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0 - The Neglected Books Page

Season’s Greetings, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

It’s fitting that the last book I feature this year is Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Season’s Greetings. His work–particularly his first novel, Gentleman Overboard, which I reviewed here back in July, has been one of the best discoveries and pleasures of this year. I only regret not getting this piece written a few days ago, since Season’s Greetings, his third novel, takes place on Christmas Eve.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Season's Greetings'The story takes us through the day in the minds of the residents of a rooming house in the Greenwich Village – Lower Fifth Avenue area of Manhattan. Mr. Kittredge–we never learn his first name–is a depressed, dyspeptic, world-weary World War One veteran who plans to commit suicide that night. Betty Carson is a young girl from Cape Cod, now working at Macy’s. Betty has discovered that she’s pregnant, by a man named Joe Henderson who left a month ago and hasn’t contacted her since. Having given up hope of seeing him again, Betty has decided to visit an abortionist after work.

Hans Metzger is a German Jew, a refugee stuck in limbo–unable to return home, unable to join his surviving sisters in South America. Minnie Cadgersmith, a widow in her seventies, suffers from a variety of ailments and has determined that she will die in her sleep that night after paying a visit to her three grandchildren. And Flora Fanjoy takes pride in having saved her pennies over the years and managed to rise from serving girl to own her own humble but upstanding rooming house.

As might be expected of any story set on Christmas Eve, each of Lewis’ main characters experiences a revelation of one sort or another in the course of the day. Soon after her tenants leave, Flora is struck on the head by a falling can of cleanser and falls down her basement stairs, landing paralyzed and unable to speak. Her only witness, her cat Flossie, soon abandons her to roam the neighborhood, and Flora gradually becomes aware that she will, in all likelihood, die before anyone comes to look for her. Lewis provides a fine passage describing how Flora learns “that there were tones and shades of blackness”:

It was nighttime, Mrs. Fanjoy realized. When first she opened her eyes the blackness had been gray, so that she had been able to discern dimly above and ahead of her the flight of stairs leading to the first floor hallway. The eyes of Flossie her cat had shone milkily opalescent in this gray blackness, she remembered. But after a while Flossie had gone away, and Mrs. Fanjoy, straining her eyes at the stairs, had watched their color and the color around them change imperceptibly to brown black, so strikingly brown black that it seeme she was lying in the center of a chocolate world. She had watched the brown black then, watched it fearfully a long time, until without warning it had vanished in the surrounding gloom, and a new color, a majestic, funereal color, had appeared to take its place. This was purple black, a blackness of such incredibly pure purple that it made each stair on the staircase stand out solemnly and distinctly from the others. And Mrs. Fanjoy had looked at the purple black, looked at it and dissected it and mentally run her fingers through its rich thickness, for a timeless time of endless minutes and hours, until, at last, she had seen it start to fade. She had watched it fade, watched it thicken and solidify and drop down into the well of darkness around her, until the last hard fleck of it was no more, and then, all of a sudden, it was black black, and Mrs. Fanjoy knew what time it was.

This quote may offer a hint of a prevailing feature of Season’s Greetings. Coming it at just over 400 pages, it’s over twice as long as Lewis’ three other books. In writing of Gentleman Overboard, I remarked that, “It’s been said that a true artist knows when to stop–and does. By this criterion alone, Herbert Clyde Lewis proves himself a true artist….”

Well, by the same criterion, Season’s Greetings proves something less than a work of art. There are plenty of places where a healthy application of blue pencil would have enabled Lewis to make his points with the kind of subtlety and grace one finds throughout Gentleman Overboard.

On the other hand, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the space it can offer the writer, the space to stretch out and explore alleys and sideways that run off the course of the main narrative–detours that can’t be afforded in a more economical form like a short story. And Lewis constantly goes wandering off into the maze of streets and lives one finds in Manhattan. He devotes a whole chapter to the thoughts of Mrs. Fanjoy’s cat, Flossie, as she leaves her owner’s side, looks around the house for food, then heads out to the tiny, barren backyard–her kingdom. Metzger befriends a bum who relates much of his life’s story, full of travel to seaports around the world and violent struggles in the early days of labor.

And he spins out many prose poems to Manhattan itself:

Very slowly the city came to life on this morning of the day before Christmas. The sun rose out of the ocean, out of Queens, out of Brooklyn, and shone listlessly through the heavy black clouds upon the slush-covered rooftops, the dirty windows, the grimy east sides of buildings, the sooty smokestacks, chimneys and air vents. Slowly the noises of the city came to life, autos shifting gears, horns honking, doors slamming shut, trains rumbling underground, machines chugging and whirling, feet tramping, babies wailing, children shouting, peddlers calling their wares. Slowly the smells of the city came to life, coffee brewing, bacon frying, garbage stewing, chemicals churling in cauldrons. And men who had a talent for putting one stone on top of another built towers into the sky so they could look down upon all this.

Needless to say, a book set in Manhattan leaves its author with no shortage of excuses to indulge in such descriptive flurries, and you’ll find them here by the dozens. Perhaps a few too many for some readers, but I was usually happy to follow along whenever Lewis strayed from his course.

Lewis had devoted much his first two books–Gentleman Overboard and Spring Offensive–to coldly watching his protagonists die alone. And even though Season’s Greetings is a Christmas story and most of his characters reach the end of the day at least a little happier than they started, Lewis retains a bit of his trademark dispassion. As most of the other characters come together in the rooming house, Mr. Kittredge calmly walks to Washington Square, finds a secluded park bench, and blows a hole through his chest.

No one heard the loud report or saw Mr. Kittredge half rise from the bench and topple over onto the snow. A motorist driving under the arch on Fifth Avenue thought for a moment he had heard a shot, but decided it was only an auto backfiring. Around the whole windswept park, in all the apartment houses and brownstone mansions and college buildings, not a single window opened and not a single person looked out.

Lewis’ theme is, as one character puts it, “the problem of loneliness in a city of eight million people.” While Hans and Mrs. Cadgersmith find its solution in the company of others and Betty Carson is reunited with Joe Henderson instead of left alone to recover from an abortion, Lewis is too much of a realist–he was at one point a crime reporter for the New York Herald Tribune–to let Christmas miracles fix everyone’s problems. Frank Capra would undoubtedly left Mr. Kittredge out if he’d filmed Season’s Greetings.

Ironically, Liberty Films acquired the rights to another Christmas story by Lewis, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” intending it to be directed by Capra. Although Capra opted for “It’s a Wonderful Life” instead, a film version of Lewis’ story was released in 1947. Starring one of the best character actors of the 1940s, Victor Moore, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” is something of a neglected film classic and earned Lewis an Oscar nomination for his original story. Lewis worked in Hollywood for about six years in the mid-forties, becoming friends with Humphrey Bogart and others, but he returned to New York City around 1948 and joined the editorial staff of Life magazine. He died of a heart attack in 1950, leaving behind a wife and two children. Some years later, somewhat inexplicably, a fourth novel, The Silver Dark was published as a paperback. All his work has been out of print for over 50 years now, and Season’s Greetings is so scarce that Amazon.com doesn’t even list it.

Here’s hoping a Christmas miracle might come to one of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ books soon.


Locate a Copy


Season’s Greetings, by Herbert Clyde Lewis
New York: The Dial Press, 1941

The Sun’s Attendant, by Charles Haldeman

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Sun's Attendant'After receiving a long post by Charles Haldeman’s brother, Richard, in response to my piece on Charles’ second novel, The Snowman, I decided to try his first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, which received enthusiastic praise in the Times Literary Supplement:

To finish a new novel by an unknown author with a sense of complete satisfaction is rare. To come across one that compels instant second and even third readings is far rarer. The Sun’s Attendant suggests itself as something more than a fresh and accomplished work of fiction. It arouses the kind of puzzled excitement that can sometimes mark the entrance of an outstanding writer. At the very least, Mr. Haldeman has a most original mind and a set of unusual gifts.

Such praise raises questions: If true, how is it that The Sun’s Attendant has vanished from any critical account of 1960s American fiction, gone unnoticed after its initial release? Or did the reviewer simply get it wrong?

The Sun’s Attendant is nothing if not ambitious. Although it’s just over 300 pages long, it’s dense with difficult, challenging writing. Joyce, Gide, and, I suspect, Günter Grass, are noticeable influences. There is little conventional narrative that runs for more than a few pages.

As Marvin Mudrick described the book in his New York Review of Books review,

It is an enormous collage of fragments: isolated jokes, apothegms, parables, riddles, letters, notebook entries, newspaper articles, fairytales; a journal introduction, written in a clever pastiche of the high-collar rhetoric by which French intellectuals (even Camus) find it too easy to convince themselves of their sincerity (“My only hope is that in laying these strange pages in the hands of others, I shall perhaps have begun to reopen some long-closed windows in myself”); lengthy passages of interior monoloque; passages of stage-dialogue: each of the fragments headed by a title barely indicative, helpfully informative, or cryptically sardonic; abrupt dislocations from one character or milieu to another.

Haldeman also chose an overt and apparently symbolic structure. Subtitled, “A Diptych,” the book has two main sections–Left Panel and Right Panel, with a short linking section called Hinges. Each panel is divided into three sections named after positions of a planet as it orbits the sun: Summer Solstice; Aphelion; Autumn Equinox, etc..

All this deliberate artifice is meant to give weight and depth to the story of Stefan Brückmann, a half-German, half-Gypsy boy who is caught up in the turbulent history of Germany from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Born to an itinerant Roma family, he loses his parents when their wagon falls through the ice while crossing a river somewhere in Central Europe. Taken in by his German uncle, he rebels against Nazi conventions and spends his time with other Roma and outcasts on the margins of Berlin.

