Tag Archives: american literature

The Spectator Bird: Wallace Stegner (1976)

“At our age, news is all bad. I don’t like standing in line for the guillotine.”

It’s the 1970s, and 69-year-old, retired literary agent Joe Allston lives with his wife Ruth near Palo Alto, California. Their only son, Curtis died years earlier while surfing, maybe an accident, maybe not, and now Joe and Ruth live a quiet life. Joe, “irritable and depressed,” is pushed by his wife into gathering together all of the papers and notes from his career in order to write a memoir:

The writers I represented left their monuments, consequential or otherwise. I might have done the same if I had not, at the bottom of the Depression, been forced to chose whether I would be a talent broker or a broke talent. I drifted into my profession as a fly lands on flypaper, and my monument is not in the libraries, or in men’s minds, or even in the paper-recycling plants, but in those files. They are the only thing that prove I ever existed.

Joe who sees himself as a “wise cracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people and a tourist in his own,” has many regrets about his life; he feels as though he’s been a “spectator bird” and “that there had not been one significant event in life he planned.” As Joe mulls over the dullness of his life and the road that brought him to this point, a postcard arrives from Astrid, a Danish countess the Allstons met during a holiday decades earlier. The postcard revives old memories and Joe digs out a journal he kept of the trip. The trip to Denmark was partly for Joe to investigate his roots and discover exactly why his mother left Denmark, setting sail for America at age 16. The trip is also an escape from the guilt and regrets over their estranged son’s death. While the holiday should be restorative, it becomes an unsettling Jamesian exploration of the Innocent American Abroad.

Joe narrates The Spectator Bird, and when the novel opens, it’s clear that Joe is obsessed with aging and dying. This state of affairs isn’t helped by the fact that a neighbour is dying of cancer, or that Ruth visits the local care home and encourages Joe to do the same. Then on top of that, another neighbour, an elderly doctor who is falling apart slowly but still manages to put a brave face on it, harasses Joe about his morbid frame of mind.

I had been sitting on the old timbers for about ten minutes when Ben Alexander drove in from the county road in his convertible. His top was down, his hair was tangled, and he had Edith Patterson in the seat beside him, looking like a racoon in her wraparound Hollywood shades. It was all so young and gay and California that I had to laugh. Ben is the very chief of the tribe that makes old age out to be a time of liberation. He is writing a book about it.

Ben and Ruth can see that Joe is having a miserable time aging, and they both have strategies, which always fail, to shake Joe from this frame of mind. The result is that Ruth has become more of a mother to Joe–so much so that he keeps her at arm’s length emotionally as he struggles with regrets and aging. Poor Ruth, who likes to air all emotions, has the patience of a saint. We see Joe in the present day, uncomfortable in a shifting social environment, reluctant to be around young people as they remind him of what he’s lost. He wonders if they notice him, and at the same time when he learns of a neighbour’s imminent demise he can’t confront the reality of death and instead finds it easier to pretend all is normal.

Getting old is like standing in a long, slow line. You wake up out of the shuffle and torpor only at those moments when the line moves you one step closer to the window.

The book goes back and forth between 1970s California and Joe’s reading of the 1954 journal which Ruth insists be read aloud after she spies it in Joe’s hands. Joe does so with some reluctance as it reveals both his state of mind at the time and some rather unsavoury events that took place.

All too often authors use journals from the past or an unexpected postcard as a cheap segue into the past. Here the past and the present are perfectly and skillfully blended as we see Joe in his 40s and Joe decades later farther down the road as he faces old age. This is an incredibly introspective novel, told from Joe’s often morbid view, and that morbid view, particularly striking on the subject of age, is alleviated by Joe’s self-deprecating humour. Since this is Joe’s story, Ruth is an appendage–the little woman in the background and while she sighs a lot at Joe’s attitude to life, we never really get to know her. But then I don’t think Joe knows her either. … I can’t imagine that they had much of an emotional life together. It can’t have been easy being married to Joe. I listened to the audio book version which was beautifully read by Edward Herrmann, but unfortunately Ruth’s voice comes across as simpering.

But apart from those criticisms, I loved this book and enjoyed it far more than I expected to. This is a sombre examination of the life of one ordinary man–nothing heroic in his past, no great deeds, but as he ages and sees that nothing of him will remain after his death, he is full of regrets. This is a man whose choices were inseparable from, and seminal to, his character.

My commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue. There are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better good and good, but why cry over it twenty years later? Because in every choice there is a component maybe a big component, of pain .



Filed under Fiction, Stegner Wallace

The Good House: Ann Leary

“I get so paranoid when I drink; that’s what AA and rehab will do for you.”

The funny, tart voice of a stubborn, alcoholic woman (in denial) as she careens though her life makes The Good House the most entertaining, funny and surprising book I’ve read in a long time.

Divorced 60-year-old real estate agent Hildy Good is one of Wendover’s most successful businesswomen. Wendover, located on Boston’s North shore, is a strange blend of legacy residents (Hildy can trace her family back to the Salem witch trials) and new money incomers who are looking for a better quality life for their children. Hildy capitalizes on local news (and gossip) to land listings and sales. So what if she drinks too much. That’s her business isn’t it? And her life was going great, wasn’t it, until her two adult daughters arranged an intervention, and Hildy went off to rehab.

The Good House

When we meet Hildy, she’s out of rehab, back at work, but listings and sales are dropping. A former employee, “with all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking,” is her biggest competitor and Hildy’s stint in rehab may have allowed the competitor an edge that Hildy is now desperately chasing. With a mortgage she can’t really afford, and still paying for therapy (and more) for her two daughters, Hildy is squeezed to the max.

Hildy, our unreliable narrator, is in control of what we see, but even so through the denial, the cracks show. At rehab, she didn’t think she belonged, but she completed the programme in order to get her daughters off her back and so that she could see her grandson.

How could anyone, besides my ridiculous, ungrateful spoiled daughters, imagine that I had a problem with alcohol?

She used to drink with a friend, but now that she is supposedly dry, she drinks alone on the sly. She has ‘rules’ about drinking, and she keeps a secret stash in the cellar where no one will find it. She likes herself more when she’s drunk, and thinks alcohol enables her success. Over the course of the novel, her relationship with alcohol becomes more and more problematic. Whether she’s driving drunk, experiencing blackouts, or sneaking vodka at family holidays, Hildy’s life is out-of-control.

While the novel is ostensibly about Hildy’s alcoholism, other characters in Hildy’s life drag her into various problems. Rebecca, a beautiful, troubled, wealthy newcomer becomes friends with Hildy–drinking friends, and so we see how alcohol impairs Hildy’s judgement and how it impacts her emotional responses. Then there’s Hildy’s long-cold romance with Frank Getchell, a local bachelor with desirable legacy property, who makes a rather lucrative living collecting trash and doing various construction jobs. At yet another remove, we see how Hildy functions in a community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, and the locals who used to own the big properties are now lucky if they can get a job working for the new owners.

Hildy is always an entertaining narrator whether she’s complaining about a fellow dinner guest using any excuse to talk about her “annoying writing,” or bitching about a rival grandmother:

Honestly, if she hadn’t had my grandchild in her arms, I would have clocked her on the head. Could she have been more obnoxious about Grady? I’ve never liked Nancy Watson. She’s a nitwit. When not watching Grady, she’s busy “scrapbooking,” which is her hobby, and Tess is always showing me the sickly-sweet scrapbooks featuring Grady that Nancy puts together, seemingly every week. I always smile as Tess flips the pages for me, and I say things like “Imagine having all that time to devote to something like this.”

The Good House is consistently funny from the first page until the end. Hildy always surprised me with just how far she was prepared to go. She’s dug down so deep in denial that there were numerous occasions when I was deceived, and either laughed out loud at the consequences or shock my head in concern. Unreliable narrator, psychiatry and real estate are all buttons for me.

I was sorry to finish this novel, and sorry to say goodbye to Hildy–a woman who’s extremely capable, someone who has an uncanny knack at ‘reading’ people but who is blind to herself. At one point she brags to local psychiatrist:

I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.

According to Hildy:

I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives–you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before, the marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s more clearly hers--well you get the idea. 

Finally, beyond the entertainment factor there’s real quality here. Hildy’s youth is seen in shimmering, poignant flashbacks, and it’s really really well done.

TBR list

(There’s a film of this book in production. I would have preferred to have seen a miniseries–thinking Big Little Lies)


Filed under Fiction, Leary Ann, posts

My Mortal Enemy: Willa Cather (1926)

“We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeletons.”

Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, a story of an unhappy marriage and the bitterly unhappy woman who gave up a fortune for love, is reminiscent of both Edith Wharton and Henry James. In this instance, our Jamesian narrator is Nellie, a teenage girl when this novella opens, and the story follows Nellie’s observations of an older woman over the course of three meetings that take place during a ten-year period.

Nellie has heard so much about Myra Henshawe, and to Nellie, Myra’s life is swathed in romance. Nellie’s mother and Aunt Lydia were friends with Myra Henshawe (Myra Driscoll as she was known), and they all grew up in the small southern Illinois town of Parthia. Myra lived with her wealthy uncle, and she was his heir, but everything derailed when Myra eloped with Oswald Henshawe against her uncle’s express wishes. Myra married Oswald knowing that she would be completely disinherited

My Mortal enemy

When 15-year-old Nellie first meets Myra, the young impressionable girl already has images of romance in her head, and those ideas evaporate when she meets the flesh-and-blood woman who is now plump, matronly and 45 years old. Myra and her husband live in New York, and while they are affectionate towards each other, there are sinewy troubling undercurrents in their marriage. Nellie who finds Myra “perplexing,” is disturbed by the meeting and her observations, and yet Nellie is too young to process what she sees. Myra has a way of taking control of every situation by making unsettling comments. Nellie notes that “it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one didn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.”

“How good it is,” my mother exclaimed, “to hear Myra laugh again!”

Yes it was good. It was sometimes terrible, too, as I was to find out later. She had an angry laugh, for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh–I was destined to hear that one very often! Untoward circumstances, accidents, even disasters provoked her mirth. And it was always mirth, not hysteria; there was a spark of zest and wild humour in it.  

A second meeting with the Henshawes occurs shortly afterwards, and this meeting takes place when Nellie and her Aunt Lydia travel to New York. This visit yields more glimpses into the Henshawes’ marriage. There are tensions, hints of unhappiness, and Myra’s extravagances (which Oswald comments on but can’t curb).

During this visit, Oswald makes a strange request of Aunt Lydia regarding a pair of cufflinks. This is a fascinating section of this short, finely structured novella, for the incident seems to make Myra, at least in Aunt Lydia’s eyes, even more unreasonable, but there very well could be a deeper story about the cufflinks.

The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs.

I’ve included that quote simply because it is so beautifully evocative.

The final meeting takes place ten years later when Nellie is 25 and Myra is 55. I shan’t say more of the novel as to detail the meeting would give away too much of the plot.

For this reader, My Mortal Enemy encapsulates the mysteries and subtle politics of marriage.  Clearly Myra and Oswald loved each other once, and Myra made a tremendous sacrifice to be with him. Does she regret it? Did she make the right choice? Would she have been any happier if she’d turned away her impoverished suitor and kept the money and the mansion? Are we human beings, flawed as we are, capable of forgiving someone for letting us sacrifice? And then there’s the incident of the cuff links, and Myra’s bits of hidden money.

Aunt Lydia seems hard on Myra and I don’t think that’s totally fair. It’s impossible (unless there’s gross misbehaviour) to untangle the knotty threads of a marriage.

Light and silence: they heal all wounds–all but one, and that is healed by dark and silence. 

TBR stack


Filed under Cather, Willa, Fiction

Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara

Joe was like a young fellow that never grew up. In many respects that was what he was. But if you let it end there, you wouldn’t have the full picture of the man. I can’t believe that what I was allowed to see of Joe was all there was. If that was all there was, he was a dull man, perhaps a stupid man.”

Joe Chapin is the main character of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick. There’s nothing really special about Joe, and he would have been a very average man if not for his inherited wealth. Born into the privilege that always cocooned him and also denied some fundamental, necessary experiences, he attended law school, married and had two children. He was a good husband, a good father, and as a conservative, he was also a lifelong member of the Republican Party. He never travelled to Europe, didn’t fight in a World War, but he did have political ambitions which grew, almost preposterously, from his innate sense of self-worth. In many ways it’s a small life, and it’s definitely a sad life. From early childhood, Joe was conditioned to act a certain way, think a certain way, and only mingle with certain types of people. Joe was a man who never stepped out of line–except once, and that incident led to his permanent unhappiness.

ten north frederickTen North Frederick is the address of Joe’s home–an old mansion in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. This was also Joe’s parents’ home; Joe was born in the house, and he died there. He obeyed his family’s wishes to keep the family home in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the most elite address in Gibbsville, because the best families–not the richest or the most fashionable–lived in that section of town, and even Joe’s address said a great deal about the sort of man he was.  We could say that Joe was defined by external markers rather than internal. Joe was, in fact, a rather hollow person.

