"You don't have a lot of subtlety," says Alice to Walter. "This did not sound good," thinks 19-year-old Walter. "Subtlety was a good thing to have." It is a good thing, and it's not only lacking in poor Walter, but in the sorry novel he lumbers through, too. Richard Bausch's latest just doesn't click. The prose is too milkfed, for starters: "Her name was Natalie, and the sight of her took his breath away." And the plot is mini-series-esque. In the course of three weeks in 1964, young Walter meets mobsters, black civil rights fighters, white rioters and a drunk White House insider who just happens to choose Walter to tell about JFK's liaisons. Better yet, heartthrob Natalie turns out to have actually slept with He of the Bad Back. "I was one of the girls he had," she cries to ol' Walt. "Now do you see?"
Oh my. Throughout, events chime by with a wearisome, Forrest Gumpian meaningfulness; Walter's priest gets transferred "to this Vietnam place. . . A city called Saigon." His fiancee Alice says, uncannily, "I don't think Madison Avenue ought to be deciding presidential elections. . . If it keeps up, we'll end up with an actor. . . in the White House." The reader is supposed to feel a frisson, but the references are so forcibly entre-nous, they annoy more than hit home.
We get a Cuban Missile Crisis set piece, even a nod to the McCarthy era (Walters' Dad flirted with blacklisting). To be fair, there's a lunchroom sit-in scene that's not half bad -- Bausch writes well about the awkwardness of a white boy faced with black concerns. And some of his time capsule attempts, when he sticks to the details, work nicely. The air still smells of coal, Andy Williams plays on the hi-fi, "and there was the little mechanical sound of the player arm automatically lifting and returning to its cradle."
Certainly, Bausch gave Walter promising attributes for a novel's hero; he's a Kennedy wannabe Catholic kid, he tortures himself about mortal sins, he farcically gets engaged to two girls, and he attends a second-rate school of broadcasting (hence the Walter Winchell-ish title). Comic possibilities all, but the boy's so bland, he makes Zelig look positively deep. "It's like I'm all air inside," says Walter. Then why, Mr. Bausch, write a book about him?