Swept up in a late round-up of unwanted non-Aryans in 1943, he is sent to Auschwitz. On his sixteenth birthday, as he is about to resign himself to being sent to the gas chambers, he is yanked out of the huts thanks to his German bloodline and sent to be an attendant in one of the camp’s SS barracks. Stefan refers to the SS men as “the priests.” There, he is befriended by Hannes, a slender, blonde homosexual a few years older, who is also working in the barracks.

Cover of first U.K. edition of 'The Sun's Attendant'As the Russians approach, Stefan and Hannes are moved, along with other inmates, towards the West. They manage to escape when an Allied plane attacks their train, causing it to derail, but Hannes is wounded and soon dies. Stefan is interned again, this time by the Americans, as a displaced person. An American G.I., a Southerner named Moon (more symbolism), takes a liking to Stefan and eventually adopts him. After a brief spell in South Carolina, full of atmosphere straight out of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Stefan returns to Europe.

In Paris, he meets up with a French intellectual, Immanuel de Bris, who ends up taking him along on a lecture trip to Heidelberg. There, de Bris introduces him to Barbara Speer, recently widowed by the suicide of her husband, a promising young poet and critic. The twists and turns of Stefan and Barbara’s relationship, as they come together, wring hangs over their respective losses, encounter various artists and intellectuals in postwar Germany, part, and, finally, come to some kind of reconciliation, fills the second half of the book (Right Panel).

I stuck with Haldeman to the very end of The Sun’s Attendant out of simple faith in his artistic aims. He did not set himself an easy task. He clearly wanted to take on profound questions about life and death, playing out his story against a backdrop where death is everywhere and on a large scale. And he lacked no courage when it came to embracing absurdity. Great personalities come to ridiculous ends in his story. And the reader regularly gets exposed to short bursts of what I can only suppose is meant to be purely absurdist prose:

Merchants are no longer sure of Canada: its puppet strings were snipped by Vichy scissors. Spectacles, hats and rings went down with boots.

Only the blank uncounted Sunday flies fill their ears like inedible puddings.

Swollen prunes and spilt milk mingle with the natal flow and the honey of Canaan.

As well as great clumps of weighty thoughts:

But just as life, as a wound, depends on death, as a body, for its sustenance, Man himself could not begin to realize himself until his fall had wounded Eden. Man will return at once to his original home, which has never ceased to exist, in the very moment that his wound becomes irreversible–that is, when life is no longer healable by death.

There’s a little of everything here: Brechtian dialogues, rabbinical , dry analyses auf die Akademie, pensees worthy of Satre’s review, Les Temps modernes, Gypsy folktales, even snatches straight out of Kerouac:

I began to wander, from town to town, always farther inland. I reached the Rockies and, repelled by them, turned southward and back. Two years I drifted, sometimes working, mostly not. I avoided trains and seldom hitchhiked; usually I took buses, with endless accordion tickets, go off in unlikely places, stayed an hour or a day and go back on, in and out of a kind of sleep-read-sleep-talk-stop-start-sleep, on and on through the slow transitions, the wastes, the geographical paradoxes, the dry primitivity, through the inexplicable familiarity, freak electricity and sudden clarity, the named placelessness of the American continent, transported by an absurd, fluid, heart-breaking dream of distance.

Do all these fragments amount to something as significant and serious Haldeman seems to have intended it to be? Serious–yes. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his review for the New York Times, “We are always conscious of the author’s utter seriousness of purpose, that he is less engaged in display than in the fulfillment of his themes.”

Charles Haldeman, 1963'Significant, though? Sadly, The Sun’s Attendant suffers from the tendency of many inexperienced writers to mistake serious for profound. Giving Stefan Brückmann an interesting story does not make him an interesting character. The book’s end comes as a relief, not a revelation.

As Kauffmann put it, “[W]hat we are left with is the work of a young writer … who is able and attractively ambitious but who has attempted subjects not yet within his grasp.” Mudrick reached much the same conclusion: “The energy of the novel dissipates itself in local effects–comments, technical surprises, aphorisms, short-lived intellectual fireworks of impressive diversity and inventiveness–and nothing is left for the long run.”

After finishing The Sun’s Attendant,I picked up another of Eric Hatch’s novels, Road Show, and the contrast reminded of Coleridge’s line about Fielding (“To take him up after Richardson, is like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves, into an open lawn, on a breezy day in May”). I can’t imagine turning back, like the TLS critic, for a second and third read of Haldeman’s book. But then the TLS’s man may have been a better reader than I, Gunga Din.

I will not, however, give up my faith in Mr. Haldeman. I have ordered his last novel, Teagarden’s Gang, which, according to his brother Richard, “was unable to find an American publisher because a main character was too closely identified with J. Edgar Hoover, still powerful and living.” Written ten years after The Sun’s Attendant, it may just deliver on his promising ambitions.


Find a Copy


The Sun’s Attendant, by Charles Haldeman
London: Jonathan Cape, 1963
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964

A humble introduction, from Freedom in a Rocking Boat, by Geoffrey Vickers

Geoffrey VickersA lovely acknowledgement from the introduction to Geoffrey Vickers’ 1970 book, Freedom in a Rocking Boat:

An introduction is the place for acknowledgments; but my sense of indebtedness leaves me dumb. Socialized and humanized by being claimed from birth onwards as a member of so many communicating human groups; ushered into self-awareness through a language, every word of which resonates with the meanings of ancient usage; heir to several cultural traditions, each far too abundant for my assimilation–how can I name or number or know the living and the dead who have shaped my thoughts and me?

Freedom in a Rocking Boat, by Geoffrey Vickers
London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1970

Five Days (AKA Five Nights), by Eric Hatch

In the 1951 reference book, American Novelists of Today, it says of Eric Hatch, “He writes entertaining popular novels which are enlivened by a pleasant vein of humor and by light, satirical characterizations.” This is a polite academic way of saying, “Eric Hatch writes screwball comedies.”
Cover of 1948 Bantam paperback edition of 'Five Days'
Screwball comedies such as “Bringing Up Baby” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” were staples of Hollywood film-making in the 1930s and 1940s and a few are now considered among the finest examples of the art. The situations of screwball comedies were usually ridiculous–mistaken identities, cross-dressing, assumed crimes (the same sort of things that worked for Aristophanes and Shakespeare)–but there is one constant: silly idle rich people.

Well, this is exactly the same raw material Eric Hatch mined in nearly 20 novels written between 1928 and the early 1970s–most of them in the first twenty years of that time. It’s no coincidence that the one novel for which Hatch is likely to be remembered today–My Man Godfrey–was made into one of the greatest of all Hollywood screwball comedies. Five Days (later retitled Five Nights when issued as a Bantam paperback in 1948, mainly to play up the sex angle) is a perfect example.

As the book opens, Beadleston Preece, known in the papers as the “Millionaire Sportsman”, sits dejected on the terrace of his Long Island mansion as night falls. The auctioneers’ men haved just hauled off all his belongings. For reasons he little comprehends, his fortune, so his broker tells him, has evaporated in the stock market and he is now penniless. He begins to think his only recourse is to go up to his bedroom and hang himself when he turns to find a man holding a gun on him.

He turns out to be a burglar all set to rob the house. Preece breaks the bad news to him and soon Swazey (Lionel Stander, if Hollywood had gotten around to filming this) is commiserating alongside. “Say,” Swazey interjects, “did you beat up dis guy what lost your chink for you?” And soon, thanks to Swazey’s immoral leadership, the two are sneaking onto the stock broker’s estate and stealing his fifty-foot yacht.

Over the course of the next five days (or nights, depending on which edition you’re reading), Preece and Swazey manage to accumulate a small band of fellow runaways, including an Episcopalian bishop, a debutante, a girl from the Jersey waterfront, and the unhappy husband of patent-medicine heiress. Their ramblings around Long Island and New York City waters takes them to such fixtures of East Coast society as the Harvard-Yale Regatta and a lavish dinner dance in Newport. And there a few more crimes, such as a break-in at a fancy Newport dress shop, all pulled off with the lightest of excuses and consciences, and lots of hot and cold running booze.

As I read Five Days, I kept picturing the unmade film version. Preece would have to be played by someone with the right touch of naivete–Joel McCrea, probably. Mary from Jersey would have to be young and a bit street-smart–Ginger Roger would be too old, Betty Hutton too young. Bishop Hartley would have to someone with a nice balance of propriety and mischief–Edward Everett Horton, maybe. Lewis Stone, probably not–not mischievous enough.

Eric Hatch, author of 'Five Days'

“Move over, Wodehouse! Make room for Eric Hatch,” wrote a reviewer of one of Eric Hatch’s early novels, and there’s a lot of truth in that statement. P. G. Wodehouse’s reputation is now well-fixed in the literary firmament, despite the utterly frivolous nature of all his work and that bit of unpleasantness during his time in Nazi-occupied France. Yet one can easily argue that much of Hatch’s work shares the same characteristics that have enabled Wodehouse’s work to survive the test of time. The classic Wodehouse novel sits somewhere in the ambiguous zone between the end of the Great War and the start of the Great Depression. Hatch’s period sites about a decade or so later, between the end of Prohibition and the introduction of television. Both build on a solid bedrock of silly, idle, but fundamentally good-natured and tolerant rich people and working class characters with rough exteriors and hearts of gold.

Hatch’s characters aren’t quite as prim as Wodehouse’s. They drink and smoke and break a law or two along the way. And I can’t imagine a Wodehouse woman muttering “Itch-bay” to a shrewish wife, as one of Hatch’s does. But Hatch’s novels have the same sense of being fixed in a particular period while managing to seem timeless, and I have to say I did actually find myself chuckling at a number of points throughout the book. If things in the world were just, which they aren’t, we would see Five Days, Road Show, and Little Darling sitting a few feet down the shelves from The Inimitable Jeeves. But if the rest of the world can’t manage to figure this out, that won’t keep me from giving a few more of Eric Hatch’s novels a try.


