Modern Fiction: Lucy Crown, by Irwin Shaw

I’ve been angry with Irwin Shaw for about ten years, ever since I read “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” on account of a bad simile. He has the wife in the story suggest to her husband that they get “a steak as big as a blacksmith’s apron.” Nobody would say that. So I decided on a peevish impulse that Shaw was a rotten writer and turned my attention to Philip Roth (who, in retrospect, was merely the plaything of an idle and somewhat revolting hour).

A year ago, however, in a miserable little hotel in Frankfurt, a miserable and bleak little city – where my father and I were to visit Frank Schirrmacher for the last time – I was propped up on a square pillow reading James Salter’s wonderful memoir Burning the Days, in which he describes his relationship with Shaw. Shaw called Salter a “lyric” writer, whereas he (Shaw) was a narrative writer. This interesting dichotomy, combined with Salter’s sturdy devotion to Shaw and the discovery that Shaw was just as Jewish as Philip Roth, put Lucy Crown on my reading list.

I should have read it immediately. It is an extraordinary work. The writing is tight, the story tremendous, and Shaw’s psychological insight staggering. I recall scenes in this book with the vividity of an eyewitness. (In particular, the phonograph scene and the scene near the end with the brandy bottle at the crossroads – you’ll know them when you see them.)  Shaw does – though only rarely – get into dialogue trouble when he gives a character a speech that’s a little too long and too well-phrased. His finest moments are when he tells you what his characters are thinking. He is always exactly right. Every visit to the minds of his protagonists is rewarding.

Lucy Crown has a fine, strong finish, like a great bourbon or a late-season football game that doesn’t involve the Jets. I’m off to get all the Shaw I can put my hands on.

Engagingness: 9/10

Enjoyability: 9/10

Prose: 8/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.5/10

Lucy Crown by Irwin Shaw.  Random House, 1956.  339 pages.

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