Following the Bellman:

Glenn Arbery

The Oracles Fell Silent
by Lee Oser
Wiseblood Books, Feb. 2014
262 pages, paperback, $13.00

In Lee Oser’s boisterously funny and quietly moving new comic novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, the center of attention (though not necessarily the main character) is a blustering, insecure British rock icon from the 1960s named Ted Pop. World-famous since his youth, Pop—his real name is Theo Pappas, Jr—has been knighted by the queen, which puts him in the near-mythological company of such figures as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Like them, Sir Ted has the means to acquire almost anything he wants. As the novel opens, for example, he covets a beach house in the Hamptons with a deck on the Atlantic and an observation tower “whose glass walls appeared to be cut out of bright blue air.” A blank check for the realtor gets him the house (despite allegedly stiff competition). But the main thing Sir Ted craves—vindication for his contribution to The Planets, the ’60s band he formed with the legendary Gabriel “Johnny” Donovan—can’t be so easily managed.

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The Oracles Fell Silent is available from Wiseblood Books.

In framing Sir Ted’s anxieties, Oser imagines a version of the endless controversies among fans about the genius of bands. Who was more important to The Beatles, Lennon or McCartney? Did the Allman Brothers ever match their early brilliance after Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash? Sir Ted’s immediate problem is that a recent biography by a man named Ginger Drake, The Life and Fall of Johnny Donovan, not only belittles Pop’s musical importance to The Planets but even suggests that he was responsible for Donovan’s fatal fall from a London rooftop in 1969. To even the score, Pop hires his daughter’s lover, the naive, intermittently religious young narrator of the novel, Richard Bellman, who will ghost-write Sir Ted’s memoirs.

Thrown unprepared onto this glitzy Olympus, Bellman plays a role in the novel a little like Nick Carraway’s in The Great GatsbyCompetent but unsure of himself in this world of wealth and fame, he’s the observer of the “great” who is steadily drawn into the maelstrom of Pop’s career. Because he’s Sir Ted’s assistant and supposed confidant, he’s the one who might have access to the lucrative secret of what actually happened on that rooftop. He attracts the attention of people willing to pay him a great deal for it.

But in more important ways, too, he turns out to be the real center of the action. After the comic uproar of the novel dies away, it becomes clear in retrospect that young Richard has been a major force. He is a witness but also a crucial participant in the drama of Ted Pop’s coming to terms with the truth about Johnny Donovan, who was not so much a rival as a saintly character with a genuine genius and perhaps even a celibate in the sex-mad world around him. Richard is not an innocent. But despite being subject to most temptations, Richard is a believer—Sir Ted says early on “You won’t be when I’m finished with  you”—and it turns out that there are things he can’t do, lines he can’t cross.

“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” asks Flannery O’ Connor in a comment that very much applies to this novel. “I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

O’Connor’s Georgia of God-haunted atheists and backwoods nihilists is a far cry from Oser’s Hamptons, where the only burning religious question is whether Daisy the Pig, a bronze statue that had “occupied a place of honor in front of Hill’s Butcher Shop and had done so, though seasons of plenty and seasons of famine, for one hundred and twenty-nine years,” should be removed. It seems that it’s offensive to Muslims, at least according to the self-promoting, bestselling, and hypocritical imam Omar D.

Oser is a superb satirist of pretensions. He skewers rock stars like Sir Ted or Tom Bram, who like to display his phosphorescent vampire teeth; academics like the magisterially condescending Prof. Candy Swash, “Chair of Thing Theory” at Harvard; predatory journalists like the perennially sexy and unscrupulous Veronica Lamb. He’s also wonderful at details, as in his description of Sir Ted’s cook, who buys “lottery tickets by the roll” because work “was an untimely imposition, a lingering streak of bad luck, an incidental hardship until something much better came along.” Richard’s priest in the novel is Fr. Stan Nitzsche, who won infamy in the early days of the pill with a book called Pandora’s Pillbox.

What’s bracing about Oser’s work is its absolute lack of puritanism. Like Walker Percy, he suspects that Catholics might already be acquainted with sin. He fearlessly depicts sex, he reports the bad language, and he doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable humor. For example, Sir Ted goes to mass for reasons of publicity, but then puts the host in his pocket and later brags to Richard (who has been told by Fr. Stan Nitzsche to retrieve the pocked host and consume it), “I ate it with my blueberry-cheesecake ice cream.” The joke, of course, is on Sir Ted himself, as his real name suggests: Theo from theos, God, and Pappas meaning “priest” in Greek. Despite his cavalier blasphemies, he’s unable to escape the inner question of responsibility for Johnny Donovan’s death that he’s outwardly trying to put to rest.

But even in Richard’s most ridiculous experiences, there is no brooding condemnation, either of himself or of others. Oser knows the America he depicts—this culture of decadent excess and arrogance—as fully as Richard Ford knows the Jersey shore. It’s by no means a realist novel, however, but something like a tongue-in-cheek allegory, as one begins to suspect when Sir Ted meets his match in Hurricane Gabriel and the mystery of Johnny Donovan’s death finally comes to light. Oser’s novel makes its readers ask which oracles they’ve been attending and what might happen in their silence. Young Richard Bellman—it’s worth thinking about what a “bellman” is—emerges largely unscathed, and with an essential quiet dignity. There’s no triumphalism here, no relegation of souls to heaven or hell. Oser’s gift is making it deeply attractive to come back to the sanity of worshiping what deserves it.

Glenn Arbery has taught literature at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and the University of Dallas. He has served as Director of the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; senior editor for City Newspapers in Dallas, where he was an award-winning film and theater critic; and contributing editor of D Magazine. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004) and, most recently, The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010). He has published and lectured on a range of authors, including Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. He has recently finished a novel, and at present he is working on a book about Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate with his wife Virginia.