I found out about Max White’s 1949 novel, The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, in “The Pearls of Publishing,”, a Saturday Review feature I wrote about several months ago. In that piece, John Fischer, then an editor at Harper & Brothers, recommended it as a bit of a fringe favorite: “Admittedly not a book for every reading taste but those of us here who like it for its odd and spirited blend of fancy and humor are convinced that there are fifteen or twenty thousand readers in the country who would enjoy it.”
Set in an ante-bellum rooming house in New Orleans’ French Quarter, The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is itself a bit of a jambalaya. In the space of the first 20-some pages, Geneva Howard, a retired minor opera singer not averse to start Happy Hour at noon, manages to fill up all the rooms in her house with an odd assortment of characters just wandering in off the street.
The title character, Oleg Malin, is an anti-social sculptor who’s come ashore after a spell as a deckhand to work on a new piece. He’s accompanied by his brother, Elia, who spends his time repairing Oriental rugs and looking after Oleg’s moods. There’s a pair of young Cajun newlyweds, a physician working on a book titled, “What To Do After the Doctor Leaves,” a woman who owns a nearby gift shop and who might today be diagnosed with Asperger’s, a spectral man who slips in and out of the house at night (he turns out to be a gambler), and a handful of others. The most mysterious of the lot is Maria Weber, a middle-aged woman of vaguely Continental origin who arrives with a large travelling case that she claims is occupied by her mother, who has not been seen since 1910. The mother screams out whenever someone in the house tells a lie and, we soon learn, tends to wander around the house late at night, taking odd things from the other residents.
Having tossed his ingredients into the pot, White lets them simmer away, occasionally giving a stir, but mostly letting things mingle and mix as they will. Everyone puzzles over the old woman in the box. Most of the women find themselves attracted to the dark and temperamental sculptor. A hurricane comes along to shake things up, but does no permanent damage. Then, perhaps at a loss for how to finish off the dish, White confuses it for some showcase dessert and tries to flambé the whole thing with a couple of spectacular murders.
White once published a sort-of cookbook titled, How I Feed My Friends. In it, he wrote, “Cooking is not a dash of this and a dash of that nor is it using a wooden spoon. Something else it is not, is a jumble of ingredients and seasonings.” This might not have been true of White’s cooking, but it certainly was of his writing, at least in this case. The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is more melange than composition–which is, frankly, more in keeping with the book’s setting. There’s plenty of interesting talk, a fair amount of drinking, and some pretty good eating, mostly courtesy of Geneva’s housekeeper, Leontine, and all the comings and goings of the house. What matters is the atmosphere, not the ambition. After all, it is set in the “Big Easy.”
Max White–the pen-name of Charles William White–wrote about a half-dozen novels between the late 1930s and early 1950s, most of them dealing with artists: some real (In the Blazing Light, about Goya); some fictional (Tiger Tiger, about a modernist painter. He also hung out with the likes of Getrude Stein (to whom The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is dedicated) and Alice B. Toklas (who he once tried to assist with a real autobiography to match Stein’s). At the time The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, it must have seemed a pretty strange and exotic affair, but sixty-some years later, when cut-ups, mash-ups, fusion, and all sorts of other combinations of contrasting ingredients are a dime a dozen, we’re probably better prepared to appreciate it for what it is and not expect a higher purpose as some kind of redemptive reward.