The Bold Saboteurs

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Herodias, 1953 - Fiction - 317 pages
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The Bold Saboteurs -- published by Farrar, Straus in 1953 and later described by French critics as a work of "magical realism" -- is Chandler Brossard's most widely recognized book. Following the controlled, neutral tone of the existential Who Walk in Darkness, this autobiographical novel marks Brossard's emergence from the formal influence of Flaubert and Camus into a wildly free, multilayered narrative in which fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity coexist and intertwine. Set in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s and 1940s, The Bold Saboteurs is the story of the young Brown brothers who, along with their mother, must cope with the ravages, and absence, of their violent, alcoholic father. In order to survive, the elder Roland becomes a night watchman and uneasy head of the household; the younger George, a multiple schizophrenic whose hallucinations make up some of the most vivid, free-associative passages in the book, takes up a life of crime.

Within the family, George, whose life chokes him with its "grimy emptiness", is controlled and, at times, brutally disciplined by his powerful brother. Roland, himself a borderline personality with religious delusions, creates an elaborate family mythology, convincing George they are descended from royalty. Outside the family, the rich detail of Brossard's fictional underworld points to the author's early life "near the gutter", among the outcasts of Washington society: thieves, muggers, extortionists, prostitutes, and the Negro underclass.

By age thirteen, George is basically living on his own. While sporadically attending school (he also spends hours reading in the public library), he sustains himself with burglary, robbery, kidnapping,fencing of stolen merchandise, and hustling tennis matches. Remarkable for its in-depth treatment of alcoholism and its effects on family life, as well as for its erotically charged descriptions of George's voyeurism and his sexual initiation by older women, The Bold Saboteurs is a masterpiece of the picaresque, coming-of-age novel. The protagonist must claw his way back from criminality and insanity to ask himself, as Brossard later explained: "You've survived, now what are you going to do now that you've survived? Where do you go from here?"

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