Reviewed by Jason Diamond
The Wilshire Sun
by Joshua Baldwin
Turtle Point Press, 128 p.
Is the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” actually a rule? Does the use of “can’t” exclude all other options? Can we infer what a book will be about just by looking at the thicker pieces of paper that hold the thinner pages inside? Is it that you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, or is it that you are totally allowed to judge a book by looking at its cover, but you might be damning a perfectly fine book just because it has some hideously abstract watercolor drawing connected to a paragraph on page 273? Then again, just because Chip Kidd did the artwork on the front of the book, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your time either. I think the very phrase in question was born a long time ago, and is mostly outdated. I think we should rethink it, and agree that you can maybe judge a book by its cover, but you probably shouldn’t.
I judged Joshua Baldwin’s peculiar novella, The Wilshire Sun, by its cover. I assessed that the front, with its Paramount Pictures logo, old timey picture of some baseball player’s torso, and upside down palm trees, seemed like something I might be interested in. The back cover, with the book’s synopsis of a young Brooklynite making his way out west to Hollywood, and a proclamation that the book is an “anti-bildungsroman,” and comparisons to S.J. Perelman and James Thurber, all made me think before opening The Wilshire Sun, that I should open it up to find out for sure.
Baldwin’s novella tells the story of Jacob, the aimless Brooklyn writer whose comical wanderings through Los Angeles yield very little adventure, but are blissfully confusing and similarly abstract. Baldwin smartly uses uncertainty to create humor, and a question of what is real and what is just in the narrator’s mind. Baldwin is vague about his time period, and whether Jacob is crazy, and if his journey has any cause at all. Baldwin creates a story with relics of a not-so-distant past, and has his character doing and describing things in the style of a John Cassavetes film. Baldwin is attempting to throw us off, making time less important (does anybody read Dick Tracy comic books anymore as the narrator does? Do people still work as self-described bellhops?) to synch our reading with Jacob’s delusions. He’s a 25-year-old stuck in a past that he didn’t experience first-hand.
The cover of The Wilshire Sun motivated me to read the entire book in one sitting, and then read it a second time after that. Baldwin is a smart and imaginative writer whose longer works I’m excited to read in the future. But one thing stuck with me long after I finished the novel–while the back cover claims that Jacob’s story is the “anti-bildungsroman,” I almost get the sense that this could be about the archetypal 20th Century bildungsroman dude, Holden Caulfield. If you took away the wealth and hyper-awareness of J.D. Salinger’s iconic character, and you had him in his mid-20s, quixotically chasing around his brother in Hollywood, The Wilshire Sun would be the story you’d get.