John T. McIntyre was 65 and had been working full-time as a writer for over 50 years when he published Steps Going Down in 1936. Thanks to a little creative public relations work by his publisher, Farrar, Rinehart and some help from Warner Brothers, which was considering it for filming, it was selected as the American entry for something called the All-Nations Novel Prize–an international competition organized by a consortium of publishers, mainly in the U.S. and Europe. It didn’t win the competition, but the selection came with an award of $4,000, which was probably more than what McIntyre had earned in the preceding five years.
For a few months, McIntyre garnered more publicity than he had in his entire career as a writer. The New Yorker praised him and he was positioned by some critics as a grandfather of what Edmund Wilson would refer to a few years later as “The Boys in the Back-Room”–hard-boiled writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and John O’Hara, whose works were full of rough characters, tough talk, and hard drinking. But though his next two books–Ferment (1937) and Signing Off (1938) took on suitably tough subjects–union corruption and Italian-American gangsters–they failed to win either popular or critical praise, and soon McIntyre was back to pitching stories about detectives and dime-store romances at newspapers and magazines. Eventually, even these didn’t sell and he was forced to sell off most of his belongings and rely on the charity of his friends. Suffering from alcoholism and cancer, he died in 1951 with barely a penny to his name.
Aside from some of his early crime novels featuring a scientifically-minded detective named Ashton-Kirk, McIntyre’s work has effectively vanished since his death. About ten years ago, Prof. Ron Ebest published an in-depth look back at McIntyre’s life and on Steps Going Down in particular, in the New Hibernia Review. In “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down” (link), Ebest called the book “a minor classic of modern Irish-American writing” and praised McIntyre’s “talent for dialogue and his gift for presenting the grittier sides of urban life in realistic fiction.” I learned of Steps Going Down after reading about the All-Nations prize. (The winner for the 1936 competition, by the way, was The Street of the Fishing Cat, a novel about Hungarian emigrants in Paris by Jolán Földes).
Having taken the better part of three weeks to get through Steps Going Down, I struggle now to decide whether it was a waste of my time. By anyone’s standard of what makes a good novel, this one is a failure. Had McIntyre not thrown in a quick and implausible deus ex machina ending, it would have amounted to a five-hundred page equivalent of “Waiting for Godot.” Reviewing the book in The New Masses, Albert Halper wrote, “The story goes round and round and doesn’t come out anywhere,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment. The anonymous reviewer on Kirkus Reviews said “It’s not strictly a novel,” but “a relentless turning inside out of a way of living –brothels, drug haunts, bars, shady dives, crooks, gangsters in miniature, lodging house keepers.”
Steps Going Down is about a guy named Pete, who has, at various times in the past, been a journalist and vaudeville dancer, and who goes on the lam when he suspects he might be accused of being involved in some crime at the bank where he’s been working. Pete got the job through a friend named Slavin, and he thinks Slavin is trying to pin the blame on Pete. And, as Halper puts it, “for the rest of the book the reader cracks his brains trying to find out (1) why Slavin got Pete the job,(2) who Slavin really is, (3) who Pete really is, (4) what crime Slavin has (or has not) committed, (5) how Thelma, Pete’s current girl friend, always knows where to reach Pete by phone even though Pete may be in hiding or in any of the city’s thousand drug stores, beer joints, or merely passing a public telephone booth.”
Well, I read the book, and I can’t answer any of those questions. I’d say that easily 80% of the book consists of nothing but Pete sitting around in some boarding house, oyster house, chop house, flop house, or bar and drinking and talking. Most often it’s with another character named Gill, who’s an alcoholic, Skid Row philosopher, part-time ink salesman, and black sheep son of a family that made its fortune selling patent medicines now running afoul of the new food and drug safety laws. Despite the fact that Pete spends at least two to three months moving from place to place to avoid being found by the police, district attorney, or Slavin, he somehow continues to have enough cash to buy another drink–even after he gets robbed.
And then another drink. And another. There is a lot of drinking in this book. As Ebest puts it, “Not to put too fine a point on it, essentially everybody in the book is hammered from page one on.” McIntyre himself had a drinking problem, and as you’re reading Steps Going Down, you often get the same kind of blurry sense of what’s happening that comes about three drinks after the stopping point.
