by Benjamin Anastas
An Underachiever's Diary is a success that celebrates failure. As the back-cover blurb explains, "In the mid-1960s, William was the firstborn of identical twins. It is the last time in his life he will ever be first in anything." What gets in the way is a series of debilitating childhood illnesses, which keep him out of school for the better part of two years and permanently affect his self-image.
Narrating from adulthood, William insists he wasn't and isn't looking for anybody's pity. He claims his underachieving was a deliberate life choice, a path of bitter struggle to contrast with his twin's charmed life of effortless grace. "Please, do not confuse this diary with a memoir written for a therapeutic purpose, designed to exorcise my demons and provide a thrill for everyone who cares to watch them all take flight...." You don't have to be familiar with the literary theory of the unreliable narrator to detect a taste of self-serving defensiveness.
But no matter what the motivation, William's early life certainly is one defined by its missed marks. Almost fatally introverted, he cuts down on his opportunities to strike out with girls by asking his parents to send him to a boarding school he calls "The Boys' Prison." He adopts "a steady diet of beer and chicken wings" while his classmates wander "through the dirt and rubble smiling like idiots, name tags affixed to their 'Coed Naked Frisbee' T-shirts" (meanwhile his brother wows 'em at Harvard). From there it's a series of go-nowhere jobs, ending as William hooks up with a small-time religious cult, not out of any worshipful fever but for the convenience of letting someone else make all the decisions for him.
Of course, this is no real autobiography. Benjamin Anastas comes from that ever-acclaimed Iowa Writer's Workshop gang, and his elegant prose ripples with the mark of patient polishing with which any real William wouldn't bother, even when defending the nobility of the underachiever: "The underachiever's life is a lonely one, devoid of sustaining warmth, and fundamental intimacy; this statelessness, if you will, can be the source of boundless happiness, a kind of transcendental bliss known only to the deepest American thinkers (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Tony Robbins)...." CLARK HUMPHREY
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME
by Richard Bausch
Richard Bausch is a tradesman of short story fiction. Bausch lives in rural Virginia and in his fifth collection of stories, Someone to Watch Over Me, it is as though Bausch went to the barn out back and welded or nailed or plastered these stories into existence. It is as though the stories were measured for equal parts and made to code, the code one should use for fiction to be entitled short (not one story reaches beyond 30 pages, and almost all are just about 20). The book reads for balance, and this is delightful for the impatient reader. Although there is little about style in Bausch's fiction--the stories are told straight from the hip--the middle of each tale always starts the reader's heart palpitating and at the end one is indelibly thrilled. Lit with electrical, bitter conversation, every story seems to be "the voices from the other room."
The characters are not so crafty as their author. Their lives seem to be taking place underwater; they drown in bathwater, scrambling for the surface. In the story "Par," the narrator can't seem to ask the woman he loves to marry him; instead he lies about how talented he is at golf. In "Riches," the main character gets no happiness from his lottery winnings--he only ends up terrorized into buying new cars. In "Valor" a man is mistakenly hopeful that his marriage will repair once his wife sees the television bravery he needed for a school-bus accident. Wildly negligent parents, possible bravery, marital incompetence, and the arthritis that develops when you have too much money: these are all in the mind. And that is the moral to each tale. PAULA GILOVICH
CHARLES BUKOWSKI: LOCKED IN THE ARMS OF A CRAZY LIFE
by Howard Sounes
(Grove Press) $26
Raised as a German in America during World War II, with a father who beat him like a drum and a case of acne that would break your heart, Charles Bukowski needed the reinvention fiction provides: in his taut poems and sparse novels, Bukowski's acne scars become battle wounds, his alcoholism becomes social rebellion, his lonely life a heroic and menacing voyage through the American underbelly.
As Howard Sounes' new Bukowski biography demonstrates, recovering the reality behind the fiction has both rewards and drawbacks. The greatest advantage is that this book, unlike other literary biographies, can seamlessly include great heaping spoonfuls of actual Bukowski material into its chronology, because every character and event in Bukowski's life was recorded in his prose or poetry. Inclusions like "Love is Dog from Hell," a poem for the sex worker whom Bukowski loved desperately in early 1976, inject the wild beauty of Bukowski's writing into the otherwise journalistic style of the biography. Debunking the embellishments in Bukowski's writing is, however, a tedious job, and the eventual proof that Bukowski was less exciting in real life than in his fiction is not a big payoff. What saves the book is that Sounes manages to keep Bukowski's writing in the forefront, and for that reason, it's a smooth read and a valuable reference for anyone who has already read most of Bukowski's fiction. For the rest of us, though, it would be a more fitting homage to read Bukowski's own unflinching poems and novels, letting the ugly alcoholic with the beautiful phrasing continue to reinvent himself from beyond the grave. NATHAN THORNBURGH