On Broome Stages by Clemence Dane: A Conversation with Kate Macdonald

A few months ago, Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and I had a long dialogue on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which both of us had — coincidentally — just read and written about. That pleasant experience led to suggestions of other books to read and discuss, and we settled on Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages a 700-page saga that follows a family of English actors from the mid-18th century to the 1920s. I’d read very enthusiastic reviews several years ago and thought it might be a long, rich, and entertaining read.

Cover of first UK edition of "Broome Stages"Kate: When you suggested this novel I was keen because I enjoy reading novels about the theatre, and have long had Clemence Dane on my radar as an author I ought to know more about. I hadn’t realised that she wrote novels as well as plays (over 30 plays and 16 novels, and the Wikipedia entry suggests that she was also a painter and a sculptor). Now that I’ve read this novel (which is more like three or four), I’d rate her at the same level as J. B. Priestley: highly competent, excellent with character and dialogue, but not convincing as a literary stylist. She is a quintessential English middlebrow author, I think, but (in this novel) doesn’t give more than an absorbing family saga with lots of domestic drama. She’s vague about historical detail (especially shaky in the early, Regency part), but I think that’s because she’s writing as a playwright. All her characters are actors and her sets are stage sets. So much dialogue, and characters that draw the audience’s attention by being outrageous, or by saying arresting things. I found almost all them objectionable: selfish, obsessive, unkind, bullying and unreasonable, which is probably what makes them good dramatic subjects.

Brad: I’d have to concur with your assessment. Let’s face it, this novel is an order of magnitude lower than Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which we last discussed.

I was primarily interested in reading it because the reviews (both UK and US) when Broome Stages first came out were gushingly enthusiastic: “No lover of good fiction or of the theatre can afford to leave Broome Stages unread,” and that sort of thing. The Saturday Review (US) reprinted a long excerpt from it and the universal assessment seemed to be that it was a big, rich book studded with memorable characters large and small, and irresistibly readable. Personally, I found it all too resistable to read, at least in the first third or so.

In those early chapters, Dane uses a rather arch style that attempts, I guess, to mimic the tone of a Fielding but comes off (now, at least) stale and irritating. And I found it quite difficult to form a sustainable sense of many of the main characters. A sum of mannerisms and vices usually isn’t enough to turn a character from a name to a persona. The style, at least, grows a little more limpid as the story nears (Dane’s) present day, but the characters–well, I would certainly fail if you gave me a test of matching Broome names with their respective generations and actions now, a month-plus after reading it.

It did pick up momentum–a bit–but I felt that Dane didn’t some much end the story as stop it: as if she just ran out of ideas. There was one intriguing element toward the end. There is a fairly pointed hint at one point that youngest of the last Broome generation, John, is engaged in homosexual relationships at boarding school and then another, even more obvious, that he has a male partner–which his mother simple takes in stride, happy that her son is happy. Dane herself was gay and involved in a long-term relationship with a writer of children’s books, Olwen Bowen, so it might have been a way of asserting as normal and unexceptional something that was, at the time, considered acceptable only if covert.

Priestley is a good comparison. I thought of a huge best-seller in America around the same time–Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which was a 1,000-plus page historical novel intended to invoke the spirit of Sir Walter Scott and maybe even Tolstoy, but which is now considered more as a curiosity than a work of any serious literary merit. Such doorstop wonders seem to pop up every generation.

Clemence Dane, 1934
Clemence Dane, 1934
Kate: Looking at my notes I see that from the last generation of the Broomes it’s Richard who is gay, Henry dies in the war, Gerry is a lazy waster, and John is a mercurial playwright destined for greatness and to be the next Broome of the stage. But I need the notes to remember, you’re right about the personalitiesthemselves being forgettable. Hilaret, Lettice, Elinor, and Domina are the only named women characters I can recall. There was also Lionel’s illegitimate daughter who married into a Viennese Jewish family in the 1880s (very G. B. Stern, that), went to Brazil and brought forth another daughter who ended up in England to help Elinor elope scandalously with Lewis. Dane could absolutely create dramatic and entertaining storylines, but I agree, character definition was not her strong point.

Considering (now that you mention it) that Dane was herself gay, and presumably interested in women and their relationships, its odd that she create hordes of male characters, but only five women across three centuries of Broome breeding. They are all dominant, but stand out like illustrations of ‘the female condition in this century’ rather than working participants in the plot.

The staginess of the novel is quite attractive. I can visualise it working as a film or a TV series in the style of Dallas or Dynasty, endless sweepings on and off in big hats after huge rows and passionate arguments between men and women, and men who don’t behave as men are supposed to behave. The characters’ obsession with the continuance of the Broome legacy is typical of that genre. And, of course, after writing that I go to IMDB to check, and yes! It was made as a TV mini-series in 1966, starring many actors who don’t now have photographs by their names so they’re no longer working, or remembered. Only one series, though, and no pictures from it floating around on Google.

Brad: I think you hit the nail on the head: the staginess of this novel of the stage may weaken its merit as a work of literature but make it perfect material for adaptation to the screen. There have been plenty of great movies made from bad novels and bad movies made from great novels. And just think how a good screenwriter and a cast of expert scenery-chewing actors could turn the nastiness of many of the Broome characters into delicious viewing. Some of the best television of the last 10-15 years has been based on the ability to seduce viewers into sympathizing with some very bad people (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Urquhart/Underwood). And 1966 is fifty years ago–more than enough time to justify a remake.

Shall we contact the BBC? Surely pitching a concept to some show-biz types is on one of our bucket lists.

Kate: The 1966 miniseries began with the Lewis Whybrow elopement and used up the remainder of the novel, which I think was wise. I can’t think of a TV series that crosses so many historical periods as this book does. The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Poldark, all the British TV series of the 1970s that my mum was addicted to, and I took one look at, uncomprehending: they’re intense family sagas set in a discrete period, following the life of one individual and perhaps of their offspring as well. Perhaps that’s why Broome Stages is ultimately disappointing. Dane isn’t interested in people, she’s interested in creating a sweep of history, the rise and fall of a dynasty over centuries rather than generations. She loses the human focus, which is why her characters are unsatisfying. They have their moments of concentrated attention at crisis points, but years and decades go by in the turning of a page, which isn’t how one tells a story about people’s daily struggles.

Brad: True: any adaptation would have to focus on one period, at least in the case of Broome Stages. There have been a few examples of series that were able to successfully span several different time frames, but they required more narrative ingenuity than was demonstrated by Dane. As others have pointed out, she structured the generations and personalities of Broome Stages on the Plantagenets–which might be helpful for a reader familiar with that slice of English history but was utterly useless to a colonial such as I. In fact, one could hold up Broome Stages as a good illustration of why writing a novel around an arbitrary structure will rarely produce a work of the same merit as one building upon a strong story or interesting characters.

Which pretty much exhausts what I have to say about Broome Stages. I was hoping for better, but I’m afraid I will have to place it into my “Justly Neglected” file.

Kate: I never realised until I started reading up on the book afterwards that the Plantagnets were her framework. So that worked well, obviously ….. as you say, an arbitrary structure with more than a touch of staginess to it. So, goodbye Broome Stages. If I come across any other Clemence Dane novels I’ll read ’em, but I’m not expecting wonders.


Broome Stages, by Clemence Dane
London: Heinemann, 1931

My Literary Life, by Mrs. Elizabeth Lynn Linton (1899)

Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Between John Sutherland’s wonderful encyclopedia, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, and the Internet Archive, I can lose hours wandering through the three-volumed forest of English 19th century fiction, particularly in the last year that written by women. It can be soul-leeching, though. There is something relentlessly earnest and deliberate in so much English fiction after Amelia Opie. There aren’t many female counterparts to Thomas Love Peacock, Thackeray, Dickens or Wilde to lighten things up.

I thought I’d stumbled across a hidden gem when I started reading Amy Dillwyn’s 1884 novel, Jill, in which our heroine, making her own way through the world, is not above padding her travel claims or pocketing a precious object her employers clearly failed to appreciate adequately. And then I found that Jill was reissued by the Honno Press a few years ago as part of its Welsh Women’s Classics series.

And then I came across the following sentence in an essay about George Eliot: “She held her hands and arms kangaroo fashion; was badly dressed; had an unwashed, unbrushed, unkempt look altogether; and she assumed a tone of superiority over me which I was not then aware was warranted by her undoubted leadership.” It was attributed to Eliza Lynn Linton, a minor Victorian novelist and essayist, and a brief memoir that was published after her death in 1898. Such undisguised nastiness, so uncharacteristic of memoirists before Frank Harris and Beverly Nichols made it acceptable to add a hearty shake of bitters into the mix, deserved further investigation.

And the good old Internet Archive didn’t let me down. I quickly located an electronic copy of Mrs. Linton’s My Literary Life and proceeded to read the whole thing online (it’s a short book).

You know you’re in for some splenetic prose when the book opens with a warning — in this case from Mrs. Linton’s friend, another neglected late Victorian novelist, Beatrice Harraden (Ships that Pass in the Night — Anyone? Anyone?): “It is to be regretted also that she is not here herself to tone down some of her more pungent remarks and criticisms, hastily thrown off in bitter moments such as come to us all.” “Mrs. Linton’s pen was ever harsher than her speech,” Harraden offers in excuse, but My Literary Life rages on while Mrs. Linton’s dulcet tones have been silenced for more than a century. “It has been thought,” her publisher writes in introduction, that the incomplete sketches she was able to write before her death “possess an independent value which justifies republication.” Perhaps the same value upheld on a weekly basis by the National Enquirer.

Linton opens with a quick series of sketches of “My First London Friends,” who included the painter, Samuel Laurence, George Henry Lewes (not yet involved with Mary Ann Evans), and the poet Walter Savage Landor. Laurence, we learn, “by his experiments in glazes, grounds, and varnishes, some of his oil paintings were soon ruined by peeling off in broad patches, or by sinking into the canvas.” And was married to “a tall, fine, handsome woman, who overtopped him in height and I should say surpassed him in weight.” Lewes, she tells us, “would discourse on the most delicate matters of physiology with no more perception that he was transgressing the bounds of propriety than if he had been a learned savage.” And Landor, who is otherwise portrayed by Linton as a man of great kindness and learning, was a bit challenged in the haberdashery department:

He was dressed in brown, and his whole style was one of noticeable negligence. His clothes were unbrushed and shabby; his shirt-front was coarse and plain, like a nightshirt ; a frayed and not over-clean blue necktie, carelessly knotted, was awry; his shoes were full of bumps and bosses like an apple pie….

