In terms of intention it succeeds brilliantly and the intention is no paltry one. It explores a dark world of a man who was a difficult tortured child and never escaped that childhood. His failure to generate love among any of those around him is tragic and his stand as a would-be killer is convincing and terrifying. That he does not kill is a major achievement and alone keeps the book anchored to the Kraftian world.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
by Eric Kraft
Crown Pub; (May 1990)
Kraft loves epigraphs, uses a generous number and orchestrates them with skill. The prefatory epigraphs of Reservations Recommended begin with Dante and the theme of middle life. This is echoed by Musil in the same vein with a similar excerpt from song lyrics by Brian Eno and David Byrnes. An epigraph from Lucretius dwells on the inescapability of the individual from the individual, a theme stressed in Herb ‘n’ Lorna with the image of the accompanying giant of the self. The last epigraph comes close to what will be one of the main motifs in the book, food, and the quotation is fittingly from Epicurus.
A normal preface from Peter Leroy provides some guides for the perplexed but this preface is largely a meditation on the imaginary. Peter has a telephone conversation with a drunken Matthew Barber, the last real contact with him. It is now years later. Peter and Matthew are middle-aged. Reservations Recommended is an unabashed attempt to provide an imagined life for the missing friend. There is no attempt to reclaim anything from reality. This is an exercise of the imagination and an exorcism. Peter’s only research involves two weeks spent in Boston. Boston is the answer that Peter accepts in response to his question: where would Matthew live? “Somewhere, I decided, where the weather keeps misery always in the air” From his stay in Boston, he brings back the precise but obscure graffitist who becomes Matthew’s obsession. A bad experience while swimming – described near the beginning of the preface – brings the memory of Matthew vividly back to Peter’s memory. It is not until the end of the preface that Peter explains that at summer camp Matthew nearly drowned him.
This is a work of moderate length, shorter than Herb ‘n’ Lorna but longer than Where Do You Stop? These are the two books that precede and follow Reservations Recommended. It has only seven chapters but each chapter has two parts. The first part is a narrative centered about a restaurant -Matthew as B. W. Beath, an anagram of his real name, writes restaurant reviews -and the second part is a review of the restaurant. (It is interesting that Kraft himself was a food critic for a short time.) Matthew’s reviews are curious documents, both funny and sad, as he alters and distorts the facts of his restaurant experiences. The beaten and baffled Matthew peeks out from behind B. W. Beath, a more sophisticated version of Matthew and one that has, it will prove, even less loveable traits.
The question of self and of identity may be especially appropriate in a writer like Eric Kraft who writes through a fictitious writer Peter Leroy. The dictionary meaning of Eric is ‘honorable king’ and that of Leroy is ‘king.’ Matthew Barber is Bertram W. Beath. There seems to be a rash of multiple personality disorder in evidence. Matthew even plays with the idea more than appears altogether seemly. “It’s an idea that Matthew enjoys playing with, as he does with the notion of BW as an older brother, whose background is identical to Matthew’s, but who is more worldly, whose tastes are so sophisticated that he can find the shortcomings in any experience. Matthew has the feeling that BW is watching him, as if Matthew were his creation, not the other way around, watching his performance from an elevated position, a superior point of view, judging Matthew, reviewing him, looking for his shortcomings”
Restaurant reviewing is the task of Matthew’s leisure. During the day he is toy designer, vice-president for new product development at Manning & Rafter Toys. He sits alone in his stylish apartment -it is haunted by a bad smell that may or may not be evident to anyone except Matthew -and wishes that his ex-wife Liz could see the apartment and the beautiful view. The view is of the poorest and most degraded section of Boston but distant enough to be beautiful. As an advocate of sensible toys, he dreads the coming season and deplores the poor taste of parents who have passed over his choices in favor of lesser toys. He had advised an advertising campaign based on guilt to counteract the bad taste of the consumer. In this respect he resembles Dudley Beaker whose ads for the Babbington Clam Council were based on appeal to guilt (Little Follies, ‘Mother Takes a Tumble.’)
