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Forget style. Gene Fowler knows how to write. But it used to be that people didn't write books unless they had something to say. The Viking Press, under the spell of Americana, the opiate of the theatre, motion picture, and publishing worlds, apparently gave Gene Fowler an assignment: to capture the flavor of the Old West, Rocky Mountain division, in which he had been reared. "Solo in Tom-Toms," the result, is not unlike its running mate in the Viking lists, Marquis James' "The Cherokee Strip," in that it captures the flavor of mother's milk and cheap whiskey, but little else.
The illuminating thing about "Solo" is that on page 243, in a book of 390 pages, the protagonist. Gene Fowler, is 17 years old. Most of the book, then, is about a boy who apparently took notes on the margins of his diaper and kept a careful diary long before he reached puberty--how else could conversations heard at the age of eight be so precisely reported? It's all reminiscent of the passages in the egocentric Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward Angel:" "Lying darkly in his crib, washed, powdered, and fed, he thought quietly of many things before he dropped off to sleep . . . he grew sick as he thought of the weary distance before him, the lack of coordination of the centres of control, the undisciplined and rowdy bladder, the helpless exhibition he was forced to give in the company of his sniggering, pawing brothers and sisters, dried, cleaned, revolved before them."
Yet mature critics have called "Sole in Tom-Toms" wonderful. That's the word at least two of them have used--wonderful. What it contains is a collection of back-century anecdotes from the days of Buffalo Bill, Jack Dempsey, and Paul Whiteman, homely philosophy, and innumerable references to unimportant and only occasionally interesting friends and relatives of the author. It is full of phrases like this one: "I have never again heard from the crudite tea-taster, and what became of him I do not know. The busy years find us neglectful of those wise counselors who influenced our early lives." A gentle tear for the boys I left behind me. There is wit in "Solo in Tom-Toms," but the memoirs of a lesser journalist, though perhaps more lively than those of a prominent statesman, are scarcely important enough to trot out the long gray beard and the backward look.
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