Bradley Smith is yet another talented writer who has been consigned to the dustbin of irrelevancy for purely political reasons. If The Man Who Saw His Own Liver is any indication, Smith deserves a place alongside Burroughs, Kerouac and other like-minded anti-establishment writers, but Smith’s crime is that he was just a little too anti-establishment. Specifically, Smith’s status as a Holocaust revisionist will forever overshadow his skills as a novelist. Mention his name in polite company and the pious lefties will chant in unison: “How can you say anything NICE about Bradley Smith? He’s a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews ZOMG!!!!!!!1111”
For the rest of you, check out The Man Who Saw His Own Liver.
Originally a closet drama first staged in the early eighties, Smith’s novel seems rather dated by our standards, as it concerns the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation that it presented. Indeed, for a book with such a listless and indecisive protagonist, the book gets overly preachy and didactic at points. Despite this, The Man Who Saw His Own Liver is a nice meditation on the conflict between the individual and authority, as well as the conflict between an individual’s dreams and his reality.
The central character of Liver is A.K. Swift, an ordinary working-class schmo with a wife, a stepdaughter, a senile, wheelchair-ridden mother, and constant dreams of the world going up in nuclear flame. Smith’s low-key, folksy writing style accurately conveys Swift’s uneducated but highbrow torment, illustrating his lonely world with deliberateness and frankness:
The physicist described how when the holocaust happens, firestorms of a thousand degrees Fahrenheit will be set in motion, sucking the air out of our lungs. We will choke to death in clouds of toxic gases. Radioactive dust clouds will cover thousands of square miles of the earth and bring with them excruciating pain, gut-wrenching sickness and death.
Swift’s fear of the mushroom cloud apocalypse leads him to devise fantastical schemes of giving his family poison capsules in the event that they survive a nuclear bombardment, before he finally settles on becoming a tax resister. Unfortunately, he gets cold feet from attending meetings with his fellow peaceniks and ends up sliding back into his daily routine of work, television and mind-numbing drudgery.
He thinks he’s Henry David Thoreau when he’s actually Walter Mitty.
This is the defining conflict of Liver; the near-impossibility of facing down Leviathan, fighting its machinations. The struggle to be David, taking down Goliath. Not only that, Smith approaches the question from the other angle too: the individual’s struggle with the authority he is given. This is seen in Swift’s relationship with his Mexican wife Alicia, who dotes on him in the Latin feminine fashion as he finds himself increasingly at odds with her desire to please him:
I don’t know what kind of plans we can make. I’ve tried to explain to Alicia about income taxes and community property, how we ought to consider divorcing now so she can protect whatever property or savings we might accumulate, but Alicia is deaf to everything but marriage and love. She wants to have a good husband and serve him all his life.
Smith’s perspective on individual liberty in an increasingly collectivized world is rather pessimistic. While as I said, his protagonist gets annoyingly preachy on occasion, the book closes out without any sort of resolution. Swift listlessly decides he doesn’t have the power to stop his government from pushing the world towards armageddon and just sort of continues on with his life. While he is uncomfortable with his wife’s submissiveness, he lacks the backbone to talk her into a divorce or otherwise convince her to stop.
If there’s a final answer to the question of the individual against authority, this book doesn’t have it.
I should also mention that this edition of Liver includes an additional short story by Smith, “Joseph Conrad and the Monster from the Deep.” While I enjoyed it—it’s an autobiographical tale about how Smith accidentally killed his baby brothers when he was little—it clashes stylistically with the rest of the book and probably should have been left out.
Aside from these issues, The Man Who Saw His Own Liver is a fantastic novel and worth adding to your collection.
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