The events at the Alley View Grill are bizarre. The maitre’d is a strange brute who offers an obscure joke that Matthew decides might be the incipient ravings of the demented, the waiter is indifferent to them and mispronounces the items on the menu and the table near them, very near them, is occupied by a trio of quarrelling Lesbians. Belinda, Matthew’s dinner companion, pays very little attention to him and finds his rehearsal of his review difficult to endure. His review will reflect the editorial attitude of his publication. He can say whatever he wants so long it is what the readers want to read. The lack of truth, the faltering sense of identity and the urban disruptions edged with ugly craziness are all distant from the whimsy of Babbington. This is a very dark book.
They leave the restaurant hurriedly since each of them has overheard telephone conversations that one of the women at the next table has had with the parents of another. She tells the parents that their daughter has killed herself at the restaurant. Matthew and Belinda look back down the street and watch the family of the supposed suicide arrive.
At Matthew’s apartment they make cold methodical love, their once passionate flame has dwindled to meaningless sexual encounters. Kraft describes the methodical way that they undress, the careful way they neatly dispose their clothing.
Matthew dreams after Belinda leaves. In his dream he and Belinda are in a woods when another woman, his ex-wife Liz, joins them. The women undress and Liz caresses Belinda. Matthew, sexually aroused, awakens and the pleasant effect of the dream stays with him with for days. It is apparent that his satisfactions are not those of the real world.
The review that Matthew writes of the Alley View Grill is vivid with its snotty, superior attitude. Matthew comes from Babbington and the distrust of the small towner for the big city is easy to spot: “Restaurateurs seem to be savoring anew their memories of Mom’s kitchen. Suddenly they’re nostalgic for the food they ate before they came to the city”
On his way home with some groceries Matthew tries to break up a fight in which a larger boy is choking a smaller one. His remonstrance is mild and the boy ignores him. Another man with a more commanding manner steps in and breaks up the fight. Matthew sees him as the prototypical coach, the figure that has always stood in Matthew’s life, judging and condemning.
His spirits lift as he encounters the work of the Neat Graffitist, a man who leaves strange messages in neatly lettered capitals on the congenial flat surfaces of metal control boxes. The first message gives the flavor of these very well:
NEVER FEAR PAIN. TIME DIMINISHES IT. BUT AVOID BOSTON CITY HOSPITAL. NURSES THERE WEAR UNIFORMS PURCHASED FROM BURGER KING, TREAT PATIENTS WITH FATALISTIC DETACHMENT.
Matthew is not happy in his poorly run building and the way that his complaints are dismissed as evidence of paranoia, his interpretation. But he does take snapshots every day of the litter that he has deliberately planted in the hall to prove that no cleaning has been done.
One of the calls on his answering machine is from an old friend, Jack, who wants to meet him and another old friend, Effie, at Flynn’s Olde Eating and Drinking Establishment. Jack’s choice surprises him since Flynn’s is basically a tourist trap. He thinks about Effie, passionate and unconventional, two qualities that had intimidated him and blunted the edge of his erotic interest.
At Flynn’s Jack is late and Matthew has on his hands Effie and Richard, her husband, and Belinda. To while away the time they, especially Matthew, drink too much. When Jack does arrive, he explains why he chose Flynn’s. He is looking for a typical Boston restaurant as the site for a beer commercial. Matthew as usual is occupied with himself. He wonders if either of the other men suppose that he has had sex with Effie and he wonders the same thing about Jack.
Jack dominates the conversation and when Matthew is able to speak it is edged with all the alcohol that he has had. He creates the impression that he has performed a generous act, which he has not, and reflects: “Sometimes, he thinks, my mind is my worst enemy”
Matthew’s attention wanders to the occupants of the next table, not quarrelling lesbians this time but a large family party celebrating some event in the life of the chief matriarch. Her granddaughter bullies her into ordering lobster.
