Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2017 February 03 • Friday

The 21" Screen by Edwin Fadiman, Jr., is interesting more as a mid-twentieth century artifact than as a novel that one would read for its own merits.

You can ignore the cover and the copy. They misrepresent what happens inside. Lundy doesn't really have a problem with fame. He always wanted to be a writer but was blocked, after writing one good short story that was published by a respected literary magazine.

He's a famous television personality but he's no more the "idol of millions" than is, say, a CNN anchor. Lundy lives in New York City and walks the streets and takes taxis without anybody so much as noticing him, much less recognizing him or asking him for autographs or anything.

His dream of being a writer might be just that, a fantasy. It's not very clear. He never demonstrates inspiration, ideas. When he's young, in the 1930s, he spends a lot of time sitting at his typewriter, trying to use what he's soaked up while walking around Manhattan all day, bits of people and situations. But later in the 1950s, when his midlife crisis is taking place, he doesn't have any impetus to write at all, just an image in his head of doing it.

Is he "a cheating husband, an indifferent father and a ruthless lover"? Definitely yes to the first two. He's married but has a younger girlfriend who lives in Greenwich Village. He has a teenage daughter but he never wanted children and he's never had much to do with her life and never wanted to.

Ruthless lover? Well, by the standards of mid-century prurience, which this book must observe, there has to be sex and there really should be rape. So there's a scene where he and his girlfriend are going to have sex, he can't get it up, he goes and drinks a bunch of Scotch, gets it up and then has kind of rough sex with her when she thinks it's not going to happen. It's described as violent and unkind but more selfish than nonconsensual.

The one real bonafide rape in the book is when Rex is raped by his wife, which is how they end up having a child. He's passed out drunk and she makes it happen.

Also for the presumed purpose of titillation, their teenaged daughter is in a relationship with an older lesbian. This subplot exists only to jazz things up for the reader and to give the character of the daughter something to do and another something for Rex to struggle with.

The only sacrifice Rex had to make on his way to becoming a highly paid television personality was to change his name from Lundt to Lundy. At one point he cries out about this loss, but it's just a sidenote, really. It's not central to the story, as the loss of Nick Charles's original Greek name is in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man.

The 21" Screen reads like its author likes the activity of writing but doesn't have a strong purpose. There are too many fussy little words and observations that are like shiny clutter,.

For example, the action at a busy Greenwich Village bohemian speakeasy is described as going "drunkenly, swimmingly, phonily". That word "phonily" hits the floor with a loud clunk.

At another point, Rex recalls "those incredibly dusty, incredibly crowded Third Avenue antique shops". Those "incredibly"s oversell his memory and strike me as lazy scene-setting.

And on the same page Rex "pursued a shadow child through the adyta of his memory", which is both trite and some pretty high-falutin' literaturizing if you ask me. Is it really the best way to say whatever needs to be said here?

So there's over-attention to detail, overdone prose, irrelevant asides and observations but the writing is actually still good. The sentences have an agreeable rhythm and you can feel the author's confidence and pleasure.

The writers of thrillers should take note of Fadiman's description of the closest we come to a villain in the piece, Rex's boss at the network. He doesn't have a physical handicap or deformity or scar or birthmark or disease, he doesn't speak with an accent, he's not deranged, there's nothing remarkable about where he came from or what he looks like. It's made clear that he cares about winning and making money more than he cares about anything else and his introduction is the most effective scene in the whole novel.

It's not a remarkable novel but it's a window into a time and place. Hell, it's worth reading just for these lines about Manhattan: "Apartments were dirt-cheap, more than plentiful. Most landlords would gladly give you a month or two rent-free, giving you in effect the apartment for less than the stated rent, without noting the fact formally on the rent roll of the property".

The first line is "Karen Donnel straightened her back and sat stiffly on the hard-backed chair". (The recurrence of the word "back" in "hard-backed chair" is typically infelicitous, right there in the first sentence.)