Kingdom on Earth, by Anne Brooks

April 1st, 2013

In his story, “Just One More Time,” John Cheever portrayed the Beers, a couple hanging tenuously onto respectability, a pair of “pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer” who nevertheless possessed some enduring charm, the power “to remind one of good things–good places, games, food, and company.” Anne Brooks’ 1941 novel, Kingdom On Earth, we come to know the Randolfs, a family equally charming but whose parasitic nature is revealed when their fortunes collapse.

The book–Brooks’ first novel–takes place in seven snapshots between mid-1938 and Labor Day 1940. In the midst of a relaxing summer break at their Connecticut country home, the Randolfs’ banker arrives to break the news to the mother, Elaine, that what little capital her late husband had left the family has evaporated in the stock market. She has to sell off their heavily mortgaged country home and Manhattan apartment and move into a cheaper apartment with her two daughters and son-in-law, soon to be joined by her son Joel and his new wife, Harriet.

We watch the story unfold through Harriet’s eyes. The only daughter of an introverted and widowed professor, she is dazzled by the Randolf’s effortless grace. She confides to her brother-in-law, “We think they live life more completely, they feel things physically, because they act by instinct. We think they’re complete naturals. That charms us; they have more fun, we think, than the thoughtful people.” Harriet feels sorry about their plight only because “it wasn’t fair that people like the Randolfs should have to worry and think about money.”

At first, they take it in as a momentary inconvenience. Living on the remnants of their fortune is a comic bit of “roughing it,” the cramped apartment “a sort of camping place.” As time wears on and the money continues to evaporate, however, their charm wears as thin as the elbows in Joel’s old jackets. He gets a job with an advertising firm but his good looks and ingratiating manner fail to compensate for his utter incompetence. He loses the job and starts drinking earlier and earlier in the day. One daughter, Kit, gets a job in a fine department store and soon learns to get ahead through pure ruthlessness masked by a thin veneer of style. Pris, the youngest, is incapable of doing anything but attracting clueless men with her beauty.

And Elaine, utterly useless, does little but pine for her comfortable past. “The trouble with Elaine was that she was really stupid,” Harriet comes to realize. Her only assets were “a lovely, sensitive face, and excellent taste in dressing herself and arranging her home.”

Of all the family, it is Harriet who proves the most resourceful. She not only does all the cooking and housekeeping for the lot, but she teaches herself typing and gets a job when Joel gives up any pretence of looking for work. And the Randolfs appreciate it–in the way that a wealthy family might appreciate the work of a particularly good maid or butler. “You’re good at this sort of thing, aren’t you, Harriet?,” remarks Pris.

“This sort of thing” is a phrase that recurs throughout the book. It always refers to accommodation to the practical necessities of life–something the Randolfs seem to regard as either onerous or unthinkable. As Joel and Elaine grow more helpless and dependent, Harriet discovers her own strength and independence.

In the end, however, the Randolfs, like the Beers in Cheever’s story, manage to survive through a series of decisions that defy Harriet’s conventional reason:

The resilience of this family was almost immoral, she thought. In the books, weakness and irresponsibility fall when the props are taken away just as the Randolfs had fallen. But in the books weakness never picks itself up again, and here were the Randolfs bright as day and just as charming as ever. All because Pris has kidnaped a rich man into marrying her, Kit has booted out a poor husband and relentlessly cut a few throats, and Elaine is sponging off her son-in-law.

Although Kingdom On Earth was written when Brooks was just twenty-five, it displays a remarkably mature and well-rounded perspective. While showing the Randolfs with all their flaws, she is sympathetic rather than caustic, understanding rather than mocking.

Anne Brooks published a second novel, Hang My Heart, a year after Kingdom On Earth. The story of an ambitious woman starting her career in the magazine business, it received even better reviews, and Brooks was described as one of the more promising young American novelists. From that point on, however, she seems to have disappeared, at least from the world of publishing. I would be interested in finding out the rest of her story.

Although several direct-to-print publishers offer copies of Kingdom On Earth, you can download it for free from the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/kingdomonearth001098mbp.

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