People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'People Will Always Be Kind'
Does it matter?–losing your legs? …
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

   –Siegfried Sassoon

Wilfrid Sheed’s 1973 novel, People Will Always Be Kind, takes its title from Sassoon’s poem about a paraplegic young war veteran, but Sheed’s protagonist, Brian Casey, is a victim not of combat but of polio. Well over half of the novel (the section titled, “Backgrounder”) recounts how Casey is suddenly struck by polio in high school and how he comes to turn his handicap into an effective tool for manipulating others–because, as Sassoon observes, “people will always be kind.”

In some ways, People Will Always Be Kind is a remarkably perceptive study of politics and human behavior. As his parents desperately attempt every cure, legitimate and outright criminal (leeches, at one point), Casey grows deeply cynical. “I don’t think I owe God any favors, after what he did to me,” he thinks to himself, and one of his Columbia classmates calls him “a man of little faith and much energy, the most dangerous of your human species.”

Casey cuts his teeth on campus politics and finds a natural talent for public speaking and private wheeling and dealing. But he also quickly realizes that campus politics was “like playing poker without money.” When next we see him, in the section titled, “The Perkins Papers,” he is a U. S. Senator, seen through the eyes of Sam Perkins, an idealistic Ivy League grad, part of a small movement trying to court a candidate to run for President on a peace platform. Sheed never mentions Vietnam in the book, referring to the war only as “The Issue.”

Casey takes up the challenge–or at least, he seems to. Although Perkins is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, even he understands that he’s dealing with a level of intelligence and sophistication far beyond his:

He also told me, though he didn’t have to by then, that he liked to hire high-minded people because they would do dirtier work for nothing than low-minded people would for hire. True. If the candidate so much as intimated to me that a principle was involved, it was like unleashing a rattlesnake. A low-minded person would at least have watched his own skin and thought about tomorrow.

During the campaign, a party hack comments, somewhat sarcastically, “That’s some staff you got.” “That’s not a staff–that’s my violin,” Casey responds.

Much like Eugene McCarthy, Casey achieves an unexpected breakthrough victory in New Hampshire and rolls into the convention as the leading candidate. Perkins does note that the transformation had less to do with the candidate that some undefinable combination of media coverage and popular sentiment: “Casey hadn’t changed a hair, but he suddenly had charisma and seemed like a great man.” He drives himself relentlessly, always conscious that any sign of exhaustion would be linked back to his polio: “Other politicians could show fatigue, Casey never. He would have to kill himself to prove his strength.”

Perkins quits the campaign in a childish and pretty unbelievable miff involving sexual jealousy over another staffer, but Casey wins the nomination and comes close to winning the election (a conditional cease-fire before the debate kills much of his momentum). Some observers, however, believe Casey made a deliberate choice to lose. His wife thinks it a matter of his struggle with his faith (Casey is an Irish Catholic): “It’s like an occasion of sin, if you know what I mean. He knows he shouldn’t be in politics.”

Yet brilliant as many of Sheed’s observations about politics are, People Will Always Be Kind fails as a coherent work of art. The two parts of the novel are unbalanced: “Backgrounder” burrows deep into Casey’s evolving psyche, while “The Perkins Papers” shows him through a glass, dork-ly. The campaign has the potential to be a much richer source of material–Time magazine’s reviewer thought that, “Sheed’s only real mistake was to quit writing about 200 pages short of his natural stopping place.” Certainly the book loses much of its strength by substituting Sheed’s profoundly intelligent omniscient voice in “Backgrounder” for Sam Perkins’ fuzzy-headed first-person voice in the second half. And while Brian Casey may be a terrific vehicle for navigating the winding ways of American politics, as a character he becomes something of a Cheshire Cat. In the last dozen pages of the book, he almost entirely fades away, leaving us with only his ironic smile.

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

5 thoughts on “People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed

  1. Glad to see this novel get some attention. I read it as a high school kid and, like Sam Perkins in the book, much of it flew right over my head. It takes a few years of maturity and adversity to begin to understand a character like Brian Casey. I agree that the political part of the book is way too short. Had Sheed fleshed that section out more, we might have had a 1970’s version of “All The King’s Men”.

  2. Though I have not read this book, I am currently acquainting myself with Sheed’s other books. He is a brilliant man and a wonderful writer who actually had polio as a child, and perhaps lost more than the full use of one leg as a result. (That is, his interest in what interested and motivated his parents.) His parents were, in fact, the ones I read ten years ago, not having heard of their son. Frank Sheed, Wilfrid’s father, is particularly noted for the amazing Theology and Sanity. Wilfrid’s mother was a plodding, thorough, and incredibly prolific writer. It is from her side of the family that the sheer productivity, the can’t-not-write, comes. The family as a whole is worth a look, and in another generation or so it will be interesting to see who outlasts who. Wilfrid’s parents have enjoyed a renaissance in the past twenty years, and Wilfrid’s star is fading a bit. I intend to read this book and will probably wish I had read it when it came out and the War was still fresh in all our minds. I like this man and wish, with the above reviewer, he had been able to Dig Deeper. But that’s ok. Wodehouse is a good guy too; he didn’t need to be the world’s philosopher to be engaging to most folks.

  3. Julie — What books have you read by Wilfred Sheed? I too appreciated what he did in People Will Always Be Kind, but I was even more impressed with Pennsylvania Gothic and The Blacking Factory. (They’re combined in one volume.) He ventures into strange — and dark — territory in these two books.
    I didn’t care for his Office Politics.
    Anyway, if you’ve found another work by him to recommend, please pass on the title.

  4. Phillip Routh said “Anyway, if you’ve found another work by him to recommend, please pass on the title.” I highly recommend ‘Max Jamison’, one of the best novels I ever read. It’s about a New York theatre critic and Sheed really gets inside his head.

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