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The life and times of Little Richard.

Doris Lessing's recently publicized scam, which exposed the tribulations a famous writer faces when she publishes second-rate work under a pseudonym, is small potatoes compared with the hoax, now come to light, perpetrated by Vladimir Nabokov. The books from his so-called "invisible serenaders" trilogy, an evisceration of American pop, its creators and exegetes, begun shortly before his death in 1977 and completed by an unidentified collaborator, are available at last--each from a separate publisher, each bearing a different signature. This flawed but devastating trio of true-lfe novels goes beyond parody to plumb Nabokov's preoccupations with language and double or mirrored images. Its success can be measured in part by the number of reviewers who have already credited authorship to the real-life counterparts of "Connie Francis," "Charles White" and (obvious nom de plume) "John Rockwell"--all of whom, desiring to avow pop, have kept mum. Anyone familiar with Nabokov's linguistic mastery, however, cannot fail to detect his ventriloquial genius.

Here, at last, is a remembrance of heartaches and high jinks past that, while employing Nabokovian tactics we've come to know well, embraces the American esthetic head-on. The trilogy traces an arc of intercession between artist and critic, and begins with Francis detailing, Humbert-like, her heroic struggle to remain rich and humble in New Jersey; it continues with Richard's jeremiads, amplified by the critic Charles White (the name a possible reference to Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann in Lolita, who also combines white and black); and grinds to a thudding halt in the hierophantic commentary of Rockwell, the critic unbound. Typically, the characters are viewed through the jaded eyes of Old World expatriates: Connie Francis is really Concetta Franconero, Newark-born but obsessed with her Italian heritage; Little Richard's spokesman is Irish, though a biographical blurb remarks on his "resemblance to a staid British doctor"--possibly Melanie Weiss (again, note the wordplay), also of Lolita; and Rockwell, though identified as a native of San Francisco, is clearly the latest disguise (he is described as having a "Ph.D. in cultural history" and the prose style is unmistakable) of Pale Fire's Charles Kinbote.

The Master's plan is evident from the first page of Who's Sorry Now?, a half-page encomium from Dick Clark: "I don't have a lot of personal friends. . . . Connie Francis is one of them." Little Richard's story is similarly prefaced by Paul McCartney: "He's a great guy and he's my friend today." The scrupulous attention to parallels and solecisms, and the theme of friendship and fanship, are sustained throughout, rising to a wicked crescendo in Sinatra, where Rockwell offers up virtuoso justifications of his idol's barbarisms. For ecample, when Sinatra insults female reporters ("You're nothing but a two-dollar cunt"), Rockwell hints that some cynicism about the singer's character "may seem warranted" but goes on to applaud the resultant "publicity mileage." When Sinatra opens a casino in South Africa and campaigns for Reagan, Rockwell castigates his "ideological opponents" (this is pure Kinbote) for not considering his "plausible reasons for supporting Reagan" and his "benefit to support the search for the mass killer of black children in Atlanta only a few months before his South Africa engagement." Much textual evidence suggests that Rockwell is meant to be a rock-generation Sinatra doppelganger, as when he himself characterizes some of Sinatra's women as "a procession of dizzy blondes" or describes "film gangsters" as "models of macho bravado, antedating the rock & roll rebel." When he labels those who disagree with his confused assessment of Trilogy as Sinatra's "enemies," the implication is clear--they are Rockwell's enemies, too.

If the Connie Francis volume is by far the most successful of the three, one reason is its lack of critical obfuscation. The protagonist's diction is absolutely convincing in its rendition of the vernacular, yet it glitters with eloquence. Note the rhythmic triphammer repetition of the word "Jewish" in this typically incisive passage:

When I was born, we were living on St. Mark's and Utica Avenues in Brooklyn, and Daddy was working for a Jewish man, a plumber. One day the Jewish man said, "We've gotta find a job." (It seems there was a wartime shortage of the materials needed to furnish homes. He was out of business and they were out of work.) But the Jewish plumber reassured Daddy . . . Note, too, the capitalization of Daddy, a grotesque character to Whom Connie is devoted even though He wouldn't allow her to see the only boy she ever really loved (Bobby Darin), refused to let her perform after she was raped (because the public might hink the rape didn't mean anything to her) and regularly terrified the whole family. Concetta concedes that He wasn't "demonstrably affectionate," but forgives all because Italians "make the most devoted parents and the most loyal of Americans." Next to Italians, Connie likes Jews best--not least for their "delicious Jewish pickles."

The first half of the book traces Connie's burgeoning career as a child singer and accordionist, her budding vanity and sexuality and her recognition that "God's a woman, all right!" Her language is that of the people (especially the people in People). She says "yup," addresses the reader as "gang," translates foreign words ("escargots [snails]"), explains that WASPs are "all those who don't remember where they came from" and credits many of her jokes to her favorite comedians. But she doesn't need professional help. Her ear is flawless: "Go know, right? What a dope I was!" or "I nearly barfed" or "The man must have been mentally arthritic!" The scenes with Bobby Darin ("What a truly offensive person!") are especially winning: "Bobby's encounters with other women didn't faze me at all. After all, he didn't want pimples." Yet there is a dark undercurrent throughout her narrative. She knows who murdered her aunt but won't say (she won't say why she won't say); she employs brutalizing metaphors, such as "my not-so-petite body needed something that bloomed out at the thighs like Bangladesh needs Diet Delite," and Daddy was from "the Richard Speck School of Charm"; she takes pleasure in avenging the evils done her by such villains as a third-grade teacher who criticized her singing.