For all of Matthew’s inner troubles and perhaps because he has had too much to drink, he is having a good time and the conversation, while a bit alcoholically strange, is interesting and funny. He doesn’t want the evening to be over and he invites all his friends to his apartment for another drink. He is reluctant to tell his friends about the smell in his apartment and gives a suitably modified explanation of the hole in his wall. In a moment when they are alone Effie rewards him for his generous act with a kiss. He is ashamed of his deception and resolves the next morning to give something to the homeless man that he sees every day. When the time comes “he’ll put his head down and pass without pausing”
The entire novel, by the way, is in the present tense. This is a stylistic peculiarity that is a further emphasis on the atypical nature of this novel as the work of Kraft.
Beath’s review of Flynn’s is along the lines that one might expect with special emphasis on the restaurant’s ploy of letting its patrons wait in an alcoholic limbo to foster liquor sales. He appropriates Jack’s idea of using the restaurant as the site of a beer commercial, in his review a stinging rebuke of the restaurant. He treats the patrons as boobs from Ohio in a way that again smacks of the small town boy masquerading as a sophisticated urbanite but he betrays his Bolotomy Bay origin with a simile that concerns clam chowder.
He waits with Leila while Belinda readies herself for dinner. He finds himself thinking about music, how the old rock and roll now makes him feel old. He has feelings about classical music of veiled hostility.
The discovery that the program [on early morning radio] wasn’t all Bach led Matthew to the realization that for most of his life he had thought that he was missing something, in the sense that what he was missing was better than what he had. Now he was confronted with the possibility that that assumption was entirely wrong. Perhaps there was no reason to feel that he was missing something better than what he had, no reason at all. Perhaps what he was missing was far worse than what he was getting, nothing but the various equivalents of jangling music and carping braggarts. There was certainly no reason to covet that. What a liberating idea this was at first, but, after a little time and thought, what a depressing idea it became. If what he was getting was the best there was, and it seemed none too good, than what was the basis for hope? It is a curse of the mind inclined to sadness that, given time, it will find the rotten spot in even the ripest, most promising idea
Belinda wears the gift that she has bought herself for her birthday. It is a white fur coat of mink and ermine. Everyone that they encounter is struck clumsy by the beauty of it. At Dolce Far Niente, the restaurant of the night, they accidentally meet Gwen and Harold Roper. Matthew remembers their names with difficulty even though he sees Harold almost every day at Manning & Rafter Toys. Gwen and Harold fasten on them and they sit down to dine together. Without her coat Belinda reveals a revealing dress that tends to deprive Harold of his self-possession. To Gwen’s disgust he labors to be funny although this is not the way his talents lie. Their waiter is a handsome young man, student at MIT and relative of the proprietor. In a memory loop as he deals with Harold’s progressively more pushy and slightly cruel questions Matthew remembers his life with Liz, especially their neighbor Vic. He thinks of Vic because Vic drank and Gwen does not. It is going to be a difficult dinner. It becomes even more difficult when Belinda tries to explain the program that she is working on and Matthew is testing. Gwen gets cute as she perceives cuteness over her discomfort with computers and Harold indulges endless and pointless facetiae.
But the program is interesting and is especially so to the readers of Reservations Recommended. It is an electronic version of the book in our hands. In an especially interesting touch Belinda says that the apartment from which the program begins turns out not to be real -even as reality is modified by its computerized existence -it is a photograph “in a desk drawer in a room in an inn on an island” Or Small’s Hotel, in other words.
The next table impinges on Matthew’s party just as at the first two restaurants. The “impinge” in this case is a noisy child who utters the appropriate word on cue. While Matthew fantasizes escape from the boring Harold and Gwen, the nearby child puts his thoughts loudly into words ” ‘I hate this!’ announces the child at the next table”
The child, loosely supervised by his parents, crawls under their table. Belinda cleverly uses this as an excuse to break away from Gwen and Harold just as the latter is launching into a boring and unhappy story about his childhood.
Back at his apartment they make love on the fur coat. She is especially aroused and Matthew is happy to please her. Part of her arousal is the coat, which she has decided to return, and part is the note from the handsome young waiter. He asks to see her again.
Matthew’s review of the restaurant is amusingly typical. He noticed what the young waiter was up to with Belinda and is appropriately censorious. He glances of the possibility that the excellence of the food could -almost -make tedious companions acceptable and he tells parents to leave their children home.
