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Willie Wilden Paperback – September 16, 2011
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About the Author
Joseph Dobrian has been writing for his living for more than 30 years. He’s best known as a business journalist. He writes about real estate, finance, management, and other topics, for clients such as Dow Jones, J.D. Power and Associates, PricewaterhouseCoopers, American Express, American Airlines, Prudential, Ernst & Young, the Institute of Real Estate Management, and many others. He has helped several noted businesspeople to write their personal memoirs. He also writes poetry, plays, and essays, and is a noted historian of boxing. Mr. Dobrian lived most of his adult life in New York City, where he ran for Mayor in 2009. He now lives in Iowa City, Iowa. When he’s not writing, researching, or looking for new clients, he’s attending classical music concerts and recitals, political meetings, or Iowa Hawkeyes football games. Willie Wilden is his first novel. For more information, go to www.josephdobrian.com
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The rest of the cast is well-sketched, with the level of detail needed deftly selected so that we see enough about each character to form a reaction/response to him or her, but without delving into unnecessary detail or depth of character revelation. Most of the characters who are not Roger Ballou are cartoons or mechanicals anyway, but they're not cardboard cutouts. My favorite character in the story is probably Effie Hoo, and Dobrian is deserving of particular kudos for handling the very difficult problem of dialect or accented speech quite well. We only need to know that Effie is Scottish, and have her speech peppered with a consistent use of "ye" and we hear all of her dialogue in a nice - if a bit sanitized - burr. Skipping the "Och"s and "wee laddies" and "d'ye ken tha'?" and other stage Scots conventions, Dobrian trusts his readers to fill in the details as they see fit. It does seem to me that the "bad guys" are one-trick ponies, and there might be a little excessively overt telegraphing to the reader of desired responses to Wandervogel and Bannister; they're the only instances of cartoonish bordering on cardboard cutout. It might be lazy to mark out a guy as worthy of contempt by making him grossly obese, and it might be lazy to mark out a female college president as an obvious type by putting her in a sweatsuit in professional situations. It might be... I'm not 100% sure, but these two seemed like straw villains to me.
I have to accept the plausibility of the plot on faith; never having functioned in or observed such an environment first hand I have no difficulty believing the bridge parties and small-circle socializing and the interactions portrayed here. It seems within the reasonable bounds of "willing suspension" anyway, and the plot points serve the narrative purpose adequately. The injection of outside influence in the form of Runs' brother being who he was and having the knowledge he had to move the plot in a critical direction as it did might carry about it a whiff of deus ex machina, but I only say "might" and even if it does, it's only an eyebrow-raiser, not a knee-slapper. It just tested the limits of "willing suspension."
The Lee Grossbaum plotline lacked purpose, it seems to me. It might have been gratuitous fantasizing; maybe not, but it didn't, in my opinion, contribute significantly, and cutting it would not have hurt the story in the least.
The ideas behind the plot and character are well-formed, reasonably presented, and - to my mind - mostly sound and rational. It does feel though that they are the novels raison d'etre and that's perfectly fine, but they don't, in and of themselves, justify over 500 pages (but in my opinion, not much does, in fiction). There may be some pages here to be sacrificed to succinctness.
There's a bit too much fussy detail about too many things unimportant to the story in too many places; about a hundred pages too much, in my opinion, maybe more. This level of focus on prissy (to my mind) distinctions without differences among things that are not particularly germane to the story could be trimmed down considerably.
Finally, there's the characterization of Roger Ballou. We see the workings of his mind, and Dobrian is quite masterful at portraying them (I especially like the demons). But the point is made early, and indeed it's critical at the end, but in between the story could be improved considerably by removing a fair amount of the "Roger gets the fantods" narration.
Campus novels* are an honored and admired tradition. I'm not sure Dobrian has joined the likes of Waugh, Amis, Barth, DeLillo, Chabon, and even Sayers and Dexter, mixing genres as they like to do, but Willie Wilden is more than a hanger-on at their student union. It's an enjoyable, worthwhile book that's well-crafted and tells an interesting story. There's a bit too much of it to be as effective as it deserves to be; it could easily be judiciously edited down to a much more intense, affecting story.
* One thing struck me repeatedly - for a comedy, there's starkly little humor, even so-called "dark" or "black" humor. It's there, but I only remember actually laughing once (and I forget what it was that made me laugh).