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Acting Alone

Acting Alone

by Tom Bradley

Acting Alone opens at a cow college in Kanorado, proceeds to holiday doings in Kiev, Nebraska, home of a disturbed young Marine recently released by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, then spirals unpredictably toward Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD (the North American Air Defense Command) and the convent of the Servant Sisters of Saint Willibrord of Perpetual Adoration. There a dangerous plot spun by a renegade Mormon threatens to upset the protagonist's plans for material and marital well being.

"I found Acting Alone to have an incredible energy level."
— Stanley Elkin, author of A Bad Man

The hallmark of this astonishing work is excess. Excess of complications in the story, excess of violence both physical and moral, excess of arabesque digressions, excess of scope (the author broadens his lines to encompass whole realms of religious, sexual, political, generational, and occupational routines and aberrations), excess of judgmental fury often expressed in terms of indignant satire, and, finally, an excess of verbal brilliance proceeding from a mind densely loaded with literary and topical instances.

The contemporaries of Michelangelo found it useful to employ the term terribilita to characterize some of the expressions of his genius, and I will quote it here to sum up the shocking impact of this novel as a whole. I read it in a state of fascination, admiration, awe, anxiety, and outrage.

Acting Alone must be grappled with on its own reckless terms. And I must say that if I cannot help supposing it to be a work of genius, I do not find it by any means altogether amiable. I would say the same of the central character Sam Edwine as of the whole work, which displays the furious excesses and contradictions of his inward nature, projected on the world he inhabits with gargantuan passion.

Sam is, among other things, a writer who scorns and abjectly courts popular acceptance, an almost asexual lover whose passions flicker like the lightning in a Frankenstein movie, a luciferian meddler in the banal and cosmic realms of megapolitics and religion.

The secondary characters (including the Elder Cicerone, whose true identity may be that of a supernatural authority) are drawn with the same excessive verve to be noted in Edwine. Among them I found most satisfying Sam's girl Shannon and her stegosaurian cousin, the ex Marine who was a hostage in Iran. Out of their tangled relations alone a wonderful comic shocker could be fashioned. And some part of my mind wishes that this potent fragment could be untangled from the whole to stand alone.

But I will (as I must) take such things to be only parts of the vast maelstrom spun from an imagination of superlative dimensions. While I entertain some conservative and/or humanistic wishes that the force majeure of this imagination could be, in a sense, domesticated, I am obliged to suppress those wishes in admiration for an unbridled titanism.
—R.V. Cassill, editor of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and author of The Castration of Harry Bluethorn

What a rich book this is! First, it is a self-portrait of Gargantua himself: what it is like to be almost seven feet tall and striding through the world with the appetites and aspirations of such a giant. Second, it is a bildungsroman: an account of the hard knocks Gargantua/Sam Edwine suffers through in his search for fame and fortune/the meaning of life/integrity. A hard task, to reconcile these incongruous objectives, but then he is only twenty-six, and at that age one tends to think of oneself as invincible. He soon learns—the hard way—that he is not invincible; in fact, he is quite vulnerable.

The forces he is up against are formidable. Tom Bradley is a master of the intricate plot: he manages to weave together strands as seemingly unrelated as the Iranian hostage crisis, NORAD, expatriate Jews from Belarus, a German-founded order of nuns of perpetual adoration, and an unnamed but easily recognizable cult with sinister plots and a megalomaniacal mastermind. It is full of satire on a multitude of targets from academia to the publishing racket, to Nancy Reagan. This aspect of the novel makes reading it the most fun since Tom Jones.

In trying to characterize Tom Bradley's use of the English language a number of metaphors come to mind: fireworks…erupting geysers…but, sadly, also, erupting sewers. In fact the only objection this reviewer has for the book is what seems an unnecessary abundance of filth, both scatological and eschatological. In other words, it uses obscenities and blasphemous expressions to a degree which seems excessive. In this, too, of course, it fits the pattern established by Rabelais in his masterworks Gargantua and Pantagruel. (As well as much of contemporary fiction.)

Tom Bradley has promised to carry Sam Edwine through further stages of his adventures/ aspirations/ crises and perhaps victories. One awaits with great interest to see whether he will succeed in taming him and putting his hero's—and his own—amazing energies into contexts more, shall we say, domesticated. Now that Sam is married, he is no longer "acting alone." (How well we remember that phrase.)

On top of all its other fascinations, Acting Alone is also a love story. And following the course of that amazing plot line leads to a truly tender and glorious conclusion, almost a hierogamy. In characterizing his heroine, Tom Bradley accomplished what Dante promised his beloved Beatrice: to write of her what has never been written of another woman.
—Dr. Dalma Brunauer, The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

Further curiosity about the author can be indulged at TomBradley.org

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