Matthew is at work when Liz calls. She is in town for a medical appointment. Matthew panics at this and thinks of all the horrible possibilities but he is playing a role of disengaged ex-husband. She asks him to have dinner with her and selects a restaurant that they call the Black Hole but is officially known as Superior Indian Cookery. In an earlier fantasy he had drawn a vivid picture of a man being left by his wife. In it he had described a woman who left him while he was grieving for his recently deceased mother and had no real or at least no admissible reason for her action. This sounds like Liz and Matthew but there is no guarantee that it is so.
They wait on the steps to be admitted and Belinda, an old friend of Liz’s before becoming Matthew’s lover, is with them. Liz, after not having the child that she wanted, decided to become a business success and chose insurance as a field where even moderately dull people can succeed. She has had a promotion and is returning to Boston to work. As elsewhere the other diners constitute an entertainment. There are conventioneers, special librarians; hockey players, some of them Russian; and a wild looking old man, muttering and cutting things out of a newspaper. Matthew thinks that he must be the Neat Graffitist but Belinda claims to have seen the Neat Graffitist and the old man that they are watching is not he. Matthew is not convinced and as they talk over the subject Belinda wonders how much longer she can endure to persist in her relationship with Matthew. Massimo, the young waiter at Dolce Far Niente, has already become her lover.
The three, with alcoholically enhanced attitudes, come to Matthew’s apartment. Here Matthew’s choice of black and white and chrome startles Liz. Matthew tells a long and not very exciting story and Liz falls asleep. The idea of making love to Belinda while his ex-wife is asleep on the sofa arouses him but Belinda refuses to play and goes home. Matthew goes to bed but Liz comes into bed with him and makes rough love to him.
As might be expected Matthew’s review of Superior Indian Cookery is long and happy with more meditations on life and its happy possibilities than on the restaurant itself. He describes himself and his companions as if they were someone else and he an observer of them.
Matthew is confidant that Liz will return to him and he worries about Belinda. Since Liz reentered his life he has ignored her. If Liz returns he will have to leave Belinda. He thinks about how sad this will make her and he is guilty about how pleased he is at the thought. To make amends for all this, he calls her to invite her to have dinner with him at the Café Zurich the next Friday. Her daughter Leila takes the message.
By Friday he has bought the white fur coat and, prompted by the advice of Beath, he spreads it -fur side up -on the bed. He is in for a surprise. When he reaches Belinda’s she is not there and Leila offers to accompany him. He is delighted but hopes that he will find something to say to her. She has always been difficult for him to talk to especially since she has become so sexually alluring that she makes him nervous. But it doesn’t go badly at all. Beath is there in Matthew’s head and there is much conversation between them. Matthew is charmed by Leila’ naiveté and this disarms the more pungent comments from Beath. She is wearing her mother’s spectacular dress and the effect is even more devastating. Helpless, Matthew begins to speak to her on an inappropriately intimate manner. The intrusion in this restaurant comes from the couple seated beside them. Earlier they had been quarrelling about someone named Victor but Leila spills food on Matthew’s lap and while she is gone the woman at the next table talks to Matthew. His evening with luscious Leila has, he realizes, boosted his sexual attraction.
Their plans are to go dancing but first they must go to Matthew’s apartment so that he can change his clothes. Once there they dance to Coleman Hawkins and Leila shows a readiness for advancing to further dalliance when Matthew refuses his opportunity -to Beath’s disgust -and takes her home. He undergoes another shift in decisions when he realizes that their cabdriver sees him as an aged lecher with a child. But it has all become too complicated and he returns home.
The review of Café Zurich is a collaboration between Beath and Matthew. Beath says all the cutting things that Matthew was thinking and Matthew celebrates the innocence of the relationship between the older man and the very young woman in the outrageous dress.
Matthew arranges to have dinner with Liz at Two-Two-Two, a restaurant that has just reopened. In its previous life it was less a restaurant than a place where patrons bought cocaine. The young woman that is the new owner assures Matthew, as he flirts with her, that she and her boyfriend do not plan to conduct the restaurant on the same basis as in the past. Matthew, who has come to his appointment with Liz deliberately late, wishes that she would arrive in time at least to catch him flirting. He is determined to demonstrate to her that he has changed.