Five Days, by Eric Hatch
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933

Reach to the Stars, by Calder Willingham

I included Reach to the Stars on my Editor’s Choices when I first created this site, based mostly on a fond memory of reading the book back in the 1980s. I was going through a lot of black (black meaning dark, nihilistic) humour at the time (Burt Blechman, Bruce Jay Friedman), and Willingham’s novel seemed very much an early example of the genre. Willingham shows no compunction about making fun of alcoholics, gays, and the aged in this book.
Cover of 1953 Signet paperback edition of 'Recah to the Stars'
If anything, on second exposure, the book seems rawer than any of the 60s examples of black humor. There is no one remotely likeable. Dick Davenport, Willingham’s protagonist from his 1950 novel, Geraldine Bradshaw and the central figure here, is an asshole with laughable pretensions of writing ability. Mr. Fletcher, the hotel’s assistant manager, is a sexual predator. The manager totters on the edge of sanity. The lead bell-hop is a rapist and thief. The newstand girl is a prostitute. The best-known of the hotel’s resident film stars are, respectively, a nymphomaniac, a closet homosexual, a drunk, and an abusive loud-mouth. And here’s a sample of Willingham’s empathy for the aged:

Mrs. Jameson, Mrs. Wheeler, and Mrs. Werby looked almost as old as Penny, and their state of health was as bad. Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Werby often carried walking sticks to help them get around, and Mrs. Jameson always carried one. Mrs. Jameson and Mrs. Wheeler had arthritis and liver trouble, and Mrs. Werby had dizzy spells. Mrs. Jameson also had dizzy spells. All of them had moustaches, especially Mrs. Wheeler, and they all had indigestion, nightmares, skin trouble, and other things.

And nothing good happens to anyone in the book. Willingham’s Hotel Goncourt is a high-priced sanctuary of degradation, excess, and decay in the midst of wartime America and it’s hard to see why anyone would put his life at risk to defend it. In fact, nothing much happens at all.

The life continued as always, but to Davenport it seemed that nothing was happening, or if it was it had no significance. Nothing seemed to have any effect on him; it was a dream , a dream of chaos in technicolor, and the painful flashes of reality that illuminated the scene from time to time were like heat lightning and seemed to make no difference at all. He was indifferent, and shrugged his shoulders and went to sleep standing up at the bell stand.

After several months at the hotel, Davenport takes off again, headed for New York. What do we or he learn from the experience? Not much.

Every few chapters, Willingham tosses in a few pages from a science fiction story: “Nelor the Andallian stared attentively at the telescreen, waiting for the first faint buzz to stop….” Why? Perhaps these are meant to be samples from the stack of SF magazines Davenport’s roommates is constantly reading. Perhaps they are meant to suggest that the world of the Hotel Goncourt is as artificial as that of bug-eyed monsters and space patrolmen. Or perhaps Willingham just put them in as an experiment. Since I’m feeling in a generous mood toward the book, I’ll chalk it up as the last, but I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it.

Throughout his career, Willingham’s fiction tended to split critics and readers into two camps. A few critics and fans, such as Tom Wolfe, considered him a bold, savage satirist and a forerunner of some of the more radical fiction of the 1960s. Newsweek’s reviewer called his 1963 novel, Eternal Fire, one of the finest works of post-war American writing. Others–and their numbers grew over the decade as he published such novels as Providence Island (1969) and The Building of Venus Four (1977)–dismissed him as a hack whose material should stay in the pages of Playboy, where it often appeared. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between the two views. Certainly no one appears to be clamoring to bring his work back in print.

But I have to say that despite the fact that I found Reach to the Stars a bit more of a mess than I remembered, I nevertheless enjoyed its unrepentent meanness. It’s appropriate that Dick Davenport is, in the end, no better than anyone else at the Hotel Goncourt. It would be an insufferable book if any character had any claim to higher moral ground than the others. Instead, everyone is wallowing in the muck. And since I’m feeling so generous, I might even propose that Reach to the Stars could rank as an American counterpart to the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline: negative, nihilistic, and gloriously nasty. If you’re going to wallow in the muck, why do it halfway?


Reach to the Stars, by Calder Willingham
New York City: The Vanguard Press, 1951

Meg Rosoff recommends Sylvester Stein’s “Second-Class Taxi”

Meg Rosoff, award-winning author of such novels as How I Live Now, What I Was, and The Bride’s Farewell, wrote to recommend Sylvester Stein’s novel of life in South Africa under apartheid, Second Class Taxi:
Cover

Published by Faber in 1958, it was banned in South Africa for twenty years. The audacity of a white man writing in the character of a dispossessed black South African only works because the voice is so hilarious and tragic and true; as editor of Drum Magazine, an important figure in the early days of the anti-apartheid movement and a supporting member of the ANC, Stein had a unique perspective on the absurd world he describes. It’s a wonderful book.

Banned in South Africa, out of print for most of the last fifty years, Second Class Taxi is now available “in a brilliant new staple-bound A4 format” from the one-title Nononsense Press. It tells the story of Staffnurse Phofolo, a “non-person” who lives in a drain-pipe, hangs out in illegal bars (shebeens), participates in protests, and generally lives outside officially-sanctioned society. While savaging the practices of the South African government, Stein maintained a sly, gently-mocking tone akin to Hasek’s in The Good Soldier Svejk. Stein left South Africa in the late 1950s when state censorship made editing the integrated magazine a near-suicidal endeavor, taking with him the manuscript of this novel.

Stein’s most recent book, Who Killed Mr. Drum? (2003), is still in print from Corvo Books.

“The Best Books You Haven’t Read,” from The American Conservative

Source: “The Best Books You Haven’t Read,” from The American Conservative, 1 December 2009 issue (http://amconmag.com/article/2009/dec/01/00018//).

Kevin Michael Derby passed along the link to this article, in which 15 conservative writers, critics, and academics offer their nominations of worthy books their readers have probably overlooked. As seems to be typical of such efforts, there are intriguingly novel titles–and a few that leave any true fan of neglected books wondering if the nominator’s sole criterion is that the book’s not currently on an end cap display at Waldenbooks. How else could Jeffrey Hart suggest that Winesburg, Ohio is underappreciated?

Some of the more interesting titles and comments from the article:

Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945, 2nd Edition, by John Wheeler-Bennett

Nominated by Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons and a senior editor at The National Interest: “No doubt it’s been superseded in many areas by the latest scholarship. But what Wheeler-Bennett possesses, in contrast to many of his successors, is the ability to transform the corruption of the army by the Nazis into a beautifully written, tense drama, complete with majestic and convincing judgments about the individuals who speeded or tried to resist Germany’s descent into totalitarianism… Once opened, Wheeler-Bennett’s massive history is almost impossible to put down.”

Roger’s Profanisaurus, from the pages of Viz magazine

Nominated by Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn and author of Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family and The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. “The Profanisaurus is essentially a dictionary of filthy words and idioms compiled with so much cleverness, wit, and complicated cross-referencing that the reader who consults it for one definition finds himself browsing indefinitely. Profanisaurus brings tears to my eyes and is honestly the funniest, most enlightening, and most enlightened book I know.” Viz, which makes Mad magazine look prim, is the most successful humor magazine in the U. K. (a sample from a recent issue: “A Kettering Man’s Appeal to Space Aliens: ‘Please Leave My Arse Alone!'”). Which is one reason why this volume is probably most often found in the one-seater library. U. K. readers may be happy to learn that a paperback version of the book has recently been released with the title, Magna Farta.

The American Beaver and His Works, by Lewis Henry Morgan

Nominated by Peter W. Wood, author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. “It is what it sounds like: detailed observations on a bucktoothed rodent that devotes itself to hydraulic engineering. The writing is anything but fanciful. Morgan was a serious man with a scientific purpose. But his book grows and grows from mere external characteristics of beavers to a fugue on beaver dams and lodges, culminating in a chapter on ‘manifestations of the animal mind.’ He ultimately sees the beaver not just as a creature of instinct but as a ‘reasoning’ animal.” You can purchase this book from several print-on-demand houses, but why not just download it yourself from the Internet Archive?

The London Dialogues, by David Hirst

Nominated by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Easily the rarest title on the list–unavailable from anyone but the author (David Hirst, 24 Kidmore Road, Caversham, Reading, Berkshire, RG4 7LU, England). “About 30 years ago, I gave a rave review to a book called The London Dialogues, which, in spite of most profoundly and originally addressing all the important issues of this or any other age—love, property, beauty, art, science, sex, equality, populism, race—has scarcely been read at all. The trouble is that the author, David Hirst, did not so much contradict all the current intellectual fashions as rise above them, or rather look down upon them. The effect on me was like breathing fresh air—immensely bracing and refreshing if shockingly politically incorrect.” I’m assuming this is the same David Hirst who once wrote for the Guardian and published one of the best-regarded books on the politics of the Middle East, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By, Part 2

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d really tapped the vein of Madison Avenue books in my first post on books to watch “Mad Men” by, so I returned to the coalface and started digging some more.

It turns out that by the time of “Mad Men”, the early 1960s, most of the literature of the New York advertising world–not that much of it deserves the “literature” label–had already been written. 1958, in fact, appears to have been the highpoint of Mad Lit, as this article from Time magazine suggests, which surveys a half-dozen novels published that year set in and around the advertising business. Although the reviewer dismisses most of them as easily interchangeable with camp science fiction with a simple switch of scenery–“the bug-eyed monsters will be replaced by tyrannical clients, the clean-cut spacemen by bright-eyed space-buyers, and the half-dressed blondes by other half-dressed blondes”–his description of their heroes sounds remarkably similar to that of the protagonists of “Mad Men.” “They are drumbeatniks who brood during a few drinks about the morality of what they are doing, then get over it.”