The novel’s focus is on the hypocrisy of small-time American life. In the introduction, written by Jonathan Dee in my Penguin Classics edition, Dee argues that O’Hara’s work is primed for a renaissance. He states that the novel is “pitilessly accurate” in “freezing the details of a bygone era in American history,” and citing the 2008 financial clash, that the novel blasts “the great American fairy tale of class mobility.” One of my pet beliefs is that no one writes as well about the excesses of wealth and the tentacles of selective power than Americans, and Ten North Frederick, surely one of the giants of 20th century American literature bolsters my argument. O’Hara’s style is heavy & ponderous–think Dreiser.

The novel begins with Joe’s funeral, and then the narrative expands with various pallbearers’ versions of Joe. A picture begins to form of the man who was the epitome of conformity, but then O’Hara moves in closer to see Joe through family members, and cracks begin to appear in the image we have until, by the end of the book, the vision we have of Joe and his life is of a big blank hemmed in and defined by conformity. Joe moved in a circle of influential people who all thought like him, shared the same values and beliefs, and rarely, if ever, stepped outside of their comfort zone.

In Gibbsville, in 1909, only a few men could tell with exactness the true wealth of the wealthy Gibbsville families. A family that had assets worth $800,000 could, and usually did, live in great comfort without spending much more money than a family worth $200,00. It was a matter of pride with the best people of Gibbsville to live comfortably, but without the kind of display that would publicly reveal the extent of their wealth. A few families, whose names were given to large holdings in coal lands and to breweries and meat-packing houses, lived in American luxury. They were the owners of the early motor cars. they employed the larger staff of servants. They had summer homes at distant resorts and led the lists of contributors to church and charity. Their wealth was a known fact and they were free to enjoy it. But behind them, obscured by the known wealthy, were the well-off, who possessed considerable fortunes and who quietly ran the town.

The book goes back in time over Joe Chapin’s life. We meet his parents locked in a bitterly miserable marriage. Joe’s neurotic, sexually repressed, vindictive mother Charlotte transfers all of her ambition and attention to her son while sidelining her husband into becoming a marginal, distant figure in his own house. Joe eventually marries Edith Stokes, a woman made in the same mould as his mother, and so he steps from his mother’s leash to his wife’s. Nothing is spontaneous with these people, and everything is decided by a name, an address, or a bank account. Here’s Edith planning the wedding invitations which are designed to let people know whether or not they are important enough to be invited to the reception:

Her lists had been checked and rechecked long before the engagement announcements, so that when she took the list to Charlotte Chapin, the mother of the groom and the bride-to-be were almost in perfect accord. Names marked with an “R” for reception remained marked with an “R”; a few, but a very few, marked with a “C” for church-only, were remarked with an “R” because Charlotte felt that this husband or that husband was slightly more important in the business affairs of the town than Edith could be expected to know. “It will mean a lot to Joe later on, Edith dear. I’d have done just what you did, but if you let down the bars just a little bit, just in one or two instances, I know it will be appreciated. And they’re worthwhile people, and in one more generation there wouldn’t be the slightest question about their being invited. So don’t you think we ought to be nice to them now?”

And so Joe’s life is controlled from the cradle to the grave–first by his mother, and then by his wife. He rarely makes a decision about his own life; his college is selected for him; his friends are arranged–even his college roommate is no accident, and Joe’s carefully conditioned to not question the status quo or who should be considered as acceptable society. There are many great scenes in the book that illustrate this but my favourite occurs when Joe’s mother, Charlotte takes offence with how 10-year-old  Joe is treated by another mother, Blanche Montgomery, at a child’s birthday party. She vindictively colludes with an acquaintance  to punish Blanche by shutting her out of the ‘best’ society.

The exclusion of the Montgomerys from the informal little dinner club was not noticed until the unannounced twenty-couple limit had been reached and nominations closed. It was an informal club in that there was no clubhouse, it had no rooms, no place for a bulletin board, no stationery. Its name was The Second Thursdays, without the word club. When it was seen that the Montgomerys were not included (and it became known they had not been asked), their social indispensability was at an end. Charlotte’s strategy had included extra, direct snubs for Blanche Montgomery, but she need not have planned so carefully. The absence of the Montgomerys from The Second Thursdays lowered their standing in the eyes of nonmembers and members–and no one, or almost no one, ever knew what had happened. One day they were a first family; then in a short while they were just another old family with money. And even Blanche Montgomery did not suspect Charlotte, who was not a member of The Second Thursdays; nor did she suspect Bess, a woman incapable of intrigue. In her tears and anger she blamed herself, but she never discovered the real reason for the snub. Perhaps she spent too much money on clothes? Perhaps she had flirted with someone’s husband? Possibly they did not like the color she had chosen for the repainting of the old Montgomery mansion? She was fully aware of the enormity of her failure: not even being married to a Montgomery was enough to carry her, but being married to her was enough to hurt a Mongtomery. In 1930, when her son was a lawyer for the big bootleggers and organized prostitution, dressed like a bootlegger and one of the prostitutes’ best patrons–she still blamed herself, and wished that her boy could have turned out like Joe Chapin.

The novel is packed with unforgettable characters: the vicious, yet hale and hearty politician, Mike Slattery, a very powerful man who runs the local political scene, and his wife, Peg who wanted the wives of the local elite  to “not forget for a minute that she was the most powerful human influence upon one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth.” If you want a favour–someone run out-of-town or an abortion arranged, then Mike is your man. Mike never forgets that people owe him, and he sees himself as the puppetmaster behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the Chapins never really understood that Slattery’s power did not run on the same level as their own. Since a great deal of the novel’s focus is on conformity and hypocrisy, it’s not too surprising that there’s a thread of sex–illicit, secret, repressed–running throughout the book and seen in the thoughts and actions of several characters.

Ten North Frederick, which was incidentally made into a film, is the portrait of a privileged American but it’s also the portrait of the first few decades of the American century with landmark historic events which don’t touch the Chapin family. WWI takes place off in the distance, prohibition reigns–not that the alcohol ban makes any difference whatsoever to Joe and his friends who always have plenty of alcohol to drink, the 1928 crash, (Joe loses money but life doesn’t change),  the depression and there are distant rumblings of WWII. Ten North Frederick is a monumental achievement. It begins with Joe’s funeral and the many versions of this man, so at first Joe appears in our vision as a complicated piece of origami which over the course of the book is unfolded, through his various relationships, to reveal … a blank, creased piece of paper, a remarkably empty human being. And yet at the same time, it’s to O’Hara’s credit that the character of Joe remains fundamentally sympathetic.

** For foreign readers, there are a few passages of Pennsylvania Dutch which I had to work my work through phonetically.


Filed under Fiction, O'Hara John

Osborne’s Revenge by Henry James

Emma recently read and blogged about one of my favourite Henry James novels, Washington Square, and I was motivated to return to one of my favourite authors. It was a matter of luck that I selected the short story, Osborne’s Revenge (1868), which clocks in at a mere 28 pages on my kindle, for the story is not only a perfect companion piece to Washington Square, but it’s also quintessential James.

