chandigarh, an overweight family rowing down Main Street in a freak flood in Ohio, a molasses truck overturned on the Jersey Turnpike, gunfire, stabbings, flaming police cars and blazing ambulances celebrating a league basketball championship in Detroit interspersed with a decrepit grinning couple on a bed that warped and heaved at the touch of a button – because they offered him a settlement Harry, almost a quarter million dollars but of course he insists on going ahead with the case...”

Interspersed in the narrative are Oscar’s play, “Once at Antietam,” given in installments; a number of well-written (and subtly humorous) legal opinions; Oscar’s examination before trial, a hilarious duel of wits between opposing attorneys, and a synopsis of the movie in question, “The Blood in the Red White and Blue,” as seen on TV by a drunk Oscar.

Although this novel is as complicated as any out-of-control lawsuit (and what big-ticket litigation isn’t?), what emerges is a tribute to personal liberty and the timeless but uncopyrightable quality of unique ideas. Some of the exchanges in Oscar’s play are taken from Plato’s Republic (much to the delight of the defense), while Oscar’s father is fond of quoting such eminent jurists as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand.

Just to draw characterization from dialogue only is a virtuoso feat; to weave so stunning a novel from the many different ingredients Gaddis presents goes beyond a bravura performance into something much more profound. The villains in the piece are greed and ignorance; the heroes are much-maligned ideals. Like any good cathartic experience, reading this book is an exhilarating, depressing experience that leaves you changed for the better in the end.

A Frolic of His Own
by William Gaddis
Poseidon Press, 586 pp., $25

Metroland Magazine, 3 March 1994

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