Friday, May 19, 2006

Hello Dumbness, My Old Friend

I know it isn't time for my next scheduled post yet. But this story is just TOO good to pass up.

One of my all-time favorite books is The Graduate by Charles Webb. Yeah, the 1967 Dustin Hoffman movie of the same name was based on it. The movie was good, but the book was better. The story of young Benjamin Braddock, his summer fling with the sultry Mrs. Robinson and his subsequent romance with Mrs. Robinson's beautiful daughter, Elaine, is told over the course of less than 200 pages, and 90% of those pages are pure dialogue. Some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue, in fact, that you'll find in any 20th Century American novel. So much so, that the movie's screenwriters pasted much of said dialogue into their screenplay verbatim.

I enjoyed The Graduate enough to seek out a couple of Webb's other books. Love, Roger was okay; it's kind of like 'The Return of Ben Braddock'. I have but have never read The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker. Mean to, though. I like Webb's fiction because his protagonists are guys who are polar opposites of myself: horny, obsessed with beautiful women and often frustrated in their pursuit of those women, who are clearly their intellectual superiors. What dweebs!

The fact that Charles Webb's name was habitually omitted from lists of the sharpest writers of his era always puzzled me. I mean, Hollywood cared enough to film both The Graduate and The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970; film 1971). His most recent novel, New Cardiff (2002), was adapted into the film "Hope Springs" (2003), which starred Colin Firth and Minnie Driver. Why wasn't this author of such witty, literate dialogue raking in mad president$ writing screenplays? Why aren't grad students mining his books for thesis paper material? Why isn't Charlie Rose smooching up to him on PBS? I didn't understand it.

Then I came across an item online recently. Rather than water it all down here, you can read it for yourselves:,,2-2138646.html Another, earlier interview with Webb and Fred fills in some more blanks:

I was feeling sorry for this guy. As broke as I am, I was ready to send him a couple bucks in care of his most recent publisher. But the more I found out about him, the less sorry I felt.

If you're a bookworm like me, you've probably heard many stories about writers who toiled away in obscurity, for next to no money, only to be 'rediscovered' and revered. . .long after they died. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick (Minority Report, among others) and mystery novelist Jim Thompson (The Grifters, among others) are just two examples of this post-mortem literary phenomenon. Better late than never, sure. But the praise and the cash that are rolling in now ain't doing them any good.

But this wasn't Charles Webb's fate. He's had the opportunity to see his books (well, The Graduate, at least) achieve popular success. If his later titles weren't bestsellers, they were at least respectfully reviewed. If he isn't a critical darling, he has managed something of an 'underground' reputation as a fine writer. At last, it's not that Webb didn't have opportunities. He just didn't take them.

All right, there is another side you could argue. Of course, Webb's life is his to use as he pleases. Maybe he simply likes the type of life he's made for himself. On this level, at least, he can be admired for marching to the beat of his own drum. And under no circumstances would I ever try to kick a guy when he's down. His wife's illness is one reason he's down and I tip my hat to Webb for sticking by her through it all. Unlike many people in our 'victimist' society, Webb is blaming no one for his circumstances, other than himself.

But then there's that other nagging point: it doesn't have to be this way. You wonder why, at some juncture in time, Webb didn't pause and say to himself: "Charlie, you're a college-educated man and a skilled writer of some reknown. There's probably a magazine which would pay you well to grace its masthead with your name. You don't HAVE to be living in a nudist colony and working as a grocery shelf-stocker, you know." But evidently, Webb doesn't talk to himself.

Maybe too much time has passed between now and the halcyon years of the 1960's. Back then, perhaps Webb would've been applauded for selling the copyright of The Graduate to charity, for giving away his house in Massachussetts. Perhaps he's right; we possibly have become too materialistic. However, in addition to pondering that idea, chew also on the words of former ├╝ber-hippie Mia Farrow, interviewed in the June 2006 issue of Esquire: "After the Maharishi, I started hitchhiking across India. I withdrew everything from my bank and just gave it all away. And then I thought, Well, how useless is this, 'cause now I'm poor, too. So I went back to work." I couldn't put it any clearer than that.

Charles Webb is a gifted writer. But he's also a blue-ribbon putz. I hope, at the ripe old age of 66, he learns what another 1960's celebrity, Jim Morrison, had figured out by age 27: "money does beat soul everytime."


Blogger Lori said...

Better late than never is true....only to the one saying it...LOL

Have a great day!!!

10:04 PM  
Anonymous sandeep said...

Right said Lori.
James you are always rocking..
Did I said James. Errr ?
Sorry John Its me!

11:49 PM  

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