Here, then, are some more sagas of Scotch, sex, and sales campaigns for those who can’t get enough from a weekly session on the tube.

A Twist of Lemon, by Edward Stephens

“A young man’s desparate scramble up the cold and treacherous plate-glass cliffs of Madison Avenue,” according to its dust jacket. Here is a book that Barry Goldwater would love. What’s wrong with being a Mad Man is not the business, which in the end only “honestly and intelligently and faithfully advertises sound products to people who are glad to know about them. And that, after all, is what makes the economy go around.” What’s wrong is doing it in the plate-glass cliffs, which is why the hero heads to Phoenix to set up his own mom-and-pop ad company, in a steel-and-stucco cliff, one assumes.

Cover of 'Pax'

Pax, by Middleton Kiefer

Harry Middleton and Warren Kiefer, one-time PR men for Pfizer, stick it to the Man with this novel about false promises and misleading advertising in the pharmaceuticals business. It’s pure coincidence that SmithKline Beecham later adopted the name Paxil for their successful anti-depressant. It is a fact, however, as shown in the cover of the paperback version of Pax, that there was a brief period in 1958 when advertising executives enjoyed dressing up as airline pilots.

The Admen, by Shepherd Mead

Mead, who’s best remembered now because his 1952 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was the basis of a successful Broadway musical and a fun 1967 starring Robert Morse (resurrected forty years later to play Bert Cooper in “Mad Men”), was a Man Mad himself, VP of Benton & Bowles. Mead, who wrote a slew of mostly ephemeral satirical books (The Big Ball of Wax, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World, Free the Male Man!, How to Get to the Future Before It Gets to You), considered this his best book. Time’s reviewer had a different opinion, well and truly skewering it: “This time the author does not try for laughs, instead achieves a notable first: a novel whose characters will have to be deepened before they are translated to the screen.” The book did earn Mead one of the Establishment’s highest forms of recognition, though: it was issued as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

The Detroiters, by Harold Livingston

Set in Detroit rather than Manhattan, but an ad-biz saga nonetheless. “Call-girls, debutantes and wives–the big novel about big operators, big deals, and beautiful women” trumpets the cover of this novel–and who would deny that fascination with a time when blatant sexism was not just tolerated but encouraged is part of the attraction of “Mad Men”? Livingston displays the schizophrenia of his fellow ad-man writers: “Good writers … look down their noses at advertising. They’d rather starve. So what does it get them? Self-respect? Integrity? Try paying your bills with integrity.” You thought that last line was a cliche, right? Nope, someone actually wrote it. I believe Livingston later attempted to copyright “Try paying your bills with integrity.”

Cover of A Really Sincere Guy

A Really Sincere Guy, by Robert van Riper

Yes, that really is the book’s title. Riper, who worked for the prominent PR firm, N. W. Ayer, wrote several novels about the intersection of PR and politics. In this one, his PR man hero sets aside his principles to tout a louse running for governor, fools around with a fast woman, then straightens his life out. Straightening his life out consists in returning to his wife, dumping the louse, and setting up his own mom-and-pop PR company. Probably a case where the cover is better than what comes after it.

The Insider, by James Kelly

Kelly, an exec with Compton Advertising, once wrote an article titled, “In Defense of Madison Avenue” for the New York Times magazine. The Insider earned the best reviews of all the books on this list–“told thoughtfully, and is worth reading,” wrote Time; “Not only a very good first novel but solid evidence that Mr. Kelly is a writer of perception and skill,” concluded Saturday Review. Perhaps, in part, because he chose an anti-hero–an amiable account exec married to a drug company heiress who suddenly has to make some real decisions for the first time in his life–rather than a “man of principles” like most of the other novels’. And in Kelly’s case, it was he, rather than his protagonist, who left Manhattan and headed off to the Southwest, settling in New Mexico.

The Golden Kazoo, by John G Schneider

When published in 1956, this satire about Madison Avenue finding a candidate and getting him elected as president (in the far-off year of 1960) as easily as it could pitch “a can of beer, a squeeze tube of deodorant, a can of dog food” seemed far-fetched enough to be considered as material for a Broadway musical. Now, of course, it’s business as usual.

Cover of 'The Advertising Man'

The Advertising Man, by Jack Dillon

This 1972 novel, by a VP of the legendary Dane Doyle Bernbach, was well-received by some critics. Time’s reviewer offered this left-handed compliment: “If this were a polished writing job, it would be one more of those slick commercial novels about an ad agency. Instead, it is clumsy, serious and painstaking, and perhaps as a consequence, considerably more enlightening.” It’s essentially a familiar story: work too hard and the rest of your life will eventually go on the fritz–but rich on authentic Man Med atmospherics.

Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, by Edward Hannibal

Just recently reissued by the Authors Guild epublishing service, iUniverse, this 1970 is, in the words of a Times reviewer, “a rung-by-rung” account of climbing the Madison Avenue ladder in the late 1950s. It won Hannibal a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship and became a best-seller. The title comes not from advertising, but from its protagonist’s first job, working in an ice cream factory–days making chocolate-covered bars were tougher than those making popsicles. In keeping with its time and the formula for most of the novels discussed here, Hannibal’s ad exec eventually decides to drop out and pursue life away from the rat race–not, however, by setting up his own mom-and-pop ad firm.

Madison Avenue, USA, Martin Mayer

Probably the one to read if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of “Mad Men.” Written in 1958, Madison Avenue, USA is one of Mayer’s specialties: factual, intelligent, and authoritative accounts of how an industry really works.

Spring Offensive, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Spring Offensive takes place during the first twenty-four hours of the German attack against French and British forces along the Maginot Line in April 1940.

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Spring Offensive'Of course, the Germans didn’t attack the French and British in April 1940, but two months later, in June, and when they did, they wisely bypassed the Maginot Line in favor of a blitzkrieg through the Ardennes and the Lowlands. This is a major reason why Herbert Clyde Lewis’ second novel, Spring Offensive, quickly flew from the new release stacks to obscurity. While the Phoney War dragged on, there was still an opportunity for a writer like Lewis to fantasize about what might happen when the shooting started. When it did start for real, events moved too fast for anyone to have time for fiction.

Peter Winston, Lewis’ protagonist, is a young American from outside Indianapolis serving with a British Expeditionary Force unit encamped in a small French town along the Maginot Line. He’d joined out of mixed motives–a bit of anti-Nazi fervor and a bit of self-pity. His girl had dumped him, he’d lost his job as a newspaper reporter, and his best friend had begun to avoid him as a hopeless loser. Readily accepted into the British Army, he now finds himself killing time in the most meaningless military drills.

One night, he decides to sneak out of the barracks and commit a small act of eco-vandalism. Taking a packet of flower seeds he’d obtained from a villager, he quietly slips into the barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles of the No Man’s Land between the Allied and German lines and spends the night planting seeds.

As dawn breaks the next morning, however, the sky is suddenly filled with the shriek of incoming German artillery shells. Winston injures his ankle in trying to run back to his unit. He takes a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder and winds up pinned down in a shell hole. Over the next few hours, he watches as the fearsome blood-letting of First World War battles like the Somme are re-enacted with faster-firing machine guns and deadlier explosives. Late in the afternoon, a young, frightened German soldier rushing forward in another futile charge bayonets him in the gut, leaving him to die in his muddy crater.

In many ways, Spring Offensive reworks the situation of Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard, which I covered here several months ago. Instead of a stockbroker slowly drowning in the Pacific, we have a young soldier dying in No Man’s Land. In each book, Lewis switches between the present and flashbacks to his protagonist’s past and between the mind of his unlucky hero and the thoughts of other people in his life. And in both, Lewis is quite effective in conveying the wavering emotions and wandering thoughts of a man consciously moving closer and closer to death.

Unlike in Gentleman Overboard, however, a rather abstract situation is replaced by one very much within the reality of his contemporary readers. In early 1940, the American public was torn between support for the Allies and the isolationist views of the “America First” movement. Some of the thoughts that run through Winston’s mind as he lays in his shell hole touch directly on that debate:

And he was wondering why he had come all the way across the ocean to fight when he might have stayed at home, right in Indianapolis, and fought there. There was a war to be fought in America, he thought, and what a war it was! He was not proud of having been a private in the B. E. F., but he would be proud to be a general in that other army. And millions of men would volunteer, brave young men with hard brave faces, men from the fields and the factories and city streets and country roads, men marching west and shaking their fists at the setting sun. Winston moaned softly and moved his head from side to side. He didn’t want to die; he wanted to live and go home and fight in America’s war, in the war to make American a Land of Promise once again.

Now it could be that this is only meant to be a last thought of a dying man, no more or less significant than his memory of slipping his hand around the waist of his old girlfriend. But it’s hard for me to separate this passage–which, by the way, goes on with yet more Hollywood-ish populist cliches (Lewis did go on to work for the studios)–from the general premise of the book: the young man going out to plant flowers and being caught in the crossfire of a vast, bloody, and largely pointless battle. Perhaps Lewis truly did not intend to take a stand against anything but war itself, abstracted from the context of Nazism, Antisemitism, and Fascism, and was not casting a vote with the America Firsters. He did, after all, demonstrate an ability to view the most desparate situation–a man drowning alone at sea–with remarkable objectivity in Gentleman Overboard.

If he did, then Spring Offensive must rank with one of the great examples in literature of bad timing. Within weeks of its publication, the statis of the Phoney War was replaced by images of Panzer tanks rolling across France and the Nazi flag flying under the Arc de Triomphe. And within a few years, the abstract image of anonymous young German soldiers was replaced by that of S. S. troops carrying out mass executions. Whatever Lewis’ intention, it’s impossible now to view this book outside the context of its time.

