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Review: 'In Partial Disgrace' by Charles Newman

TriQuarterly still serves as his calling card. Seven years after his death and nearly four decades after he stepped down as editor, Charles Newman will always be best remembered as the dashing pipe-smoker who took Northwestern University's sleepy literary magazine and turned it into a supernova for the smart set.

By filling its pages with exciting new work by likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, William H. Gass, Thomas McGuane, John Barth, Susan Sontag, Robert Coover, Cynthia Ozick and John Ashbery, he transformed it from fodder for Ph.D. candidates and the not-easily-bored into a Third Coast literary beacon.


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However, like any calling card, TriQuarterly represents merely a fraction of Newman's story. And it's not even the best part.

The publication of "In Partial Disgrace," the fictional magnum opus Newman struggled to complete during his final years, provides a welcome opportunity to reacquaint with one of the brightest, quirkiest writers of the post-modern era — a man compared to Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger and William S. Burroughs.

Born in St. Louis in 1938, Newman arrived in Evanston as a kid, living in the shadows of a horseradish bottling plant. He attended North Shore Country Day School and went on to study at Yale and Oxford. He worked for Congressman Sidney Yates and spent time in the Air Force Reserve before signing on at Northwestern and TriQuarterly in 1964.

When his first novel, "New Axis" (set in a wealthy Chicago suburb), arrived in 1966, Time complained that Newman's "sentences are almost too elegant," but praised his "subtle and precise" satire. Three other novels followed, including 1984's "White Jazz," a prescient commentary on deadened American culture whose protagonist is plugged into computers all day and sex all night. Though Newman's reputation (and in-print status) has faded, he had one. He was a writers' writer, whose seemingly simple sentences were spring-loaded with images and ideas.

He left Northwestern in 1975 to run the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. And in 1985, he began a long tenure as an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Newman kept up his academic chops with "The Post-Modern Aura" (1985), a scathing critique of American literature and culture in an age of accelerated communications.

Between all those standard resume lines, however, Newman was anything but standard.

In the introduction to the new book, novelist Joshua Cohen suggests that Newman's time in academia was marked by excellence as well as "the dalliances with coeds, the boozing, the pills."

A lifelong alcoholic, Newman burned through five marriages. His outside interests were ... interesting. He became seriously pre-occupied with raising dogs in the Shenandoah Valley. And he took multiple, mysterious trips to Hungary, at a time — with the Iron Curtain fully unfurled — when it was hardly a tourist destination. Cohen speculates that if Newman was not a spy, he was certainly interviewed by the CIA.

If the task for any biographer of Newman would be daunting, it was no less so for his nephew Ben Ryder Howe, who charged himself with getting "In Partial Disgrace" ready for publication.

After hearing for decades about the big book Uncle Charlie was endlessly writing, Howe found it a month after the author's death in the New York apartment Newman used for writing and escape. The book was literally everywhere. In FedEx boxes, under tables, strewn on most surfaces. The sprawl didn't surprise. Newman often talked about his mega-project: a huge single work, comprised of three volumes, each of which would contain three books. They would be set in a fictional Hungary and cover the 20th century. Despite the massive canvas, the whimsical focus was to be one family led by a famous dog trainer, living on a remote, former royal property. Ancient history and forebears would be covered. Freud and Pavlov were set to play roles, with the action ranging from the '20s into World War II and onto the fall of Communism.

"In Partial Disgrace" is the distillation of some of those unfinished manuscript pages. Howe says he found this self-contained novel in the mass and moved some bits around to create a coherent flow. In his introduction, Cohen calls it "an overture — or just the blueprints for a theater."

Literary archaeology out of the way, "In Partial Disgrace" — for all of its madness, seams and uncomfortable gestation — is a remarkable document. Wholly successful, no. How could it be? Weird, yes. Compelling in its insular, unique universe? Very much so.

That universe is Cannonia, a thinly disguised Hungary — a hermit kingdom that is all borders, set in the dead middle of Europe. Its "history was one of continual collaboration with any government which had the temerity to announce itself."

Though his son, Iulus, narrates much of the story, the action centers on Felix, a master trainer of dogs. His renowned hounds roam the grounds, which are filled with imported evergreen flora and serve as a game sanctuary for a menagerie of "progressively miniaturized" exotic beasts. He is loved by a tough, practical wife, a descendant of the pagan, barbarian Astingi tribe (she might also be a goddess).

In this setting, the past and present commingle with crosscurrents of 20th century history, philosophy and psychology. One day Felix is visited by the Professor, a cigar-smoking doctor from the West, who bears a distinct resemblance to Sigmund Freud. With him is a severely disturbed patient: a dog.

Felix diagnoses the pooch as suffering from "vagueness of personality." He does his best to cure it and the others the Professor brings him on a regular basis. They suffer from newly modern maladies like "inappropriate response to the stress of everyday life." One poor beast "doesn't know his place. It's as if he has no place ... and is quite comfortable there."

Felix gets amazing results. His secrets: patience, discipline and a choke collar.

The difference in approaches — the Professor's emotional response vs. Felix's reliance on Pavlovian conditioned reflex — is examined many times over. The lessons in canine psychology (and their implications) are intriguing against a backdrop of war, changing leadership, servitude, modernization and alienation.

There is no conventional plotting in "In Partial Disgrace." Perhaps if Newman had lived long enough to finish writing the book, the events in the current version would impart greater import and connections to a grander theme. As it is, though, it offers much to be admired as a gorgeously written, funny, filigreed swatch.

The action is all in the words and the torrent of ideas and stories. Newman's set-up provides platforms for innumerable digressions on everything from Cannonian history and the Astingi religion ("the great appeal of paganism, after all, is that it was not necessary to be loyal to it"), to secrecy, loyalty, obedience, class, writing and dogs.

Especially dogs. A hunt by the edge of the forest and speculation on dogs' motivations to be domesticated are terrific set pieces to go along with teeming descriptions of all the fur underfoot (excited dogs perform a "claw flamenco" on the floor).

"In Partial Disgrace" eventually leaps forward and briefly follows Iulus as he emigrates to America, where he becomes a spy and then disappears. The copious papers he leaves behind bewilder his handlers, who order them studied. They know the documents must be important and might contain the truth.

Not a bad metaphor for "In Partial Disgrace."

John Barron is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Oak Park.

"In Partial Disgrace"

By Charles Newman, Dalkey Archive, 337 pages, $18

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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