Linton goes on to discuss Thackeray and Dickens, contrasted the two men in both character and literary style for pages before adding the caveat, “I did not know either man intimately, but if not the rose itself, I knew those who stood near.” For their sakes, we can be grateful, since she quickly adds, with ominous tone, “Many secret confidences were passed on to me, which, of course, I have kept sacred; and both men would have been surprised had they known how much I knew of things uncatalogued and unpublished.”

She concludes with a chapter on “A First Meeting with George Eliot” in which she offers her timeliness comparison of the great author to a kangaroo. But not before polishing off a sampling of the women writers from the generation before hers — or, as Linton describes them, “remnants of a palaeozoic age.” These include Jane Porter, once celebrated for her historical tales such as The Scottish Chiefs, but in Linton’s eyes, “a kid of ghost from the tomb — a living monolith of pre-historic times.” Sadly, Linton confesses that “Charlotte Bronte I never saw; nor Harriet Martineau….” Lucky ladies. Linton only met Mrs. Norton only once, but that was enough to slip a quick knife in (it was “in later years, when her beauty was more a memory than a possession”).

Needless to say, the reader learns nothing of importance about George Eliot and far too much about Mrs. Linton’s squinted perspective on her contemporaries, and with her judgment that Eliot’s relationship with Lewes was nothing more than a house of cards, closes the cover on this short, brutish, and nasty book. Utterly forgettable and more than justly neglected, of course.

But after a long and heavy meal of Victorian seriousness, a palate cleanser nonetheless.


My Literary Life, by Mrs. Lynn Linton
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert (1963)

Covers of first US and UK editions
Covers of first US and UK editions

“Joyce Elbert had just turned thirty and divorced her second husband when she wrote this astonishing first novel … a daring story of a single woman’s frantic search for love in a loose living, free-wheeling world,” blares the cover of the Bantam paperback original of A Martini on the Other Table. I think I’ve seen about three hundred copies of this and other Elbert novels (Crazy Ladies, Drunk in Madrid) in used bookstores and thrift shops over the years and never paid the slightest attention to it, but when I spotted it in a discard box a few months ago, I thought, “Well, I’m focusing on women writers this year — why not?”

Looking for something quick, light, and a little newer after devoting a month to Dorothy Richardson’s weighty (in both length and substance) Pilgrimage, I fished A Martini on the Other Table out on the stack of cheap paperbacks perched precariously in front of a double row of other cheap paperbacks crammed into one of the bookcases in the basement.

I am something of an eternal optimist when it comes to cheap paperbacks. Experience has shown me that there is always a possibility that some remarkable and hitherto neglected gem lies behind a cover cleverly disguised to look like all the other junk that sat in a revolving wire book rack in front of the cigarette stand or the drugstore check-out. A slim possibility, but then you don’t maintain a site like this unless you’re willing to trust in outliers.

A Martini on the Other Table proved to be neither gem nor junk. A lost classic it ain’t, but it was something of a satisfying nostalgia trip for a kid who remembers spying on cocktail parties as I crouched in the hallway in my Dr. Dentons. Set in New York City, it’s narrated by Judy, just separated from her husband, a novelist enjoying his first wave of critical acclaim, and making her way writing superficial pieces for women’s magazines. No longer starry-eyed about love or fame, she makes the rounds of parties and gallery openings, having decided to post her picture next to the definition of blasé in the dictionary. She drinks too much and finds herself in bed with strange men on a regular basis. I half expected one of them to be Don Draper.

Most of the book is taken up with a intricately woven tangle of relationships, as a struggling artist and his socialite girlfriend befriend, and then bed (in turn) Judy, as a wealthy gallery owner watches her husband fall for a good-looking would-be actor, as Judy herself falls for a director of “industrial films” who turns out to be married (but not any more — or is he? — or isn’t he?). It’s all very complicated and utterly uninteresting, since none of these characters is anything but a name, hair color, facial expression, and personality quirk.

Joyce Elbert
Joyce Elbert

How much of Judy’s story is based on Joyce Elbert’s is anyone’s guess. Elbert is quoted on the back cover as saying, “The greatest thing that happened to me was when I turned thirty and divorced my second husband…. Fitzgerald was all wet. Freshness and youth don’t stand a chance alongside anxiety and dissipation.”

If you squint hard enough, that line almost looks like something from Dorothy Parker. There are more than a few echoes of it in A Martini on the Other Table. When Judy and the film director take in a play, she says she’s “glad that Ed and I had not driven in from the suburbs after a rushed supper and anxiety over the new baby sitter…. If a man is going to cut out on his wife I would much rather be the girl friend than the wife, who usually gets him back in the long run. Uncertainty beats the A&P-on-Saturday syndrome any time.”

But Elbert’s rebel act rings a little hollow. A lot of people go to a lot of parties in this book, and none of them seems to have any fun. Judy spends far more time brooding about men and relationships than about independence and sexual freedom. “The only person I ever really cheated was myself,” she confesses just after the director proposes to her. It’s hard not to believe there’s an A&P lurking on a Saturday not too far in her future.

Well, I was looking for something quite unlike Pilgrimage — and on that one count, I can say A Martini on the Other Table succeeded.


A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert
New York: Bantam Books, 1963

Taking It Like a Woman, by Ann Oakley (1984)

Taking_it_like_a_woman“When I say I’m a feminist, what do I mean?” Ann Oakley asks near the end of Taking It Like a Woman. “I mean that I believe that women are an oppressed social group, a group of people sharing a common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions (and being over-represented in others). The oppression, she argues, is that of being “subject to the awful soul-destroying tyranny of being told the meaning of their lives by others in terms which are not theirs.” In part, Taking It Like a Woman is an account of the various interpretations of the meaning of her own life that Oakley encountered in the first forty years of her life.

Oakley’s childhood and youth were heavily influenced by the success of her father, Richard Titmuss, who played a large role in the shaping of the British welfare state and the policies of the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the example of her mother, a social worker, he defined for his daughter a life model involving competition, intellectual rigor, and dedication to society — in other words, one little open to anything that might smack of selfishness. To a young woman full of the natural doubts and uncertainties that any teenager might experience, it was, while never harsh or cruel, as relentless as the rigidity of sworn Fundamentalist parents.

Ironically, while Oakley found a very forward-looking husband, who was open to sharing household chores and comfortable with her playing the more dominant role as a bread-winner, and managed to find time and space to raise children as well (which she described in Becoming a Mother (1980)), she still struggled to find a fully satisfactory life model for herself. Indeed, I found it rather odd that she devoted such a significant portion of Taking It Like a Woman to what she refers to on her website as “fictionalised narratives about a love affair.” Nine of the book’s twenty-five chapters, in fact. In them, a woman (Oakley, I assumed, until I read the statement on her website) and a man, a sophisticated jet-setting academic from a far-off country (India? Indonesia? Japan? I couldn’t tell), meet in different hotels and resorts and share their souls — and amazing sex. After some years, he breaks it off, and she suffers a terrible crisis, only to decide that, “In the end, no one else was a reason for living: faith had to come from within, but within was no faith. So she finally took responsibility for her own life in a way that she always knew she would — being in the end just another woman.”

Ann Oakley, 1984
Ann Oakley, 1984

It’s hard to accept that these passages are purely fictional, in light of a remark Oakley makes at the start of the book: “I have persevered in this task precisely because I know I am living and writing about something which is recognizable to others.” Really? Yes, growing up, marriage, children, making a career, running a household, dealing with the death of a parent, recovering from cancer — all of which Oakley describes — are things recognizable, even familiar to others. But an extended affair with a handsome, intelligent, exotic man in good hotels all over Europe? Maybe not so much.

Oakley ends with more questions than answers: “There is no certainty in anything,” she says to her daughter, as they walk along a seaside. Yet she does establish at least one fact that she has seen in her own life and the lives of the women she has studied and worked with: “The tension between the interests of the family and the interests of women as individuals has been rising for some two centuries. It is not possible for these interests to be reconciled.” She foresees more battles over this issue to be fought, and if she finds any hope, it is in the growing willingness of other women to “look at the circumstances of their lives.” For me, her own example was intellectually intriguing but not inspiring. I wasn’t convinced that Oakley provided any clues for how other women could overcome their “common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions.”


Taking It Like a Woman: A Personal History, by Ann Oakley
New York: Random House, 1984

Caesar’s Angel, by Mary Anne Amsbary (1952)

caesarsangel1
Regular readers of this site (both of you) know that I tend to save the books I want to really concentrate on for the Transatlantic flights I have to take 5-6 times a year. This last trip, I thought I’d really found a good one. “Corrupt Power! This is the blistering story of a ruthless political boss whose thirst for power corroded his soul and blinded him to evil” proclaimed the flyleaf of the Signet Giant paperback I found in the basement of my beloved Montana Valley Bookstore. I am a sucker for a good city novel, and this had some indicators that it would be a good one: corruption; realism; dense plot packed into one evening during a state political convention; tempting review quote (“Full of violent, dramatic drive”–New York Times). It also appeared to have an interesting structure, with the core of the story told sequentially through three of the main characters. And it was unknown to me, which is usually a good sign that it’s probably unknown to most folks. So I happily tossed it into my briefcase for the next day’s trip.

I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. Some folks stop if the first page fails to grab them, others wait until the end of the first chapter, others until their patience gives out. I’m usually in the last category, and even then I will hang in to the very end on the off chance that it suddenly gets better. In the case of Caesar’s Angel, though, it was clear by the end of the first, mostly scene-setting chapter, that this was going to be predictable and pedestrian, something along the lines of, say, Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle.

Now, I know there are some–many, in fact–who consider these great books. And maybe there was a time when they were truly better than most of what was available. Kinda like the way Hill Street Blues seemed good when it first came out. But what seemed good, gritty, snappy and real when it was new can come to seem tired, thin and predictable when it’s got a few decades under its belt.