In the very last lines of Spring Offensive, a German shell lands directly on top of Winston. “… [A]nd when the smoke cleared away, he wasn’t there any more.” History appears to have had the same effect on Spring Offensive.


Spring Offensive, by Herbert Clyde Lewis


New York City: Viking Press, 1940

A few unusual items on John Cowper Powys’ List of 100 Best Novels

Obooki’s Obloquy recently published the list of titles from a 1916 book, One Hundred Best Books by the sometimes-neglected British novelist, John Cowper Powys. While many of the titles are tried and true standards of the canon–Pride and Prejudice, Faust, Leaves of Grass–there are a number that reflect the tendency of some works to get buried under the shifting sands of taste. So here, for those who might be interested in rediscovering them, are a few notes on the lesser-known items in Powys’ list.

• Sanine [also published as Sanin], by Mikhail Artsybashev

Sanin is a thoroughly uncomfortable book, but it has a fierce energy which has carried it in a very short space of time into almost every country in Europe,” wrote Gilbert Cannan in his preface to the English translation of this book. “In Vladimir Sanine,” he continues, “Artsybashev has imagined, postulated, a man who has escaped the tyranny of society, is content to take his living where he finds it, and determined to accept whatever life has to offer of joy or sorrow.” In other words, a turn-of-the-century Russian take on the old hippy motto, “If it feels good, do it.” A new English translation by Michael Katz was published in 2001 by the Cornell University Press, which wrote that Artsybashev’s novels are “suffused with themes of sex, suicide, and murder.” Also available free from Project Gutenberg.

The Disciple, by Paul Bourget

The Disciple is narrated by Robert Greslou, a private tutor and disciple of the renowned philosopher, Sixte. Based on a true story involving a young disciple of Bourget’s, it centers around an aborted double suicide–aborted by Greslou, after his lover has already taken the plunge. Greslou claims it was all inspired by Sixte’s theories. Contrary to prevailing attitudes today about the teacher-student relationship, Bourget lays most of the blame with Greslou rather than the influence of his mentor.

Round the Corner, by Gilbert Cannan

Subtitled, “Being the Life and Death of Francis Christopher Folyat, Bachelor of Divinity, and Father of a Large Family,” this novel is, in the words of one contemporary review, “The story of the depressing fortunes of an English clergyman and his eight children, for whom happiness seems ‘just round the corner’ and out of reach.” It was also banned by the London censor, mainly for showing the clergy in such grim light. Canan’s first novel had the intriguing title of Peter Homunculus. It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format at the Internet Archive.

The Flame of Life and The Triumph of Death, by Gabriele D’Annunzio

D’Annunzio’s literary reputation has taken a nose dive since Powys’ time. His becoming best buddy and court poet to Mussolini had a little to do with it. That and D’Annunzio’s own super-sized ego. His estate and mausoleum on the hillside above Lake Garda, Il Vittoriale, is a treasure trove of Art Deco and self-glorification, not to be missed if you’re in the area. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) describes one of his protagonists as “viciously self-seeking and wholly amoral Nietzschean,” but this could just as easily describe D’Annunzio himself. Like is too short for dreck like this. Probably justly neglected. I quoted a long and funny passage from “Lust and Leprosy,” Rudolph Altrocchi’s essay on one of D’Annunzio’s plays, elsewhere on this site.

A Night in The Luxembourg, by Remy de Gourmont

When Night was first issued in English translation in 1912, the New York Times called de Gourmont “one of the most extraordinary and significant minds putting thought into print in the world to-day.” This short novel, full of atmosphere and symbolism, is said to have been a major influence on Lawrence Durrell when he started planning his Alexandria Quartet.

The Song of Songs, by Hermann Sudermann

Another tale of a cad letting down a lover–this time, for the comfort and prestige of a marriage to a member of Berlin high society. It was made into a film in 1933, one of Marlene Dietrich’s early American films. In his time, Sudermann was better known as a playwright, but now he isn’t known at all. Thomas Hardy had little enthusiasm for the book’s first English translation: “… unfortunately, rendered into the rawest American, the claims that the original no doubt had to be considered literature, are largely reduced, so that I question if there is value enough left in this particular translation to make a stand for.”

Bookfinder.com’s Most Wanted Out-of-Print Books of the Last Year

Source: http://www.abebooks.com/books/rare-scarce/most-wanted-out-of-print.shtml?cm_mmc=nl-_-nl-_-h00-mstoopB-_-link1

From Abebooks.com: Bookfinder.com’s annual report of their most-requested titles from searches made from July 2008 to June 2009. A real mix of the obscure, the intriguing, and the utterly uninteresting (Mailer’s “Marilyn”–gimme a break!).

A couple of the more interesting samples:

And I’d Do It Again, by Aimee Crocker

The memoir of an heiress to the San Francisco Crocker fortune, published in 1936. Written–according to Time magazine’s review–“with a lurid, Sunday-supplement archness,” it takes the reader to Asia, India, Germany, and Spain, with love affairs at each stop. ‘The impressionable young lady then returned to San Francisco, married, was almost killed in a train wreck on her honeymoon, got a divorce, hired a 70-ft. schooner and set out for the South Seas, scandalizing the missionaries in Hawaii on the way by taking part in an “orgy,” the precise details of which she does not disclose,’ Time’s reviewer continued. And that’s just the first decade or so!

Ticket to Ride, by Dennis Potter

A critically acclaimed novel from 1987. I was astonished to find it out of print in both the U. S. and the U. K., given Potter’s reputation and popular success for The Singing Detective, but even more astonished to find that–at least at first glance–ALL of Potter’s titles are out of print in the U. S. and less than a handful in print in the U. K.!

The King Ranch, by Tom Lea

Lea, a fine novelist, painter, and illustrator, wrote this official history of the legendary Texas ranch in 1957. Issued in a two-volume boxed set illustrated by Lea himself, this is a fine piece of book publishing. But it turns out that it’s not out of print–you can purchase a commemorative reissue published on the book’s 50th anniversary from the King Ranch Saddle Shop.

On the other hand, I will pass on the Associated Press’ hagiographic tribute to JFK, A Torch is Passed: my Grammy sent me a copy back in 1964.

BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics Contest

BBC Radio 4 logoBBC Radio 4’s program, Open Book, recently launched a contest to rediscover “forgotten treasures of the literary world – books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” The winner will be dramatized on Radio 4 sometime during 2010. You can find out more at the website they’ve set up: “Neglected Classics”.

To get their audiences’ thoughts cranking, Open Book is devoting two programs to discussions with leading U. K. authors on some of their own candidates for this prize. The first, broadcast last Sunday (18 October), can be heard online now at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n6z0d. The second will be broadcast on Sunday the 25th. The ten books proposed on the two programs can be found now at the “Neglected Classics” page.

Several U. K. papers and magazines have noted the contest and invited their own readers to propose candidates in their comments threads. The Times covered it in their 17 October book section with an article by Adam Sherwin and commentary by Erica Wagner. Wagner proposes several favorites of her own, including P. V. Glob’s The Bog People, reissued in 2004 by New York Review Classics, and a collection of essays and lectures, The Voice That Thunders, by Alan Garner, whose The Stone Book Quartet has been mentioned on this site before. The Guardian’s Alison Flood also commented on the contest (“Remembering forgotten classics”) the day after the first broadcast. And the Reader Magazine’s “Reader Online” site picked up the idea, also asking for suggestions. I look forward to a rich crop of new titles to investigate and share with fans of this site.

Transport, by Isa Glenn

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Transport'Reading Isa Glenn’s novel, Transport, I kept thinking of the refrain from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo. Only in the case of Transport, it’s round and round the women go, talking of every other soul trapped on a hot, slow steamer from San Francisco to Manila.

Transport is about a group of Army wives and children, along with a sprinkling of officers and enlisted men, traveling to posts in the Philippines some time in the 1920s. This was familiar territory for Glenn. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she married Brigadier General Samuel Bayard Schindel in 1903, when he was in his forties and she in her twenties. Glenn accompanied her husband on assignments to Philippines, China, Hawaii, and Panama, and learned well the hothouse atmosphere of rank, manners, and bottled-up ambitions and jealousies of these isolated Army posts.

After her husband died in 1921, Glenn began turning her nearly twenty years’ worth of observations into literature. Encouraged by Carl Van Vechten, she wrote her first novel, Heat, which was published by Knopf in 1926. Heat, which portrayed the failed romance of a young Army officer and an idealistic American teacher caught up in the exotic world of Manila, drew heavily upon her overseas postings with General Schindel, as did its successor, Little Pitchers (1927).

Transport was the last of her novels taken directly from her time as an Army wife. She and Schindel probably took much the same voyage when they were posted to the Philippines. It’s something of a tour de force, in that Glenn set herself a considerable technical challenge in setting the whole of the story within the confines of the promenade deck, dining saloon, library, and cabins and passageways of the transport ship and managing a cast of over twenty distinctly sketched characters. Her ability to weave their movements, conversations, and bondings and partings around her set is on a par with a ballet master’s.

And her talent for tracing the intricate fabric of Army society has something of the touch of Henry James in his later years. It’s a fine, taut, and airless weave that makes one glad to be far removed from it. Take the seemingly simple matter of selecting chairs on the promenade:

For only upon the deck of an army transport do humans act the splendid lie that all men are born free and equal. Passengers have their official assignments to staterooms, and to seatings in the dining saloon, strictly according to the Army List; but there there glorious prerogatives of rank cease. Upon the small deck there is waged a daily battle for the right to the shade, the right to the breezy side, the right to any space that any mortal could conceivably wish to occupy. Silent pressure is put upon the wary and the unwary. The wife of a high ranking officer may come to a halt squarely in front of the chair that you have risen betimes to snatch. Under her cold eye, you cast about in your mind the chances that one day her husband may be in a position to do your husband–or your brother, or your son, or yourself if you happen to be of the right sex from the military standpoint–dirt, or the reverse; and with this thought uppermost, you then do the graceful thing of arising and respectfully seating the lady in the desirable place wherefrom you had been lazily contemplating the day ahead.

