Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Charles Webb, You're Trying to Seduce Me

Home School by Charles Webb

Before The Graduate made Dustin Hoffman a star and Mrs. Robinson a household name, it was the first novel of a recent Ivy League graduate named Charles Webb. Published in 1963 to lukewarm reviews (the Los Angeles Times described it as "repetitive, pointlessly detailed melodrama," while others called it "inept" and "ridiculous"), Webb sold the film rights rather quickly. Unfortunately, he received only a one-time payment of $20,000 -- while the film went on to gross over $100 million.

Since The Graduate, Webb's unusual biography has eclipsed his literary career, the latter being steady, if relatively uncelebrated. And when it came out that Webb would publish a book that clued readers in to what became of Benjamin and Elaine after they hopped the Santa Barbara bus, folks pricked up their ears. However, once they got past the initial novelty of the book's premise, the reviews have not been kind.

And I suppose this one won't be either. However, it's got nothing on David L. Ulin's recent LAT review, quite possibly the most decisive pan I've ever seen in the book pages of a periodical.

Home School suffers from a lack of focus, silly 70s caricatures, and an artless over-reliance on dialogue. Benjamin is an insufferable, priggish dilettante, Elaine is a passive-aggressive shrew, and their children are annoyingly precocious. The cloying, manipulative Mrs. Robinson is far and away the book's most likeable character.

However, it is not without its redeeming qualities.

In fact, once I resigned myself to these problems, and to the fact that I wished painful and sustained misfortune upon each of the book's characters, I actually began to enjoy it a bit.

When the book begins, Elaine and Benjamin have moved to the other side of the country to escape Mrs. Robinson, and are illegally home schooling their children. Benjamin wants them to grow up without being poisoned by the institutions that led to his post-graduate shiftlessness. But eventually, the school system catches up with the Braddocks, and forces the children back into public school. Apparently, this is ominous enough a threat for Benjamin to contact Mrs. Robinson and ask for her help. But once Nan, as she's now called, is in their house, the problem becomes how to get her to leave.

Conveniently, it was right around this point that I made my peace with Home School, because Webb ratchets up the conflict, old secrets come out, and things get truly nasty.

While I can't entirely recommend Home School, the moment I learned of its existence, I set about tracking down a copy. And for curious fans of The Graduate, it's certainly worth checking out.

Some books shouldn't have sequels, simply because they end precisely where they ought to. If an archivist turned up a copy of a lost Flannery O'Connor story detailing the further adventures of the Misfit, I know it would be awful, as sure as I know I'd be first in line to read it. We ought to let (un)happily ever after well enough alone, yet morbid curiosity will always keep us turning the pages on literary icons.


Anonymous said...

So for someone familiar with "The Graduate", if the character's names were changed in "Home School" would the reader have any clue that both books were using the same characters?

mary_m said...

Well, you'll recognize Mrs. Robinson for sure.

It's trickier with Benjamin and Elaine since in this book, they're home-owning, kid-raising residents of Westchester, NY. It's harder to see the original characters since the roles they're playing in Home School are so different.

Webb's characters in the two books are almost entirely defined and developed through dialogue, which is good and bad. On the one hand, you're not beholden to any concrete ideas about character traits and appearance; on the other, the characterizations never settle into real people - just a lot of disembodied chatter.