And yet, there are some wonderful things in this book. Most of the action in the book takes place in once-respectable neighborhoods now gone to seed:
The Potsdam was a decayed establishment; it had a big lobby on the first floor that had once been a bar; a German bar with sanded floor, and with waterfalls, and old castles and folk in peasant costumes painted on the walls. There was a high, arched ceiling, now dusty and neglected. The Kegelbahn had been in the basement, and the wooden balls had rolled thunderously at night; a brass band once had its headquarters in the second floor front, and German marches and waltzes had poured out from the windows upon a contented neighborhood. German societies had met there; there was a singing of songs, emptying of seidels, the aroma of sausage and cheese; the gabble of all the dialects of the Fatherland. But those days were over; the people who now huddled under the Potsdam’s roof were broken and anxious; they were people whose days slipped by with no flavor of promise in them.
“No flavor of promise in them”–what a superb phrase with which to end a superb paragraph.
There are fine characters who come briefly into focus and then fade off. Like Cork, a small-time, unlucky gambler: “Cork was in the habit of talking about money; in sporting matters he mentioned large sums; the intake of stuss games interested him; the profits in drab houses, the chances of turning over sums by various underhand practices, had a slimy sort of glamour for him.” Or Finney, who spent his whole life dreaming of the time when he could be completely idle: “He used to watch the old men; they had been street sweepers, or cart drivers, or pavers, or weavers; old men that had worked at many trades and were now past their time, and were resting. Finney used to envy them. They could sit down somewhere contentedly, and no word was said against them. It was what was expected of them.”
There are places where you could imagine Oliver Twist hanging around if Dickens had time-travelled to 1930s Philadelphia: “The neighborhood of Shandy’s was one of small rackets; groups gathered at curbs, at newsstands, at corners, around shoeblacks’ chairs; smirking youths in smart overcoats and narrow rimmed hats talked with policemen.” The cheap hotels where Gill and Pete find rooms for a night or two: “Badly lighted, with greasy wallpaper, shabby floor coverings, brass cuspidors. Dejected men in soiled shirt collars sat forever reading newspapers; others wrote long, bitter letters at the little tables…. havens for uneasy men who had separated from their wives.”
The book opens with one of its strongest chapters–certainly the stuff I kept looking for more of–which puts us in the mind of Mrs. Salz, owner of the boarding house Pete lights out from, as she moves around, cleaning her sitting room. Each item she cleans reminds her of someone from her past–the gilt mirror from her brother Albert’s barbershop; Freddie the canary from her childhood now stuffed but still hanging in his gilded cage; the heavy armchair her father bought from a minister, in which her sister Cassy would sit “after her trouble”:
She worked for three or four dressmakers; every time she left a place it was for higher pay. And it was one of their husbands that was the cause of her trouble.
It was an awful shock to her mother; and her father used to curse terrible; and everybody in the neighborhood talked and said things they shouldn’t have said. Uncle Victor wanted the case taken into court; he said Cassy ought to get damages. But she wouldn’t let it be done. After the child died, she came home again, but she was awful changed. You’d scarcely ever hear her speak a word. She didn’t seem to be fit for anything at all. She’d just sit in the chair at the window and look out and think.
Taken together, these bursts of fine description and characterization probably add up to 150 or more pages out of the total 500, which is not such a bad ratio, but for many readers, it’s asking a lot to demand the persistence required for that kind of sifting. And so Steps Going Down will most likely remain out of print and unknown.
Yet, if Steps Going Down is a failure, it’s a noble failure. It’s like a fine old Victorian house, abandoned and neglected for years, shut up behind a tall fence. As you pass by, you catch a glimpse of some intricate, carefully-crafted feature or decoration, a room you can imagine was once dark, warm and welcoming. But no one will ever knock down the fence and put in the hard work to restore it and put it into working order. And so it’s just a lost promise. It reminds me very much of something Zadie Smith wrote in her essay, “Fail Better”: “The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment.” In Steps Going Down, there are such lovely shards–but it will never be a monument of fulfillment.