A simple run-down of the quartet of principal characters offers enough evidence for anyone to fill in the rest of the story without even reading the book:

  • Tony Maggiore, the tough, smart kid from the Italian ghetto who quickly realizes he gets more miles per gallon of political ambition with that special fuel additive: mob money.
  • Leo Stansky, the tough, smart kid from the Polish ghetto who becomes a prosecuting attorney with a special taste for busting hoods like the ones he grew up with.
  • Al Piazza, the idealistic, naive kid from the Italian ghetto torn between the heritage he shares with Tony and the black-and-white sense of right and wrong he shares with Leo. Oh, and who also carries a torch for …
  • … Jean Maggiore, the blonde angel attracted like a moth to Tony’s bright light of power and charisma but beginning to have her doubts.

It’s a little like Name That Tune: four notes are all it takes to identify the melody.

This was Mary Anne Amsbary’s one and only adult novel. Under the pseudonym of Kay Lyttleton, she wrote a series of novels for teenage girls about an earnest young woman named Jean Craig who grows up, goes to New York, becomes a graduate nurse, and finds romance. Or, at least, that’s what I assume happens given that these are the titles of those books.

She clearly tried to raise her sights to a much higher standard with Caesar’s Angel: a social message, the use multiple narrators, and a web of complicated relationships that I took the liberty to illustrate below.

caesarsangel2

But this illustration also shows what’s wrong with the book: a collection of stereotypes does not a convincing character make. I stopped reading comic books a long time ago. It takes a riveting narrative, stunning prose, or palpably realistic scene-setting to get me to hang in with cartoon-like characters (Hell, these days, even cartoon characters are more convincing than these mannequins).

Or a Transatlantic flight with nothing else to read. Which is the only way I got through Caesar’s Angel.

[In truth, the most interesting thing about the book was the list of other Signet Giants at the back. Just look at some of these titles: Invisible Man; The Naked and the Dead; Appointment in Samarra; Wise Blood. But even better are the lesser-known titles:

  • Street Music, the first novel by Theodora Keogh, whose edgy and odd sexual dramas have had something of a revival thanks to notice in the Paris Review and elsewhere.
  • Scalpel, by Horace McCoy, of the same hard-boiled school as Hammett and Chandler, better known for his Depression-era novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.
  • The Descent, by Fritz Peters, which I mentioned here way back in ought six.
  • Heaven Pays No Dividends, a novel of postwar Germany by Richard Kaufmann. Frederic Morton wrote of this novel in the Saturday Review, “That a novel so grim in its setting, so formidable in its moral implications, can at the same time be so wonderfully engaging, is a tribute to Mr. Kaufmann’s skill. He has armed his hero with a perennially childlike resistance to ulterior motives, with an imperviousness to sophisticated compromise. The effect is not dissimilar to the one Mark Twain achieved when he let Huck Finn’s gusty innocence loose upon life’s devious rascalities.”
  • Down All Your Streets, by Leonard Bishop, a long, rough, macho novel, one of the first to deal with drug addiction and drug dealing. William Burroughs feared it would take away readers he hoped would read his first book, Junky.
  • Natural Child, Calder Willingham’s fifth novel, set in Greenwich Village, flirting with the issue of abortion, and still well-regarded for its dialogue and use of an unreliable narrator.

Oh, and there’s Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. Well, they can’t all be great.]

They, by Marya Mannes (1968)

Cover of first US edition of 'They'Around the middle of Marya Mannes’ 1968 quasi-sci-fi novel They, a conversation about what is considered “dirty” goes off on several different tangents. After pages and pages that mention everything from Shakespeare to the nature of clams, the pompous conductor Lev says, “It is very hard to keep on the track with this group. No discipline.”

Unfortunately, this is how one feels reading Mannes’ misguided vision of dystopia. Despite an intriguing premise – a world in which people over 50 are segregated from the rest of society for 15 years until they’re finally killed off – Mannes doesn’t really give us a story to match it.

The story is narrated by Kate, who lives with Lev and three other people along with their pets in an old beach house. They’re all between the ages of 50 and 65, torn away from their families and preparing for imminent death. They’re only allowed to leave the beach house at designated times for restocking on food or going for medical checkups. During these checkups, any patient with a serious illness would be put to death immediately. This is because “They” (always capitalized) declared that people over the age of 50 were no longer able to contribute to society, and so needed to be exiled.

How did They come to this determination? Well, Kate provides a rather convoluted explanation. It seems to have started with young people’s love of late-1960s pop culture, which ultimately led to a youth-obsessed society that rejected not only the past but any kind of human feeling.

We kept looking for meaning, for standards, for order…and we were told they were no longer relevant….

We were told daily that mind (logic, reason) meant nothing and that only sensation counted.

Words were of no importance, except to the intellectual arbiters who used them to tell us this.

And the man who told us writing was dead could not write.

Yet, after spending many pages attacking the youth and their lack of standards, Kate writes, “For you see, it wasn’t only Their doing, although perhaps I should have made it more clear that They applies not only to the young. The machines were part of the takeover, for they had invaded every function of daily life.” It gets worse: “For what really brought the sense of crisis that followed the chill was not merely domination by the young or by the machine but the brief return to political power of a reactionary coalition under a conservative President.” This government then started a war with China. Talk about slippery slopes!

So what do the residents do? Do they try to rally against the system? Do they attempt an escape into a world where they can live without restrictions? No, they just spend a lot of time talking about Them and their interests. And because of her experience as a writer and editor, Kate gets chosen by the rest of the group to be the chronicler. Yet her purpose for writing (like everything else in this book) is unclear, since “writing is dead,” even though the book begins with a preface written by Kate’s son, identified only as “6B8953A-411-Y.”

In all fairness, the residents do make some attempts to live on their own terms. One of the things they do besides arguing is to schedule days in which they deprive themselves of one of their senses. For example, they have “Blind Day,” where they are not allowed to use sight. The residents believe that by practicing such things, they can heighten their other senses in case they lose one in real life.

And, at the end of the book, the residents do create an incident that gets Their attention. But Mannes spends too much time on observations and arguments about what society has become and not enough time building up the story to its climax. (It doesn’t help that she mentions the climactic incident at the novel’s beginning.)

Much later in the story, a young mute enters the lives of the residents. Despite his youth and his inability to talk, he actually gets along with the residents, who name him Michael since they cannot determine his real name. The problem with Michael is he’s not really a character. When he first appears, he serves as a temporary distraction from all of the bickering about culture and politics. Then Mannes – rather blatantly – turns him into a device foreshadowing the incident at the end. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if Mannes had used him more in the story and given him more human characteristics.

In conclusion, Mannes’ novel serves neither as a warning about the dangers of technology nor an example of the human spirit overcoming adversity. And They has little to offer in the way of literary value or entertainment. Perhaps readers who are interested in social criticism from the late 1960s may appreciate this novel, but those who are looking for a great dystopian novel similar to 1984—or even one on a par with an average SF book—will be disappointed.

Written by Christopher Iacono
http://goodcoffeebookblog.tumblr.com
Twitter: @ciacono1973

Out of My Time, by Marya Mannes (1971)

outofmytimeThis is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time.

Marya Mannes was a woman who got around with a capital “A.” Her parents, David Mannes and Clara Damrosch Mannes, were among the most popular and respected classical musicians of the early 20th century, and through their New York apartment flowed a constant stream of talents such as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Schnabel, as well as Clara’s brothers Frank and Walter. Her brother Leopold was a celebrated concert pianist, married one of George Gershwin’s sisters, and, along with fellow musician, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., invented the process behind Kodachrome color film.

When she was 19, she travelled alone to England, where she studied with sculptor Frank Dobson and socialized with various members of the Bloomsbury set before heading off to Paris and the Riviera, where she partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Returning to the U. S., she wrote a play that was produced (unsuccessfully) on Broadway, married Jo Mielziner (“the most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway,” according to Wikipedia), and wrote and modelled for Vogue. She left Mielziner to live with Francisco Duran-Reynals, a pioneering researcher into cancer virology, then travelled back to Europe, where she married the wealthy American artist, Richard Blow. She and Blow enjoyed life in their palatial villa in the hills outside Florence until they fled to the U. S. just a few days before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.

Her gift for languages and wide network of contacts came to the attention of the Office of War Information and, later, the OSS, which sent her to Portugal and Spain–where she also managed to write a series of “Letters” for The New Yorker. Then it was back again to the U. S., where she brought along Paul Cavaillez–a French aviator later convicted as a Nazi spy–to one of the first public showings of film from the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. Then back to Europe, this time working for Vogue, and on to Egypt and Palestine, where she watched the arrival of one of the first ships carrying Holocaust survivors to their new homeland. After that, she published as best-selling novel, Message from a Stranger and married husband #3, former R. A. F. pilot and British aviation executive Christopher Clarkson.

When she and Clarkson moved back to New York City after his assignment as air attache in Washington, D. C., Mannes started writing regularly for The Reporter and became one of the earliest critics of television–and then, one of the earliest critics to appear on television, in the early days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. And, ironically, managed to get some early and strong pro-feminist pieces into the pages of such magazines as Vogue, Redbook, and McCalls. By the late 1960s, her face and name was so widely recognized that T. V. Guide could feature her in an advertisement as a foil to Ed Sullivan.
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And in and amongst all this, she carried on a series of affairs, for which she offers no regrets or apologies:

I did not then–and do not now–understand the term “promiscuous”: used pejoratively, of course, and only of women. What was wong with giving and receiving warmth, pleasure, affection, and release even if these could no qualify as love? If it was not wrong for men (Oh yes, philanderer, rake, swordsman, what have you–all implicitly more flattering than diminishing) why was it wrong for women? One at a time, to be sure. For one night, or ten, or two years. But how could you know a man you liked without knowing his body?

Of course you accepted the consequences of these acts. You accepted uncertainty, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and insecurity. But you lived as full as you could, and often as deeply.

So why my frustration?