The title indicates where the story will take us, but since this is Henry James, nothing is simple, and a great deal is submerged beneath that oh-so-polite behaviour. The story opens with the statement that “Philip Osborne and Robert Graham were intimate friends,” but to outsiders, the relationship is a “puzzle.”

Disinterested parties were at a loss to discover how Osborne had come to set his heart upon an insignificant, lounging invalid, who, in general company, talked in monosyllables, in a weak voice, and gave himself the airs of one whose nature had endowed with the right to be fastidious, without ever having done a stroke of work. Graham’s partisans, on the other hand, who were chiefly women (which, by the way, effectively relieves him from the accusation occasionally brought against him of being “effeminate”) were quite unable to penetrate the motives of his interest in a commonplace, hard-working lawyer, who addressed a charming woman as if he were exhorting a jury of grocers and undertakers, and viewed the universe as one vast “case.”

Following the advice of his physician, Graham is spending the summer at some medicinal springs in New York. Osborne hasn’t heard from his friend in some time when he finally receives a letter in which Graham confesses that he remains at the springs as he is “charmed” by a young woman he met there. From a mutual acquaintance, Osborne learns that Graham has fallen in love with a certain Miss Congreve, and that an announcement of an engagement was expected when a Mr Holland appeared at the resort and that Miss Congreve precipitously “transferred her favours” to the newcomer. According to the mutual acquaintance, the gossipy witness, Mrs Dodd, Graham is dying from a “broken heart.” Indeed, Graham seems to be shaken by the affair and shortly afterwards, he commits suicide.

Osborne doesn’t recover from his friend’s death and with some notion of revenge, he travels to Newport in order to seek out Miss Congreve….

This is a wonderful early Henry James short story, and as we so often see with this author, the main character (Osborne in this case) is actually outside of the main story–the failed love affair between Graham and Miss Congreve. All of the passion–the courtship, jealousy, despair and suicide have occurred off the pages, and instead we have Osborne left with the aftermath. Once again we see the passivity of Jamesian inaction, the complexities of human behaviour, motivation and psychology, and the turmoil of unexpressed emotion just underneath the surface of polite society.

How would Charlotte or Emily Bronte dealt with such a plot as Osborne’s Revenge? A rhetorical question, of course, but their pages would have included more passion, more action, and yet perhaps James’s subtle story is so exquisite because it’s fairly easy to step into the shoes of Osborne and hover around Miss Congreve as he tries to hate her, struggles with indecision and tries to make her pay for the death of his friend.


Filed under Fiction, James, Henry

The Old Maid by Edith Wharton

Several times in 2010 I told myself I’d get back to Edith Wharton. I didn’t. But after writing my Best of 2010 list, I decided it was about time I got back to the books and authors I’d intended to revisit. That’s the good thing about compiling a list; it made me face all the reading I didn’t do.

So back to Edith Wharton–one of my favourite American authors. I’ve read her biggies: Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and a couple of others–including The Reef. It was time for something else, and I selected The Old Maid. Part of this selection rested on the 1939 Bette Davis film. I decided to read the book and then follow-up immediately with Bette. A good plan as it turns out.

The Old Maid is part of a series of four novellas intended by Wharton to depict Old New York in various decades: False Dawn (the 1840s), The Old Maid (the 1850s), The Spark (the 1860s), and New Year’s Day (the 1870s). Collectively these four novellas depict the codes and customs of New York society; these four novellas were published as  Old New York in 1924, but The Old Maid was written in 1921 and serialized in 1922. If you’ve read Edith Wharton before, you are familiar with the manner in which she places the individual in society–with characters sometimes trying to break the rules of society such as Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence, or The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart–a spectator to the society she loathes and yet strives to be a part of. Thus in Wharton’s tales, what is often at stake is individualism vs. society. Perhaps that explains why The Custom of the Country’s opportunistic Undine Spragg is my all-time favourite Wharton female character.

The Old Maid is not an exception to Wharton’s premise–that society seems to be an organic being that will always further its own agenda with its members ready to winnow out the rebels for the collective good of society. The rebel in The Old Maid isn’t someone who fights against society’s rules, but rather someone who falls foul of socially acceptable behaviour and pays for it for the rest of her life.

The story opens with an introduction to the best families of New York society–in particular, the boringly respectable Ralstons:

In the old New York of the ‘thirties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. of these were the Ralstons. The sturdy English and the rubicund and heavier Dutch had mingled to produce a prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society. To “do things handsomely” had always been a fundamental principle in this cautious world, built up on the fortunes of bankers, India merchants, shipbuilders, and shipchandlers. Those well-fed, slow-moving people, who seemed irritable any dyspeptic to European eyes only because the caprices of the climate had stripped them of superfluous flesh, and strung their nerves a little tighter, lived in genteel monotony of which the surface was never stirred by the dumb dramas now and then enacted underground. Sensitive souls in those days were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.

A beautiful paragraph to start off a marvellous story. Then we are introduced to Delia Ralston née Lovell, “one of the handsomest and most popular young matrons.” Her self-satisfaction at her marriage to Jim Ralston, her pride in her beautiful home and her 2 perfect children is only occasionally troubled by “secret questioning” of the choices she made. Delia was once terribly in love with Clem Spender– “tolerant, reckless, indifferent to consequences,” he’s an unreliable, unpredictable member of New York society, so it’s probably a good thing he left and now lives permanently in Europe as an artist.

Delia’s peace of mind is shattered when her cousin, Charlotte Lovell begs for help. Charlotte is about to make an excellent, unexpected match with Jim Ralston’s cousin Joe.  Joe is Charlotte’s long-term suitor, but the courtship appeared to end when Charlotte was sent away for her health a few years before. She seemed relegated to the colourless life of spinsterhood, and this role is underscored by Charlotte’s devotion to a gaggle of poor children she tends in an old stable. Charlotte is particularly devoted to one orphan in particular, Clementina.

With the upcoming wedding, Joe Ralston asks his bride-to-be, Charlotte to abandon the children for fear of contagion. In desperation, Charlotte goes to Delia, and confessing that Clementina is her illegitimate baby, begs for Delia’s help and intervention.

That’s the opening premise of the story, and then the rest of the novella is concerned with the fallout: the relationships between Delia, Charlotte and Clementina.

