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Bread Upon the Waters – Irwin Shaw

September 11, 2013
Irwin Shaw

Irwin Shaw

I was reading Irwin Shaw long before “Rich Man, Poor Man” became a megahit TV miniseries in the 1970s. His first novel, “The Young Lions,” was published in 1948 and was a bestseller in hardcover and paperback. (No, I’m not that old; I read it much later).

And that success, as Shaw once noted, was his misfortune. Because it was a huge best seller, the critcs decided he was writing for money. “And from that time on, I couldn’t buy a good review,” he told interviewer Ross Wetzsteon in the August 1981 Saturday Review.  Both Shaw and the Review are long gone, but Shaw remains in my mind and on my bookshelf.

The critics hated “Voices of a Summer Day.” I loved it. Some of them liked “Lucy Crown,” but not as much as I did.  “Two Weeks in Another Town” they considered a novel written only with the hope that Shaw could sell it to Hollywood.

But as Wetzsteon pointed out in his story, everything Shaw wrote was about the moral choices we face. The critics always overlooked that, either from ignorance or by design.

“Bread Upon the Waters,” Shaw’s second-to-last novel, came out in 1981. It has none of the glitz or glamor, no foreign setting or intrigue, for which the critics knocked some of his books. It examines the life of a family that’s disrupted by the intrusion of a well-meaning stranger.

I began re-reading it a couple of weeks ago and forgot (well, it has been 31 years) how powerful it is, how I sympathized with the the main character Allen Strand; how, as the story moves along, I keep thinking: I hope nothing bad happens.

Shaw was the best thing a writer could be: a story teller. I don’t know how many thousands of books I’ve read, but I know there are at least one hundred that I tossed aside in frustration, unable to continue because the author’s philosophy and world views obscured the actions of the characters. With those I always sighed: Good God, man. Get on with your story! 

I never had to toss aside a book by Irwin Shaw. Many critics, but not all of them, agreed that “Bread Upon the Waters” was his best novel. Finally, something I could agree with them about.

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