I think there’s a subtle clue in the passage above. Note that in the space of one paragraph, she shifts from first to second person. Now, it’s not uncommon for a memoirist to address her younger self as “you,” but in this case, the “you” seems less the younger Marya than an ambiguous other person that could be herself but might just as easily be the reader or women of her generation or … well, you can make your own guess. Although Mannes quotes from her own diaries, letters, articles and unpublished works throughout the book, there is always an odd sense of the impersonal in her tone.

Take, for example, how she relates her experience of early motherhood:

There–really there–a child. And I was a mother.

In love, yes, but not in nuture. A nurse was already waiting at home. There would always be nurses. What did I know about taking care of a child, free soul over thirty, always in other worlds? No more prepared to be a mother than his sire a father?

… But once maternal demands began to impinge, I began to retreat. Like most men who have successfully dodged for millennia the actual nuture of child and home (owed equally with their women) I wanted to pull free of the basic hourly, daily matters of care. I loved to hold my child but not diaper him.

While I give Marya Mannes full marks for her honesty, I can’t read the above without thinking it was written more as an editorial commentary than a felt memory. “His sire?” Who used “sire” outside of animal husbandry in the last hundred years? A few diaper changes might have provided something missing in much of Out Of My Time: sensations.

This book is full of thoughts and reflections but largely empty of the things that make one person’s memories real to another–the specific details of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. When she does try to convey them, the result is unconvincing. Here, she describes going out to meet a ship bringing Jewish refugees into Haifa harbor: “Alongside the hull, the smell from the black portholes just above our heads was overpoweringly foul: the breath of a thousand latrines and a hundred hours of sweat.” Maybe it’s just me, but this clunky prose seems like a second-hand memory rather than something still vivid and felt twenty-some years later.

Too much of Out Of My Time is life in the abstract rather than the immediate. Although Mannes dedicates the book “To my son, with love and respect,” he goes unnamed and is mentioned, glancingly, less than five times after he’s born (e.g., “The adventurer in me would often continue to prevail, at a child’s expense, over the parent”). “A child”? His name was David Jeremy Blow, for the record. Neither do her three husbands get names. I had to rely on her New York Time obituary for theirs.

And this is what makes Out Of My Time such a frustrating book. Marya lived a remarkable, diverse, creative, original, and significant life. Her autobiography ought to be fascinating, a page-turner, full of anecdotes and insights. Instead, too much of the time it reads like War and Peace–specifically, the Second Epilogue, where dancing Natasha and dithering Pierre are replaced by Tolstoy the would-be philospher of history (“What force moves nations?”). Had Tolstoy not preceded the Second Epilogue with a thousand pages of rich, vivid, intensely felt fiction, no one would read War and Peace today. Just as almost no one reads Out Of My Time now.


Out of My Time, Marya Mannes
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Doctor Cobb’s Game, by R. V. Cassill (1970)

Cover of e-book reissue of 'Doctor Cobb's Game'Having taken a long trip over the last year through the pulp paperback fiction of R. V. Cassill, starting with his 1956 novel of wife-swapping in rural Iowa, The Wound of Love, I wasn’t surprised when I was contacted by Open Road Media, an e-book publisher, about their re-issue of five of Cassill’s books:

They offered me a free copy of any of these in return for this post, and as I was planning to read it anyway, I opted for Doctor Cobb’s Game.

Doctor Cobb’s Game was certainly Cassill’s most commercially successful book. The story is based on the Profumo affair, a scandal involving sex, secrets and Soviet spies that led to the resignation of Conservative Defence Minister John Profumo. Cassill’s Doctor Michael Cobb is his fictional version of Dr. Stephen Ward, the London osteopath and socialite who introduced Profumo to the 19-year-old Christine Keeler and who facilitated their affair while, at the same time, carrying on a close friendship with Soviet military attache and intelligence officer, Yevgeny Ivanov. Although doubts remain whether it did actually involve prostitution, procuring, or the passing of secrets or was just a case of bad judgment and awkward coincidences, the Profumo affair was something of a watershed in British culture and morality. Never after did the cone of silence over the old boys’ network fit so well, and the affair is often taken as one of the events marking the start of the swinging Sixties.

As all of his pulp novels plainly demonstrate, sex–particularly adulterous and illicit sex–held a great fascination for Cassill, and Doctor Cobb’s Game is his magnum opus on the subject. At the time the book was first published, sex had become something of a centerpiece on best-seller lists. The Sensuous Woman, by the anonymous “J”, topped lists for 1969, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was among the hottest titles when Doctor Cobb’s Game came out. Cassill’s publisher saw him, as he joked, as “Jacqueline Susann in trousers” and threw together a press campaign that saw the writer appearing on The Dick Cavett Show alongside the Rev. Billy Graham and Mandy Rice-Davies, who played a minor role in the Profumo affair. The press coverage and generally enthusiastic reviews succeeded in boosting the book’s sales and Cassill took home what was probably his biggest-ever paycheck from the sale of the paperback rights to Bantam Books.

In his review of the book for the New York Times, James Frakes wrote, “Cassill is remarkably adroit at capturing moods–domestic, supernatural, and, of course, psychosexual. I know of only two writers who rival him in this respect. Their names are D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” At the time, this was high praise. Reading it over forty years after Doctor Cobb’s Game, it seems much more artifact than masterpiece. Back in the 1950s, Cassill made a living for a few years working as an editor for the mens’ magazines, Dude and Gent. Although his work never made it to the pages of Playboy, his writing about sex in Cobb’s Game reminds me very much of the tone of that magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was, basically, “The great thing about Women’s Lib is that it makes it OK to fool around because now we know that women can get something out of sex, too.” In other words, it’s not the least bit liberating. Instead, it made me nostalgic for the good old days when Mailer had to write about “fugging.”

Frakes’ Times colleague, Jonathan Leonard, described Doctor Cobb’s Game as “a staggeringly complex meditation on irrationality, the forms it assumes, its energy for good and evil, its sources in biology and myth.” Running over 500 pages in hardback form, the novel does pack in a substantial array of characters in addition to those taken a clef from the Profumo affair. He tells the story, in fact, through an American narrator, Norman Scholes, who works in some ambiguous position for the mysterious Gath Corporation–an archetypal fictional “mysterious think-tank” corporation run by former Marine general and based out of a remote fortress-like complex in upstate New York known as “Falcon’s Wing.” The material related to the Gath Corporation alone is a choice bit of 1960s culture itself–I kept expecting Scholes to run into Derek Flint or Napoleon Solo.

But in fiction, there’s a fine line between complex and just plain complicated. While I found something to appreciate in each of Cassill’s pulp novels, they all suffered from his tendency to introduce one too many characters or one too many scenes or one too many plot diversions. In the right hands, most of these books could easily have made it into the ranks of a fine pulp classic like The Postman Always Rings Twice, but in Cassill’s, they ended up like a jigsaw puzzle with a few empty spaces–or,rather, pieces left over. Whether the fault lies with the manufacturer or the assembler, the result is awkward and unsatisfying. I was reminded of the old quip that an artist is someone who knows when to stop–and does.For me, the whole treatment of Doctor Cobb as some mythical character with access to alien or supernatural powers might have seemed radical and the height of invention at the time, but from this perspective, it looks as clunking and unconvincing as a special effect in a cheap science fiction film.

As one who remembers furtively thumbing through my father’s copies of Playboy in the late 1960s, Doctor Cobb’s Game was something of an uncomfortable trip back in time. I fear that what I enjoyed most were aspects and associations that Cassill never intended to evoke, while his great artistic reaches seemed like so much flailing around. I feel particularly chagrined to open 2015 with this post because I had decided to devote this year to featuring the work of neglected women writers.

However, I do want to note the significant contributions of Open Road Media toward the rediscovering of neglected writers both male and female. Over the last couple of years, they have reissued in e-book format (Kindle, EPUB and PDF) some of the most interesting writers of the last forty years, including such personal favorites as Thomas Rogers, Charles simmons, Stanley Elkin, Norman Lewis and Thomas Berger. And while I probably won’t pursue any other Cassill novels, I am delighted at the chance to sample his short stories, now available in The Father and Other Stories and The Happy Marriage and Other Stories.


Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer (1938)

littledoglostI wrote about one of Tiffany Thayer’s early novels, Thirteen Women, some years ago. For those who haven’t read that post, I’ll explain that Thayer was an eccentric and unique combination of pulp novelist, self-educated philosopher and follower of Charles Fort, and writer whose ambitions perhaps outstretched his abilities.

I bought a copy of Little Dog Lost after seeing the briefest of synopses, which described it as the story of Hollywood producer turned homicidal drifter. That made it seem a bit like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer — and too odd to pass up.

I should caution that I am no expert on Thayer and defer to those who are in setting down the authoritative facts of his life and work, but I feel safe in speculating that Thayer may have been trying to work through some of his inner conflicts in the process of writing Little Dog Lost. Thayer enjoyed the financial rewards of writing to the lowest common denominator, but he also wanted to pursue philosophy, to continue Fort’s work on anomalous phenomena, and to write a massive serious historical novel based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Wittgenstein’s friend, Barry Pink (“Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse”), Thayer seemed to be struggling to decide which role he preferred.

It’s not stretching comparisons too far to say that Little Dog Lost is something of a modern-day Candide. Thayer launches his protagonist, a highly successful movie producer (think Irving Thalberg or Darryl Zanuck), off on a journey to discover “the common people,” only to find that life among the simple folk is even more complicated than the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood.

Oh, and to spice things up, Thayer sets up his hero, Stanley Franklin, as (a) an orphan who witnessed his father kill his mother and then slit his own throat; (b) the informal foster child of a warm-hearted Brooklyn Italian family; (c) the ward of an enormously wealthy bachelor who plucked Stanley from la familia to raise and educate him as a gentleman; and (d) the brother of a psychopathic criminal. Oh, and (e) married to an infinitely patient and understanding woman who suffers gladly her husband’s every erratic whim.

I will not attempt to outline the plot beyond this. If you’re really interested, there is a detailed account available on Goodreads. Let’s just say that Stanley bounces from criminal gang to college campus to religious community to Communist rally to, well, a bunch of other stuff; joins a kidnapping conspiracy; learns that his real mother and father were not who he thought they were; dabbles in several varieties of 1930s radical politics; and ends up in an insane asylum. Unlike Voltaire, Thayer failed to understand that a good satirist does need to be a bit more organized than the crazy world he’s portraying.

