- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

MR. GOLIGHTLY’S HOLIDAY

By Salley Vickers

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 356 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Remembering my admiration for Salley Vickers’ impressive debut novel, “Miss Garnet’s Angel,” I kept thinking as I read her latest effort, “Mr. Golightly’s Holiday,” of that old expression “one swallow does not make a summer.”

When a critic encounters a really good first novel, it is hard to stop oneself from thinking that this really does portend a promising career. And when you find a book as crystalline as “Miss Garnet’s Angel” showing such authorial control and artistry, you are surely justified in great expectations.

When Mrs. Vickers published her second novel “Instances of the Number 3” two years ago, my faith began to be shaken: The discipline and sure touch of the previous book had given way to cutesy self-indulgence.

But if Mrs. Vickers went off the rails in that book, I am afraid that now she has landed squarely in a novelistic wasteland, for if you might have charitably assumed that she had made a misstep in 2002, it is clear that this time she has deliberately — perhaps even defiantly, if we are to believe the afterword which she has (unwisely) appended to her novel — chosen to fling critical judgment and artistic discipline to the winds.

Invoking for no apparent purpose, save perhaps to impress the reader, the name of the great critic Northrop Frye, on the subject of comedy which is apparently her chosen genre, she proceeds to give the novel’s etiology:

“For while art can never replicate life itself,” she informs us, “it does affect and influence it. It is arguable, therefore, that there is a responsibility at least not to overlook the comic as a component of the real.

“In its small way, ‘Mr Golightly’s Holiday’ is an example of this outlook, not just in its subject matter and conclusion but in its inception. It arose out of a period of turmoil in my life. I was, in fact, writing a different novel when events cut the threads of my concentration, so that book was set aside in the distractions of the personal drama I found myself acting in.

“At the lowest point, when things stood around my bed in the small hours looking worse and worse, and I thought I may never write again, the idea of ‘Mr Golightly’s Holiday’ stole upon me and I am convinced it was the wreck of my former plans which allowed its admission.”

It is unfortunate that Mrs. Vickers’ life was apparently in turmoil and even more unfortunate that she chose this particular form of self-therapy to deal with it, for “Mr. Golightly’s Holiday” is one of the most disappointing — and downright unpleasant — books I have recently encountered.

The innocent reader who has neglected Mrs. Vickers’ declarations or the hints dropped in some of the book’s publicity might conclude that this novel is a simple comedy of manners set in that well-trodden fictional milieu, the English village.

Indeed, take away the “theological” construct of the book and you are left with a singularly uninteresting social comedy full of stereotyped characters, stagy situations, and easy targets, far inferior to, say, Agatha Christie’s portraits of village life.

“Mr. Golightly’s Holiday” is the kind of book that cannot mention dialing up to the Internet or using a kitchen appliance without betraying a bemused air of wonderment at these amazing facets of modern-day existence. After a few dozen of these, you find yourself imploring the writer to give it (or you) a break.

Viewing the modern world as a mysterious foreign land is a tired device at best, and there is a particularly British provincialism in the way Mrs. Vickers does this that just doesn’t successfully make it across the old herring pond to these shores, unlike the writings of Mrs. Christie and so many others.

But of course Mrs. Vickers is intent on not giving you a break; and it all gets worse when you face the unavoidable fact that Mr. Golightly is none other than God and that the “work of dramatic fiction that grew to be an astonishing international bestseller” which he is updating (after concluding that it resembles nothing so much as a soap opera) is the Bible.

He is mourning the death of his beloved son (a carpenter dies in this book too — get it?), and when a betrayer receives 30 pounds (instead of 30 pieces of silver — subtle, huh?) and hangs himself on a tree, you know that author and reader alike are in a lot of trouble here.

And it goes on and on, coy and cutesy, his helper is called — what else? — Martha and his (arch?) assistants — Michael and Gabriel.

You don’t have to be an orthodox Jew or a devout Christian (or Muslim) to find all this at least close to blasphemy; perhaps you don’t even have to be a believer in a supreme deity to find this book offensive.

On purely aesthetic grounds, it is an outrage: strained, obvious, insufferably pleased with itself, and strikingly unoriginal. Mr. Golightly himself must be one of the most insipid protagonists in contemporary fiction; certainly it is impossible to imagine him creating the universe or writing anything approaching the Bible.

It is a measure of how much religious people have felt excluded from the world of contemporary literature that they seem to welcome almost any attention to faith, whether in books or on stage and screen, but if this is how you are going to treat it, it would be better off ignored.

Consider this colloquy between Mr. Golightly and his “rival,” a.k.a. the devil, a.k.a. Satan:

“’… .[Y]ou had me test your servant to prove his mettle. Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? You yourself asked your servant Job. You might say it was I who did and all he suffered made a man of him … You may call it distortion if you like, I would call it development; you say tomayto, I say tomarto.’

‘So, “let’s call the whole thing off,”’ said Mr Golightly impatiently.

He was no metaphysician.”

But perhaps Mrs. Vickers’ greatest sin — if one may use the word here — is her trivialization of great issues, as we have just seen in this dialogue.

Her plot, too, is trivial, considering the minor mischief caused by the holiday of her eponymous protagonist: The vacations he must have taken during both world wars of the 20th century with their slaughter and genocide seem to be beyond the scope of this narrow little book.

She ends the novel with characteristic coyness as Mr. Golightly returns to his rightful realm: “Later that evening, Tessa Pope claimed to have seen two angels — each with six wings — conducting a fiery car across the sky over High Tor. But no one believed her.”

Neither does this reader.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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