Picks and Pans Review: Irwin Shaw

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Michael Shnayerson

It was a life that began in Brooklyn poverty and ended in self-imposed exile in a Swiss chalet. In that 71-year span, Irwin Shaw (born Irwin Shamforoff) produced a daunting body of fictional work that included the play Bury the Dead, the novel The Young Lions and a handful of notable short stories (The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, Tip on a Dead Jockey).

Shaw's life, as this excellent, detailed biography illustrates, was fed by an overflowing passion for his work. He was a man of excess, his only economy in life reserved for his choice of written words. He wrote fiction each morning of his adult life, drank wine by the gallon, told witty stories in fine restaurants and usually ended his evenings in the arms of strong-willed women. He wrote his way through countless Hampton summers and Swiss winters, directing his anger at life's lack of fairness toward his characters. Shaw seemed, on the surface, to have a perfect writer's life, working in solitude by day, socializing with friends by evening's light.

Yet Shaw was haunted. He was wounded by literary critics (and some of his friends) who attacked his later works, scolding him for accepting the fast buck Hollywood threw his way. Shaw himself wondered about the effects of a soft life on the hard realities of fiction. And while he never consciously compromised, it is evident that the man who wrote The Troubled Air (1951) was far removed from the author of Acceptable Losses, the last of Shaw's 12 novels, which appeared in 1982, two years before he died of cancer.

Shnayerson, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, packs his work with anecdotes. He writes in clear narrative form, backed by an overabundance of research. In the book's best moments, however, the one voice heard, resonating loud and clear, belongs to Shaw: "Look, failure is inevitable for the writer. Any writer. I don't care who he is, or how great he is, or what he's written. Sooner or later he's going to flop and everybody who admired him will try to write him off as a bum."

Shaw married the same woman (one-time actress Marian Edwards) twice, betrayal on both sides marring the first union, a relaxed respect characterizing the second. By Shaw's account, during his life he numbered seven sets of friends, each set spanning a different period. His career began with a blaze (he wrote Bury the Dead at 23), flourished after he served in World War II, met a well-publicized malaise (the New Yorker dropped him as a contributor in 1955, and in 1960 he parted company with longtime publisher Random House) and was resurrected by TV (a 1976 miniseries gave his 1970 novel Rich Man, Poor Man a best-selling afterlife).

Through it all, the fights and feuds, the depression and drink, the sadness and euphoria, Shaw wrote fiction that, as often as not, demanded to be read. Shnayerson is convincing in arguing that Shaw deserves to be ranked among the lions of his day. (Putnam, $24.95)

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