Novel by Texas State Professor Jennifer duBois Reviewed in the New York Times
Sandy Pantlik | April 20, 2019
The latest novel by Jennifer duBois, assistant professor in the Texas State University MFA creative writing program, is reviewed in the New York Times by critic Ken Tucker. Tucker writes “With ‘The Spectators,’ duBois is staking out larger literary territory. The new novel is full of small pleasures that accumulate as proof that this writer knows her stuff …”
From the New York Times | April 18, 2019
By Ken Tucker
By Jennifer duBois
I was going to say that the last good novel about a media personality was Stanley Elkin’s “The Dick Gibson Show,” the fabulous 1971 tale of a motor-mouthed radio host, but then I remembered that the last good novel about a movie star was Brock Brower’s “The Late Great Creature,” published in — well, whattaya know, 1971. Rock-star novels have fared better, with the more recently great “Stone Arabia,” by Dana Spiotta, in 2011. All of which is to say, good fiction about celebrity culture is tricky to pull off and rare. (Best of luck to whoever’s out there doing a final polish on the definitive public radio/podcast novel, featuring a carefully altered version of Ira Glass.)
What a good surprise it is, therefore, to come upon Jennifer duBois’s “The Spectators” and read a novel about a TV star that feels just right. A big-canvas effort spanning the late 1960s to the early 1990s, it’s a showcase for Matthew Miller, host of “The Mattie M Show,” the sort of afternoon program in which angry guests come on to vent and rant and throw the occasional chair as security guards stand by, rubbing their biceps nervously. The story is set during the golden age of daytime talk: You will perhaps inevitably think of Mattie as Jerry Springer crossed with Phil Donahue’s furrowed-brow earnestness, or Montel Williams with Maury Povich’s oily condescension. But duBois has thought of these guys too and is always one step ahead of you. She creates her own man, with his own unique pricklinesses.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of April. See the full list. ]
We take the full measure of Mattie through the eyes of two cheerfully unreliable narrators: Semi, a struggling playwright who was one of Mattie’s lovers starting in the 1970s, and Cel, the highly harried publicist for “The Mattie M Show” in the 1990s. Through them, we witness Mattie starting his career not in showbiz but as an idealistic lawyer — a public defender who first encounters Semi when the latter and a group of his friends are harassed and rounded up by the New York cops, arrested for being gay in a gay bar.
Married to a very long-suffering woman, Mattie launches into a passionate, furtive fling with Semi: “It came slowly, then all at once: a delusional, fiendish love. How many nights, how many calls, how many pennies cast up at his window? How many keys dropped down to the sidewalk? … And yet it seems to have been only one night, eternally recurring.” Semi is attracted to Mattie for his often infuriating contradictions. A learned, ambitious man, Mattie had dreams of becoming mayor of New York City, and from there launching a presidential run, and you can be sure he’s compared to both John F. and Robert Kennedy. That Mattie sells his soul to a cheesy TV show and hates both himself and his audience only makes him more tragic and appealing to Semi, who describes himself as being “in the thrall of a profound and unseemly attachment.”
In contrast, Cel is a demurely acerbic young woman who speaks in a darkly comic voice about the day-to-day taping of a daytime squawk-fest: “The guest list is mediocre. There’s the boy who knifed his father — a classic sociopath: empty-eyed and charming. There’s the mother of a teenager who’d shot his girlfriend and then himself on the night of their junior prom. There’s a compulsive thief whose only notable achievement is being banned for life from every big-box chain department store in the nation.” For most of the novel, Semi and Cel exist separately, in alternating chapters. As duBois charts the history of her chosen era, she does a fine job of summoning up the atmosphere of confusion and dread in the years immediately before the AIDS epidemic had a name. Semi will eventually write a play about that plague called “The Spectators” — duBois makes it sound like an Off Broadway miniaturization of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” — but for most of this novel, Semi is a writer’s-blocked spectator peeping into Mattie’s private life.
Soon enough, “The Mattie M Show” will be engulfed in controversy, as a mass shooting in Ohio may have been inspired by the take-no-prisoners behavior it displays daily. Indeed, Mattie proves to have a disturbing connection to one of the shooters. While I understand that duBois needed what screenwriters call an inciting event to propel her narrative forward — forcing Mattie to reckon with what his reckless on-air persona has set loose — I prefer the novel’s shrewder explorations of Semi’s and Cel’s intense lives and casual musings: “Part of the reason it took her so long to figure out that everyone in New York was secretly rich was that everyone talked so much about being poor.”
DuBois is the author of two previous novels, one of which, “Cartwheel,” is a fictional exploration of the deadly scandal involving the study-abroad student Amanda Knox; I’d call it witty and clever were it not about an appalling fact-based murder. With “The Spectators,” duBois is staking out larger literary territory. The new novel is full of small pleasures that accumulate as proof that this writer knows her stuff: Consider, for example, the chapter devoted to Mattie’s guest appearance on “Lee and Lisa,” a dead ringer for the jolly-but-tense morning show Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford used to host. DuBois’s mastery of such details earns our trust as she expands “The Spectators” into a billowing meditation on the responsibility of public figures to contribute something worthwhile to the culture. Although her book takes place decades ago, duBois’s message has a contemporary urgency as well
Ken Tucker, formerly Entertainment Weekly’s TV critic and New York magazine’s movie critic, is a music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air With Terry Gross.”
ABOUT JENNIFER DUBOIS
Jennifer duBois is the author of A Partial History of Lost Causes, which won a California Book Award for Fiction, a Northern California Book Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. The National Book Foundation named her one of its 5 Under 35 authors. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was the winner of the Housatonic Book Award for fiction and was a finalist for a New York Public Library Young Lions Award. An alumna of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowship, duBois is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Lapham’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, Salon, Cosmopolitan, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. A native of western Massachusetts, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.