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William Gaddis: A Frolic of His Own

The title comes from an 1834 British law case, where the term frolic of his own referred to an employee acting entirely on his own and thereby the employer not having responsibility for his actions. Just as he damned the financial system in J R, Gaddis here lets loose at the legal system. Justice?–You get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law is the opening sentence of the book. As in his earlier books, much of the novel is in dialogue form but the book is highly readable and particularly enjoyable.

At the beginning of the book, Oscar Crease, college instructor, is lying in hospital, having run himself over with his own car. He proposes suing himself. If he loses, then his insurance company will be liable. He is also involved in another lawsuit. He had written a Civil War play, called Once at Antietam, based on his grandfather’s experiences. It now seems that Constantine Kiester, a Hollywood producer, has stolen the play to make his own epic film, The Blood in the Red White and Blue. This lawsuit and how Oscar tries to persuade his step-sister’s husband to represent him are key to the novel. Indeed, as in his earlier novels, the main theme – in this case the idiosyncrasies of the legal system – involve virtually all of the main characters. Oscar’s father is a judge and is involved in some odd lawsuits as well, including one involving a dog trapped inside a sculpture. Crease Sr gives some decidedly odd rulings, based on his literal interpretation of the law. Others involved, beside his step-sister’s husband, include Lily, Oscar’s girlfriend, who is also involved in legal problems and the Reverend Ude, whom we first met in Carpenter’s Gothic, who is being sued by a woman whose son drowned when Ude was baptising him in a river. Oscar’s father has to consider whether the plaintiff should be God as Ude was acting on His behalf.

Much of it is witty and often vicious satire and Gaddis does it brilliantly. He takes the theme to its logical extreme. Oscar’s attempt at suing himself is paralleled by his play which involves a Civil War soldier who has hired substitutes on both sides. He thinks that the two have killed one another and therefore he has committed a form of suicide. Artistic integrity is called into question, as in Gaddis’ earlier works, when we learn that Oscar’s play may well be plagiarised. But it is the Dickensian theme of The law is an ass that is pursued here and Gaddis pursues it brilliantly.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Poseidon Press