I love seeing meaty new pieces on William Gaddis’ J R, which has just been released by Dalkey and remains one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Describing the book in one paragraph is tough, but Gutkin, writing for Bookforum, does pretty well:
J R follows the rise and fall of JR Vansant, an eleven-year-old sixth-grader in Long Island who builds a massive financial operation by telephone. Gaddis assembles an enormous cast of characters around JR, all of whose lives come to intersect in some way with the sixth-grader’s paper empire. There’s his teacher Amy Joubert, who unwittingly introduces JR to the power of finance when she takes her students on a field trip to Wall Street, where her uncle runs the powerful Diamond Cable corporation. There’s Jack Gibbs, the manic, drunken physics teacher, in love with Amy and his own thwarted ambition. There’s Edward Bast, an aspiring composer hired with an arts-foundation grant to teach at JR’s school, where, hilariously, he is expected to direct a sixth-grade production of Das Rheingold (JR, of course, in the role of Alberich). Naïve and easily bullied, Bast finds himself coerced into acting as the JR Corp.’s public face, and throughout the novel he remains the only character aware that the new corporate mastermind is just a kid. The book’s comic invention is huge, complete with such vivid secondary characters as Crawley, a hunting-obsessed stockbroker who commissions Bast to write “zebra music” for the soundtrack to a film lobbying Congress to transport African big game to US national parklands, or Mr. Whiteback, the middle school principal who also runs the local bank from his office. Gaddis excels at serious farce, like Nathanael West on a massive canvas.