Then, just when you begin to fear that she'll never grow up, the narrative takes an astonishing leap forward, from 1960 to 1974. The effect is not unlike E.M. Forster's "Gerald died that afternoon." We learn in a two-page summary that she's been married three times, suffered a miscarriage, made millions and stopped singing. In other words, after plodding through nearly 250 pages of home life in Jersey, she skips all the good stuff. The rest of the book, which employs more flashbacks and flashforwards than Pale Fire, Lolita and Ada combined, is a litany of humiliations, including rape and the murder of her brother. She offers nothing new about latter (as we noted, she does not see autobiography as a form for revealing pertinent information), but her account of the rape, which took place in a Howard Johnson's immediately after her performance at the Westbury Music Fair, is harrowing. It's told as a trialogue among the rapist ("Ever f a black man before?"), the unspoken thoughts of the furious victim ("Twice a day, you filthy bastard!"), and her actual responses ("No, uh-uh, I haven't"). In the end, Connie recovers her voice and career, adopts a child and thanks her fans.

If the horrors that plague Connie contribute to her strength of character, the travails of Little Richard, a genuinely great performer whose life is Byzantine in its complexity, are reduced to a shaggy-dog story by the putative and ubiquitous author, White, who believes everything Richard tells him about his descent into rock-and-roll and his ascent into the clergy. Left to himsefl, White is at a loss about music and the English language. Here Nabokov goes too far. It may be cricket to attribute to a rock critic the idea that "Little Richard is America," but it simply isn't believable to have him worship a pantheon of "legends" that includes Tom Jones or to have him say that an abruptly concluded concert is like "getting your throat cut at the very finest moment of orgasmic delight." The oral testimony that accounts for most of the book is logy and repetitive, and the attempts at linguistic precision are often flat, as when Richard is shown pronouncing multisyllabic words perfectly, though he's incapable of saying "because" ("cos" is the best he can do). There is a story lurking in this volume, full of homosexual and heterosexual horrors, but the protagonist is primarily interested in listing every famous rock star who ever stole his thunder or said something nice about him. White seems to think that the best one can say of Richard is that the best one can say of Ricard is that he inspired people like David Bowie. The inclusion of a discography, however, is a nice touch.

Sinatra is mostly pictures, and the discography is useless. Richard Peters's The Frank Sinatra Scrapbook is a more informed and entertaining companion, but entertainment is not the point here. Had Nabokov lived to finish it, Sinatra might have been mercilessly funny. The rebirth of Charles Kinbote as John Rockwell certainly boded well--the name recalls Nabokov's other Johns, Ray and Shade, conjures up the embodiment of a critic who wants all musicians to rock well and even brings to mind an actual critic at The New York Times know for his inability to tell a good Sinatra performance from a bad one. The problem, to paraphrase Dryden, is that he "never deviates into sense." Consider the opening paragraphs. When the critic calls Sinatra "by any reasonable criterion the greatest singer in the hsitory of American popular music," the mood of paranoia is handsomely established in a manner familiar to reacers of Pale Fire. Similarly, we recognize the kind of intellectual who refuses to distinguish between a man's artistic triumphs and personal outrages. But then the prose dissipates into contradiction and incoherence, as when he complains that "everyone" subverts the singer's accomplishments by concentrating on his "tackier aspects," and three sentences later recognizes as a "cliche of Sinatra biography" that "his musci ultimately excuses his life." The characterization of Sid Vicious's "My Way" as a tribute to Sinatra is amusing enough, but the many errors in fact and conception are wearying. Solipsism runs wild; he thinks Tin Pan Alley songs appealed "primarily to a white, urban, middle-class audience," that Fabian Forte is one of many Italian-Americans who "had a disproportionate impact on popular singing," that Sinatra didn't "come to terms" with jazz until the 1960s, that circular breathing (which Harry Carney introduced to jazz fifty years ago) first became "fashionable" in jazz with the avant-grade, that Eddie Fisher emulated "black soul shouting," and on and on.

Rockwell finds Sinatra's "enemies" lurking everywhere, not least in the dark night of jazz. He confesses to "my own feelings of generational hostility to finger-snapping, too-cool-for-words jazzish hipsters," and praises Sinatra for "offering jazzish drive without untoward brassy vulgarity." His patrician ambivalence about anything "jazzish," a term he apparently associates with 1950s beatniks (hence the "generational hostility"), leads him to proclaim Sinatra's allegiance to bel canto while ignoring the more profound influences that distinguish him from, say, Fabian Forte or Luciano Pavarotti. But whereas Kinbote/Rockwell tortured the actual text of John Shade's poem to meet his own egocentric needs, Rockwell/Kinbote's obvious unfamiliarity with much of Sinatra's work--few performances are mentioned, let alone analyzed--leaves a gaping wound at the heart of his argument. This time Nabokov sharpened his sowrd to skewer not the exegete so much as the hack. Sinatra is precisely the right ending for a trilogy in which critical doublethink overwhelms poetic sentiment, but the prose is too leaden to be much fun. It could use some of Connie Francis's sparkling wit.
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Author:Giddins, Gary
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 17, 1984
Words:1962
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