The film version is moved ahead to the 1860s, and the Civil War plays a role in sanitizing some of the darker elements of Wharton’s tale. Clem Spender is portrayed as an aggrieved, depressed and rejected lover who impulsively enlists in the Union Army and is subsequently killed, and this death makes him a dead hero and takes away some awkward questions. I prefer Wharton’s byline: painful rehabilitation of Clem by a persistent, annoying relative. The film is structured around three weddings–beginning with Delia’s wedding to Jim Ralston, Charlotte’s wedding to Joe Ralston, and finally Clementina’s wedding.

The film shows Delia and Charlotte in conflict with each other over possession of Clementina (a peevish brat in the film version), and misses Wharton’s delicate positioning of society within the narrative. Whereas Charlotte (played by Bette Davis) comes out as the heroine–maligned and misjudged by all, in the novel Wharton seems to say that Delia’s actions are equally brave. By standing by Charlotte, Delia (whatever her motives are) also pays a price. The rest of New York society considers her a little eccentric, and eventually, by her later actions, Delia alienates her two children.

Wharton’s novella The Old Maid isn’t the story of two women who struggle for the love of a daughter, but the story of two women who want to exist within their society while breaking the rules of good conduct, and as such their choices are limited. Delia is at first motivated by her sense of what’s right and proper; she’s outraged and shocked by Charlotte’s secret, and yet she doesn’t thrown Charlotte to the wolves; she concocts a way for Charlotte and Clementina to stay together within the society they strive to remain a part of:

Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class, they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

The film is well-worth catching–not just for the story and the excellent acting, but for an exercise in contrast.


Filed under Fiction, Wharton, Edith

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

Power, authority and ‘the rules.’

I picked Hard Rain Falling off my shelf as part of my determination to read more titles from  NYRB. I read a couple of their books last year, and Stephen Benatar’s Leave Her Safe At Home was so good, I decided to start specifically looking at this publisher in case I was missing other literary treasures. I’d read quite a few 19th century novels in a row, and now I was ready for something different. Something modern and hard-boiled. So I perused my shelf and Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter caught my eye. This novel is so good, that although it’s only April, I am sure this book will be one of my reads of the year, and I’m going to call it one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

Hard Rain Falling is the story of the life of Jack Levitt, the unwanted product of a brief, violent union. There’s a short prologue (1929-1936) which outlines Jack’s origins, and then the novel begins in 1947 with Jack as a tough 17-year-old runaway in Portland. He’s unemployed and has various ways of grifting a dollar or two from his circle of similarly placed friends–a loose knit group known as “the Broadway Gang.” Jack is known as one of those who would stop at nothing.” But there’s a subtle difference between Jack and the other members of the gang:

 “Most of them were like Jack Levitt in that they wanted a lot of money and wanted to do anything they pleased, at least for a while; but most of them saw it differently: they wanted to enjoy themselves now, because they knew in their hearts that soon they would get jobs and get married and start having families (like their own), and the fun would be over. “

Jack doesn’t envision his future in the same way. This sets him apart from the other rowdy, but normal teens, and Jack as a “cynical optimist” understands that he is different.  The other gang members have family to fall back on and they can return to the nest if things get too tough. So far, Jack’s life has been spent in an orphanage–a bleak institution with meaningless or cruel rules and regulations. Now poised on the edge of adulthood, Jack imagines his future as “a wildness in itself, a succession of graduated pleasures and loves and joys.” When Jack’s story begins he’s hit rock-bottom and with a fair amount of optimism he outlines his desires and expectations:

“It was a gray Portland day, and this helped him to feel sorry for himself. He was down to his last few dollars and locked out of his hotel room. He had quit his job and did not know where he could get some more money. He was legally a fugitive from the orphanage, and in that sense “wanted.” He did not feel “wanted”–he felt very unwanted. He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognise that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour (he had only recently learned how to drive, and he loved the feelings of speed and control, the sharpness of the danger). He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How Hight the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps.” That was what he wanted . So it was up to him to get these things.”

How Jack sets out to get these things is of course exactly where things go wrong. Sent to reform school, Jack later briefly returns to society for a catastrophically short taste of freedom.

Hard Rain Falling is sometimes described as prison literature or crime fiction, and yet those descriptions fail to capture the sheer greatness of this novel. George Pelecanos in the introduction states: “I hesitate to classify the novel as either a literary or genre work” and I think he’s right on target.

Hard Rain Falling is written with a raw honesty that’s rare. Oddly enough the book reminds me of Oscar Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex–but at the same time, these two books centre on entirely different worlds; Moore’s novel explores the world of gay sex while Carpenter’s novel concerns the life of a down-and-out young man whose life gravitates towards crime. The novels are similar only in the fact that they both feature a youthful protagonist whose inner life in revealed with painful intensity.  Moore’s novel details the life of Hugo, a 14-year-old emotionally troubled boy who drifts into self-destruction as a way of avoiding emotion. While Jack may seem to be self-destructive, he isn’t. At crucial points throughout the novel , Jack tries to puzzle out what life means, and while he recognises the need to stop and think, he’s swept up by his poor choices. But the absolutely fascinating thing about Jack is that he pays for his mistakes, and he doesn’t begrudge the payment. 

Jack isn’t a particularly likeable character. At one point, he longs to kill someone, yet at times he acts with an innate sense of fairness. He’s tough and violent but he’s also a survivor and while he walks into some very foolish situations, he also possesses an uncanny understanding of the institutional system. He can identify some people as con-lovers–those who get a cheap thrill from contact from the convicts. He becomes the product of the institutions that have kept him caged and this provides him with a unique perspective on the pathology of power. Here’s Jack in the orphanage talking about the troubling nature of power and authority:

“The trouble was it was intangible. It was not in the hands of anyone. While Jack had been there, most of the boys had blamed the man who was in charge of the orphanage as the center of power; they believed that all that happened to them and all that did not happen to them originated with this one  tall, heavy, white-haired man. But then one day, during the middle of Jack’s wing’s play period, they saw the man walking across the yard, his hands behind his back, his head tilted forward–the way he always walked when he was angry and determined–saw him suddenly stop and look straight up in the sky and give a grunt and fall backward, saw him fall with a thump onto the frozen ground and saw him carted away, and learned the next day that what they had seen was the death of this man, taken by a heart attack and dead before they got him indoors and got his clothes off. And that night all the boys in Jack’s wing nourished a secret joy at the man’s death and many of them thought in their hearts that they would be set free now that the center of power was gone, or at the very least that their lives would change in some magnificent way and they would be free at last of the man’s mechanical tyranny; some of them even though that candy would be passed out to them. But they learned. Very quickly there was another administrative head to the orphanage and he was different in appearance only. So it was an intangible; not a man , a set of rules. It would not even do any good to steal the rules away from the office and burn them, because there wasn’t even a book in which the rules were kept. It was just that the authorities knew the rules. You could kill them all and the rules would remain. This was the great virtue of rules, they were told in somewhat different context.”