However, as John Bradbury notes in Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920-1960, while Glenn’s themes, organization, and technique are “astonishingly Jamesian”, her style “is distinctly her own, sharp, pungent, often barbed with wit and satire.” While she understands the logic of Army life, she doesn’t for a second forget that it’s an artificial set of rules and rituals.

As might be expected with any volatile mix of ingredients that is bottled up and shaken about for three weeks straight, this tightly-wound little society eventually explodes. Worn down by the effort of putting up a stolid front, a passed-over major goes momentarily mad and reveals a horrifying secret he and his family have been keeping under wraps for years. The dancers retreat, regroup, and reinforce the pretences that keep this society running smoothly. By the time the ship pulls into Manila Bay, everything is back in order.

Isa GlennGlenn published a total of eight novels in the space of nine years. Two–Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930)–drew upon Glenn’s early years as a budding Southern belle. Both dissected the pretensions of post-bellum Southern society as coolly and satirically as she dealt with those of the Army. East of Eden (1932) was set in the literary world of New York City she had become a part of, while The Little Candle’s Beam (1935) portrayed the “cave dwellers” of old Washington, D. C. society.

Glenn appears to have exhausted her creative energies by the end of this burst of work, for her later novels received far less notice and far fewer enthusiastic reviews. Although Bradbury calls her 1933 novel, Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age her “take on James’ The Ambassadors“, Newsweek dismissed it with a three-word review: “An average novel.” There are several references to a final novel, According to Mac Tavish, supposedly published in 1938, the title cannot be found in the Library of Congress or New York Public Library catalogs. She died in 1951. Most of her biographies list her birth year as 1888, which would have made her 15 when she married Schindel and 12 when she studied briefly under James McNeill Whistler. It seems more probable that she was born in 1874 as the New York Public Library’s catalog indicates. Her son, Bayard Schindel, published one novel of his own, Golden Pilgrimage, in 1929.


Transport, by Isa Glenn
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By

Like millions of other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying frequent plunges back into the early 1960s as we blast through the first two seasons of A&E’s “Mad Men” on DVD. I was born in 1958 and have remarkably strong memories from that period: the cars, kitchens, and clothes, in particular.

Though I’d hardly recommend a return to the stereotypes and prejudices of that time, I do feel a certain nostalgia for the style and certainty of the time. So I thought I’d take a moment to note a few titles that readers might find interesting if they’re in the mood for taking a deeper plunge back into the days of “Mad Men.”

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Hucksters'

The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman (1946)

This best-seller from 1946 (OK, I’m stretching the boundaries of the era) was the first “expose” of the twisting and turning of the truth that was advertising back in the days before the FCC found its backbone. Its hero, Vic Norman, was an early anti-hero, refusing to kowtow to his boss while devising new ways to sell soap on the radio–a conforming non-conformist rather like “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper. Now out of print.

Aurora Dawn, by Herman Wouk (1947)

Subtitled, “The True History Of Andrew Reale,” this broadly satirical novel tells the story of an utterly unscrupulous young man who scampers to the top of the corporate ladder in an advertising firm leaving more than a few victims along the way. Wouk always emphasized that he’d actually written his book before Wakeman’s, even though it was published a year later. Still in print.

The Price is Right, by Jerome Weidman (1949)

Cover of early paperback edition of 'The Price is Right'Technically, this is a novel about getting ahead in the newspaper business, but it is set on Madison Avenue. Its hero, Henry Cade, decides that, “… you could no more want a little success than you could want a little love … To want less than everything was to get nothing.” “Mad Men”‘s Peter Campbell appears to share this philosophy.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (1956)

Probably the best-known novel associated with the white collar WASP culture of the 1950s, the fictional counterpart to William Whyte’s classic, The Organization Man. Tom Rath, the hero, is in public relations rather than advertising, a distinguished war veteran, and faithful to his wife, Betsy. So maybe this isn’t the book to read while watching “Mad Men.”

The Naked Martini, by John Leonard (1963)

This first novel by a man who would come to be considered by some “the best critic in America” was panned by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times: “… it possesses a certain wry wit, but 255 pages seems a long, long journey with no better company than a young adman, his bottles and his babes.” Sounds like a much more promising candidate in this case, however.

Cover of paperback edition of 'From Those Wonderful Folks'

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by Jerry Della Femina (1971)

Jerry Della Femina has been called one of the “100 most influential advertising people of the 20th century.” This tongue-in-cheek memoir of some of his wilder adventures during the Mad Men era is full of laugh-out-loud passages. Interviewed recently by USA Today, Della Femina said of the time, “It was a business of drinking. The way we lived really would make the characters in “Mad Men” all look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We drank and screwed around.”

Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy (1985)

A more restrained but still occasionally outrageous memoir, this one by the most famous Mad Man of his time. A 1962 cover article in Time called Ogilvy a “literary wizard,” though some of his most memorable ads had more to do with visual impact (the Hathaway shirt man’s eye-patch) than his copy.

Suds in Your Eye, by Mary Lasswell

Suds in Your Eye is about as substantial as the head on a freshly-poured beer but a lot more fun.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Suds in Your Eye'><a href=Suds tells the story of three older women (and an older man referred to only as “the Old Timer”) who come together to scrape through some lean times during the Second World War. Mrs. Feely lives in a rickety old house known as “Noah’s Ark,” which sits in the middle of the junk yard left her by her husband. Her primary contribution since his passing has been to erect a fence of concrete and old beer cans, and she spends most of her days emptying more of the latter.

She soon invites Miss Tinkham, a piano teacher too poor to keep up with the inflationary rents of wartime San Diego, and Mrs. Rasmussen, another widow, who’s been reduced to squatting in her daughter’s apartment, to join her, and the rest of the book is about how the three pull together and overcome a series of hardships.

Mrs. Feely finds out that her lawyer has been pocketing her property tax payments for years and her house is about to be auctioned off by the county. After a fretful night, they spring into action. Mrs. Feely begins selling her junk to builders slapping together new housing; Miss Tinkham creates leis from the flowers around the house and sells them to sailors on liberty; Mrs. Rasmussen finds out where to get meat scraps and day-old bread and vegetables, out of which she fixes delicious-sounding meals. The three of them get jobs in a tuna-canning plant. And in between, they sing songs, make wisecracks, and drink beer.

Beer plays a prominent role in this book, which is one of its more refreshing aspects. Lasswell definitely believed that life took on a softer, gentler glow after a cold one or two. Every few pages one or other of the characters is walking into the house with a fresh case. The book is also sprinkled with illustrations by the wonderful George Price, who was a master at sketching slightly off-balance characters like the three old ladies in Suds.

Mary Lasswell was a Scots-Texan who started writing while waiting ashore for her first husband, an ensign in the U. S. Navy. The success of Suds led to a whole series about the travels and adventures of Mrs. Feely, Miss Tinkham, and Mrs. Rasmussen: High Time (1944); One on the House (1949); Wait for the Wagon (1951); Tooner Schooner (1953); and Let’s Go For Broke (1962). Lasswell continued to write stories about them, publishing a few in the AARP magazine in the 1970s and 1908s. She also published two cookbooks inspired by the many fine meals whipped up in the books: Mrs. Rasmussen’s Book of One-Arm Cookery (1946) and a reissue with more recipes, Mrs. Rasmussen’s Book of One-Arm Cookery with Second Helpings (1970). “One-arm cookery” means, of course, stirring the pot with one hand and a beer in the other.

Suds is a goofy but warm-hearted comedy of the sort that was very popular in the 1940s. Like Leo Rosten’s The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and Betty McDonald’s The Egg and I, it’ll give you a few chuckles (even sixty years later) and leave you feeling good about mankind. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.


Suds in Your Eye, by Mary Lasswell
New York City: Houghton-Mifflin, 1942

Eight Recommendations from Sonesh Chainani

I’m always interested in getting suggestions from other readers, and when I do, it’s usually just a title or two. Sonesh Chainani, a closet English major in Miami, took a break from his busy schedule to provide a whopping eight-pack of his favorite neglected books. He gets an A+ in my book, because he came up with three titles that are wholly new to me. And I give myself a D- for letting my own busy schedule keep this post on hold for over a week.

Sonesh writes,

I now realize that the roots with obsession with neglected books goes back at least to college, where I wrote my thesis on Julio Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit, which is mentioned on your site. (New Directions re-released it 2 months after I finished my thesis, but I had to buy an expensive copy from a used bookshop in England in order to read it and I was so fascinated and confused by it that I decided I should write my undergraduate thesis on it.) I remember my advisor telling me that Cortazar was well-respected but nobody read 62: A Model Kit, and I remember the feeling of excitement of opening the book and being hooked by the first paragraph and thinking I may have been one of only a very small group of English-speaking readers who had read this book, which was written, published, and then quietly disappeared.

So, without further ado, let’s leap into Sonesh’s list:

All Heads Turn When the Hunt GoesBy, by John Farris, which was published by Playboy Press in 1977.

I would describe it as a “Southern gothic voodoo sexual horror novel” and though pacing of the book lags in places, the writing creeps up on you. The book opens with a brilliant over-the-top setpiece at a posh formal military wedding at a Southern estate where the groom goes absolutely unhinged with his sabre and darkest Africa takes its revenge on the antebellum south. There is a crumbling church, virginal decapitations, incestuous hysteria — I don’t know what else to say about the opening to the book except that it stuck with me for a while. The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the opening but it’s pretty damn good.

