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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

JULY 19, 1999: 

Essential Saltes: An Experiment by Don Webb (St. Martin's Press), $22.95 hard

Maybe Don Webb believes that good writing is a nonrenewable resource; the Austin writer seems to be conserving his considerable powers of invention and narrative for his next book, which is to say that they're not well exercised in Essential Saltes: An Experiment. His second surrealist mystery invokes and involves the world of pyrotechnics -- fireworks displays -- but it more closely resembles the Acme Skyrocket in a Roadrunner cartoon with a mile-long fuse that burns and burns before it sputters and dies. The rocket (and Saltes' story) never take off.

As with his last effort, The Double: An Investigation, Webb once again begins with an off-the-wall premise that has good potential. But he squanders the germ of the idea by not advancing the storyline and by failing to introduce interesting subplots. At times the quirky, noirish narrative hits the mark, and little gems of humor surface (a bumper sticker reads "Kill Your Inner Elvis"). But the storytelling is lackluster, like the voice of a close friend rambling over a cup of coffee.

In Essential Saltes, the cremains of Matthew Reynman's late and lamented wife Haidee (pronounced "Heidi") have been stolen from his mantelpiece. He appears to be torn between grief and ennui (muddy emotional waters, yes?) and sets about trying to find which of his several friends might have coveted his wife's ashes. Mostly, though, he delivers a series of maundering reminiscences, only occasionally interrupted when a clue thunks him over the head. Then it's back to more of the same. (Early warning sign the book is in trouble: juvenile masturbation reminiscence on page three.)

Eventually, through much semi-mystical investigation, Reynman and his pals uncover a makeshift laboratory in Amarillo, where they get to the heart of the experiment (of the subtitle) and the weirdos behind the theft of Haidee's ashes. With much ado, they tie together the remaining loose ends and arrive at the fairly bizarre plot twist that wraps things up.

Webb's sensibilities would fit nicely into the niche occupied by eccentro-fictionalists like fellow Austinite William Browning Spencer, among others. And, toward that end, he has little trouble concocting offbeat story ideas. Time will tell if he hones his ability to develop those ideas and better engage his readers over the course of a novel-length work. Essential Saltes could have been rescued by stronger characters or better pacing -- maybe a stronger editor's hand to bring the story alive. It offers up the occasional dose of salt, but falls well short of being essential. --Mike Shea



True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner), $26 hard

When you read Ernest Hemingway's fictional memoir True at First Light, you may feel not dismay that his heirs didn't respect his wishes and let this junky manuscript remain in the vault, not disgust at the greed of modern publishers, but simply an overwhelming sadness. This is a book about a prototypical Hemingway übermale, most unsubtly named "Papa," stalking the game in Africa and negotiating the demands of a couple of voracious women. The only thing this book succeeds at is documenting the decline of Hemingway's heroic image and his failure to live up to it or surpass it. It reeks of his suicide.

True at First Light is nothing but raw material, revealing Hemingway at his most inconsistent and self-aggrandizing. It meanders from theme to theme, inconsistently establishes its point of view, and provides no sequence or tension between the inner ruminations of the narrator and the central plot of the narrative. Worst of all, it gives the politically correct critics who have decried his sexism and imperialism plenty of ammunition. There are numerous passages that are unintentionally comical. For example, after Papa picks off a few marauding baboons, his African squeeze Debba asks to hold his rifle: "It was so cold," she says. "Now it is so hot." This could be an entry from that annual Bad Hemingway writing contest, but it is reminiscent of one very unnerving fact: Any writer, no matter how skilled, is the most capable candidate to parody him or herself.

There's been plenty of hue and cry over the appearance of this beleaguered text. Joan Didion has dutifully denounced all involved in The New Yorker and Tom Jenks has written an intelligent analysis of the book and its background for Harper's. Most agree that this book is not something Hemingway has done but rather something that has been done to him. Unbelievably, it has been suggested by the publisher that the embarrassing prose in this book is intentionally ironic. That's cruel. A postmodern Hemingway is not only unlikely but grotesque. However ridiculous that super-masculine myth may have been, it shaped Hemingway's life by its limited virtues and multiple drawbacks. When he could no longer mentally or physically live up to the image of the hard-drinking, hard-hunting, and hard-loving man he had created, he shot himself. Had he at all been able to ironically distance himself from this image, he might not have self-destructed.

But publications like this don't detract from what has already been achieved. For all the messy, indulgent, shallow slop larded throughout True at First Light, Hemingway left us twice as much brilliant writing. It's in those stories and novels that you find a true light. --Stacy Bush


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