Review of Wayfaring At Waverly In Silver Lake, by James McCourt
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/29/09
James McCourt is one of those writers who seems to have gotten in print via connections, and the fact that he is a ‘gay writer’. I say this because it is the only discernible reason available given his actual writing ability. That said, I had to Google him to find out that he is a ‘gay writer’, for, thankfully, although he has many ills as a writer, a predilection for masturbation, fellatio, and 69ing, does not infect every tale in this book, as it too often does the work of gay writers like David Leavitt. Yet, he is not a good writer, but a bad one, regardless of his sexual predilection. Is he the worst writer who’s ever been published? Certainly not, and with bottom feeders like a Nikki Giovanni, Dave Eggers, and a host of other Chick Literatistas around, he’s probably not even near the Bottom 100.
However, that doesn’t mean that his bad writing should have found print. Wayfaring At Waverly In Silver Lake is a short story collection, inexplicably published in 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf- a publisher that used to put into print really good literature but has, as all presses, big and small, seem to have, given in to cranking out crap for its Lowest Common Denominator bottom line. The book is built around the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. Certainly this is not a bad premise for a book, as many short story collections these days are centered around themes or places. The problem lies in the execution, and the fact that the stories are not really about sin. Worse, the claimed leading sins of each tale are not necessarily the ones that take center stage in each tale- for example, the tale on Gluttony has more fornication than the tale on Lust. Whether this was poor designation or McCourt’s way of trying to intimate that all sin is the same I do not know. What I do know is that it does not work, nor does any single tale rise to a level of being deserving of print.
The book also has a central character who appears in all the stories, lending the collection an almost novel in short stories cycle feel….almost. That character is Kate Wayfaring (born Diana Kaye Wayfaring in Clayton, Goergia), an aging movie star, and, from what I’ve read of other mentions of McCourt’s work, a recurring character in those tales, as well as an earlier book of tales devoted to her. She lives in Los Angeles’s posh Silver Lake neighborhood- hence the title of the book, like some aged diva of the Golden era of Hollywood, her home a cross between Pickfair and San Simeon. You’ve probably already guessed by now, that as a character she is something approaching what Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became in the Grande Dame Guignol films of the 1960s, such as What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and the 1970s camp classic, Mommie Dearest. If that had been so the tales might have been engaging. Instead, I was put more in mind of a good 2003 filmic spoof of that genre called Die Mommie Die! But, what works as spoof, satire, and parody in the same medium loses something- in fact, alot, transposed across media, and in the hands of a lesser artist like McCourt. Wayfaring, the character, is simply a boor and a cipher. She’s almost like Susan Lucci’s vapid and selfish Erica Kane character on the soap opera All My Children, save she’s even more annoying.
The general thrust of the overall book is this: Wayfaring’s film career is long over, but she still is a cultural icon who somehow pops up in the art of younger folks, like the music videos of musicians and in film references. The seven tales ostensibly play off the Seven Sins theme and end in epiphanies. Except, to call their bland revelations ‘epiphanies’ is to disservice the word. McCourt has a tin ear for dialogue.
In the titular story, set in the present, dealing with Pride, Wayfaring watches a neighbor’s house being torn down and recalls an Academy Award bid, for her film Avenged, which may have been her best role, and how her career was never the same afterwards. In Tir na nOg, we go through a flashback sequence, and all the following tales lead us back to the present of the first story. This tale deals with Covetousness, as Wayfaring pigs out on chocolates, and burns with anger over the better careers of other female stars, including a certain blonde bombshell from the 1950s who was both a childhood friend and bane. Principal Photography, about Lust, finds the aged star desiring her screenmate in a new film. In Ensenada, which deals with Anger, our heroine goes to a costume party in an Irish war goddess costume, replete with three heads. She rages at a woman in a Marilyn Monroe mask, attacks her, and throws the mask into a fireplace. New York Lit Up That Way At Night deals with Envy, and finds Wayfaring on a cross-country airplane, speaking on the lead sin with her entourage. A Plethora is, naturally, Gluttony, and deals with Kaye’s son Tristan, a twin- whose sister’s name is Maev, coming out of the closet as gay, and his wacky adventures: including a cross-country bus trip, being sodomized by a biker named El Matador his first time having sex, being shot up with heroin, and being rescued by beach bums near the point of death. Thankfully, it’s the only remotely ‘queer’ tale in the bunch, and even at that it’s rather tame. Driven Woman, on Sloth, finds Wayfaring back in the present, where the first tale left off, as Oscar night approaches, with our heroine hoping she’ll win an Oscar.
Yet, in none of the tales is a reader ever confronted with a true emotional nor insightful moment that Wayfaring suffers, to flesh her out from mere fictive device to ‘real character’, thus there is a hermeticism to all the tales. Even worse, McCourt’s prose is simply not engaging, even down to the construction of his dull and trite sentences. Part of the problem, however, is that when he has characters referring to events in the past, those events are almost never made to play a part in the actual tale at hand. Whether the events spoken of were part of the earlier Wayfaring tales or McCourt’s 1975 debut novel about Wayfaring’s mother in law, called Mawrdew Czgowchwz, is unknown to me, and that should be irrelevant- if McCourt was concerned about not having tales with gaping plot holes. But, he seems to feel that the reader of these tales must surely know of the earlier events. Bad move, and a display of McCourt’s own personal arrogance and lack of respect for potential new readers to his oeuvre. Another flaw is the poor dialogue, again like something out of a broad parody, yet meant to be taken seriously, as if some serious comment on the vapidity of Hollywood’s hero’s private lives. And when he starts his characters gabbing, well, they just won’t stop. Most ostensible ‘events’ occur offstage, and are merely discussed after the fact, in his unending parade of gossip. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you can write conversation like Raymond Carver at his best. McCourt is no Carver. Instead, he comes off as an Oscar Wilde wannabe- say, eight to ninth rate, and lacking the vibrancy and wit needed to sustain any reader interest.
Here, from Wayfaring At Waverly In Silver Lake, is a typical McCourt attempt at humor and snippy insight:
‘Faulkner,’ the publicist offered, ‘says a character in a book must be consistent in all things, while actual man is consistent in one thing only: he is consistently vain. His vanity alone keeps his particles damp and adhering to one another, instead of like any other handful of dust which any wind that passes can disseminate.’
‘Faulkner gave the industry much more trouble than he was worth. Well, in all events, whatever vanity is, you can’t chastise it anymore; people are proud of it.’
You are correct that such a monologue can only be remotely considered funny or entertaining if the speaker is imagined having a gay lisp. The problem for McCourt is he recapitulates his character’s very own advice. Wayfaring At Waverly In Silver Lake. His vanity is all that is on display in these often self-consciously ‘precious’ stories, not his characters’, and thus, his book is doomed to indifference once younger writers, who fill whatever odd publishing niche McCourt is deemed to serve, come along. Irrelevance, and moldering on used bookstore shelves, or competing for space on discount overstock booksellers’ tables (where I found my copy), avoiding the dreaded pulping it so richly deserves, is what I descry, like one of the Hollywood stargazers a Kaye Wayfaring might employ. My mantra: grind, baby, grind!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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