Man vs. Madness
Recently I read Bernard Malamud‘s 1966 novel The Fixer, set in Russia in 1911. In it Yakov Bok is wrongly accused of killing a young boy and is jailed without a trial or benefit of legal defense – because his real “crime” is being a Jew. The Fixer is a fine, grim novel that made me aware of a kind of subgenre of literature and film, one that might be called Man vs. Madness: works in which a single sane person confronts – often unsuccessfully – a world gone crazy. One cool thing about this subgenre is that it lends itself equally to drama and comedy. There are several sub-sub-genres:
MAN IS CARRIED ALONG BY MADNESS TO HIS NEAR OR TOTAL RUIN. The Fixer belongs in this category, as do Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) and Kafka’s The Trial (1925). There is not much laughter in these great books. (Well, there’s a little in Invisible Man.) For laughs, we must turn to . . .
MAN FIGHTS MADNESS TO A STANDSTILL. Standout works in this category include the novel and film Catch-22 and the old Bob Newhart Show from the 1970s. The film version of Catch-22 starred Alan Arkin, who, as noted in my post of October 2009, “The Two Als,” had few peers when it came to portraying the only sane person in the room. One of those peers, though, is Newhart, whose eponymous sitcom had him playing a low-key psychologist on a hilarious, doomed mission to talk sense to his nutty patients (and colleagues and friends and neighbors). Taking an opposite approach to the madness – topping it rather than trying to counter it with logic – is Cleavon Little, a high-ranking official in the category of . . .
MAN OUTDOES MADNESS. What does a black man do when he is installed as sheriff of an all-white town in the Old West? He takes himself hostage, in a scene that is worth the price of the rental of Blazing Saddles. (See my post “That Thing They Do,” from November 2009.) Then there is Hawkeye from M*A*S*H (see post of December 2009). . .
What else is there? Somebody, Tell Cliff!