Later, as it turns out, Jack’s recognition of the power structures within society proves invaluable when he’s sentenced to prison. By this time, he’s an old hand at understanding how power and authority work. Power amongst the prison guards and also power amongst the other prisoners. Jack makes little distinction.

In spite of its subject matter, and make no mistake this is a hard-boiled dark tale, Hard Rain Falling is ultimately not a depressing novel. Part of the novel’s power is found in Jack’s maturation which occurs outside of regret, bitterness or even social redemption. The novel never stoops to clichés but instead Jack’s pursuit of freedom and his odyssey through various state institutions reveal his unique, sometimes poignant interpretations of life. Never an intricate or valued part of society, Jack possesses an introspection on freedom that many of us cannot attain. Perhaps an explanation about Jack’s optimism can be found in this quote from the introduction:

“I’m an atheist,” said Carpenter in a 1975 interview.  “I don’t see any moral superstructure to the universe at all. I consider my work optimistic in that the people, during the period I’m writing about them, are experiencing intense emotion. It is my belief that this is all there is to it. There is nothing beyond this.”

Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966


Filed under Carpenter Don

McTeague by Frank Norris

McteagueThis 2009 reading of Frank Norris’s McTeague was the third reading for me, and I returned to this American classic novel of Old San Francisco after watching Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film version with its appropriate title: Greed. McTeague is one of my favourite American classics, and it’s a favourite for its dark undertones of lust, violence, murder, sadomasochism, and obsession. No wonder literary critics were outraged when McTeague was published in 1899. On the West Coast, a reviewer for The Argonaut argued that “Norris riots in odors and stenches,” while The New York based monthly journal, The Review of Reviews called McTeagueabout the most unpleasant American story that anybody has ventured to write.” Of the liberal amount of invective launched at the novel by literary critics, the latter quote remains my favourite as it is quite true, but that’s the point. Norris’s novel is unrelentingly bleak and grimy, but it’s also wonderful.

The novel’s plot concerns a San Francisco dentist named McTeague. McTeague, the blockish son of an alcoholic miner worked as a car-boy at the Big Dipper mine in Placer County when he left to become the apprentice of a traveling dentist. The dentist is a “charlatan” but McTeague doesn’t understand this, and after watching the dentist pull out teeth for a few years, McTeague sets up his “Dental Parlours” (a rented room where he works and sleeps) in San Francisco’s Polk Street. This is where the novel begins with McTeague spending a typical Sunday in San Francisco: he eats a heavy meal, returns to the Dental Parlours , drinks beer and plays the handful of tunes he knows on his concertina. At “six feet and three inches,” McTeague is a “young giant”:

“McTeague’s mind was as his body, heavy, slow to act, sluggish. Yet there was nothing vicious about the man. Altogether he suggested the draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient.”

McTeague doesn’t stop to think about his life, but he’s considered a success, and since he’s hauled himself up from manual labour at the mine to the professional classes, this is justified. McTeague’s simple life changes when he’s introduced to Trina, a beautifully made, tiny young woman who is brought to McTeague for dental care by her cousin and sweetheart, Marcus, McTeague’s best friend. The problems begin when McTeague, in a fit of lust, kisses Trina while she’s asleep under the effects of ether. McTeague then wants to court and marry Trina, and Marcus, who wasn’t that committed to the relationship anyway, agrees to step aside. McTeague’s slow, methodical and predatory courtship is darted with instances of lust, and at these moments, Trina panics and quails with fear at McTeague’s brutal onslaught.

The plot thickens when Trina buys a lottery ticket that turns out to be the winning number, and so when Mac (as she calls him) and Trina marry, she brings with her a ‘dowry’ of $5,000, and this money becomes the root of their problems. At first, their marriage is satisfactory, but gradually Trina becomes obsessed with money, and then their luck turns sour….

It’s impossible to read McTeague without thinking about and comparing it to Zola’s novel L’Assommoir, published in 1877. L’Assommoir, one of Zola’s greatest novels, and part of the Rougon-Macquart twenty-volume series is the tale of a Parisian laundress named Gervaise. Gervaise’s story is a study of poverty and working-class life tainted with alcoholism. Zola’s naturalistic novels examine the themes of hereditary and environment, and Norris who was heavily influenced by Zola, considered L’Assommoir to be the “prototype of McTeague.” Certainly literary critics made the connection, and as the introduction by Kevin Starr explains, one critic “castigated Norris for reintroducing the corrupting moral vogue of Zolaism” onto American shores.

Both L’Assommoir and McTeague feature main characters who rise from the minionship of the working class to the next level. Gervaise becomes an employer when she opens her laundry shop, and McTeague leaves the physical labour of the mines behind when he becomes a dentist. McTeague never really grasps the idea that he is supposed to go to university and get a diploma–to McTeague, his dental career is eventually stolen from him by forces he cannot understand. Both Gervaise and McTeague’s destruction are engineered and accelerated by alcoholism and jealousy. But it’s where McTeague is different from L’Assommoir that things really become interesting.

While L’Assommoir is concerned with a lack of money, McTeague is about the misuse of money. If Gervaise has money, she spends it, and eventually of course, she spends money she doesn’t have and bankrupts herself in the process. In contrast, in McTeague Trina hordes money and becomes a miser–at one point she even ignores her mother’s request for help. Although she and McTeague are wealthy by late 19th century standards, Trina would rather eat rotting meat than disturb her nest egg. Having money corrupts Trina and McTeague. It’s not their salvation, it’s their nemesis. It’s the acquisition of money, the hording of money that becomes their destruction–compounded by hereditary and environmental factors.

“Trina had always been an economical little body, but it was only since her great winnings in the lottery that she had become especially penurious. No doubt, in her fear lest their good luck should demoralize them and lead to habits of extravagance, she had recoiled too far in the other direction. Never, never, never should a penny of that miraculous fortune be spent; rather it should be added to. It was a nest egg, a monstrous, roc-like nest egg, not so large, however, but that it could be made larger.”

The idea of the corrupting force of money appears throughout McTeague–from the endeavours to extract gold from the Big Dipper mine to the brutality of Zerkow, a neighbourhood junk shop owner who marries his wife, Maria simply because she entertains him with fantastic tales of long-lost gold plate. These stories drive Zerkow to insanity–just as Trina’s horde leads to a sort of madness too. Gold appears throughout the novel–at the mine, in McTeague’s crude dentistry, and at one point in the tale, Trina buys a model of a huge gold tooth to hang outside of Mac’s Dental Parlours. To own and display this gold tooth is a long-held dream of McTeague’s, and it’s one of the last things he refuses to part with–at one point the couple even use it as a table in the squalor of their rented room. Symbolically, even McTeague’s canary spends its sad, trapped little life in a gilt cage.

