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Arne Axelson. Restrained Response: American Novels of the Cold War and Korea, 1945-1962. Westport: Greenwood, 1990. 221 pp. $39.95.
Robert Siegle. Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 412 pp. $42.50 cloth; pb. $14.95.

There is a war going on out there, both Arne Axelsson and Robert Siegle agree, and they warn readers that they had better be careful. But how different have the conflicts become in the years between the post-World War Two through Korea period that Axelsson describes and the entirely different battles alluded to in Siegle's title. The "suburban ambush" of Siegle's study is not only a post-Vietnam phenomenon but also one that eclipses warfare itself as a theme in favor of a more generally stylistic approach to a contemporary America that has not been involved in a Congressionally declared war since Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender. Appropriately, each author approaches his material with this distinction in mind.

Restrained Response sports its subject into three broad areas of coverage: the "postwar reorientation" from 1945 to 1953 that produced such works as Thomas Berger's Crazy in Berlin and Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees; narratives from the Korean conflict, not the least of which is Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H; and most informatively the "chilling prospects" entertained by such 1954-1962 novels as Burdick and Wheeler's Fail Safe, Gene Coon's The Short End, and even Max Shulman's Rally Round the Flag, Boys. With subchapter headings such as "soldier's return" (for The Manchurian Candidate) and "coping with peace" (for Frederick L. Keefe's The Investigating Officer), the bases for Axelsson's typologies are clear. Almost exclusively thematic, these interests nevertheless relate to how the novels are written and hint at their authors' larger aesthetics. Thomas Berger's exploitation of the "chaotic conditions of the immediate postwar period in occupied Europe" anticipates the literary potential of "confusion and ambivalence as a background for the initiation process," a practice Berger follows elsewhere to even better effect. Axelsson also appreciates how a military framework can often be nothing more than an excuse for writing about decidedly nonmilitary interests; Max Schulman's bestseller manages to spend as much time satirizing psychology, education, and TV as it does the Army. "The relationship between the military novels and the time of their writing and settings is thus a major reason why these works are worth our attention," Axelsson concludes, remarking that the new limits imposed by the nature of United Nations-style police action and the inhibiting [End Page 583] quality of terror within the Cold War framework teach both literary and sociological lessons.

How radically fiction has changed, however, is left to Robert Siegle's Suburban Ambush. Here his authors are the warriors themselves, and their targets are the easy readers of Rally Round the Flag, Boys. These readers live in the suburbs and accept as valid literary culture the midtown fiction produced by commercially correct writers. Midtown means not only best sellers but what Alan Wilde praises as "midfiction": moderately saleable but also easily teachable and comfortably moral literature nicely hygenicized for academia—a niche for which publishers have their own term, "midlist." Against this suburban mentality that would destroy the urban community by gentrifying it (having already proscribed genuine fiction by similar reading practices) stand the "downtown writers," a group that includes Kathy Acker, Constance DeJong, Lynne Tillman, Ron Kolm, Catherine Texier, and Theresa Cha. Several features set them apart from the current MFA-based school of pallid neorealism: a commitment to "the individual's struggle to achieve a unified and coherent identity amidst the stress of memory, desire, and understanding"; an almost sexual love of language and a reflexively functional belief that "the form of the traditional novel is a metaphor for a society that no longer exists"; a poststructural appreciation of how institutions and their histories are matters of power rather than of reality; an openness to play rather than mastery, within a formal practice that holds no exclusionary rules; and most important a privileging of feminist elements within...


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