I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad that Joe Queenan, who has “made a career out of being extremely unpleasant about people in print,” has been unpleasant about me, or at least my book, in print in the NYTBR this week. Jack Rakove tells me about his father receiving a pan in the Times and having the owner of Kroch’s and Brentano’s say, “Milt, did they spell your name right? If they did, then nothing else matters.”
And of course it’s a mug’s game to object to your reviews. But then, blogging is a mug’s game, isn’t it?
I’ll point out two things about one key passage, referring to “the big problem” with my book. Queenan objects,
The big problem is that the Tom Buchanan of “Banana Republican” never really sounds like Fitzgerald’s creation. He’s unprincipled and racist and greedy, but he’s not uncompromisingly stupid. He’s more like Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser’s clever novels, a bounder who always lands on his feet but is by no means an imbecile. A bigger problem is that Rauchway, a deft though not especially funny writer, puts suspiciously well-made phrases into the mouth of a character Fitzgerald depicted as a lummox.
Queenan never considers that the Tom Buchanan who appears in The Great Gatsby should not be described simply as “Fitzgerald’s creation,” nor is his depiction there properly described as what “Fitzgerald depicted.” This is because The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, who is—like all first-person narrators—unreliable. A careful reader of Gatsby knows that Nick gets some things wrong and that he intensely dislikes Tom Buchanan. It’s quite possible therefore that Nick depicts Tom Buchanan as a bit more of a mouth-breather than he plausibly could have been.
Here’s the other thing. Queenan notes in that passage a resemblance between my book and Fraser’s “clever” Flashman. But Queenan also elsewhere says that you shouldn’t borrow someone else’s fictional character unless you maintain the circumstances of the original work of fiction. Queenan seems unaware that Fraser borrowed Flashman from someone else’s work of fiction and did not afterward return him to his original fictional circumstances. A thoughtful reader would conclude there was some important symbolic reason for picking Flashman out of the canon of known villains, just as there might have been some important symbolic reason for picking Buchanan out of the canon of known villains. In fact it might even be explicitly mentioned in the foreword to Banana Republican.
Oh well. I suppose if I have to be a victim of something, I might as well be a “victim of [my] gifts as a writer.”