The Bear Went Up The Mountain, William Kotzwinkle

Morton, 1997, 320 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-5438-3

How’s this for a cute premise:

An English literature teacher isolates himself to write a novel. After he finishes the manuscript, it’s destroyed by a freak fire. Undaunted, the teacher writes another -much trashier- manuscript and leaves it under a tree for safekeeping. (Don’t ask why) Then, in another freak occurrence, a bear discovers the manuscript, reads it and finds out that there are a lot of sex scenes and that the fishing scenes are technically accurate (“This book has everything!” wonders the bear). Shortly after, the bear -now self-named Hal Jam- goes to New York and submits the manuscript to a major editor. Inevitably, perhaps, Hal becomes a literary success, goes on a book-promotion tour, thwarts a vice-presidential assassination attempt and generally becomes a superstar. Meanwhile, the poor English professor quietly goes bonkers.

A tall tale? A comic fantasy? Obviously, The Bear Went up the Mountain is an outright satire of the publishing industry, where the notion of a pure-and-true bear becoming a publishing superstar isn’t as much of a stretch as you’d expect. After all, few celebrities are so disconnected from the object of their fame than writers. No one seriously expect to have *proof* to connect Person to Book. Writers are almost expected to be eccentric. They don’t even have to be good conversationalists.

Plus, while the New York Publishing scene isn’t quite as insane as the Hollywood cinema crowd, it’s awfully close. In Kotwinkle’s novel, it’s difficult to be overly amused by the excesses of Hal Jam’s publishers / agents / so-called-friends because we expect them to happen, much like THIS IS SPINAL TAP isn’t so funny after fifteen more years of increasingly weird rock’n’roll acts. (Still, your reviewer chuckled when one character cockily declared something to the effect that “teachers are the most important part of the publishing scene, for without them there would be no readers.”)

The process leading to Hal Jam’s growing reputation is entertaining, as is the overall tone of the book. Seeing Hal Jam’s simple bearish though-process being confused for shyness, cleverness or ruggedness (Hemingway comes up frequently) isn’t exactly original -media idiocy is a big and obvious target-, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, it becomes obvious that Kotzwinkle’s initial concept can’t sustain a full-length novel. Hal’s amusing adventures are intercut with far less interesting scenes featuring the original novel’s author and while there is some funny stuff in there, it just can’t compete with the main plotline. Other vignettes, like Hal’s discovery of a musical gangsta group, also seemed tacked-on the main story without any discernible payoff. The narrative would have been far more adequately written as a novella, or even a short story, than a full novel.

To this padding problem, we can also add a badly-handled conclusion, which doesn’t quite match the tone and fun of the rest of the novel. Granted, some issues had to be settled, but unfortunately, the resolution chosen by Kotzwinkle robs the book of much impact. (The epilogue is amusing, though, and ties in nicely with one of Hal Jam’s book-long obsessions.)

Still, it’s all in good fun. The Bear Went up the Mountain isn’t a demanding read (it’s clearly written and set in large type) and as such -combined with the book’s other problems- should best be considered as an item to check out at the library, not really a potential purchase. That is, unless you’re a bear who wants to make it big in the publishing industry…

(Finally, a special mention should be made of Peter de Sève’s fantastic cover illustration, which perfectly captures the whimsical looniness of a grown Bear in busy New York.)

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