Robert Cohen, Amateur Barbarians (New York: Scribner, 2009). 401 pp. $27.00.
Sentence by sentence, Robert Cohen is perhaps the best prose stylist of any American novelist now writing. This award was previously bestowed upon Michael Chabon by John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, although he nearly revoked it seven years later. In my opinion, Chabon did not deserve it in the first place, not only because his thought disappears into the ooze of his sentences, but because Cohen has written the better prose—sharper, more nimble, faster-paced—all along. Where Cohen suffers by comparison, where Chabon deserves his loyal following, is in sheer inventiveness. Cohen is never quite sure what to organize his sentences around. In his anxiety, he sticks close to familiar subjects and depends upon his powers of social observation to see him through. This leads to the common mistake of describing Cohen as a satirist. But that mistake can be corrected. The bigger problem, which he himself as yet to solve, is that Cohen is confined to a particular and narrow stratum of society.
All of the characters in Amateur Barbarians sound like literary intellectuals. Even though Teddy Hastings, the protagonist, is a middle-school principal who was a math major in college (“usually holed up in the library, or washing dishes in the dining hall, or peer tutoring in the Math Center”), he is full of the insights that only a writer would come to:
• “[M]aybe that was the point of living rooms, he thought: to remind you to live.”
• “[B]ooks and marriages were well suited to each other, Teddy thought. Both were middle-class adventures: they conspired to keep you at home, sitting still, being good.”
• “Out on the streets, the postman and cable guys and housepainters and lawn-maintenance people and the other day workers made their noisy, oblivious rounds. What a waste, Teddy thought. All that effort just to travel in circles.”
• “Every man who embraces a woman becomes Adam, trembling with gratitude that he’s no longer alone. That was how Teddy felt now.”
Four decades ago Philip Roth faced the same problem. How was he to make use of a writer’s unique observations while keeping his sights on a social reality that increasingly outran his gifts of invention? After a series of disastrous semi-fantasies—Our Gang, The Breast, The Great American Novel—he hit upon a solution. A two-part solution, to be exact. He invented Nathan Zuckerman to serve as other men’s majordomo, supplying them with a voice in which literary opinions would no longer be inappropriate. And he researched their work, learning in full and fascinating detail the ways in which other men passed their days and supported their families.
Cohen sees the advantage of shifting attention from the writer’s isolated and sometimes claustrophobic life to other men’s work. After a scare with rectal cancer, a near breakdown, and a night in jail, Teddy Hastings finds himself “sick of the personal. Sick from the personal. He longed to get beyond the self, beyond all selves”—and so he heads off to Africa, retracing the steps that Wilfred Thesiger recorded in Danakil Diary, which he had been reading in the comfort of his big American house. In Harar, he watches a butcher in a blue-green skullcap hacking away at a camel with a medieval-looking scimitar:
This is the first lesson the characters of Amateur Barbarians have forgotten. They have no work that another man could watch. In alternating chapters—the fixed form of the contemporary novel, apparently—Cohen tells the story of Teddy and his one-year replacement while he is on leave at half pay. Oren Pierce is a self-acknowledged luftmentsh (he has a limited Jewish vocabulary because he studied for a year at a Reform Jewish seminary before drifting into another field of part-time study). As he says to Teddy’s wife when offering help after her cousin suffers a stroke, “I do have some training, you know. I’ve got pretty close to a master’s in counseling.” He has pretty close to a master’s in several subjects, but has been able to complete none of them. He explains that he likes studying the stuff, hanging out in the library, arguing over the nuances of specialized texts. But actually doing the work? “No thanks,” he says. Teddy’s wife shakes her head. “I don’t see the point of all that study if it’s not for something,” she says.
As professor of English and American literatures at Middlebury College, Cohen is well-acquainted with the type. And he does a good job of capturing him in a typical pose. Indeed, the novel’s second chapter, “The Very Exquisite Melancholy of Acting Vice Principal Pierce,” is as good as the best Renaissance character essays. The trouble is that, once the character study is complete, there is little else about Oren Pierce to hold a reader’s interest. His life philosophy is a promising subject. If nothing is settled, he tells himself, “then everything was still in the air, still possible, within reach.” What happens to such a man when he is reduced to necessity?
Cohen is aware that it could happen. Teddy’s brother Philip has died of malignant melanoma the year before the events of the novel, and in his final weeks he discovers the “clarity of an absolute state, where everything has been taken from you.” But the curtailment of fictional possibility by physical necessity is Francine Prose’s subject, not Cohen’s. Cohen’s people are driven by compulsions, not the clarity of absolute states. “How complicated and strange, all these forces that guided or bypassed or thwarted a man’s will,” Oren marvels.
He drifts into an affair with Teddy’s wife, while Teddy himself, whose marriage, he knows perfectly well, is “the triumph of his life,” drifts against his will into child pornography. Given the assignment in an evening photography class to “get to know the camera” by carrying it around and “just take pictures,” he snaps his sixteen-year-old daughter sleeping in the nude. Cohen’s attempt to make the event seem unwilled is as unconvincing as Hurstwood’s theft of ten thousand dollars from Hannah and Hogg’s in Sister Carrie, and serves to underscore much the same theme. “Men are still led by instincts before they are regulated by knowledge,” Dreiser comments, and Cohen nods.
And so the characters are blown hither and yon, like waifs amid forces. Teddy is sent briefly to jail, but how does he get out? What becomes of the charge against him? Cohen neglects to say. As their affair approaches a crossroads, Teddy’s wife confesses she loves him and buys Oren a gift, asking him to open it later. What is it? We never find out. What happens to the affair in the sequel? We never learn that either. The novel dawdles to an unsatisfying close, as if Cohen ran out of energy or insight. The wit and keenness of his observations are enough to get you deeply into Amateur Barbarians before you realize that neither you nor Robert Cohen have the least idea how to find your way back out.