Sunday, May 11, 2008

Love and Glory, by Robert B. Parker

It's my first 'summer of 08' read. It only took a few days to complete. It's an unassuming, tiny paperback containing 200 pages, slightly yellowed since the novel's 1983 publication (I bought a used copy for under a dollar). It doesn't even enjoy an entry on Wikipedia (perhaps I'll write one). The novel is Love and Glory, and on the cover, Publisher's Weekly offers its opinion of the book's contents: "A genuine, haunting love story." If I had any qualms about devoting a few hours to this book, they were erased upon reading that description.

I'm the most hopeless romantic you'll ever meet. Sadly, though, this book did not meet my expectations.

I'm reminded of the summer, several years ago, in which I read some of James Patterson's works. Patterson writes thrilling suspense stories and murder mysteries, though they're often too gruesome for me. I remember being physically revolted by Roses are Red, even though it provided an enjoyable read for the most part. However, Patterson strayed from his traditional suspense stories to write Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas, a touching, heartfelt love story that nearly brought me to tears. This story was so unlike his general canon, but Patterson succeeded with it through his artful mastery of portraying human emotion. I truly wish he'd published more such sentimental novels instead of the murder mysteries.

Anyway, Parker's Love and Glory is also a marked diversion from the author's main canon. Parker is most reputed for his "Spenser Novels," which are detective stories, and Love and Glory is supposed to be a heartfelt love story. I say "supposed" because I feel that Parker failed to accomplish the same feat that Patterson did; and I believe he failed, in large part, because of his over-reliance upon and flawed use of intertextuality.

I knew very little about the concept of intertextuality until this past semester, when we learned about it in my Literary Theory class. Intertextuality, briefly defined, is an author's use of prior texts to create meaning in his own, "new" text. It's when an author borrows themes, plot lines, even archetypic characters, from the immense canon of literature, and resituates them in a new arena.

That probably still sounds too abstract. And it never truly made sense to me until reading Love and Glory and being struck by its similarities to The Great Gatsby, which happens to be my favorite modernist novel; I've studied it in-depth for the past two semesters, and I've read it more times than I can count.

Love and Glory is a first person narrative, chronicling the youth and early manhood of Boone Adams, an English major at Colby University who slacks in his studies yet actually possesses a brilliant and creative mind. At the start of Freshman year, he falls in love with fellow-collegian Jennifer Grayle, and from that moment on, he was determined to make her love him too. Boone and Jennifer finally start to date during Sophomore Year, but Boone is kicked out of college because of his bad grades and prankster ways. Soon after, he's drafted into the Korean War and is forced to leave his comfortable lifestyle and the woman he loves. She promises that she'll love him while he's gone and wait for his return, but months later, she writes Boone a "Dear John" letter explaining that she's engaged to someone else. So begins Boone's quest to win her back and, in his words, make himself whole again.

Already, the similarities between this novel and Gatsby are striking. Gatsby loses Daisy to Tom Buchanan, a rich, socially elite, star football player who has the power and prestige that Gatsby had lacked. Boone loses Jennifer to John Merchent, a rich, socially elite, star basketball player, who has the power and prestige that Boone had lacked. Both Gatsby and Boone lose their women during the war. And both return from the war with a fierce determination to win their women back.

But the similarities don't end there. And I won't even try to extrapolate every single one. But here is a somewhat brief list:

1) Boone, as a character, is completely detached from his family. We never learn anything about his pre-Colby life, and he seems to be completely autonomous from his heritage. Likewise, Gatsby is a lone figure who creates his own identity (even changing his name) and is removed from all familial associations.

2) Both Boone and Gatsby have to hit rock bottom before rebuilding their lives and, in a sense, being reborn. Boone even credits Jennifer with his desire for "rebirth." Gatsby works on the river with Dan Cody, and Boone works as both a carpenter's assistant and a cook's assistant. In both of these jobs, Boone works with Dan Cody-like figures who are strong, manly, and benevolent. These apprentice type situations allow both Boone and Gatsby to "become men" and create new lives for themselves.

3) Gatsby, according to Nick Carraway's narrative, follows Daisy as if she were his "Grail." Boone is in love with Jennifer Grayle and follows her to achieve meaning in life. Enough said.

4) Daisy's marriage is less-than-perfect, and her relationship with her daughter seems artificial. Jennifer's marriage to John Merchent, as Boone eventually learns, is less-than-perfect, and her relationship with her own young daughter is troubled.

5) Daisy is characterized by her thrilling, almost musical voice, and her captivating conversation that nearly entrances the men upon whom she bestows her rapt attention. Jennifer is also characterized as possessing such communicative power, and Boone observes that when she listens to him speak, it's as if she truly cares about every word he has to say. He also suspects that other men feel the exact same way in her presence.

6) After the war, Boone goes west in search of himself (in fact, all the way to California), and after he "becomes a man," he goes East to rebuild his life. Likewise, both Nick Carraway and Gatsby go East to build new lives for themselves because the East seems to hold the promise of glittering dreams and financial fortune. And love.

7) Boone is consistently described by his clothes and his "oxford shirts." Gatsby is characterized by his meticulous wardrobe and his purported Oxford education.

8) Both books contain discussions of racial discrimination.

I could continue with this list, but hopefully the points already noted have made the intertextual elements clear. Perhaps most significantly of all, though, Boone cites The Great Gatsby within his narrative as the book that motivated him to get his life on track and win back Jennifer. He's inspired by Gatsby's rags-to-riches story, and he embarks on his own Horatio Alger-like quest to become a self-made man.

That's where my criticism comes in.

Citing Fitzgerald and his masterpiece within the novel is a huge mistake. By doing this, Parker not only makes it completely obvious who he's imitating, but he also creates a new set of expectations for the reader. Employing intertextual elements, in my opinion, can only be fruitful in two instances. First, the author must employ them so deftly and seamlessly that we are consciously unaware of their presence; we simply fall in love with a story because its archetypal themes ring true on a deeper level without marked identification of their existence. Alternately, the author must employ them so overtly and overwhelmingly that we are consciously aware of their presence but also intrigued and engaged as a result; we fall in love with a story because it follows a familiar pattern, it satisfies some emotional need, or it resituates a "timeless" tale within a modern context.

Parker does neither.

Sure, he over-infuses his text with Gatsby overtones, but by mentioning the classic within the narrative, Parker shows his cards where he shouldn't have. The conclusion of Love and Glory is notably different from Gatsby; I won't describe further, of course, but the result seems unnatural, disappointing, and anti-climactic. Parker echoes Fitzgerald for nearly 200 pages but then at the end, he sharply deviates and creates a new theme that is disparate, surprising, and unsatisfying (even though it is superfically "romantic").

Further, the characters never truly come to life for me. I suppose I felt some sympathy for Boone, but there was just something missing. A true love story must contain that certain sparkle, that indescribable, fantastical magic that makes the reader wistful, yearning, nostalgic, hopeful, and at peace. Some lines from the novel were poignant, but most of the supposed romantic scenes felt emotionally vapid.

I wouldn't recommend this book to those who are looking for a worthwhile love story. However, I do recommend it to those who have read and enjoyed The Great Gatsby because the two novels' connectedness is worth exploring. I'd like very much to hear others' opinions. It's a short and easy read, so give it a shot.

Meanwhile, I look forward to starting a new novel tomorrow.


Lark said...

Well said.

mnemonic said...

Perhaps the difference between Fitzgerald and Parker on this point lies in Parker's having redeemed himself while Fitzgerald failed to? Happy endings matter less than tragedies because tragedies teach more about the wrong moves?