July 2013 - Books Monthly regular contributor Jerry Dowlen takes a look at the work of Charles Webb...

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 The author Charles Webb...

The return of ‘The Graduate’.

I like the fresh and quirky way that the American author Charles Webb writes and punctuates dialogue in his novels. To me it's his special trademark.

If it's a Charles Webb novel we can expect to find relentless bickering between characters who can’t get on the same wavelength. It's not far short of torture, at times. We ache to step in and provide help and advice before the seeds of self-destruction multiply and bring everyone's walls crashing down. Alas, as helpless readers we can instead only watch from the sidelines and silently beg the protagonists to divert themselves from the self-inflicted disaster that Webb has seemingly prescribed for them.

Webb confronts us with characters who exasperate us with their obsessive behaviour and relationship inadequacies. But we must guard against any lofty assumption that we could never be as bad and blundering, ourselves. Sure, his lead male characters can't seem to make their wife or girlfriend happy, or interact satisfactorily with families and strangers. But the subtle and skilful undercurrent of a Charles Webb novel is the uncomfortable notion is that maybe we are not quite as superior as we would like to be?! For - perish the thought - is not 'The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker' a bit like yours and mine?? Can we honestly say that the dilemmas and distresses faced by the confused William and his worn-down wife Lisa would never happen to us?

The literary fame of the California-born Charles Webb came in his early youth. It was followed by a long period of immersion in real-life troubles and tragedies. His published work seemed to tail off, but his name re-emerged when two new novels appeared 2002 and 2007.

 

The Graduate (1963)

Home School (2007)

To tag Charles Webb as a "one-hit wonder" is unfair, for two of his books were turned into Hollywood films. Nevertheless it is inescapable that his first novel 'The Graduate' has outstripped everything else in terms of fame and recognition.

'The Graduate' was published in 1963, when Webb was twenty-four years old. Four years later, the Embassy Pictures adaptation became one of the biggest "must-see" movies of the decade. The public flocked to see Hollywood's exciting new discovery Dustin Hoffman portray the obdurate young Benjamin Braddock who runs off with Elaine Robinson, sensationally snatching her from the altar where she is about to wed the bridegroom that her parents approve of.

What adds enormous spice to the story is our knowledge that Benjamin has earlier been seduced by Elaine's mother: the legendary 'Mrs Robinson' of the smash-hit Simon and Garfunkel single that flew to number one in the USA chart and high into the UK top ten.

After 'The Graduate' had made his name for life, Charles Webb sent forth in 2007 a second bite at the cherry. 'Home School' was trumpeted as the long-awaited sequel to 'The Graduate'. In homage to its predecessor, the book's front cover echoed the iconic film poster of 1967 in which Dustin Hoffman stands looking mesmerised by Mrs Robinson's extended leg encased in an enticing silk stocking. That screen performance by the late great Anne Bancroft was mesmerising, too. 

Sequels tend to disappoint, more often than not? But for my taste, 'Home School' entertainingly catches up with Benjamin and Elaine eleven years on: by now they have two young children and they have moved to New York. The reason for the move is to put maximum distance of 3,000 miles between themselves and Elaine's mother: the formidable Mrs Robinson.

Confusingly for Charles Webb fans such as me, Mrs Robinson now goes by the name of Nan, but this is not the same Nan (sister of Lisa) from 'The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker'. That minor blip aside, 'Home School' gives us a Charles Webb who is still on top form with his sharp ear for dialogue. The story gives us two "families from hell" who defiantly insist upon normalising their cranky lifestyles and behaviour. It's a recipe once again for bittersweet comedy and edgy tension.

 

Love, Roger (1969)

The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970)

Twentieth Century Fox noted the success of 'The Graduate' and duly made a film out of Webb's third novel 'The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker' published in 1970. Richard Benjamin and Joanna Shimkus co-starred.

I'm not too surprised that Webb's second novel 'Love, Roger' made comparatively little impact after its publication in 1969. I liked it a lot, but I would guess that by the strictest criteria the critics dismissed it as too trifling and inconsequential. However, the story begins with an incident that must play to many a male fantasy!? - Roger Hart gets accidentally locked into a big department store for the night, along with another customer who is a pretty girl! Not only that: they find their way into the bedroom furniture section of the store!

Given such a promising start it would be difficult not be drawn into this lightly amusing story? - even if Roger does inevitably turn out to be another of Charles Webb's obsessive characters whom we sense might be destined for a life in which he will always make ill-judged decisions.

Seduction ... bedroom furniture ... Yes there is always the prospect of a sex scene in a Charles Webb novel; always a likelihood of some deliberate or inadvertent nudity; it is a rare skill that he has as a writer: to turn us into compulsive page-turning voyeurs of the distressed and the dysfunctional.

 

 

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