If the whole thing sounds like a gawdawful mess, it is. I sort of admire Thayer’s chaotic energy, which can bring the stalest cliches, unfathomable motivations, absurd coincidences, and a certain manic brilliance together on the same page. I can’t for a moment claim to make sense of it, but I’ll give this to Thayer: he was certainly brimming with ideas.

File under “Eccentric Fiction.”


Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1938

Little Dog Lost

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

leftbankofdesireDown to the last few of R. V. Cassill’s pulp novels, I started Left Bank of Desire curious if I could detect any significant differences in style or approach between this novel, which Cassill co-authored with Eric Protter, and the rest, which he wrote solo.

I did, quite quickly and easily. Most of Cassill’s pulps are at least interesting as literary experiments, texts in which he tried out narrative techniques or played around with subjects (e.g., wife-swapping in The Wound of Love, even if they’re not always successful as stories. To be honest, having started and failed to finish several of Cassill’s mainstream novels, I’d even say they’re better reads than the books he wanted us to take seriously.

In contrast, Left Bank of Desire is just crap. I don’t know if the fault lies with Cassill or with Protter or with a collaboration that simply proved less than the sum of its parts. Frankly, it’s not a matter worth investigating. But this is a book with an implausible premise, a meandering narrative, characters either flat or caricatured, incredible motivations, and undistinguished style.

The only distinctive element–which, sadly, I cannot now shake from memory–is the strange substance to which a number of the book’s characters are addicted: ether. This is a story set in France around 1947 or 1948. At least a half-dozen or more times, someone is tipping a bottle of ether into a handkerchief, taking a great whiff, and either flying off on a high or passing out. Several times the protagonist runs off to buy a bottle at the pharmacy so he can satisfy the cravings of his would-be girlfriend or other denizen.

“Aiaiiiiiieeeeeeee.”

It sounded like someone badly hurt. It sounded like the machinery of the Loch Ness monster starting up.

What I’d smelleed before–mixed in with the turpentine smell–was stronger now. I saw the two girls sitting on a bed with their legs stretched out and their backs against a rough wall. Each of them was holding something to her nose. They looked like there were afraid they would sneeze.

“Aiaiiiiiieeeeeeee.”

… The guy took the cotton pad she had been holding to her nose and slopped ether onto itt from a bottle. He passed it back to her. Again the girls started kicking the bed. The drumming sound they made was faster than any sound could be without turning into steady roar.

I was familiar with the fact that ether addiction became a widespread problem soon after its introduction as a medical anaesthetic around 1820–particularly among physicians–but I assumed it had died out a century ago. Its appearance in the book seemed the crowning bit of evidence of its absurd awfulness. A quick check with Wikipedia (article), however, revealed that it continued, with serious social costs, in Poland and–more relevantly–in France. The sniffing, kicking, and screaming described in the book seems to have been something Cassill and/or Protter saw while living in Paris in the early 1950s.

So there’s the one thing we learn from Left Bank of Desire: French bohemians were still sniffing ether when Camus and Sartre were becoming household names.

And now that we know that, no one else ever has to read the book.


Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill and Eric Protter
New York: Ace Books, 1955

The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, by Alan Harrington (1955)

drmodesto
Given the number of times it’s been reissued, it’s surprising that Alan Harrington’s fable of conformity, The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, is out of print now. In some ways, it’s a classic text of the 1950s, a satire on normality written in the middle of what, in America at least, may have been normality’s greatest decade.

Harrington’s story centers on Hal Hingham, a sad and unsuccessful insurance salesman who lives in a small, seedy boarding house and has convinced himself and everyone he encounters that he’s a loser, a depressive personality everyone tries to avoid. Then, one night, contemplating suicide but lacking the will, he see an ad at the back of a magazine: “STOP! WHY ARE YOU SO UNHAPPY?” and “FAILURE? TRY CENTRALISM!” Hal sends away to one Dr. Modesto for the doctor’s little self-help guide.

The doctrine of Centralism seems the perfect philosophies for fifties:

1. Since your self grates on others, and makes you miserable, get rid of it.
2. In our society, in our time, it does not pay to be yourself. People laugh at you and call you strange–even it it was your father’s fault.
3. Look around you, and see who is the happy man. He is the one Just Like Everybody Else. “Oh, so that is the way to be?” you ask, and I say, yes, that is the way you and I must be.
5. The only place to be is in the center of their culture. Be more average than anyone!
6. From this moment on, HAVE NO SELF.
7. Have no mind of your own. Have no thought, opinion, habit, no desire or preference, no enthusiasm, love or fear of your own. Be the composite of your neighbors.

Hal sinks himself into the practice of Centralism, and heads off to put it to the test by returning to his home town, where he failed to rise even to the standard of his father, another hapless insurance salesman. With the power of Centralism behind him, however, he manages to sell dozens of policies within just his first afternoon back in town. He drives himself into a frenzy in which he loses all sense of himself and collapses.

At this point, however, Harrington seems to have hit an imaginative wall. Hal falls in with Merko the Human Fly, a carnival performer who trained himself to walk up the walls of buildings through sheer willpower. Then Harrington shifts his focus to Jack Swan, a small-time publicist in thrall with Gladys, the statuesque blonde room-mate of Hal’s girlfriend. We spend some time with Fred Purdy, Hal’s ultra-cynical boss. Finally, he sends Hal off in search of Dr. Modesto, who turns out to be a crazy old coot in a Nebraska asylum.

Harrington was certainly aiming his satire at the combined targets of middle-class American conventions and the sunny-spirited self-help prescriptions of Dale Carnegie, Earl Nightingale and others. He wrote much of the book while staying at his mother’s house in Tucson, Arizona, where he was visited by Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on one of their cross-country trips. In fact, Harrington appears in On the Road under the name of Hal Hingham.

I first read The Revelations of Dr. Modesto over thirty years ago, and since then, have carried a memory of it as a magical little book, something along the lines of Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams. On re-reading the book recently, however, I found it disjointed and often flat, with none of the charm of Frayn’s fantasy and not enough of the sharp edge required for satire. Ironically, Harrington tends to treat his characters with too much empathy to skewer them with sufficient cold-bloodedness. I wonder now if I was remembering the wrong book.


The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, by Alan Harrington
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955

Lustful Summer (1958), by R. V. Cassill

lustfulsummerI hate to say it, but the greatest pleasure I got from reading Lustful Summer was the fact that the copy I scored is in mint condition. I regretted opening it because it will never be quite as perfect as it was when I opened the package.

This book is almost as old as I am, and there are very few things left in this world from 1958 that are mint condition, and not many of those are paperbacks. I wonder how this copy survived the last 50-plus years without a scratch, and fantasize about a box of paperbacks from some Avon Books distributor forgotten for decades and then chanced upon by some lucky dealer. I picture seeing Lustful Summer next to Death Hits The Jackpot (Avon T-280) and Honeymoon Guide (Avon T-282, featuring Harold Meyers’ “Spicy gags and cartoons”). Perhaps I should have framed it instead, although I can’t imagine where my wife would have tolerated it.

Sadly, Lustful Summer is of greater interest as an object than a novel. It starts out with promise, with a voice that seems worth hearing more from:

If you are pretty, too many men try from the first minute of meeting to get at you. They crowd a girl too much. Because I was pretty they were always buzzing in my ear that I could have whatever I wanted….

This is a voice with some sass and spirit: “they crowd a girl…. they were always buzzing in my ear.” A voice that will take the world from a different angle. A voice that could spin a story that could hold up for 150 pages or so.

But it doesn’t even last through the first page:

Then I ran past it without recognizing it, so now I don’t even have anything like beautiful memories. The best memories I have hurt me. They hurt bad.

This stinks. It stinks bad.

Lustful Summer is about the short, awkward, and tedious love affair between Laila–our narrator–and Bruce, a married man who’s abandoned his wife to pursue his apparently muted passion to be a painter. We can at least be grateful that Bruce isn’t pursuing a passion to be a writer, given the kind of garbage he dumps out in an early love letter:

Beauty is the Mother. You send them forth and call them back. The dynamo that lights this sacrilegious island by night and illuminates the pageant of doormen shooing to their lust the handsome Westerners and the elastic and steel blondes. Makes the light by which I see the toothless pucker, blood-fringed, in the face of a drunk sleeping on Third Avenue.

What woman on Earth would take that kind of prose as anything but the ranting of a stalker?

John O’Hara took a character similar to Laila and wrote a pretty decent novel, BUtterfield 8, around her.

Read it instead.


Lustful Summer, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Avon Books, 1958

Ferment, by John T. McIntyre (1937)

Cover of first US edition of 'Ferment'Published within a year of his award-winning Steps Going Down, Ferment was, in many ways, even more ambitious that that 500-page descent into the world of small-time crooks and back streets. Ferment tackles the subject of the clash between union labor, business, and finance. Like Steps Going Down, it approaches its story from the underside, focusing on the efforts of an undercover factory spy and strike buster, Steve Brown, to make a fortune by organizing a scheme to lure both business and labor into an illusory partnership manipulated to put both in debt to a group of bankers. And like Steps Going Down, it is full of talk–once again, mostly in seedy hotel rooms, cheap apartments, and beer joints. There are pages and pages of conversations–much of it convincing in tone but mind-numbing in length.

McIntyre is more successful from a purely narrative standpoint, as the essential situation is simple. Steve tricks his brother Tom into lending him the money to underwrite this scheme, and Tom–himself an officer in the taxi-drivers’ union–eventually figures it out. To spice things up, both brothers are in love with the good-hearted, beautiful Maggie.

Which leads McIntyre off track from the big story of corruption and industrial violence and into the tedious and overwrought love triangle between Steve, Tom and Maggie, and results in a book I stuck with only in the foolish hope that McIntyre would produce something he failed to provide in Steps Going Down: a plausible ending. The copy I read came from a University of California library courtesy of my son, and it is in such pristine condition that I suspect I may have been its very first reader. Having finished it, I can say why.