Norris based McTeague on a real-life crime that took place in San Francisco in 1893. He was a student at Berkeley at the time, and he began to be fascinated by bourgeois and working class life. After failing to get a degree, there followed a period at Harvard, various overseas adventures in South Africa, and then Norris returned to San Francisco and the Big Dipper Mine to recuperate his health. San Francisco is one of those cities that has a great deal of character–just watch Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear or Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage to get a sense of how characters’ lives are shaped by the city they live in. Norris’s pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco is raw and new but still pulsing with life, and the novel’s characters mesh with their landscape. There’s the colourful street life of Polk Street, Cliff House, Union Street, the Presidio Reservation, the Golden gate, the ferry, the variety show at the Orpheum, and the magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean.

McTeague is not a perfect novel, and parts of the story seem rougher than others. Sections which move away from McTeague and Trina as individual characters and instead convert them into types are poorer than the main narrative. For example at one point, Norris describes Trina’s growing sexual awareness as “The Woman is awakened.” Other sections include Trina’s German relatives speaking broken English–and this sort of dialogue is always a problem for writers. Norris turns it into a phonetic event. Also while Zola’s influence is clear in McTeague, there are two characters–veterinarian Old Grannis and spinster Miss Baker–who could very well have lost their way from a Dickens novel. This dark tale is frequently interrupted with sentimental details of the relationship between the elderly couple. Perhaps Norris intended this romance to provide a counterbalance against the dark destruction of the McTeagues.

McTeague hints at a tremendous talent that is not yet fully developed. Norris was a mere 29 years old when he finished this novel. Tragically, Norris died at the age of 32 from a ruptured appendix and kidney failure in 1902. Coincidentally, Zola died the same year.

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Filed under Norris Frank

A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis

I really loathe giving up on a book. It’s a point of pride for me. Long story but as a teenager, I didn’t finish George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and if anyone even mentioned this author’s name, I’d inwardly groan. Many years later, I turned to Eliot again, and at the time I saw the book as 800 plus pages waiting to be conquered. Middlemarch is now one of my favourite novels, so the experience left a lasting impression about the inadvisability of giving up on a book. That said, while the conquering of Middlemarch became a lesson in what I could have missed, I find that sometimes I am still too impatient with novels. When should we give up and toss a book aside and when should we persist?

meaningful lifeI asked myself this question recently (not that I have a definitive answer, by the way) when I began reading A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis. This was a new American author for me and I’d read that the novel is darkly funny. I needed something funny to read and so I ordered the book, along with a couple of others from New York Review Books. A brief synopsis about the book said that it was a story of “redemption through real estate.” I’d never heard the term before and was so intrigued by the phrase that I knew I had to read the book. After all, recently millions of people seem to have tried the very same thing in the housing bubble that swept parts of the globe.  Anyway, the book arrived and I started it….

I almost gave up, but that point of pride thing pushed me. The first thirty pages were done and I wondered how much longer I could continue, but I pushed myself and by fifty pages I was committed. Humour is never predictable. We tend to find universalities in tragedy, but humour is much more subjective. It’s culturally based for one thing and also influenced by our values.

The novel’s initial flippant, exaggerated style took a bit of getting used to. The story begins with 30 year old Lowell Lake, a managing editor of a “second-rate plumbing trade weekly”  who one day:

 woke up with the realization that his job was not temporary. It was as though a fiery angel had visited him in his sleep with a message of doom, and he leaped out of bed in a state bordering on panic, staring wildly about him. His job wasn’t temporary and things weren’t going to get any better–not that they were going to get worse, barring some unforeseen catastrophe like atomic warfare or mental illness, but they weren’t going to get any better. That was the whole point. He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.

That passage is on page one, and while it seems to be the human condition to worry about the meaning of life, Lowell’s “panic” rang false or perhaps it’s just the implied hysteria–too much, too soon, and I initially found it difficult to be interested in the characters.  After the introduction to Lowell’s life, the novel then goes back in time nine years earlier to his university days in California just as he is about to get married. After meeting his future in-laws, Lowell attempts to run away, but after being hunted down by his parents, he returns and marries his Jewish fiancee. Although the plan was initially that Lowell would attend Berkeley, instead he decides they should move to New York, even though his wife (who’s from New York) insists he won’t like it. In fact, Lowell decides to go to New York mainly to prove his wife wrong, and as bickering erupts between the Lakes, I became engrossed in the book.

The novel follows Lowell’s years as a writer of the Great American Novel, his subsequent breakdown and his eventual low level employment. And then at the age of 30, Lowell decides that his life has to have ‘meaning’ and he latches onto the idea of the untapped wealth to be made in real estate. Once again ignoring his wife’s advice, he buys a mansion in Brooklyn. The rambling house, formerly the splendid home of Darius Collingwood, a shady 19th century adventurer, has been broken down into grotty little apartments, and each of the apartments contains its own sort of pathology:

“There was a wine cellar over there,” said the agent, pointing into the bottomless shadows that extended beyond their feeble circle of light. He seemed fidgety. “Well, I guess that’s all. Let’s go back upstairs.”

He started toward the steps. At that very moment a toilet was flushed somewhere in the upper reaches of the house and a few seconds later its contents were deposited on the basement floor with a great gurgling and rushing of water. This event occurred more or less behind Lowell and his wife, their attention having been riveted in the direction of the invisible and possibly specious wine cellar. Quite a sight met their eyes when they turned around. They were standing not more than ten feet from the edge of  a shallow black pond, its agitated surface flashing dully. It extended into the shadows toward the rear of the house, and it was impossible to tell exactly how large it was, but it was clearly pretty big in an obscene sort of way. Something pale, perhaps fungus, seemed to be growing on the walls and pillars back there.

A Meaningful Life is extremely funny in parts, and my favourite sections are the descriptions of the Lakes’ marriage and the ‘tour’ of the Darius Collingwood mansion. The mansion has a caretaker, of sorts, called Henry who shadows the agent and the Lakes during the house tour, hilariously making rude comments muttered under his breath.  While the Lakes are shown around the different apartments in the (now) boarding house, the squalor and the filth, for the most part seemed all very sad. Poverty-stricken black and Puerto Rican families live in these rooms owned by a distant slum landlord. So problematically, part of the book’s humour is based in the misery of others who dwell amidst piles of rubbish, rotting floorboards, and leaking sewage. Of course, there’s a great deal of humour to be found in the idea of Lowell trying his hand at renovating this so-called ‘fixer-upper.’

