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Elliott Baker Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Buffalo, New York, 15 December 1922. Education: Indiana University, Bloomington, B.S. 1944. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Infantry, 1943-46. Career: Writer for television programs U.S. Steel Hour and Robert Montgomery Show; script supervisor, Zero One series, BBC Television, London.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Fine Madness. New York, Putnam, and London, Joseph, 1964.

The Penny Wars. New York, Putnam, 1968; London, Joseph, 1969.

Pocock and Pitt. New York, Putnam, 1971; London, Joseph, 1972.

Klynt's Law. New York, Harcourt Brace, and London, Joseph, 1976.

And We Were Young. New York, Times, 1979; London, Joseph, 1980.

Unhealthful Air. New York, Viking, 1988.

Doctor Lopez. London, Holofernes, 1995.

Percy, Bob, and Assenpoop. Van Nuys, California, Sacred BeveragePress, 1999.

Short Stories

Unrequited Loves. New York, Putnam, and London, Joseph, 1974.

Plays

The Deliquent, The Hipster, and The Square (broadcast, 1959).Published in The Delinquent, The Hipster, The Square, and the Sandpile Series, edited by Alva I. Cox, Jr., St. Louis, Bethany Press, 1962.

Screenplays:

A Fine Madness, 1966; Luv, 1967; Viva Max, 1970;Breakout (with Howard B. Kreitsek and Mark Norman). Columbia Pictures, 1975.

Radio Plays:

The Delinquent, The Hipster, and The Square, 1959.

Television Plays:

The Right Thing, 1956 (U.K); Crisis in Coroma(U.S. Steel Hour), 1957; The Entertainer, from play by John Osborne, 1976; Malibu, from novel by William Murray, 1983; Lace, 1984, and Lace II, 1985, from novel by Shirley Conran.

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Manuscript Collection:

Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Elliott Baker's first novels, A Fine Madness and The Penny Wars, demonstrate a diversity of ideas and themes but focus on moral and psychological growth and the life of the imagination. They are comic views of modern America informed by an underlying sense of tragedy or tragic potential. Baker's later works continue to present this tension.

A Fine Madness depicts the triumph of an artist, a kind of American Gulley Jimson, over the forces of conformity and death-in-life. Samson Shillitoe, a working-class hero, a Blakean poet driven by powerful artistic and sexual urges, is pursued and seized by a group of psychiatric experimenters. He is analyzed, institutionalized, and lobotomized but emerges whole, sane, and uncastrated, his creative (and procreative) energies intact. Baker uses his inside knowledge of modern psychotherapy to show the artist at war with a mechanical world and the mechanized minds of clinical psychology. Shillitoe is obsessed by imagination, driven by forces beyond his control. He is amoral, anti-social, unconcerned with "adjustment" or mental health. The psychologists view him only as a specimen, a sample of neurosis or psychosis. Shillitoe's view triumphs: he conceives and produces an epic-sized poem and his common-law wife conceives his child. Life and creation vanquish death and destruction.

In The Penny Wars Baker creates a nostalgic vision of adolescence on the eve of World War II. Tyler Bishop, another rebel, grows up in 1939 in squalor and confusion of values. An unreconstructed liberal, Tyler worries about the Nazis while America's smugness and isolationism seem invincible, worries about his budding sexuality, worries about the world he will inherit. Himself a WASP, he stands up for Jews and Negroes, fights bigotry and ignorance—and loses. Through a series of social confrontations, Tyler begins to find his way toward a self-sufficient individualism.

Unrequited Loves, a set of related novellas, documents the youth (1939-45) of a persona named "Elliott Baker," especially initiations into love and sex. Each story is a comic odyssey wherein the young man discovers the battles and truces in the war between men and women. It is Baker's most genial and optimistic book, focusing the nostalgia of The Penny Wars on our national pastimes—love, war, baseball, growing up.

Pocock and Pitt is a satirical exploration of identity and childhood in the modern world. Wendell Pocock, American middle-class victim of repeated heart attacks, becomes Winston Pitt, British worker in an organ bank. A pawn in an international espionage duel, he discovers genuine love and redemption after exhausting the cold consolations of history and philosophy. The novel develops the slapstick mediations of A Fine Madness and widens Baker's scope to the state of the whole modern world.

Klynt's Law is a tour de force in combining genres—a satirical "college novel," a thriller of Las Vegas criminal shenanigans, a study of parapsychology and gambling compulsions. In it, Tobias Klynt (a.k.a. Kleinmann), an archetypal klutz, breaks with his shrew-ish wife, his university career, and the straight world to put the paranormal talents of four students to work on roulette wheels. They have evolved the perfect "system" to beat Las Vegas but fail to understand that gambling is not for winners. The irony is alternately black and farcical, and, as in all good gambling stories, winners are losers.

The same is true in And We Were Young, which traces four exrifle-squad members in the red-scare years after World War II. A tangle of coincidences—or synchronistic ironies—brings them together in New York City, where each betrays his youthful desires and beliefs in the enveloping glaciers of the Cold War. The book extends Baker's picture of the generation that grew up with World War II, begun in The Penny Wars and Unrequited Loves, and develops his vision of our society as it changed radically in a new international-ist world.

In Unhealthful Air Baker updates F. Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, by way of Damon Runyon. The novel follows the adventures of a devious, cynical Hollywood scriptwriter and gambler, Corey Burdick, who becomes entangled with a horserace-fixing syndicate, an Ozark nymphet, and her brutal husband. The book deals wittily with movie-TV clichés and the way our lives imitate the "art" of the movies. At one point, Burdick wonders in exasperation, "Was there any act of man that hadn't already appeared on the motion picture screen?" Using his native wit, Burdick manages to survive the "unhealthful air" of Los Angeles—and even to prosper.

—William J. Schafer

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