Farris is a prolific but very underrated and neglected writer — he wrote the novel The Fury which I haven’t read, but which is the basis of a minor but still enjoyable Brian DePalma movie starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes. The movie (and I imagine the book) is a funny mixture of the clinical and the lunatic.

In Praise of Older Women, by Stephen Vizinczey

A beautiful book that only a European could have written. Despite the salacious title and deliberately misleading jacket copy, the book is actually both a beautifully constructed engaging first-person novel and an argument for the induction by young men of older (not old but older) women and against the championing of mutual virginity and teenage cluelessness and prudery when it comes to sex. A google search reveals that this book was also made into a movie but I know nothing abou it.

Truth and Lies in Literature: Essays and Reviews, by Stephen Vizinczey

Truth and Lies, which I couldn’t stop reading, although a bit dated as literary criticism, is written in crystalline clear prose. Vizinczey’s prose is beautiful and limpid in both the novel above and this book and his reading of Melville’s “Billy Budd” as disturbing, fraudulent, politically indefensible literature is interesting. (I never liked “Billy Budd” myself but for different reasons.) He champions slightly more neglected or rather unfashionable French classic authors (e.g. Stendhal, Balzac) over the Russians it seems, which is not a very contemporary view, although he is clearly fond of some of the Russians as well. He also has definite and controversial views on various authors (he thoroughly whips on Malraux in one essay and in another praises Mailer for The Armies of the Night).

In both books that I read Vizinczey has a gift for not being mean, condescending or glib, even when his subject matter is difficult — love (for women, for literature) infuses everything he writes and it’s refreshing and enlightening to read him.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers, by R.A. Lafferty

This is a strange and compelling short story collection. Comparisons have been made between Lafferty and Heinlein and Phillip Dick, but these “sci-fi” (I use that term loosely) short stories are really in a world of their own. They are very damn funny and strange — a bizarre combinations of jokes without punchlines and very disciplined writing. The quality of the stories varies but they are all worth reading. Neil Gaiman is a big fan of Lafferty and has said that he has been influenced by Lafferty, although I don’t think Gaiman’s writing is nearly as entertaining.

Dance of the Dwarfs, by Geoffrey Household

I got this book from a friend who knew how much I liked another neglected book with a title involving those who are vertically challenged — Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget — and although I had low expectations, the book turned out to be fantastic. The main character is a courageous, stoic agricultural expert working out in remote Columbia near the jungles. Although the beginning of the book only hints at mystery, it quickly becomes a strange and captivating suspense novel that was actually quite terrifying (despite the hilarity of the title ). The book’s a slow burn and the view of remote South America through the perspective of a cerebral white man becoming slowly ensnared in its mysteries is a nice antidote to much of the mediocre Latin American fiction that passes for “magical realism” these days. Also, just for the record, I am 6 foot 2.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Nikolai Leskov

This was a great little novella — truly deranged — despite the title, the main character is more Medea than Lady Macbeth. I’d like to read more of this Russian writer who I suspect is little read in the West.

A Melon for Ecstasy, by John Fortune and John Wells

Hilarious though inconsistent humorous epistolary novel about a quiet, repressed man who not only has a very serious physical hankering for trees but acts on it. This book was one-of-a-kind and I found myself laughing a lot out loud. The authors’ vocabularies are prodigious and well-used. I don’t really know what else to write about this book, except to note that the book opens with the following fictional Turkish proverb.

A woman for duty,
A boy for pleasure,
But a melon for ecstasy.
– Old Turkish proverb

A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, by Peter Dimock

A lean, stylized novel in the form of a single letter from Jarlath Lanham to his nephew and the son of his father’s ex-lover. The narrator’s focus on the rules of ancient rhetoric actually ties in quite well to the subject of the book: the Vietnam war and what allowed it to happen and to continue happening. This is a strange and intense novel, well worth reading although it is not an easy read.

The Winners

I believe this was one of the first books put out by NYRB Classics. It’s a hilarious, disturbing novel that is part Kafka and part Groucho Marx, about a group of state lottery winners in Argentina who win passage on a mystery cruise ship for an unknown destination. What starts out with aimless gossip, intrigues and annoyance by the bored, confused passengers develops into something more sinister. Cortazar’s female characters are rich and well-developed, and although this is not my favorite book by him (that would have to go to his stories and 62), it is an exciting and brilliant first novel. This is a useful link to Cortazar’s bibliography and publishing history: www.subir.com/cortazar/.

Remember When We Had a Doorman?, by Josephine Lawrence

“Do you remember when we had a doorman?” is the stock question asked by the older tenants, whose occupancy dates back to the golden days when we had not only a doorman, but adequately uniformed elevator attendants and a handy man who could paint and repair, and even build simple furnishings such as bookcases. Above all, we remind each other in these nostalgic outbursts, we had a competent superintendent.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Remember When We Had a Doorman?'Remember When We Had a Doorman? is set in a Manhattan apartment building that’s seen better days. Most of its residents are retired or in their last working days, although there are enough young people to keep the gossip flourishing: “The elderly and retired, as the magazines (read mostly by the young) solemnly point out, have few resources and must depend for diversion upon–well, upon putting their wrinkled noses into other people’s business.”

One of the older women in the building is Holly Berry, Lawrence’s narrator. Holly makes a little money on the side as a dog walker, which keeps her in regular circulation throughout the halls and makes her an ideal observer for the many little dramas that play out over the 5-6 months covered in the novel. By the time she wrote Doorman, Lawrence had long since mastered the technical craft of fiction, and one of the more impressive aspects of this books is the size of the cast she manages–easily over 50 characters are introduced in the course of 170-some pages. Yet every one is provided with a certain amount of personality: Nicky, the lazy and incompetent new super; Mrs. Gilmore, for whom diet is the answer to all life’s problems; Aunt Sarah Turner, who arrives to put things to order when her niece’s husband proves a lush; Wilbur, the song-writing elevator man.

Lawrence was never considered a great writer, but the one thing critics consistently acknowledged over the course of 40-plus years she published novels was her feel for the real problems of working-class people. Years Are So Long (1934) was about the problem of housing for the elderly in the days before Social Security; If I Have Four Apples (1935) was about people struggling to keep up with installment plans–the 30s equivalent to credit cards. Even a lesser work like I Am In Urgent Need of Advice dealt with the confusions of a sexually-maturing teenager.

No one in Remember When We Had a Doorman?–with the possible exception of Oliver Locke, rumored to be one of the building’s owners, who holes up with mountains of old newspapers–is living on easy street. Those who work worry about making it when they retire; those who are retired worry about keeping up with rising grocery bills. And age is taking its toll:

It happened that this evening was the date of the semiannual “gala” evening of the bridge club to which I’ve belonged for more than thirty years. Time has effected changes. Where once we were eight couples, now we are eight widows. Once, the twice-a-year celebration meant dinner in one of the large restaurants and an evening at the theater; now, by common consent, we dine in a neighborhood restaurant and go to the movies, preferably one near at hand. But we do not, as Evie Keith says so firmly, accept the label of “senior citizens.” The trouble is, no one else we knows we reject it.

Remember When We Had a Doorman? was Josephine Lawrence’s 30th of 33 adult novels and somewhere around her 120th book if you include her many series of childrens’ books (“Brother and Sister,” “Betty Gordon,” “Elizabeth Ann,” etc.). Lawrence also wrote childrens’ and advice columns for the Newark Sunday Call for nearly 60 years and several drama series in the early years of radio. She started as a working woman back when that was still relatively rare and kept at it for longer than most of us will.

I found Remember When We Had a Doorman? remarkably fresh, entertaining, and grounded in unshakable common sense. It encourages me to seek out more of her work.

You can find out more about Lawrence’s life and books on Deidre Johnson ‘s comprehensive website devoted to childrens’ book series of the 19th and 20th century.


Remember When We Had a Doorman, by Josephine Lawrence
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971

The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

This book is a bit of a mystery. My copy, a 1959 Pyramid Books paperback, shows no prior publication history. There is a quote from Budd Schulberg (“A genuinely original and compelling novel”) on the cover, which is the sort of thing one might expect to be carried over from an original hard cover release–but this appears to be the first and only edition. And there is the fact that Herbert Clyde Lewis died from a heart attack in 1950, which makes this a posthumous first-time publication–something that’s also a little unusual in a cheap paperback.

However this came to be published, it did little to revive Lewis’ reputation. His three other novels–Gentleman Overboard, which I reviewed here a couple of months ago; Spring Offensive, an anti-war novel from 1940; and Season’s Greetings from 1941–were already long-forgotten by then. The Silver Dark soon disappeared, too. I could locate less than a handful of copies for sale on the Internet today and virtually no library has a copy.

Cover of first edition of 'The Silver Dark'It’s a real shame, for The Silver Dark is a memorable story told remarkably well by Lewis. Theodore Huber is a dwarf, living alone in a small Manhattan apartment, working as a bookkeeper, shuffling through the streets trying to avoid the looks of pity and disgust. The emptiness of his life rings in our ears:

He ate with automatic movement, spoon from plate to mouth and back to plate again. He had no chance for happiness. He was trapped. He was tired of living and unable to die. He was in a void; he was existing in a vacuum. Slowly, he got up and carried the half-empty dishes into the kitchen for Mrs. Asgood to wash in the morning. Time had stopped, as far as he was concerned. For the rest of his life he would feel the same way, think the same thoughts, do the same things every day and every night. He would go on like this. He would observe his fortieth birthday and his fiftieth birthday in this fashion, and then his hair would grow gray and his breath would come short, and one day, alone, he would die a natural death.

His only real interest is in the lives of the beautiful women and handsome men he sees in the streets and through apartment windows. Theodore is not a peeping Tom, but he is at least a glancing Tom. He fantasizes about the lives they live: “She worked in a department store, and now she was hurrying home to her man, who worked in a bank. He was waiting for her, and as soon as she came in they kissed each other. Theirs was not a passionate kiss; theirs was a friendly kiss. Everything they did was friendly, easy, companionable.”

