October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sams in a Dry Season

Current Status
In Season
Ivan Gold
We gave it a B

When it comes to narcissism, there’s nothing like a drunk. Not that Jason Sams, failed author and protagonist of Sams in a Dry Season, Ivan Gold’s first novel since Sick Friends in 1969, is egotistical in the ordinary sense. Self- hatred (and self-pity) are his favorite companions. ”You want to hear my story?” Sams asks the English-department chairman who warns him that he’s about to lose his teaching job to a scheming Englishwoman named Fiona. ”I’m trying to sneak through the back door to rip off tenure. I write much too slowly. I drink far too much. I went to college with the chairman and have been using this circumstance ever since to sniff after unmerited favors. Whereas all that’s happening now is I’ve been beaten out of a job by a better woman.”

To hear him tell it, had he not been a shikker — Yiddish for ”sot” — Jason Sams coulda been a contender in the highly competitive light-heavyweight Jewish novelist division. His first book won prizes, but made no money. His second, highly autobiographical book started all the trouble. It seems the author had aimed a few ill-timed gibes about hack reviewers at a ”vindictive wraith” who then proceeded to leave the novel for dead in the pages of The New York Times. (We’re clearly intended to guess at the reviewer’s identity.) Struck mute with humiliation, Sams wrote no more.

Or maybe, Gold hints, his protagonist had merely found his excuse. Sams got another reading of the same novel from a psychiatrist: ”Id is nod liderajure, you understand,” says the Dr. Ruth sound-alike. ”Id is nod about love und zex und loss und zadness…Your noble is nod a noble but a cry for help. He is an algoholic, this Jazon Zams. Und zo are you. You must go to AA.”

Far too brilliant and subtle to heed such simple advice, Sams goes on to validate the analyst’s dire prediction in spades. The action of the novel — such as it is — takes place over a long, sodden weekend in 1976, during which Sams travels from Boston to New York in search of a book advance to finance his literary comeback, visit his aged Orthodox parents in their East Village apartment, and lurch from one vividly rendered scene of his promising youth and misbegotten literary career to another.

Alcoholism aside, it’s always hard to know how this Lit Biz stuff will play west of the Hudson, much less in that trackless wilderness beyond the Delaware. Sams drops more names thaa Robin Leach, but fails to make the Manhattan publishing world seem very much more vital or intrinsically fascinating than, say, the wholesale shoe trade.

For all its flaws, as a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged lush, Sams in a Dry Season is hard to beat. If it totters at times on the edge of bathos — particularly during several passages when the book shifts from third- to first-person narration as if to enhance the reader’s identification of author and character — that’s almost inevitable given the subject matter. And after 21 years of silence, it’s good to have Ivan Gold back on the job. B

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