Dinner with Liz is not a success. They argue in a quiet way, no ugly shouts but ugly words, recriminative and edged with venom. Although the immediate crisis has passed, Matthew is paying little attention to Liz. He is watching an elegant couple. The woman of his flirtation spills wine on the customer’s dress. She takes her companions pullover sweater and takes her clothes off beneath it. Liz notices and the already troubled relationship deteriorates further. They end up on the street where Liz tells him that Belinda no longer wants to continue their relationship. Afraid that he might strike her, he puts her in a cab and returns alone to his apartment. In horrid dreams he hears cries. He awakens to find that they are his.
In the immediately previous chapter Beath has become a character in his own right and he develops more in this chapter where Matthew addresses as much of attention to Beath as to anything else. Beath has always been a character but he becomes more and more important as the novel progresses.
His review of Two-Two-Two is almost entirely about his failed marriage and does not turn into a review of the restaurant until he reaches the last two lines. It speaks with the bitter voice of enforced resignation.
Matthew is at Ike’s, a theme restaurant where all portions, although not very good, are gigantic. He is drinking and talking to Beath who is urging him into a life of selfish hedonism on the basis that he is entitled to some return on the quasi-virtuous morality that he has practiced, a kind of unedifying Sklavmoral. From even this tattered probity he succumbs to the attraction of a young student, one of several at the bar. He buys her a drink -Beath’s suggestion -makes the group a present of an enormous try of appetizers and introduces himself to the girl, Tracy, as Bert. Beath, his inner voice, screams a loud protest and Matthew compromises on BW. The alert reader will remember that Bert is the name of Peter’s unglamorous father. BW and Matthew struggle for control. Matthew can’t help being the tiresome, somewhat pedantic and timid loser. Beath on the other hand makes directly for his goal.
The students ask him to come with them. Beath warns him but Matthew accepts. The invitation is a cruel joke. They get him out of the cab that has taken them to a lonely spot and drive away. The ruse is not a success. The pranksters don’t know the region and find that they must turn and come back the way they came. Matthew is in a rage. He hurls a piece of pavement at the cab and smashes the windshield. The driver gets out. He has a jack handle in his hand and he runs after Matthew. Matthew runs until he finds a good place to defend himself and to equip himself with a weapon. He brings the driver down with a blow and struggles not to give him a second one. He leaves the scene and finds the Neat Graffitist in action. The Graffitist is terrified because Matthew looks wild and is still carrying the metal bar with which he felled the cabdriver. He gives the Graffitist money, all he has, but Beath is stronger. He takes the money back and walks away.
The review of Ike’s again has a very personal note as B. W. Beath gives a severely edited version of his experiences. He blames the food and plenty of Ike’s for the poor success of the would-be amorist, described as “an aging fellow” Beath’s contempt for Matthew and Matthew’s contempt for himself shows in the closing lines: “[F]ood this bad would make a cipher feel adequate to anything life might send his way. Think what this miserable muck does to the mediocre. It makes them feel like us. Overreaching themselves, they may fall. Falling, they may be hurt”
Does Boston truly bring out the Dostoyevsky in folks, especially writers? This book is not a favorite even with the small -alas! -group that professes strong partisanship for Kraft. But it has a distinct flavor. In terms of intention it succeeds brilliantly and the intention is no paltry one. It explores a dark world of a man who was a difficult tortured child and never escaped that childhood. His failure to generate love among any of those around him is tragic and his stand as a would-be killer is convincing and terrifying. That he does not kill is a major achievement and alone keeps the book anchored to the Kraftian world.
And the book is funny with an almost surrealistic abandon. There can be few situations so arresting as the elegant woman who takes off her wine-stained clothes in public. The confessional aspect of Beath’s reviews make them comic reading of a high order. It is no wonder that Kraft has found Matthew Barber to be a rewarding character, one that permits him to comment eloquently on the dark side of life.
For more information visit:
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: