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Clarinet Polka

Reviewer: John Guzlowski

Clarinet Polka

By Keith Maillard. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003. 384 pages. ISBN 0-312-30889-2. $17.47 on

In his seminal essay "The Art of Fiction," Henry James makes an important addition to the discussion of what a writer of fiction has to know in order to write successfully. James puts forth the argument that an author does not necessarily have to possess a wealth of information or experience regarding his subject in order to do justice to it.

To illustrate this point James tells a story of an English writer who was often commended for her depiction of French Protestant youth. When she was asked how it was that she knew so much about this subject, she liked to explain how once when she was ascending some stairs in a clergyman's house she happened to pass a room where some young Protestants were completing a meal. This scene, according to James, so impressed her that she was able later to write a moving and completely successful narrative concerning French Protestant youth. James asks us to consider this: this writer did not have an encyclopedic, book knowledge of life in France; she did not have life experiences that opened the hearts of French Protestant youth to her; and she did not know much about what France looked like or sounded like or smelled like. According to James, she needed none of this. What she did have was a talent for keen observation. She was the kind of person "upon whom nothing is lost." This he says is the key element a novelist must possess. If a person is one on whom "nothing is lost," that person can take a brief glance, a sidelong glance as it were, and that brief glance coupled with the artist's imaginative and creative talent for analysis and interpretation will enable that person to spin a world out of it.

The point that James raises may seem like the sort of theoretical, nineteenth-century issue that is best left to the classroom, something to puzzle an undergraduate class with, but it is really a central issue for our time as well. Let me phrase the question James addresses this way: does a writer have a "right" to write about a culture that he is not a part of? For example, does the white writer have a right to write from an African American perspective? A Jewish writer to write from a Catholic perspective? A male writer to write from a female perspective? And to bring this discussion to the novel at hand, Keith Maillard's The Clarinet Polka, does a non-Polish American have the "right" to write a novel from a Polish-American perspective?

James would answer that Maillard does have such a right, if he is the sort of writer on whom nothing is lost, the sort of writer who can see a glimpse of a Polish American culture and have the psychological and analytic tools and intuitions to construct a plausible depiction of that culture. Unfortunately, Maillard is not such a person.

The Polish American world Maillard depicts is thin. Set in the late 1960s, the novel tells the story of an Air Force veteran who returns to his old neighborhood, a Polish American working class area in a town like Wheeling, West Virginia. The veteran, Jimmy Koprowski, is alienated, dissatisfied, and sexually promiscuous in the manner of many fictional characters of the Sixties. In Jimmy's isolation and sexuality the reader hears echoes of Bellow's Herzog, Baldwin's Rufus in Another Country, Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, and Roth's Portnoy. What is new here is that all of this is played out against the background of a Polish American community. Or more rightly, I should say the foreground of a Polish American community.

In those novels about young men from marginal cultural groups coming into contact with the dominant culture, the marginal culture is presented as background. For example, Baldwin does not explain what blues music is; Bellow does not explain what a shtetl is; Updike does not explain what golf is. The cultural background of the characters is so much a part of the characters and so much a part of the authors' understanding of their characters that those authors do not stop the narrative progress of their characters' fictional journeys to say something like: "Weigela, well, that is a Polish religious ceremony that involves such and such." But Maillard does this sort of foregrounding constantly in the novel. He does it when he discusses Polish religious holidays and customs, when he talks about the things Polish American eat, when he talks about the polkas they listen to, and when he talks about Polish American and Polish history. Maillard has apparently done considerable research on Polish Americans. He states in his "Acknowledgements and Notes" section at the end of the novel that he wants the Polish American community in his novel to feel "authentic" (his emphasis), and he mentions many of the works and people he has consulted to that end. I am not sure Henry James would fault him on that, but I believe he might feel that Maillard could have been a little subtler about his use of his research. The way Maillard presents this information about Polish American culture makes the novel often seem more a travelogue through an interesting culture and less a novel about a veteran's fall into dissipation and redemption.

Before I move on, I would like to say one more thing about Maillard's research. It is narrow. He has consulted books on Polish Americans by Lopata, Renkiewich, Pula, Zand, and Wróbel, but he also states he "deliberately did not read any Polish-American fiction" until after he finished the first draft of his book. This seems such an odd admission and such an odd omission that one has to wonder what was in Maillard's mind. Imagine someone who has written a novel about African Americans or Jewish Americans admitting that he has not read any fiction by members of either group. I wish Maillard had explained why his research did not extend to reading Suzanne Strempek Shea or Tony Bukoski or Stuart Dybbek. Did he feel perhaps that they could have given him insights into Polish American culture that would have made him aware of how stereotypical his presentation of his main character Jimmy was? That he had more to do with Tennessee Williams' Stanley Kowalski and Nelson Algren's Frankie Machine than with real Polish Americans?

Finally, let me return to James's argument. He contends that you do not have to be immersed in a culture to write about it, that in fact perception and smartness will give you what you need to present a world different from you own. Having read Maillard's book I feel that James may be wrong. Maillard is clearly a man with sharp skills of observation. His previous novels and the acclaim they have brought him show there is something serious and profound in his powers as a novelist. But those powers do not seem to be enough to bring the Polish American characters to life in his novel.

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