Ferment, by John T. McIntyre
New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

The People Immortal, by Vasily Grossman

One of my earliest posts on this site was devoted to Vasily Grossman’s epic of the Russian experience in World War Two, Life and Fate. At the time, it was out of print in English translation and had been for over a decade.

Since then, Life and Fate has been reissued as a New York Review Books Classic and Grossman’s work has found a substantial audience. His wartime reporting has been collected as A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945, and about a year ago, his last work, An Armenian Sketchbook, previously unavailable in English, was translated by Robert Chandler and released as another NYRB Classic.

A year or so before I started this site, I came across a copy of Grossman’s first book published in English: The People Immortal in a Charing Cross bookstore that’s since become a pseudo-French bakery. It was in the bargain shelf, priced at one pound.

Out of curiosity last week, I decided to see what it was going for, given Grossman’s recent fame, and found a grand total of one copy for sale, priced at over 100 pounds. Which motivated me to dig it out and give it a read. Now, if by the end of this post you decide you can’t live without a copy, my recommendation is to opt for the U.S. edition, which was published by Julian Messner in 1945 under the title of No Beautiful Nights (there are three copies currently available).

In the English translation, credited to Elizabeth Donnelly in the U.S. edition, The People Immortal appears to be an abridgement of the Russian original, with a shorter text and four fewer chapters. How much has been lost, I cannot tell for certain, but given that Grossman shifts between characters and scenes, much as he did on a much grander scale in Life and Fate, it would have been easy to drop a chapter here and there without affecting the principal narrative.

The People Immortal takes place over the space of about ten days in August 1941, and follows a number of Russian soldiers and civilians as they retreat in the face of the German invasion. When first published in 1942, the book was something of a best-seller and was widely acclaimed. Grossman was nominated for the Stalin Prize for literature that year, but Stalin vetoed the selection and gave the prize to Ilya Ehrenburg instead. At the time, it must have been quite effective as propaganda, as Grossman displays throughout the book a profound confidence in the superiority of the Russian character, which he sees as more significant in the long run than the Germans’ military advantage.

As a work of fiction viewed from a distance of seven decades, it’s an uncomfortable mix of fine descriptive writing and simple Russian boosterism. I say boosterism simply because Grossman’s book lacks the fire and brimstone of the most strident Soviet propaganda. The Germans are referred to as “Germans,” for example, when a hardcore Soviet writer would call them “Hitlerites.” That’s not to say that he doesn’t engage in an occasional bout of character assassination: “German creative thought has been rendered sterile in all fields–the Fascists are powerless to create, to write books, music, verse,” remarks his chief protagonist, Commissar Bogarev, at one point.

Grossman’s approach to propaganda is less to denigrate the Germans than to highlight the most positive aspects of the Russian character. Thus, we get the stoic and indomitable leader (Bogarev), the salt-of-earth Russian mother, the happy-go-lucky soldier who breaks into song to rally his comrades when the going gets rough. Indeed, much of this will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen the Hollywood equivalent from World War Two:

Casualties among the men were heavy. Red Army man Ryabokon fought to his last round of ammunition; Political Instructor Yeretic, after downing scores of the enemy, blew himself up just before he died; Red Army man Glushkov, surrounded by the Germans, went on firing till his last breath; machine-gunners Glagoyev and Kardakhin, faint with loss of blood, fought as long as their weakening fingers could press the trigger, as long as their dimming eyes could see the target through the sultry haze of battle.

On the other hand, The People Immortal is redeemed somewhat by Grossman’s frequent use of nature as a means to set the war in perspective. Even greater than the strength of the Russian people is the resilience of the Russian land. As one soldier lies in a field, waiting for the command to rise and attach a German outpost, he notices the life going on around him:

Running across the dry ground is a crack like a fine streak of lightning. The column of ants winds along a bridge in strict order, one after the other, while those of the other side of the crack patiently wait their turn. A lady-bird–a plump little old woman in a bright red dress–is hurrying along, looking for the crossing. A gust of wind, and the grasses sway and bow, each in its own way, some humbly and quickly prostrating themselves to earth, others stubbornly, angrily, quivering, their ears spread out–food for sparrows.

It may also be that The People Immortal is redeemed by its brevity. Grossman puts his cast into a quandary–being trapped behind German lines, rescues them with a bout of ingenuity and heroism, and brings the story to a quick end. Another hundred pages and it might have become, as someone once described his next novel, For a Just Cause, which has not been translated into English yet, “a Socialist Realist dog.”

In the end, though, like that book, The People Immortal is of interest today only as an early and largely unsuccessful prototype of Life and Fate. Only a Grossman completist should consider hunting down a copy.


The People Immortal, by Vassili [Vasily] Grossman, translated by Elizabeth Donnelly
London/New York/Melbourne: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1943

Married Men, by Ira Wolfert

Cover of 1953 Eagle Books paperback edition of Ira Wolfert' 'Married Men'I like to take advantage of quiet days of the Christmas holiday to devote myself to a big, long book. Two years ago, it was Benito Perez Galdos’ masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, which offers everything one could ask from what Henry James called a “loose, baggy monster” (“with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary”): a strong narrative, a personable narrator, and plenty of rewarding detours into the sidestreets and marginal characters of 19th century Madrid.

While there were certainly plenty of candidates to choose from, this year’s choice was easy: Ira Wolfert’s massive 1953 novel, Married Men. Ever since I saw an immaculate first edition copy on the shelves of the great Wonder Books store in Frederick, Maryland, I’ve been intrigued to learn just what Wolfert managed to pack into its 1,007 pages.

Ira Wolfert’s first novel, Tucker’s People (1943), often pops up on lists of neglected books. It was mentioned among the additional titles listed at the end of David Madden’s first Rediscoveries collection and Gerald Green provided an essay on it in Rediscoveries II. It’s been reprinted numerous times, most recently by Black Curtain Press and by Amazon itself for Kindle. An Act of Love, Wolfert’s second novel, about a Navy pilot stranded on a South Pacific island, was received with great hoopla, including a cover story in the Saturday Review, and ranked with The Naked and the Dead when it first appeared in 1949. Married Men, however, popped up, received a few reviews, then disappeared, aside from an Married Men paperback edition (with an utterly misleading cover) later that year, disappeared.

One of the obvious reasons for the neglect of Married Men is its daunting size. It’s a brick in hardcover, and even squeezed down to 863 pages through narrow margins and tiny print the paperback is a great block of newsprint. But all of Wolfert’s novels are behemoths. Tucker’s People runs around 400 pages, and An Act of Love nearly 600.

Even considering its size, however, Married Men might have attracted the kind of readership that
Peyton Place won a couple years later if its title had actually provided an accurate clue as to its contents. Based on the jacket blurb or the paperback cover, you’d think this was an exhaustive account of mid-century American males and their adventures in and outside the bounds of marriage.

But this is not at all what Married Men is about. What it really is is a wildly ambitious attempt to write the Great American Business Novel: an epic of manufacturing, money, mergers, politics, and labor. Centered around Wes Olmstead, who builds a mid-sized metal plant in the fictional town of Grand Island in an unnamed Midwest state into a national conglomerate, it spans the period from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, and features a cast ranging into every corner of the social spectrum.
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In a way, it’s Wolfert’s version of Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood saga (The Financier and The Titan), but lacking Dreiser’s deft, subtlety or concision. And if you know anything about Dreiser, you’ll know that none of those were his forte.

In his review of An Act of Love, John Woodburn described Wolfert’s prose as “massive, encircling, slate-colored, and tirelessly industrial.” It’s an apt description, and the experience of reading Married Men is a bit like slogging through a swamp. There are plenty of passages in which the writing just goes on and on without advancing the story or idea a single inch. I was often reminded on William Gibbs McAdoo’s characterization of Warren G. Harding’s speeches: “An army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.” Wolfert’s approach betrays a tragic degree of artistic hubris. To steal from his own description of one character’s piano-playing, “It was as if each word were a bullet and (s)he was waiting for it to hit and sink in before sending out the next one.”

What Wolfert desparately needed was an editor with a drawerful of blue pencils. At half the length, Married Men might still come off a bit leaden, but it would at least have been able to maintain a livelier narrative pace.

A ruthless editor would certainly have eliminated many of Wolfert’s relentless ruminations on his characters’ thoughts, acts, and motives. Here, for example, is just the start of the Byzantine labyrinth he constructs around one minor character’s decision to quit Olmstead’s company:

Roy Warrener did not understand very clearly why or how, but the issue had become a drastic one for him. Krause had allowed his own name to be used on the letterhead of Oscar’s commission only to find out what Oscar was up to. Then, when Olmstead Metals started building its own hospital and the issue with Oscar was joined, he had withdrawn his name.

But Roy had had his name put on the letterhead for other reasons. He was forty-two at that time, of middling height, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, with a worn, lined face that was comfortable to look at because it seemed so honest. He was indeed an honest man and he had an honest heart.

As a medical student Roy had hoped eventually to specialize in obstetrics. But it was only a kind of inclination in him, and Alice Banniman was a passion. Alice was one of the poor relations of the Bannimans. Her father had been the older brother of Claude and Virginia. But he had broken with the family and had spent his life as a counter-jumper at Bushforth & Kopfers.

This goes meandering on through family history, city and company politics, and Roy Warrener’s reflections upon them until, four pages and roughly two thousand words later, we arrive at the point: Roy “had taken a lot of crap” from Claude” (Banniman, Roy’s wife Alice’s uncle, an Olmstead Metals executive and dirty old man). Then, just a few pages later, Wolfert quotes in entirety one of Roy’s early letters to Alice: a four-paragraph invitation to a party with an eight-paragraph P.S. that tells a long-winded anecdote about an aged patient of his who had just died. Alice somehow managed to look past Roy’s gaseous writing, much as a reader who expects to finish Married Men must look past many more pages of Wolfert’s.

Wolfert once wrote that, “I write novels that are objective, naturalistic, realistic works of reportage and social comment. They contain all the poetry, painting and music of which I am capable.” Then he added the telling remark, “It may seem that I am trying to ride off in all directions at once, but actually I ride in one direction: the direction of recording experiences objectively.” If there is one sense conspicuously missing from Married Men, it’s objectivity.

