A writer’s dream has come true for young first novelist Michael Thomas, whose large striking portrait adorns the front cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. Thomas’s Man Gone Down is about a penniless Boston writer trying to change his luck and hold his family together. It sounds like a moving story, but I’m confused by Kaiama L. Glover’s review, which is enthusiastic but hardly ecstatic about the book. The critic goes on at considerable length about the book’s theme of mixed-race identity, and the topic comes up again three pages later into this week’s issue, when the editor’s “Up Front” column rhapsodizes bizarrely about the mixed-race background of not Michael Thomas but critic Kaiama L. Glover, whose mother, we’re told, is of Bahamian, African-American and American Indian extraction, while her father is blond. I really wish the Book Review would spend more time reviewing people’s books instead of their ethnic backgrounds.
All the racial profiling seems to diminish Michael Thomas’s achievement in attaining an NYTBR cover review for his first novel. I’ll reserve judgment, of course, until I check out the book. But I don’t think a whole lot of Glover’s earnest review, which leans too heavily on bland literary-critic exhalations like:
He then uses these forays into the too-present past as springboards from which to investigate the fragmented histories of his abusive mother and perpetually absent father — so much “collateral damage of the heart.”
I hope the book is fresher than the review. I’ll let you know.
Editor-in-chief Sam Tanenhaus makes a rare appearance with a gushing endpaper on Saul Bellow, who is, in Tanenhaus’s estimation, so good as to be above criticism. This is not a bad concept for an article, but I wish Tanenhaus had gone out on more of a limb with his choice of subject. Saul Bellow … safe as milk. It’s okay to spend a page praising an overexposed Nobel Prize winner if you write a lot of articles, but Tanenhaus only pokes his head up to write an article here about once a year, like Pauxatawney Phil, and I’m sincerely disappointed that he doesn’t have anything fresher to tell us about than Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog.
Likewise with poetry critic David Orr, who hasn’t shown up here in months. He’s back, and who does he have to tell us about? Look, I love Robert Frost too. But it’s not even big news that Robert Frost is back in style — I thought that happened about ten years ago. Orr’s article is perceptive and well-written, but, once again, I wish for a more innovative choice of subject.
What with all the banal tributes and the affirmative action, this is one of my least favorite Book Reviews in recent memory. There’s some consolation: Ben MacIntyre writes vividly about Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, and Christopher de Bellaigue turns in an encouraging notice of a new novel about the Armenian genocide of 1915, Skylark Farm by Antonia Arslan. But Simon Blackburn’s summary of A. C. Grayling’s Descartes: the Life and Times of a Genius is superficial and unexceptional. Finally, William F. Buckley makes a sniffy appearance in the Letters section and thoroughly fails to land a blow on anybody. I really hope this publication can turn in a more exciting performance next week.