Picks and Pans Review: The New Confessions

UPDATED 07/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

by William Boyd

Here is the rarest of books, the sort you want to read again—even before you've finished it the first time—so you can go back and pick up all the sweet, moist crumbs that fell as you gobbled. Or, to block that metaphor, reading William Boyd in The New Confessions is like watching Robin Williams in a tragedy: You see manic energy under tight control—an exciting event to witness. Boyd's comic skills received good notice with his novels A Good Man in Africa, An Ice-Cream War and Stars and Bars, an hysterical, cross-cultural farce that was made into a fizzle of a flick. But here Boyd reins in his comic invention just enough to let his other talents show. Here he delivers a grand epic of a novel. The New Confessions is the fictional autobiography of John James Todd, a Scottish scamp of a filmmaker who dreams of turning philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiography, The Confessions, into a film. That high-toned literary parallel never hinders Boyd's entertaining narrative. It begins with great promise: "My first act on entering this world was to kill my mother.... The date of my birth was the date of her death, and thus began all my misfortunes." That promise is fulfilled as Todd moves through World War I, into the artistic Berlin of the Weimar Republic, out to Hollywood during World War II and through the scourge of McCarthyism. Boyd provides a rousing story, but he has the gumption to let Todd be an ordinary man who has common problems with his family, his mistress and his bosses. Boyd lets some characters appear briefly and never return; he has the courage not to tie up loose ends, to let life be a random experience. In the end Boyd gives us an autobiography of our century and of us typical folks who have tried to live through it. He gives us a book in which we can find ourselves and escape at the same time. He gives us a magnificent experience. (Morrow, $19.95)

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