That’s not to suggest that the book is bereft of anything worthwhile. There are some very strong and visceral passages, such as the endless night of drinking and bar-hopping that Wes and a fellow young executive spend early on in the novel, which culminates in a meticulous account of a cockfight. It’s pretty unpleasant stuff but unquestionably powerful writing. And Wolfert does lay out a vast design for his story, taking in countless business and political deals and featuring characters ranging from a night watchman to a vaudeville dance act to a J. P. Morgan-like New York financier. But, in the end, there is just too much of “the arbitrary and the accidental” to allow Wolfert’s loose, baggy monster to wrestle itself into coherent shape.

It may say something about the artistic toll that Married Men took on Ira Wolfert that he never again attempted the novel form.


Married Men, by Ira Wolfert
New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1953

The Bitter Season, by Robert M. Coates

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Bitter Season'The Bitter Season, Robert M. Coates’ 1946 novel is, according to its dust jacket blurb, a story of “the civilian in wartime; the men a little too old, or a little too frail, to be warriors.” Like many such blurbs, it’s a poor attempt to make something of a book that it is not.

Tom, Coates’ protagonist and narrator, is “a little too old” to run the risk of being drafted, but certainly not too frail, given his many walks around Manhattan in the course of the book. And World War Two, particularly the impending invasion of France, looms large in his thoughts and life. But he is hardly an everyman and Coates never suggests that his is anything but an individual and unique perspective on his situation.

Tom is a writer, and as the book opens he has separated from his wife, Laura, a nightclub singer, after a dozen or so years of marriage. Over the course of the five months covered by the superficial narrative, he reflects upon their relationship, begins to build a life on his own, dates several women, and falls in love with one of them–Valerie, a Dutch refugee. As far as this slight and generally uninteresting story goes, the book might jokingly be summed up as “They also serve who only sit and mope.”

Personally, I think Coates could have dispensed with plot entirely, although it served at least as a skeleton upon which to hang his thoughts and observations, and probably also as an artifice by which to give his publisher a genre to categorize it with. Writing in Saturday Review, reviewer Donald Hough asked, with some frustration, whether The Bitter Season could even be labelled as fiction: “But what about something that in both form and content is nothing other than an outline of personal reactions to a given scene, of a point of view, and which by the device of naming a protagonist is called a novel?” Tom’s story is the weakest and most forgettable aspect of the book, and detracts from what is good in it.

The New Masses took a more lenient view, describing the book as “an experimental mixture of narrative, diary or journal, prose poem, and philosophic disquisition,” and pointing out that such things could be found in fiction as far back as Fielding and Sterne. Even so, it’s only the prose poems and philosophic disquisitions that offer the book’s lasting values.

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As I noted, Tom spends a good deal of time wandering around the streets of Manhattan, which allows Coates to paint some memorable scenes of the city:

I walked up to Fiftieth or Fifty-first Street, and then zig-zagged back down through the quiet cross streets to Rockefeller Center. It was April, I think, and the night was warm, but there was still ice-skating at the rink there. The music was playing, and the glare from the floodlights, reflected from the cloudy surface of the ice, poured up like the glow of some mechanical aurora borealis upon the quiet darkness above. I stopped for a while to look down from the railing on Forty-ninth Street at the skaters circling to the music’s rhythm in the sunken rectangle below. They looked small, even at that little distance, and intent on their glides and their maneuvers–they seemed oddly disassociated from the life that went on above them; as I leaned on the rail there, watching, it was like looking down at the creatures in some air aquarium, darting this way and that in response to motives and impulses that were largely incomprehensible to me.

Tom’s wanderings also bring him into contact with men whose attitudes and opinions add a disquieting note to the relentlessly upbeat stream of bond-selling, war-boosting propaganda. A cab driver blames a fire in an office building on “the Jews” eager to collect the insurance. A man at a bar likens European refugees to vermin that have infested the city. Another says “the niggers” have been given too much freedom by Roosevelt and need to be brought back under control when the war is over. Coates notes a subtle parallel between the violence of the far-off battlefronts and the violence implicit in such views.

Coates’ is an existential perspective. Living on his own, cut off from friends who know him only as half of Tom-and-Laura, Tom is deeply lonely:

Loneliness, I’ve discovered–I discovered then–is a hard-to-define emotion. It’s the product of unfulfillment, a factor of frustration, and as such it is largely an emotion of negatives; it arises most often not from something that has, but from something that has not happened–a letter that has failed to arrive, a telephone that refuses to ring–and its worst feature is that its causes and its control are not governed by anything that you can do or can hope to do, but depend on the actions of some other. Thus it is that it has nothing to do with setting or with circumstance; it can descend on you anywhere, anytime, and as reasonlessly and as abruptly as a cloud can blot out the summer sun.

Coates describes what people were experiencing at this time as “a sort of global loneliness.” It was “the feeling that whatever was happening or was going to happen would occur despite anything you could do to aid or prevent it.” Despite the constant barrage of headlines, newsreels and radio reports, “the storm never touched us directly; all we felt was the heat and the omninousness and the tension.”

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Although the great event looming offstage throughout the book is the D-Day invasion, when it finally arrives, there is no real sense of relief. The headlines of combat and casualties continue on. In a sense, The Bitter Season is less a book about life on the homefront during World War Two than an anticipation of life during the Cold War, when the threat against individual life became greater in scale even as it became more remote and beyond any individual’s control.

Ultimately, though, Coates’ choice to wrap his meditations around the frame of a plot undermines the book. Hough’s review for The Saturday Review wasn’t too far wrong in observing that Coates “… is a good workman at the typewriter end of his craft and he leads you on, paragraph by paragraph, through sheer competence in writing, and a dangling hope that something is going to happen, until finally he seems tired of chasing his tale and steps nimbly aside to let you read on into the dust-jacket flap.” Without the plot, The Bitter Season would probably have become a forgotten little book of “prose poem and philosophic disquisition.” With it, it just became a forgotten little novel.


The Bitter Season, by Robert M. Coates
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946

Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz

Cover of Berkeley paperback edition of 'Altars of the Heart'One never knows just how good or bad a book is when it’s wrapped in a lurid 1950s paperback cover. This was a time when publishers and cover artists were a bit like Weekly World News editors–fighting to catch the eyes of buyers by constantly striving to reach new highs in glare and new lows in discretion. I’d sure that somewhere out there is a 1950s paperback edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine featuring a Roman babe about to lose her toga to the hands of a lecherous young Augustine.

In the case of Richard Lebherz’s 1957 short novel, The Altars of the Heart, what you get is both better and worse than the cover promises. The writing is far more subdued and sensitive, and the story and characters bear only slight connection to the nymphet and bed games suggested by the cover. “A Story of Love and Deceit in Summertime Rome”–well, that much is true, but woman is a good fifteen years older and the love is brief, confused, and one-way.

But there are also elements much creepier than would even be appropriate within the loose guidelines of these covers. The Altars of the Heart is one of a long string of tales of innocent Americans lured off their wholesome standards by the ease and sophistication of decadent Romans. In this case, it’s a spinster schoolteacher who sprains her ankle and goes to the wrong doctor for treatment.

The wrong doctor meaning one who seems to have spent a little too much time in Berlin working for the S.S. during the war and who seems to be in the midst of some kind of obsessive S&M relationship with his mistress. I say “seems” because Lebherz merely suggest these details. The doctor decides to romance the teacher as the means to getting a quick loan of $500 to help the mistress out of a jam–or rather, as he puts it to teacher, to “pay off medical equipment.”

Well, not to be a spoiler, but let’s just say that if you ever find yourself in the doctor’s situation, make sure to put your souvenir S. S. dagger out of reach. The schoolteacher flies home in panic, and the moral of the story seems to be … well, keep the S. S. daggers out of reach, I guess. What started out as a restrained minor work takes a Grand Guignol turn and never manages to find its way home save by means of a Pan Am ticket. Odd and forgettable.


Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz
New York City: Grove Press, 1957
New York City: Berkeley Books, 1959
also published as Affair in Rome, Ace Books, 1960

Purloining Tiny, by John Franklin Bardin

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Purloining Tiny'I first encountered the works of John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, a collection of Bardin’s first three novels introduced by the British crime writer, Julian Symons. Although bearing the trademark green spine of Penguin’s mystery and crime line, the Omnibus seemed to have less in common with your typical mystery than it did with, say, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

The Deadly Percheron (1946), in particular, has a fair number of parallels with The Third Policeman: the same hallucinogenic atmosphere, the simultaneous sense of hilarity and dread, and a certain unmistakable Irishness–real leprechauns in Bardin’s case. The Last of Philip Banter (1947) is something of a recurring nightmare, as the alcoholic Banter finds himself waking from blackouts and being greeted by his own confessions to murder. And Devil Take the Blue Tail Fly (1948) is almost completely surreal, with a heroine who may or may not be suffering from multiple personality disorder and may or may not be imagining that she bashed a man’s head in.

Bardin kept on writing and publishing, although under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Daniel Ashe several times, at a steady rate, piling up a total of nine novels by 1954. None of them sold all that well, and only the first three earned a quiet word-of-mouth reputation for their originality and power. Then Bardin, it appears, stopped writing for over twenty years, putting his energies into a series of jobs in the advertising and magazine business.

Purloining Tiny popped up out of nowhere in 1978. Perhaps the critical acclaim the John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published Omnibus received inspired Bardin, or Harper & Row, or both, to publish the book. Whatever the motive, the result was a flop, commercially and artistically.

There are fragments of the wonderful bizarre logic of Bardin’s first three novels in Purloining Tiny. The Tiny of the title is Sheila (or is it Patricia?) “Tiny” Barrett, who got her nickname when recovering from polio, but who has grown into a statuesque blonde. With her step-father, Joel, she appears frequently on television in magic acts with an overt S&M theme, often involving medieval instruments of torture. She is kidnapped by her real father, Harry Barratt, who has evolved over the decades since his wife ran off with their little girl from loser to hit-man to courier for an international crime syndicate. Harry holds her in a soundproof, hermetically sealed, all-white apartment he’s had constructed two floors below Tiny and Joel’s penthouse in Manhattan.

