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Friday, August 10, 2007

Elmore on “Willy Remembers”

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This is Elmore’s introduction to the paperback edition of Willy Remembers by Irvin Faust that was published by Arbor House in 1983.  (The hardcover edition was published in 1971.)

Elmore really digs what Faust was doing in Willy and the result is a very strong endorsement in the introduction.

Introduction to Willy Remembers

Irvin Faust watched a Memorial Day parade pass down Riverside Drive, the two remaining survivors of the Spanish-American War along for the ride, and Willy Kleinhans came to life at age ninety-three.

Willy reminisces, offers tangy slices of New York City life as he lived it from the turn of the century into modern times. He tells about his dairy business, his honey-moon (You would think I was a raping dago.”); describes deeply moving episodes in his relationships to his “tads,” his sons Henry and Frank Joseph; and gives a soldier boy’s eye-witness account, by jingo, of that Splendid Little War in Cuba, back in ‘98, when Willy and his hunkies marched into battle “to save the Rough Riders’ ass.”

 

 

Introduction to Willy Remembers


Irvin Faust watched a Memorial Day parade pass down Riverside Drive, the two remaining survivors of the Spanish-American War along for the ride, and Willy Kleinhans came to life at age ninety-three.

Willy reminisces, offers tangy slices of New York City life as he lived it from the turn of the century into modern times. He tells about his dairy business, his honey-moon (You would think I was a raping dago.”); describes deeply moving episodes in his relationships to his “tads,” his sons Henry and Frank Joseph; and gives a soldier boy’s eye-witness account, by jingo, of that Splendid Little War in Cuba, back in ‘98, when Willy and his hunkies marched into battle “to save the Rough Riders’ ass.”

You’ll begin to get the idea this isn’t another wistful look at the good old days. Not the way Willy relates it. There’s no one in American literature quite like Willy T. Kleinhans. And there is more sustained energy in the telling of what he remembers than in any novel I’ve ever read.

Willy Remembers takes off within the first two sentences, climbs, swoops, glides, does loops-all effortlessly-and doesn’t touch down again until he’s told us how things were. Really were.

It’s beautiful. More than that, Saturday Review describes it as ‘a great, big, beautiful hunk of Americana, “The New York Times calls it “a Book of Wonders.”

It’s so good I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right here and turned to the first page, because all I’m going to do is tell you why I think it’s great.

What’s more amazing, the energy is pure.

It doesn’t come out of flashy special effects, distracting imagery, a razzle-dazzle show-off style of writing. The energy is pure and it’s sustained because Irvin Faust is not only a talented writer he’s dead-honest.

He creates a fully-related fictional character with a sound all his own. Not that lovable old kook with a twinkle in his eye-the guy you expect in granddad reminiscences-but an opinionated, biased old son of a bitch who, all the same, is a live wire and lots of fun. Irvin Faust sets Willy up as the narrator, and from this point on the author vanishes. The story is in Willy’s hands entirely. He can sound dumb, bigoted, cornball-Faust refuses to pull strings, save Willy from himself, or even to explain, at times, what the hell Willy’s talking about. An observation was made in Contemporary Novelists that “Faust does not always guide the reader adequately along these high-speed, involuted memory trips.”

Of course he doesn’t. Irvin Faust isn’t teaching, his character is telling a story and he’s in character all the way. If the reader doesn’t understand some of Willy’s spitball references to history, headlines, hit songs, slogans of the day, and cares to learn, he can look them up- Willy waits for no man, whips along and in his fogbound memory has Oswald shooting almost every American president who was ever assassinated; marries off Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, not the restaurateur, to Lana Turner. Willy will never forget December 7, 1941, as the day his secretary had an abortion.

Contemporary Novelists concedes that: “The novel does display, nevertheless, a marked advance in control of point of view and the blend of fantasy and realism.”

You bet it does, Because Faust knows how to write and doesn’t know how to cheat, He’s put Willy in charge, and Willy is hardly the type of individual who’d allow anyone else a point of view.  He’s bigoted, he’s a ham, but he always levels with you and that’s why you have to like him. Willy never pretends to be anything but what he is.

Critics are high on Willy, most of them full of enthusiasm and with an understanding of the author’s purpose,

“Bless any man who also remembers Henry Armetta’s shoulders, ‘I’sa Muggin,’ and Kayo’s sleeping in a drawer. As Willy says, ‘Truth is no stranger to fiction.’” This, for example, from the Chicago Book World. And: “A superb novel…Faust’s hero, Willy, is in the rich tradition of the great first-person narrators of English fiction,” says the Library Journal. ‘‘This is comical stuff…passages of sustained sprightliness …[Mr. Faust] writes with almost undue ease and dash,” from The New Yorker. “Stuff like this goes snap, crackle and pop on nearly every page. The real guts, gossamer and charm, however emerges from the longer rhythms and the whole design,” says the New York Times.


A review in Best Sellers shrugged:  “It isn’t Willy that remembers but its creator writing out of yellowed newspaper files…”  without bothering to find out that almost this entire collage of Americana came from the author’s memory—imagining how it would from Willy’s, with the same close to stream of consciousness delivery-and was not painstakingly researched.

And of course there are one or two reviewers who didn’t get it, had no idea what Irvin Faust was up to, but reviewed the book anyway. God protect us from lazy critics and the ones who tend to be literal-minded. Cast them out along with reviewers who tell too much, giving away the plot, and those who like to put writers in “schools”.

How can you keep a straight face when you come to a line that says: Cleveland was a hopscotch president, in, out, in They named a city after him. Grover, California.’‘

Irvin Faust was born in New York City on June 11, 1924, was educated at City College of New York and Columbia University. He holds a doctorate in education and is, at present, Director of Guidance arid Counseling at a New York high school. Since 1965 Irvin Faust has published seven volumes of fiction, including Roar Lion Roar, called one of the best short-story collections of the 1960s by the The New York Times, and The Steagle, 1966, which may indeed be the most perceptive and sustained portrait of a psychotic breakdown in all novelistic literature, “according to Richard Kostelanetz in Tri-Quarterly.

Enough. A treat awaits you.

Elmore Leonard

 

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