If you’ve ever given serious thought to owning a dilapidated house and restoring it to its former glory, then A Meaningful Life will certainly rid you of that fantasy. Jonathan Lethem’s introduction states that in the novel “West collapses into East,” but the West/East American divide escaped me entirely. The introduction also addresses the “un-PC” nature of the novel and the author’s “[refusal]to blur the paradoxes of racial and class misunderstanding in idealist sentiment.” The Lakes, who are middle-class whites, are terrified to go to Brooklyn because of the “coloured people,” and the book is dated in its terminology “coloured” and “negroes.” The white homeowners aren’t depicted pleasantly in the process of gentrification as the poor are swept out to make way for the dreams of new-found wealth.

The Darius Collingwood Mansion seems almost as though it’s one of the books main characters. Built to satisfy the overweening  ego of a shady Brooklyn attorney, the house is symbolic of the destructiveness of greed and ambition. But at the same time the house also is a key figure in the destruction of both its original owner and the 20th century man who hopes to renovate it. Many passages describe the house as a benign, slumbering monsterous force, the source of fetid odours, peculiar noises, and almost unimaginable squalor. Ultimately, Lake is the novel’s target–a hapless, ineffectual 20th century man whose vapid, boring life leads him to conclude that the restoration of a formerly splendid dwelling will bring meaning to his otherwise pathetic life. Gone are the decades of noble deeds and quests, and instead our 20th century man picks up a broom and gets to work.

A Meaningful Life is definitely a one-of-a-kind novel, and it’s recommended in spite of its flaws. On another note, if you get the NYRB edition, take a look at the horrid stair flooring on the front cover. I had exactly the same appalling floor pattern on my kitchen floor, and it was sheer hell to remove it. I suspect someone super-glued it on to the floorboards.


Filed under Davis L.J

Oil! by Upton Sinclair

“The boy had got by heart every one of the Bolshevik formulas that the people of Russia had a right to run their own country in their own way; that our troops had no business shooting and killing them without a declaration of war by Congress; that people in this country had a right to express the above convictions without being beaten or tarred and feathered or sent to prison or deported.”

For the last few decades author Upton Sinclair has almost faded from view. Mainly remembered for his novel The Jungle, an expose of the U.S. meat packing industry that caused such a public uproar that it contributed to the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, Sinclair’s other books have been largely forgotten or shifted off to the dead zone of high school curriculums. With the release of the film There Will Be Blood which is very loosely based on Sinclair’s novel OIL! this author of American social conscience may gain a new generation of readers.

Written by Sinclair in 1927, the novel was created as a response to the oil scandals of the Harding administration. Set in Southern California, the protagonist is J. Arnold Ross, junior known affectionately as Bunny–the only son of an oil millionaire. When the novel begins, Bunny is a young, impressionable boy. Constantly at his father’s side so that he can learn about the oil business, Bunny takes a trip to assess a possible new oil field. Bunny meets a runaway from Paradise, a young boy named Paul Watkins, and this meeting has a profound affect on Bunny for the rest of his life. Taught by his father that everyone has a price, Bunny’s attempt to give money to the half-starved runaway is rejected. This act causes Bunny to question his father’s schema. And since Paul doesn’t fit into the oil millionaire’s theories of morality and money, Paul assumes heroic proportions to young, sensitive Bunny.

The novel follows Paul through his teen years and young adulthood. Attracted to radical elements at his father’s oil fields in Paradise, idealistic Bunny doesn’t understand why some people (the Rosses) have so much while some people (the oil workers) have so little. He attempts industry reforms, which are indulged by his father to a point but ultimately squashed by the ferocity of the oil industry billionaire owners. Attracted to socialism, Bunny eventually becomes a socialist and I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) sympathizer. But he straddles two worlds. On one hand he has to consider his father’s health and feelings–not to mention the demands of his Hollywood starlet girlfriend. But on the other hand, he defends the rights of the working class even as he leads a life of ease and luxury based on the hardships and deprivations designed to squeeze more out of the workers.

Many of Sinclair’s characters embody ideals, and the display of ideals sometimes preempts character development. In the case of Bunny, for example, while he does use his money to dabble in radical social change, he’s almost as impotent and reflective as a Jamesian observer. But whereas in a James novel, the observer brings a certain worldly wisdom to an interpretation of events, Bunny remains essentially the same throughout the novel–good, naive, and innocent. While the novel is extremely strong for the most part, it weakens towards the end as Sinclair tosses in elements of Spiritualism and a Socialist Colony–the rather transparent personal interests of the author, and the novel seems a little false at these junctures.

Those faults aside, however, the novel is at its strongest depicting Bunny’s dilemma. As the oil prince set to inherit millions, he’s viewed as a class traitor by his own kind, and he also never fits in with the workers. Generous, loyal, kind and sensitive, Bunny is troubled by the world he lives in, but he’s unable to commit one way or another until fate takes a hand. Bunny enjoys a good relationship with his father, a driven self-made man who dragged his family out of poverty through willpower, good luck, and great intelligence. Ross believes people are poor because they choose to be, and his attitude is “It was a world you had to help yourself in.” One of his favorite themes is “the shiftlessness of the working class,” and one of the ways in which Ross justifies his fantastic wealth earned with the sweat and sometimes the lives of his workers is by seeing himself as a responsible steward. A father figure to his employees, Ross is much loved by the workers until strikes occur, and then the atmosphere at the oil fields alters irrevocably.

OIL! is an incredible read. The novel charts the growth of the radical movement of the working class mainly through the character of Paul Watkins. Sent to fight in WWI, he sees first hand the atrocities of the Whites against the Bolsheviks–people he considers to be his own class. When he finally returns from WWI, he’s a changed man. Converted to Bolshevism, he’s fanatically driven to sacrifice everything for the cause. Paul’s brother Eli is equally fanatical, but his obsession is with religion. Whereas Paul’s idealism is pure, Eli is a scoundrel and a self-serving hypocrite who uses his position to sneak off for sordid liaisons at discreet hotels.

Oil! is an intensely political novel. Set in tumultuous times, its characters take their places in history as nations go to war and classes battle for power. Paul is radicalized by his WWI experiences. His time in Archangel has convinced him that only the bankers profit from war, and that the only war worth fighting is the war between the classes. Since the novel was written in 1927, the Bolsheviks are assigned a rosy romanticism that was subsequently debunked by the famines in the Ukraine, and the furor of Stalin’s bloody purges.

If you’ve seen the film There Will Be Blood and you are expecting the written version, well you’ll be disappointed. The film is an interesting adaptation of the book in its own right, but as a comparison, it’s a pale anemic version with the politics–the central part of the book–ripped out. But if you are looking for a serious political novel that examines the divide between the classes, then Oil! is a fascinating look at the immutability of class politics and human nature.


Filed under Sinclair, Upton