Here at the Portland Review we are always on the lookout for guest contributors. You can view our submission guidelines at http://portlandreview.submishmash.com/submit. So, without further ado, here’s Robert Hershorn.
For Chuck Barris, the early 1970s must have seemed an appropriate, if not exactly opportune, time to finally Write That Novel. His career was hitting a rough spot after the salad days of the ‘60s, when he nearly single-handedly revitalized the television game show format. The Newlywed Game, the last of his production company’s signature shows, had been dropped from network rotation. The Gong Show was still a few years off, and Barris had a wife and young daughter to clothe and feed. Why not put out a quickie love story and let the chips fall where they may?
You and Me, Babe seems to fit the bill; it is, at its core, about two people who are hopelessly in love with each other. But it’s far from conventional, as its 350 some-odd pages also support a bildungsroman, a character study, a road saga, a barely-disguised memoir, and (most intriguingly) a tortured confessional. The reader certainly isn’t overcome with blubbering sobs or whoops of joy at the novel’s conclusion, though a wistful sigh would perhaps be in order.
Tommy Christian, the Barris alter ego, is the son of a dreary dentist in Queens. At some point during his formative years, he encounters his sister’s friend Samantha Jane Wilkerson snooping through his bedroom. The dashing Tommy duly informs her to get her fat ass the hell out of his sanctum sanctorum, totally blind to the obvious crush she has on him. His reprobate interest is piqued three years later, when a much hotter Sammy makes an appearance at his sister’s wedding, and his mother reminds him that the young Ms. Wilkerson stands to inherit one of the largest fortunes in the United States.
We’re in the cute love story phase at this point, as Tommy starts a sort of half-hearted pursuit of Sammy that turns more serious when he realizes that he stands a good shot of winning her hand. The two are wed over the protestations of Sammy’s scandalized parents, and they begin an extended honeymoon across the US and Europe, as Tommy pursues various career goals such as selling cuing machines to television studios and writing the Great American Novel. Tommy and Sammy provide each other encouragement, love, and emotional support, and the two embark upon their marriage as a kind of great adventure. The reader, of course, sits around and waits for someone to croak.
During the first three-quarters of You and Me, Babe, it’s easy to get the notion that Sammy’s goose is cooked. Things are too perfect between the lovebirds; disaster must surely be waiting to strike. Since Tommy is the one doing the narrating, it’s naturally Sammy who’s marked for death. One could be forgiven for thinking she exists only to be exterminated, sweating through the sheets of her hospice bed as the tumors take their grisly toll, but not before she teaches Tommy what love really means. Barris’ narration would certainly seem to support this notion. He humanizes his leading lady, but he also can’t help holding her up as a paragon, and he very often writes of her ruefully, as something that has been irretrievably lost. And since Barris is looking for a surefire hit with his dime store romance, that’s the way things have to go, right?
Tommy does lose Sammy, but Barris has a much more mundane fate in store for him than that of the early widower. Our beat-the-odds love story turns stale, and becomes a particularly meticulous version of another old standby: the warts-and-all documentation of a disintegrating marriage. Things just stop working between Tommy and Sammy; money becomes an issue, and the two find that they can no longer relate to each other, despite still being very much in love.
The touches of humor Barris employed earlier in the novel mostly vanish, as youth in bloom is replaced by drifting inertia, broken at times only by a desperate grasping for a bygone past or a sad, futile attempt at new thrills. The author is extremely close to his protagonist, and the last part of the book reads as an accounting of the bad end of Barris’ own married life. There are quarrels, reconciliations, fleeting moments of happiness, vicious blow-ups. Barris does away with much of his narrative structure, seemingly concerned only with getting everything down for posterity.
One could accuse Barris of pulling a bait-and-switch, luring the reader in with a lightly quirky and warmhearted love story before laying down his litany of failure and remorse. But the novel itself is really only a jumping-off point. Barris, beyond weaving a good yarn or trying out a new angle to make some quick cash, is really concerned with trying to understand all that had happened to him by the time he was in his early forties. Why did his parents get sick and die? Why did his friends grow up and disappoint him, and then also die? Why has he become successful beyond imagining while becoming desperately unhappy at the same time? Why aren’t things as simple as they used to be? It is in this context that the more plaintive passages from earlier in the novel start to make sense. Barris is in mourning after all, for his marriage and for the person he was at twenty, twenty-four, twenty-six.
These are sad things to dwell on, and tenacious problems to take on. The edition of this novel that I own is billed as The New You and Me, Babe, with apparent revisions and expansions made by Barris sometime in the mid-2000s. The “New” features of the novel are touted jauntily on the book’s cover, but it seems troubling that Barris would want to go back over such harsh territory, even with the distance of thirty years. Troubling, perhaps, but not all that surprising: the demons Barris dragged out in You and Me, Babe will be with him for a lifetime. Perhaps it’s only right that he stop in on them every once in a while, pin them down, and try to get some answers.
When Robert Hershorn isn’t writing for a DC-based news wire, he’s thinking up film reviews or else drafting fake correspondence and oral histories.