A Frolic of His Own
is a 1994 postmodern novel by American author William Gaddis. Told largely through dialogue, stream-of-consciousness monologue, and interpolated texts, A Frolic of His Own
follows Long Island college professor and playwright Oscar Crease as he becomes embroiled in an ever-growing list of lawsuits, including one against himself. The novel satirizes America’s litigiousness and the language of the law while using legalese as a tool to interrogate philosophical and artistic themes. The title is a quotation from the judge’s decision in the lawsuit Joel v. Morison
. A Frolic of His Own
won the 1994 National Book Award for fiction, Gaddis’s second. Best known for The Recognitions
, Gaddis is widely regarded as one of America’s pre-eminent postmodern novelists.
The novel announces its central theme in its iconic opening sentence: “Justice? —You get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.” One day, Oscar Crease, a middle-aged man of independent means, is run over by his own car, having shorted its ignition circuit while standing in front of it. His insurance company offers him a No Fault settlement, but Oscar refuses it, determined to sue instead. His stepsister, Christina, and her husband, Harry (a lawyer), visit him in the hospital, bringing him a legal opinion written by his father, Thomas, a circuit judge, concerning a case he has heard in his court: Szyrk v. the Village of Tatamount et al.
Writing plays while teaching history at a local college, Crease longs for his talent to be recognized; he is dismayed to discover that Hollywood producers have plagiarized a play of his. The play, Once at Antietam
, was written more than a decade ago and rejected for TV. It is based on the life of his grandfather, who during the Civil War hired two surrogates to fight for him, one on each side. The surrogates met at the Battle of Antietam and killed one another.
This story has been lifted for the plot of Hollywood blockbuster The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue
. Most distressingly for Oscar, reviews of the movie make it clear that the adaptation is a tasteless confection of bloody battle scenes and steamy sex. Confined to a wheelchair in his run-down home, Oscar determines to sue (again).
Meanwhile, Oscar’s girlfriend, Lily, has an ongoing legal battle of her own to finalize her divorce from her ex-husband. Her lawyer, Kevin, offers to take on Oscar’s suit against his insurer on a contingency basis. He won’t touch the plagiarism suit, but he puts him in touch with an old friend from law school who will, warning Oscar about the risks of litigation.
Judge Crease, Oscar’s father, is being criticized in the media for his decision in the case of Szyrk v. the Village of Tatamount et al.
The suit concerns a mongrel dog that became trapped in a monumental steel sculpture, Cyclone Seven
, in the impoverished town of Tatamount, Virginia. When the townsfolk wanted to destroy the sculpture in order to release the dog, the artist, Mr. Szyrk, appealed to the court, and Judge Crease granted an injunction preventing the townspeople from acting. The dog’s plight became national news. The dog, Spot, died when the sculpture was struck by lightning, and now Judge Crease faces an impeachment hearing.
Lawyer Harold Basie is unconvinced by Oscar’s plagiarism case but agrees to see the movie before making up his mind. He learns that the movie’s producer, Konstantine Kiester, is the same producer who rejected Once At Antietam
(although he has since changed his name to Jonathan Livingston Siegal). Basie agrees to take on the suit.
The producer offers to settle, but Oscar refuses. In court, the producer’s lawyer, Jawaharlal Mahdar Pai (an associate at Harry’s firm) argues that the movie is based not on Oscar’s play but on materials in the public domain, and the judge rules in his favor. Oscar’s lawyer, Harold Basie, is revealed as a fraud. Judge Crease, incensed by the decision, writes an anonymous appeal, which is accepted. Oscar is awarded the film’s profits in damages, but Pai manages to get this award reduced.
Lily learns that she has been cut out of her father’s will at the instigation of his avaricious priest, Reverend Bobby Joe. At the same time, she gets the good news that the lump in her breast is not cancer but leakage form her implants (she determines to sue).
Oscar learns that his father contributed to his legal victory, but before he can thank him, Judge Crease dies. Harry dies, too, of work-related stress, like Judge Crease not living to see victory in his last case.
Oscar receives his legal bill, which consumes all of his inheritance from his father. Christina learns that Harry’s firm has made themselves the beneficiaries of his life insurance policy.
Oscar settles the injury suit with his insurer, but he is dismayed to learn that the family history on which his play is based is incorrect.