Acceptable Losses by Irwin Shaw

This was Shaw’s last finished book and gets bagged a lot by critics who regret how different he is here from his early work. I want to be more generous than that. It’s intensely personal, derived from the author’s life. That’s how it feels and, subsequently reading a little about the end of his life, that’s how it was. Not being a fan of sitting through blow-by-blows of other people’s dreams, it was pleasing that the parts of the book where he is drifting in and out of life – an operation was botched and bitterly retold – are real. It reminded me of my father’s emergence with some brain damage from a coma. He talked of the most surreal things as if they could be touched. There was no difference in his brain between them and those around him. Shaw does a good job of conveying that close to death dream state.

One could read this book as a straightforward account of the publishing industry, but it isn’t. I think Shaw is the publisher in this story. But he is also the writer of pop corn which feeds the publisher, against his long-standing scruples. It’s a statement on his own journey from writer who became an exile during the McCarthy inquisitions to that source of regret for his critics. It’s about coming to terms with that and with his mortality. It’s written for everybody in his life and indulges in that insidiously attractive condition of regret.

He is, if you like, sitting at the chess board at the end of the game, alone, mulling over what happened, what might have happened and, perhaps, what is to come. And, indeed, it made me think that it’s a great subject for a chess or bridge book ‘Acceptable Losses’. When? How? Why?

It’s not a great work by any means, but it has something in it worth reading. I half-heartedly recommend it on that basis.



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