Largo by the Sea (A Prologue), from Varmints, by Peggy Bennett (1947)

You have read, no doubt, the damp masticated and printed wood pulp called the morning paper, wielding its unwieldly pages (the tabloid excepted from the clumsy kinds) impatiently, eager for the greasy crumbs of news the newspaper empires have selected for you, have written for you from the moral slant of a particular newspaperman or an editor, each intensely human and subject to his share of human stupidity and roughhewn grammar. You know the world, you do.

The comic strips, twentieth-century fairy tales, manage to absorb part of your consciousness, to keep your susceptible minds off that filthy vague excrement smelling on the front page, and the sports pages are exceedingly enlightening. You compose a record crowd in innumerable halls and stadiums. A good crooner is worth a dozen or ten dozen ordinary hard-working citizens, and a cute little smug chubby round-jowled chow is infinitely funnier than a baby, and not half so much trouble in the bargain. You spend most of your spare time seeking entertainment. You listen to music so that you may hear voices in the pure and abstracted form, exactly like no human voices, and yet so like your very own that you are entranced, hypnotized (you can easily hypnotize yourself). Is music a refuge ? Is art an escape ? You may argue that it is, on the contrary, a new and better way of living. Ah, those beauties, those pearls of emotional wisdom. In their moments you may espy eternity, and then you must go on with business as usual, pursuing careers and fat paychecks, bathing away perspiration and other odors, ejecting wastes from your bodies, mincing and devouring those strange concoctions you recognize as your food, worrying, changing with the weather, lusting a little for power, falling prey to riots of bacteria, dying ignominiously natural human deaths, decaying insensibly.

You have readily patronized the motion picture industry and watched the puppets being drawn through the fantastic folds of drama, in which simple home life is shown as an extravaganza, complex human emotions and relationships are shown as simple shallows, and dreamworld sex is the perpetual motive, the neverdying underlying theme. All sentiment suddenly becomes a heavy inhuman fog, or perhaps a chocolate bar melting in the sun. The ethereal seems indelibly neurotic, and vulgarity synonymous with health. Suffering is made a form of nobility, pain pleasurable, and greatness a simpleton’s struggle to be himself in the midst of evil. Evil is anything (either brilliant and human or stupid and inanimate) that trips up the inspired fool. The obscure music lubricates the creaking mechanisms of the drama and steals upon the listener unawares, massages him as he sits passively in the cushioned seat. The strange eerie flat gray world now comes brilliant in unearthly splashy and splotchy technicolor, but still flat, mosaic. Now you think of yourselves as weirdly beautiful faces and torsos, curving curvaceous legs, tantalizing smoothness and roundness of breasts and thighs and hips or of hard male flatness and narrow hips and iron muscle, and you are moving in close-ups, slow-motion, or in long-range action shots, lightning fast. Voluptuous throes of emotion ; how exquisite it is to writhe in make-believe passion.

Perhaps you’d rather spend your evenings listening to the warm cordial atmospheres generated by your radio. Genial men flatter your good taste, introduce you to personages chummy, winningly idiotic, noble and high spirited, and so on. Unlike prosaic diurnal living, whose genuine people move with masks on their faces and can be judged only by the sums of their lives, radio personalities come in types as variable as stovepipes. How fondly we remember our adolescence all day long. Periodic soulshaking and mirthquaking rhythms of studio laughter. Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime.

God, how great are these United States. Yes, you’re a pretty great people, you are. And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.

I came across Varmints while nosing around the Internet Archive, which has been my electronic substitute for the great libraries where I’ve always loved to spend hours scouring the stacks for the odd and intriguing. The energy, the venom and the God-like authority in the above passage grabbed me immediately and I soon downloaded a copy and kept on reading. This excerpt is part of the ten page prologue to Varmints, Peggy Bennett’s first and (apparently) only novel. Bennett was just 22 when the book was published, but she could have given Rebecca West a run for her money when it came to confidence in her perspectives. This prologue goes on to give us a survey of a half-dozen broken lives, from a woman suffering agonizing pain in North Carolina to a black cook who accidentally chops off his thumb while working in a Los Angeles diner one night.

PeggyBennettThe novel itself goes on to tell the story of three children–Ethel, Hilliard and Mutt–taken over by their grandparents after their mother’s death. They live together in a town in northern Florida, where the grandfather is a master carpenter now mostly retired. The three children take in their world in very different ways. Ethel is hyper-sensitive, sometimes overwhelmed by what she sees around her. Hilliard is a genius who grows ever more distrustful of the world outside and spends most of his time alone in his room, reading. And Mutt is highly sociable, easy-going and popular with everyone. The grandparents are neither demons nor angels but people struggling themselves with choices and the lack of simple answers.

Unfortunately, just what message Peggy Bennett wanted to get out by writing this novel is unclear. Although there’s nothing quite so iconoclastic as the prologue, the book seems filled with a great deal of anger, anger desperately seeking its targets. She dips a few times into overwrought Faulknerian language, but not so much as turn the book into a parody. There are some very funny, if caustic, lines and at least one heart-tugging tragedy. The energy of the initial pages, however, ultimately fizzles out toward the end.

Peggy Bennett went on to write a number of short stories that were published in little magazines as well as in several short story collections from the 1950s. It’s not clear that she published anything after that. She died in April 2011 at the age of 86.

The Varmints, by Peggy Bennett
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947

1 thought on “Largo by the Sea (A Prologue), from Varmints, by Peggy Bennett (1947)

  1. Peggy Bennett was quite an interesting person to have as a mother. I recognize her voice, clearly, in the prologue–and I’m glad to see that she caught your attention. She was A Force, a tiny dynamo, and I believe that if she had been born into a time that was more supportive toward women–she would have contributed a great deal more.

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