September 04, 2003

What's Wrong With Dorfman?, by John Blumenthal

I've got an interesting history with this novel. If you go use the search box on my Ex Libris Reviews site, you'll see that a guest reviewer reviewed this book in the most glowing terms some years ago. A guest reviewer who never reviewed another book for me, whose initials were JB, and who, oddly, shares an e-mail address with John Blumenthal, the author of the book. I discovered this a few months ago, when Mr. Blumenthal sent me some e-mail asking if I'd like a review copy.

A digression: every so often, someone will contact me asking if I'd like a review copy of something or other. I almost always say no; life is too short to spend my time reading books I don't like, and if I accept a review copy I feel like I need to read it. I've gotten burned that way a couple of times, and now I'm fairly cautious.

Anyway, I called Mr. Blumenthal on his imposture, and he not only 'fessed up but did so so handsomely that I agreed to read his book and tell you all what I think of it. And now I've read it, and I'm at somewhat of a loss as to what to say about it, as it's really not my usual thing.

So let me tell you a little about it.

To begin with, it's a novel in the proper sense: it's about characters and how they change. Most of the fiction I read--indeed, most genre fiction in general--falls into the romance category: stories that are remote in place or time and concern adventure, heroism, mystery, and so forth. This, on the other hand, strikes me as more a Woody Allen/John Updike sort of thing. (That's not a compliment, by the way...the one time I tried to read an Updike novel, I failed.)

It's a novel about a screenwriter named Martin Dorfman. He's sold six scripts, none of which have managed to be filmed. He's trying to sell a seventh script. He's worried that his career is nearly over. And he's nauseated. Seriously, deeply, falling-down nauseated. He's sick. His doctor can't find anything wrong with him. The specialists can't find anything wrong with him. His doctor thinks that his trouble is all stress-induced. His father (a retired doctor) thinks it's neurological. Unless it's stomach cancer. The tests are all negative. He tries other doctors. He tries a variety of alternative medical regimens. Nothing works. He's getting no better, and neither is his career. Meanwhile, he's reminiscing about growing up with a father for whom death by bacillus lurks around every door.

I find it very difficult to judge this book. It's supposed to be funny, and in places I found it so--but Dorfman's upbringing and world are very different from mine. I suspect that I don't have the background to appreciate where he's exagerating and where he's telling the plain truth--and where for those in the know it's laugh or cry. (What can I say, I grew up in a functional family.) I suspect it would be funnier if I came from the right background.

So did I enjoy it? Yes, somewhat. It was mildly engaging, and I was genuinely curious to see how it came out--I have no quarrel with Mr. Blumenthal's story-telling skills. While the book necessarily included the discussion of a plethora of bodily functions and symptoms, it wasn't nearly as gross as I feared it would be. And I do have to congratulate Mr. Blumenthal on Martin's liaison with the Other Woman--his handling of it was delightfully refreshing (I can say no more with spoiling it).

Will I re-read it, ever? Probably not.

But if you're the sort who likes books about neurotic people struggling to overcome both their own neuroses and those they inherited from their parents, you might like this. It's not my cup of tea, so I suppose the fact that I found it mildly entertaining anyway can be taken as high praise.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 4, 2003 08:58 PM

Deb English said:

I can assure you that I am who I say I am and if you ever get a request to review a book by Edmond Dantes, it will be suspect but not of my creation.

If it wasnt sort of pathetic, it would be funny, in a Woody Allen, neurotic sort of way.

Craig Clarke said:

I'm sorry you got burned on this, but I have the applaud the guy for a combination of cleverness and chutzpah.

Trivia regarding the name "Edmond Dantes": John Hughes has been using the count's moniker as a pseudonym for films like "Maid in Manhattan" and "Beethoven."

Will Duquette said:

The two important things from my point of view are these: first, he apologized; second, the book doesn't suck. So if I got taken, I can anyway be gracious about it. :-)