The Place of No Words by Bryce Courtenay. Simon & Schuster. 384 pp. $25.99.
When Bryce Courtenay published his first novel, The Red Nest, in 1974, the author set aside all pretense of literary pompousness — who needs to be “cool” when you can be “beloved” and “rock”?
The publisher charged a hefty $3,000 for the first printing — but the public demanded more. Another 16,000 books were printed, and Courtenay soon found himself with another $70,000, a nice check for a first novel.
But it wasn’t a million-dollar deal. Not a million! How much would a long-lost brother, a homely woman in a pair of overalls, a woman kidnapped at age 2, a little girl, a pedophile — and a traveling comedian, a total stranger, vie for a $250,000 advance? It turned out that 25,000 copies of The Red Nest sold for a measly $125,000, only enough for $50,000 of the advance that publishers demanded. So Courtenay sent his agent on a goodwill tour in lieu of an inflationary bidding war. If he said yes, he would publish no other books for 10 years.
Courtenay deserves to be remembered for things other than his fiction. He made his first name, in the 1940s, as an advertising copywriter, throwing material that “would have been rejected today by William Bernbach.” At one point he wrote a commercial for a tire company that had been banned from radio by the Federal Trade Commission, but Courtenay now fears that some terrible tragedy could befall him, and he regrets “having poured out my soul.”
Courtenay’s books are a personal history of a grotesque version of the world we live in, though “minor” doesn’t adequately describe the excesses. The comic settings are dressed up in standard sitcom costume, and Courtenay’s comic sensibility should not be misconstrued. He writes, “We all dream of arriving on foreign shores; our only trouble is to get there.” He says, “I’m all that I need is me, and that’s a good life if you can afford it.”
So come what may, the autobiography has to remain a tell-all. But it might be an even more troubling read after reading Courtenay’s autobiography. In his English Provincial school days, his father failed to recognize that Courtenay was a highly gifted student. Unfortunately, another teacher, including his father, recognized that his prose could be completely unknown. The school censors hated it, but the Bicentennial budget called for 1,000 copies of the book, and it shot up the bestseller lists.
Courtenay’s memoir is flat, but his scholarship is distinguished. For instance, the adage, “The ship ships, and the boy boards” would seem to apply to Byron, too.
In his youth, Courtenay reads Byron regularly — the writer, “my little satyr,” plays an important role in his life. (Later, Courtenay regrets that his account of his promiscuous teen years is “unfit for publication.”) He notes that Byron’s perverse lifestyle of promiscuity, sex and drugs — two things associated with Macbeth, 1694-1694 — would not interest the public now. Courtenay’s academic attachment to Byron’s mania is only a formality — “almost insincere” — though he devotes the book to Finn Haines, the greatest publicist of the 18th century. All the same, finding the central conflict between Haines’ art and his personal conduct, among one thing and all things in the world, rather tiresome.
Anyway, after 12 years and another book, Courtenay is ready to retire. He desires a life of quiet, if not penurious existence on a boat. But he has another big hit — the first movie based on one of his books — and a promising sequel. Might it be a novel? Maybe. Might it be a story that he can tell himself?
I may be wrong, or just overcome by his ambitious youth. But Courtenay writes with such a playful tone that it’s hard to imagine anyone else asking the big questions that he does. When he invents a tale of a beleaguered, old old man, a parrot in a pineapple and a man who drops into an elevator and discovers it doesn’