But none of it holds together. We get a tossed salad of violence and kinky sex, with incest and S&M sprinkled in like croutons. We get a villain–Harry–who considers himself an agent of Puritanical redemption all the while that he is beating up, knifing, shooting, and tossing people out windows. Bardin gives Tiny the ingenuity to figure her way out of the apartment within hours the first time and then expects us to believe she would then put up with weeks of confinement and psychological abuse with barely a fight. Oh, and when the detective shows up in the last two chapters to solve the case, he’s suffering from constipation.

Had George Romero made the story into one of his low-budget oddball horror films, something along the lines of Martin, there might have been something redeeming about the badness of Purloining Tiny. But it lacks the deliberation that keeps a good bad book from completely disintegrating. It’s just bad bad.

Let this one keep on collecting dust and order a copy of The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus instead.


Purloining Tiny, by John Franklin Bardin
New York: Harper & Row, 1978

The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Great Green'
“No one knows for certain how the world began, whether it was made or whether it made itself from energy or love, if it was a piece of the sun or the Word of God, if it rose from kaos or E = mc2,” begins the foreword to Calvin Kentfield’s 1974 memoir of his life as a merchant mariner, The Great Green. It goes on for four pages full of references of the Popul Vuh, geology, astrology, creation myths, and finally ends with, “I, child if progress, surfaced to the light and air in the hospital and, twenty years later, set out for the sea, for The Deep, for The Great Green, for the Possessor of All Secrets and the Father of All Gods and of the World.”

I think this is what I had in mind when, a few years ago, in a post about John Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors, I mentioned that I had given up on The Great Green “after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose.”

Well, for some reason, I picked up The Great Green again a few weeks ago, and gave it another try. The book’s subtitle is, “A Loose Memoir of Merchant Marine Life in the Middle of the Twentieth Century with Examples of True Experience Being Turned into Fiction,” which in itself illustrates the self-indulgent and meandering problem. An average kid with no particular ambition and a tendency to follow along in others’ slipstream, Kentfield dropped out of the University of Iowa in the late 1940s bummed around the country until he wound up in New Orleans and decided to ship out as a merchant seaman.

This was not as straight-forward as he had expected. He spent a few weeks crashed with a friend while he waited, first to get his union letter, and then to get his Coast Guard rating as an ordinary seaman, and then to rise high enough in the pecking order of the Seaman’s Hall to get offered a spot on the S.S. John Ringling, a Liberty ship hauling bauxite out of Guiana.

Kentfield went to sea at a time when the life of merchant sailors was beginning to change. Although he had his share of dockside bars, drunken fights and weary prostitutes, this renegade lifestyle was transforming into a routine nearly as bourgeois as a banker’s. The hierarchy of ranks was as rigid as the military, and as an ordinary seaman, Kentfield was at the bottom of the heap.

Life on board a merchant ship, he soon learned, involved hundreds of practical details, such as a dozen or more different ropes for different purposes:

A heaving line is a small tough rope about the size of a clothesline though made of hemp, not plastic or cotton, and perhaps seventy-five feet long with a monkey fist on one end. And a monkey fist is an iron weight, usually a steel bearing, slightly smaller than a tennis ball covered with a Turk’s head, and a Turk’s head is a weaving of small rope that put sailors a long time ago in mind of a turban.

Kentfield seemed to enjoy playing the role of tour guide to the world of the merchant seaman, and The Great Green is full of explanations, from the uses of bell signals for telling time and announcing upcoming obstacles to the rules affecting seamen’s pay. As matter-of-fact as most of these passages are, I thought them by far the best part of the book.

kentfieldbooks“True Experience Being Turned into Fiction” is, perhaps, the focus of the book. Kentfield wrote several novels and published dozens of short stories that drew heavily upon his time as a seaman. He often reveals the real-life inspirations for characters in his fiction and occasionally quotes from his work to illustrate the links between them and his experiences. In this way, The Great Green shares a little in common with Katharine Brush’s This is On Me, although Kentfield lacks Brush’s light-hearted charm.

Kentfield returned to complete his degree and took breaks to start his writing career, starting with The Alchemist’s Voyage, a novel, in 1955, and The Angel and the Sailor: A Novella and Nine Stories in 1957. He continued to ship out from time to time, however–in part for the boost it seems to have given his fiction.

He finally quit in 1959, after coming to a decision as he worked on the deck of an oil tanker in Puget Sound on a rainy Christmas Day:

Standing there with the rain pouring from the end of my nose and my ears through my collar and my drawers, flowing over my boots, I, tending the valves and listening to the pumps, I came slowly to the realization that not only was I bored but that I was no longer pursuing the Possessor of All Secrets, the Father of All Gods and of the World, I was standing in the cold rain serving Standard Oil, a false god if ever there was one; so when I got back to Frisco, I quit.

Nevertheless, the sea never seems to have worked its way out of Kentfield’s system. His next novel was titled All Men are Mariners (1962), and his next short story collection, The Great Wondering Goony Bird (1963) was full of stories about sailors. And aside from contributing a novella to a collection titled, Three: 1971 and writing a coffee table book on the Pacific Coast, Kentfield only published one other book before his death in 1975: The Great Green. The last fifty pages of the book reprint three of his early short stories of sea-going life: “A Place for Lovers in the Summertime,” “Mortality,” and “Dancer’s Cricket.” According to various accounts, he struggled with alcoholism and his sexuality, and his death, from a fall from a tall seaside cliff, might have been suicide or vengeance from an angry wife.

The Great Green is very much the work of a writer struggling to master his prose and his perspective. There are some gawdawful attempts at the poetic, a fair number of anecdotes Kentfield probably rolled out to disgust or tease his friends after a few too many, and several character sketches that end up telling us more about the writer than the subject. I am glad that I stuck with it to the end, if only for the glimpses it offered into a life that seems never to have found its true reckoning.


The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield
New York City: Dial Press, 1974

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen

Cover of 'Presidents Who Have Known Me,' by George E. AllenWhen I spotted Presidents Who Have Known Me on the shelves of the Montana Valley Bookstore, I knew I had to get it. With a title like that, the book was either going to turn out to be a classic of egocentric bombast or an enjoyable exercise in self-mockery, something along the lines of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.

Instead, it turns out to be a little of each and not enough of either to recommend to anyone but a historian desperate for an anecdote about some figure or other from midcentury American politics. George E. Allen’s Wikipedia entry describes him as a “political operative,” and based on his book, it’s a good way to sum him up. A Mississippian who had a few unsuccessful years as a small-town lawyer, Allen managed to work his way through a variety of jobs, including lobbyist and hotel manager, until he became a staffer for Pat Harrison, the senior Democratic senator from Mississippi and a key Roosevelt ally in Congress. With Harrison’s support, along with that of FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, he managed to get appointed as one of the commissioners running the District of Columbia–a post he held for most of the 1930s.

He also wangled his way into a variety of official and unofficial positions in the Democratic Party, which led him to work (if mostly intermittently and on the margins) with FDR and Truman. His were one of a number of hands through which the notorious series of hand-written notes from FDR that eventually led to Truman’s selection of the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944. Later, he became involved with Truman’s re-election campaign in 1948. One recollection of this experience manages to illustrate how Allen attempts to be self-deprecating and self-celebrating at the same time and manages to flub the whole thing:

Almost all the political experts, both professional and amateur, were wrong in their predictions about the outcome of the last Presidential election [1948–Ed.]. But not one of them was more wrong than I. Indeed, I was even wronger than George Gallup.

To make it worse, I was, at the time of the campaign, a sort of self-appointed unofficial advisor to President Harry S. Truman. I was in a position to tell him how is campaign should be run, and I did so. All through the campaign Mr. Truman ignored my advice, and all through the campaign I kep promising myself that when he lost to Thomas E. Dewey I would remember to be generous and not say, “I told you so.” When it was all over and he had won, I told him that I had been supremely confident of his defeat.

“So was everybody else,” he confided, “but you’re the first one who’s admitted it.”

In case we fail to get his point, Allen makes it again, and as obviously as humanly possible: “My point is that whereas almost everybody was wrong on this occasion I managed to rise above the pack and get credit for being outstandingly wrong.” Why do I get the feeling that George Allen had a tendency to repeat the punch line when a joke failed to get a big enough laugh?

Allen–whose chief assets appear to have been an endless supply of jokes and ready availability as an extra hand at poker and bridge–didn’t come from Missouri, but that aside, exemplified the band of card-playing buddies Truman kept close at hand for advice and support. Allen fit in well with the likes of Truman’s old World War One Army pal, Harry Vaughan, who was promoted to General and appointed as the President’s Military Aide on the strength of similar achievements.

Indeed, when Truman appointed Allen to a seat on the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Washington Star broke the news with the headline, “Appointment of Allen to RFC Board Called Worst Choice Made by Truman.” Allen’s face made the cover of Time magazine, with the caption, “George E. Allen: For the President: jokes, cheers.” Despite the outcry of influential columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann, all of whom noted that Allen was utterly unqualified for the job, a circle of Democratic Party supporters, led by Senator Alben Barkley (who went on to become Truman’s running mate in 1948), arranged to get the appointment confirmed. Allen acknowledges his lack of qualifications but insists that he had to go through it for Truman’s sake. In the end, he resigned the post after a year, having done almost nothing. This he seems to consider an illustration of his personal integrity and loyalty to the President. One wonders why he didn’t try harder to talk Truman out of making the appointment in the first place.

No, actually, by the time one reaches this point in the book, the whole affair seems to sum up Allen’s character. After all, he uses the Time magazine portrait for the cover of his own book.

Allen’s ambiguous role in Washington politics seems to have rapidly grown smaller after the RFC stint, and the book may have been an earnest attempt to keep his name in the spotlight a bit longer. Although he assures his readers that, looking ahead to the growing struggle between democracy and communism, “the men who emerge as our leaders will have the incalculable advantage of knowing me,” the evidence shows that his principal patron after 1950 was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, with whom he regularly lunched and went to the horse races. One may take some consolation that other American leaders failed to take advantage of Allen’s acquaintance.


Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950