One night, he goes up to the roof of his apartment building to look out at the city. He sees a man and woman in an apartment and watches as they begin to make love. Suddenly, he becomes aware that someone else is up there with him. He panics, but then a strange, misshapen woman sees him, screams and faints. He carries her to his apartment. She revives in a few moments and runs out into the hallway in fright.

He hears no more of this, but over the next few days he starts ruminating, turning the incident over and over. He convinces himself that this woman is his only chance, the one woman who might actually accept him. He tracks her to a neighboring apartment and learns her name–Jane Liste. He decides to write to her. It’s the kind of letter a novice stalker might write: “I have very few friends, in fact, I haven’t any, and you were the first person I talked to, outside of business hours, in a long time…. I’ve been thinking it would be good if we could see each other, because we hardly know one another and might have a lot to talk about.”

A reply arrives. It’s polite, a little friendly. But there’s a hitch. Jane left New York, where she’d been visiting an aunt, the day after the scene on the roof, and returned to Bakersfield, California. A few more letters are exchanged–still friendly, but no more. Theodore, however, manages to talk himself into a romantic whirlwind. He quits his job, put his few belongings in storage, and flies off to Bakersfield. (In Lewis’ world, by the way, there are direct flights from New York to Bakersfield.) He has decided that he and Jane must get married.

Jane, a hunchback who leads an even more isolated life, lets Theodore into her apartment, and an hour or two later, they head off to City Hall for a marriage license. It’s a mark of Lewis’ skill that he manages to make this implausible sequence of events believable. I think it’s due in part to the jarring contrasts he creates. On the one hand, everything going on in the world around these two people is mundane, muted. On the other, there are their emotional worlds, which are filled with bone-aching loneliness and wild dreams of idealized love. While other people go on about their lives, Jane and Theodore are so used to living in pain that it seems sensible to take each other’s hand and go leaping off a cliff into marriage.

It’s not an easy landing, though. One thing they have learned and internalized from decades of living in a world full of normal looking men and women: a deep, deep disgust for people who look like–well, they do. They both want to find not just companionship, but romantic, sexual love; what they feel at the sight of their naked bodies, though, is repulsion.

How Jane and Theodore get beyond these feelings and come to discover a genuine, mature love involves yet more implausible events, but to the very last page, Lewis does a remarkable job of pulling us along and leading us through their emotional transformations. The Silver Dark reminded me at times of McDonald Harris’ Mortal Leap, another book about making a radical life decision. Our rational mind keeps whispering, “This just doesn’t make sense,” and yet we keep turning the next page and reading on.

Coming across a book like The Silver Dark is what makes the pursuit of neglected books so enjoyable. I had essentially no information whatsoever about this book, aside from the fact that I had enjoyed Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard. I had no idea if this would be good or bad, interesting or tedious. So if it hooked me, it had to do so solely on its own merits, without the aid of reputation, reviews, or anyone’s word of mouth.

And it did. I finished The Silver Dark in three days of a working week, which is exceptional for me. I wouldn’t call it a great novel, but it is certainly a good one–original, unusual, and continuously interesting. It proves once again what treats lie in store for those who dare to dive deep into the stacks.


The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis
New York City: Pyramid Books, 1959

The Gang’s All Here, by Harvey Smith

I’m not sure what’s most remarkable about Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here:Insignia of Nostalgia University--'From easy to ordinary'--from the title page of 'The Gang's All Here' the book itself or the fact that it was published by the Princeton University Press. Purportedly the “twenty-five year record of ‘the finest aggregation of men that ever spent four years together at Old Nostalgia'” as penned by the class secretary, “Tubby” Rankin, The Gang’s All Here manages to trash just about every ritual and myth of American college life in the first half of the 20th century.

Smith (Princeton, 1917), a classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, provides sketches of 60-some alumni from the 1917 class of Nostalgia University, a proud bastion of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Male that could easily stand in for Harvard, Yale, or even Princeton itself. Virtually everyone in the book is Republican and Episcopalian. Only two Jews appear. Of one, Rankin/Smith notes, “Morrie left college after fraternity elections freshman year and has not been heard from since.” The other eventually becomes a noted surgeon and trustee of the university: “With his keen mind he must hard known from the first day he was in college that there was a line, invisible but as clearly defined as the equator, between Jew and gentile. Unlike Morrie Posner, however, he never showed resentment.”

As a work of art, The Gang’s All Here is handicapped by the narrow bounds of its subjects and Smith’s immaturity as a stylist, but it nonetheless manages to impress on multiple levels. First, Rankin/Smith experiments with a wide variety of forms to cover his cast: first, second, and third-person narratives; several comic short stories; a pompous letter written by the subject himself; even the transcript of the divorce proceedings of an over-ardent Nostalgia fan and his fed-up wife. Second, for all the successful bankers, brokers, and CEOs in the class, there are also lunks, lushes, lounge lizards, and flat-out losers. One man marries a lady wrestler; another quits Wall Street and makes a new start as the proud owner of a gas station; a third quietly thanks “that man” Roosevelt for the W.P.A. job that restored his dignity. And Rankin is not reluctant to peel back the veneer of respectability to note that Jim Denison didn’t did in a sailing accident back in 1937, but took his life in despair at his wife’s affair with that “heel” Bud Coleman.

The most admired member of the class–at least in Rankin’s eyes–is Adelbert l’Hommedieu X. Hormone, or Bert for short. Kicked out of school after three months, he lives out his classmates’ secret dreams: shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion, crewing a Dutch freighter around the Great Horn, running a bar in Java, and settling down in married bliss with a native pearl diver in Tahiti. He sends his regrets at missing the 25th annual reunion in a 1,000-word collect telegram, citing the demands of his new trained-shark business.

Published in 1941, The Gang’s All Here portrays a way of life that was already becoming a thing of the past. Even then, one alumni notes sadly, the administrators of old Nostalgia were expecting prospective athletic stars to pass a rudimentary entrance exam rather than accepting them as the “blessings” they were. An advertising executive in New York, Smith was well-qualified to take on his subject, having penned the 1917 class notes in the Princeton Alumni Weekly since 1927. While not the master his classmate Fitzgerald was, he deserves a special footnote in histories of Princeton for having pulled off something much more substantial and imaginative than a simple satire of his own kind.

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman

For the first fifty-or-so pages of The Snowman, I thought I’d really found a long lost–heck, a never-discovered–gem. I picked up the Penguin paperback edition at a bookstore in Seattle, attracted by several promising clues. The Penguin edition came out four years after the initial hardback release; despite the fact that the novel was written by an American and is set in America, it appeared to have been published only in the U. K.. The blurb on the back read cryptic enough to suggest something worth investigating:

The Snowman is often infuriating, always compelling, a blinding collage of cross-threads, dead-ends, endless tunnels, red herrings and bang-on target salvos of smouldering reality.

Cover of Penguin U.K. paperback edition of 'The Snowman'
And at first, the work itself seemed a wonderfully bizarre treat. The first chapter ones with an entry from The Motorist’s Guide to Upstate New York, 1939: “Joseph’s Landing (232 alt. 729 pop.) 1.6 miles from State 3, is a peaceful lakeside village of wided, shaded streets and roomy old dwellings first settled in 1802.”

Over the next few chapters, Charles Haldeman introduces us to Joseph’s Landing and some of its inhabitants, past and present. It is, to say the least, an unusual place. There is something odd about everyone in the place. Here, for example, is a bit of town history:

Donatien’s death left Melba and Claude Hagen swamped in the peaked and parapeted four-story sandstone monstrosity at the acute intersection of Joan of Arc and Pierre de l’Hôpital Streets. Even when the ground floor had been overflowing with patients and Melba was holding a D.A.R. convention upstairs, the house had still seemed empty, it was so huge. Its original designer and builder, General Gilbert Raye, had obviously suffered from daedalomania. But that wasn’t all he’d suffered from: in 1819, not five years after the last stone was set in his labyrinth, he and a down-eastern prelate were arrested for conducting experiments of an unspeakable nature and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead and then burnt. Donatien’s great-grandfather Count Joseph de Villiers, a pseudonymous self-made noble who had absconded with the Spanish crown jewels afer the Battle of Waterloo and come to America with grandiose plans for establishing a new French Empire in the North, recognized in the condemned general a kindred spirit and paid him several visits in his cell. On the eve of his execution the wretched man gratefully bequeathed his eyesore to his friend.

This combination of the baroquely bizarre (“daedelomania”; “experiments of an unspeakable nature”) and the down-to-earth (“eyesore”) reminded me in a powerful way of one of the first books I featured on this site, John Howard Spyker’s Little Lives. I could imagine Joseph’s Landing sitting in the heart of Spyker’s Washington County. I even began to wonder if Charles Haldeman was yet another Richard Elman’s pseudonyms.

Unfortunately, the promise is unfulfilled. We move from these lovely odd vignettes into a series of chapters focusing on one and then another resident, most of them leading nowhere and weaving threads never again picked up in the narrative. Penguin’s blurb above is not intriguing praise. It’s a literal description. Haldeman seems to have been unable to decide just what he was writing. In the end, he settles upon a story of misfits and outcasts finding a kind of peace among themselves–the material of a Flannery O’Connor story, but not the end product.

His first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, published just a year or so before The Snowman, apparently suffered from similar problems. One reviewer praised its “Joycean” language but found it an artistic failure. Haldeman told the story of a child survivor of Auschwitz through a variety of textual artefacts but in the eyes of most critics at the time, didn’t manage to bring these pieces together into an effective whole–and he certainly didn’t manage to get past this stage with The Snowman.


The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman
London: Jonathan Cape, 1964