I happened to read a brief reference to this novel in a New Yorker article a couple of weeks ago so I picked it up. I confess I don’t get the excellence of this book, which was nominated for the National Book Award back in 1972.
Dick Gibson is the radio name of a radio personality whose life we follow from the 1930’s into the late 60s or early 70s. Although we know a few of his other radio names we never learn his birth name. He starts out working on small radio stations in the mid west serving his self-termed apprenticeship. After serving a stint in the army during WWII he becomes a bigger name hosting a couple of late night talk shows; first a nightly panel and finally an all night call in show called Night Letters.
Dick Gibson is a funnel for story telling and personal histories. Through his listening to others’ stories we get a broad slice of Americana in the early and mid twentieth century. We read about a nurse he hooks up with on a bus and lives with at a nursing facility for a few months. He has a fantastical stint on an island during the war where the Dodo bird is featured. He develops (he thinks) an enemy in one of his panelists – Behr-Bleibtreau who may or may not follow him on the radio for years. We learn of Arnold, a memory expert whose career falters when he becomes far-sighted and can only memorize mountains and curves on the Grand Canyon.
Through it all he discovers that “Radio has badly prepared him for his new life. He had never suspected the enormous chasm between the world of radio with the sane, middle-class ways of its supposed audience and the genuine article.” (p 92)
I kept threatening to put it down and start something else but I found it just interesting enough to keep plugging through. There are enough clever events and people to keep it in my hands. He describes going to a town picnic with other members of the nursing facility: “I entered all the contests and potato-raced my heart out, finishing in the money. No mean feat, for a lot of these fellows had been born with only one leg and until you’ve potato-raced against a congenital one-legged man in a sack you haven’t potato-raced.” (P 69)
One of his callers has been abducted by aliens:
Herman Becendiest: “The Martians chose me. They come down to my field while I was plowin’ and taken me aboard. Then, whoosh, up we went to Saturn. I’d say it taken ’bout half an hour. We didn’t land. I ain’t claimin’ we ever landed. Not on Saturn proper we didn’t. But we set down on one of the rings. The blue one. Yes sir.
Dick Gibson: Then how do you know they were from Mars?
Herman Becendienst: Well, I seen their license plates.” (P 142)
This is fantastical satire; not realism. As I write the review I see it more clearly and with a more open mind then when I read it. It certainly received rave reviews when it was published. My reservations may very well stem from my expectations and frame of mind when reading (cooped up with a broken leg). As I read it I was rating from 1 to 3 stars; so take my 2 stars with a grain of salt and see if you might like it.