Reviewing Bruce

March 3, 2012

My copy of Bruce Bentzman’s Selected Suburban Soliloquies has now arrived, and a very handsome volume it is, too.
I don’t know whether I’m the ideal person to be reviewing this book, or the least appropriate, since I am the person who commissioned Bruce to write these essays for Snakeskin over a dozen or so years. Reading through the volume has for me been like attending a very convivial reunion. Here’s someone I’ve known for ages! He’s looking fine. And here’s someone I’d actually quite forgotten. Good to meet you again.
These are the essays that Bruce wrote while he lived in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

William Jaird Levitt was building the American dream on the principles of mass production, erecting individual homes, each on their allotted piece of real estate.  [....] In the end there was a sea of houses.  Out of the city spilled a tide of middle-class humanity to make them into homes.

Bruce was by no means the typical inhabitant of Levittown. He and Ms Keogh (whom readers will soon come know as his ‘more significant other’) are considerably less houseproud than many of their neighbours:

Home maintenance is not our forte. We have neglected our sprawling, fifty-year-old, three-bedroom house. When we come home from our paying jobs, we are too tired to clean and repair. We just want to pursue happiness, which is not derived from raking leaves, or dusting row after row of books, or removing the clutter in order to vacuum a great expanse of wall-to-wall carpeting. Major work involving carpentry, wiring, or plumbing, are nemesis because of my ineptitude. Even if by chance we have the energy when we arrive home, we’re eager to pursue our not-paying-so-well second careers as artists. Ms Keogh paints. I write.


Bruce’s relationship with suburbia is ambiguous. In the first essay he tells us:

In early adulthood I came to hate suburbia, which possesses neither the country’s fermentation nor the city’s froth.

Yet he finds much to write about in Levittown, and persuades us, almost aginst his own inclination, that there is interest even in a settlement of houses which, he decides, ‘do not contribute charm or interest to civilisation’.
As the book progresses, you will learn much about Bruce’s obsessions – with paper and pens, with old watches, with pre-digital cameras,with local history. He prefers the hand-made to the machine-crafted, unless the machine is an old one that tells us something about our history.
Bruce has ambivalent feelings, I think, about being published on the Internet. He appreciates that the new technology has brought him an international readership that might otherwise never have found him, but he has such a nostalgia for older, more elegant forms of communication that the digital has to seem second-best.
In fact, I think that the informal monthly essay has been the ideal format for Bruce Bentzman. Twelve times a year he has looked at some topic closely, and from a unique personal angle. He has had complete freedom to write about whatever his whim takes him to – except when I ask him to go easy on the politics (which happened from time to time in the Bush years).  This collection shows how the pieces add up to more than the sum of the individual efforts. Read them and you’ll get a rounded sense of this likeable figure, sometimes obsessive, sometimes comically pedantic, always opinionated, always observant.
In the last essay in the book, Bruce writes:

For a dozen years I have been writing these Soliloquies believing that I’ve painted a true picture of myself and my interests

yet, characteristically, he adds: ‘but I’m not without doubts.’ The essay goes on to nag at these doubts, and he calls on a selection of family, friends and fellow-writers to give their own pen-picture of him. Probably the neatest summary is David Graham’s:

Bruce Bentzman is a holy fool, except that he’s not a fool, and denies that he is holy.

You won’t meet anyone else quite like him, and he’s worth meeting. So take a look at his book.

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