Really good and really bad books often announce themselves early: in the case of the former, you find that moment of shock and astonishment that propels you forward. In Max Jamison, that moments hits on page 7, when Flashman is described not as “a theater critic at all, but a maid-of-all-work gossip columnist and second-string reviewer who scooped up free tickets like a mechanical crane and prowled the lobbies for carrion.” Status and aesthetic contempt intermingle: Flashman doesn’t appreciate art because he’s “like a mechanical crane,” and yet at the same time he feeds on the dead—dead plays, dead reviewers, dead everything.
Max, on the other hand, sees himself as an antidote of sorts to that: he’s a theater critic with, if not heart, then at least acerbic taste, which is better than no taste at all. But he’s not terribly happy and is too aware of his own faults to let something like sentimental happiness buoy him; in another early scene, he thinks that “The actors he talked to were dull as ballplayers and degradingly anxious to please.” Or, more likely, the actors are worried about angering critics on whose fancy rides their career. But if that critic is sufficiently cantankerous, their actions simply won’t matter, and Max is holding the line against—what? Not the cavalry charge, certainly, but against something, even if he’s not sure what.
In the two paragraphs above, I’ve utterly failed to convey how funny Max Jamison is, perhaps because explaining the joke also kills it. Max is funny to himself but to few others; his estranged wife says, “I wish you wouldn’t attend so much. I wish I could split an infinitive with you sometime, or have a really silly discussion.” If Max worries about split infinitives, he truly is a nasty pedant, since split infinitives are a problem in Latin, not in English. Pedants who half understand their problems and are trying to remedy them are sometimes the most amusing of all, since they’re in the joke enough to be aware of their situation but not so much that they can remedy it.
Saul Bellow frequently exploits this metaphysical, intellectual, and sometimes sexual state; so does Mordecai Richler in Barney’s Version. It also might lend heft to a novel that could otherwise flutter—what’s most fascinating about Max is his sense of infinity within a confined space, which avoids the flutter problem. He’s a theater critic, unlikely to change professions, and stuck (if one can ever use the word “stuck” with this city) in New York by virtue of that profession. He’s confined, like so many of us, by those proverbial silk chains, given that he makes enough money, gets to sleep with admirers if he wants to, doesn’t have to worry about food, and only carps about status—which is difficult, since he’s at the top of his pyramid. But the pyramid is too short for him, and there’s probably none tall enough for him, and seeing him try to climb is hilarious without being mean.
(Note: I read Max Jamison thanks to D.G. Myers’ post on The Hack, which says that Sheed wrote “… perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.” It used to be that we thrashed when we no longer believed in God. Now we thrash when we no longer believe in ourselves. What will we thrash about next?)