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Nashville Scene Dogfight

Two writers square off with remarkably similar novels

By Charles Wyrick

MAY 24, 1999:  As much as publishers would like us to think that authors speak about each other only through polite, complimentary blurbs, no one can exercise a grudge like a novelist or a poet. Forget all those book-jacket pleasantries, author feuds abound throughout American literature. In keeping with the idea that life is like high school, with all its petty squabbles, consider some of the following superlatives:

Most deeply rooted rivals: Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. These two have been going at it for years. A highlight of their long-standing disdain for each other can be found in Vidal's 1960 article, "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisement." Using popular culture as his dissecting board, Vidal eviscerates Mailer, calling his output unoriginal and trite. Memorable sneer: "Mailer is a Bolingbroke, a born usurper."

Most boisterous rivals: Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens. These two actually came to blows in Key West. Reportedly a tipsy Stevens called Papa a "sap." The rest is better left to a pugilist to describe.

And now, in the latest developing author feud, the most likely to become rivals: Paul Auster and John Berger.

Though neither Auster nor Berger has publicly attacked the other yet, the nearly simultaneous publication of their new books this spring lays the groundwork for a wonderfully exacting grudge. Somehow, they've both written novels based on the exact same premise: As odd as this may sound, Auster's Timbuktu and Berger's King are both narrated from a dog's point of view. To further cinch the knot, both dogs accompany a homeless character. The setup is just too close for comfort.

Neither man regularly tops bestseller lists, but both are well established in the publishing world. With several novels and a memoir to his credit, Auster is probably best known for his screenplay for the movie Smoke. Berger received the Booker Prize for his novel G. in 1972, and though he too has published several works of fiction and a screenplay, he is best known as a photography scholar and art critic.

And yet these men could not be more different. Auster lives in his native Brooklyn, while Berger resides in what his publicist describes as "a small rural community in France." In other words, it's the Gothamite versus the expatriate. So with such different worldviews, it is astounding that both of these artists have struck the same idea at the same time.

Even more astounding is that these seasoned writers thought this idea could work. Experimentation is as important to fiction as it is to a writing career; to keep moving ahead, an author has to try new ideas. But in these novels, the experiment is just too silly to take seriously. And yet the irony here is that other books have tackled a similar premise with much better results. Richard Adams' classic The Plague Dogs comes immediately to mind, as does Brad Watson's finely wrought short story collection Last Days of the Dog Men.

But it's another, much younger writer, Kirsten Bakis, who has set the standard for canine fiction. Published several years ago and still in print, Bakis' Lives of the Monster Dogs is a beguiling fantasy. Taking its cues from Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire, the hallucinatory story revolves around a young woman who befriends a miraculously super-evolved family of dogs whose more-human-than-human civility causes them to become the toast of uptown New York society. Lives of the Monster Dogs is whimsical and naive enough to work; it's a surrealist romance that succeeds as escapist fun because the author doesn't resort to heavy-handed pretension.

In contrast, Auster and Berger take their narrative affectations too seriously. Berger especially needs to lighten up. Take, for example, his furry narrator's thoughts about bedding down on dewy ground: "Here the first hopelessness begins when you cannot imagine anything ever being dry again. The first hopelessness is damp." The dog sounds like James Joyce. Given his subject, Berger's writing is simply too sonorous. Though his novel is replete with powerful images and superb constructions--his use of metonymy in particular is masterful--its hard to give all this glory to a dog.

Auster is equally guilty of these delusions of grandeur, albeit to a slightly lesser degree--he plays Mark Twain to Berger's Joyce. Timbuktu revels in madcap adventures and hilarious characterization, especially in the crafting of the narrator's homeless master, the insane yet benign Willy Christmas. But underneath the fun lies an allegorical tone. Auster's vehicle swerves toward social criticism at times, seeking to remind us of the moral depravities of urban life. Though he's never preachy, there's still a crusading element in this work, a hidden philanthropy that can feel a little forced coming from a canine.

Rivalries are strange, though if one develops between these two authors, it won't be surprising. There's a proprietary issue at hand here, given that these books literally are hitting shelves within a month of each other. My advice to Berger and Auster is to avoid hostilities and try to find something nice to say about each other. Otherwise, they might be hard pressed to find any writers who will.

Worth the wait

After great anticipation, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, a letdown usually comes. Nonetheless, two eagerly awaited poetry volumes by David St. John prove stellar exceptions to the rule. In the Pines: Lost Poems 1972-1997 (White Pine, $16) brings together 62 uncollected works by this contemporary master, whose kinship with European film directors like Godard has been remarked upon often. Indeed, riveting monologues like "The White Pony" render characters and settings with the surface immediacy and underlying mysteriousness of Godard's Breathless.

St. John's newest work is gathered in The Red Leaves of Night (Harpercollins, $23), which contains the stunning fantasia "Memphis." The poem's conflation of Southern and Egyptian mythology results in an Elvis even more compellingly weird, and stone American, than the original.

--Diann Blakely

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