Cause for Wonder
Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience—they’re two phases in the alternating current of American literature, distinctively American only as American innocence is milkier and American experience blacker than in more homogenized and blended cultures. The contrast gives special power as a fictional theme to the random adventures of an innocent, a wandering sheet of blank paper on whom life scribbles its comic, smutty messages. All three of the novels under review represent variations, more or less free and fancy, on this basic theme.
Harvey Swados’s The Will is a big rymphonic novel, dealing as it were with the house of Karamazov in a lakeside midwestern city which could very easily be Chicago; its special quality is to be psychological in depth while retaining a compelling social surface. It is an impressive but not wholly unflawed piece of work. There are things in it of which any novelist alive could be proud, but there are also facile stage devices and bits of fictional shorthand which leave one uneasy and wondering.
The theme is an inheritance for which three brothers are eligible. Pursuit of the money exacerbates their mutual hatreds and incomprehensions; they gain from these frictions insight. The older brother (Mel) is a criminal, a drifter, a man of violence; the middle one (Ralph), a schemer and opportunist; the younger one (Ray), an innocent and a recluse. (Cf. Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha.) These are in themselves pretty schematic characters, and one could envisage Mr. Swados producing something pretty corny and exterior from this given situation. That he hasn’t done so—that, on the contrary, he’s made out of Ralph, Ray, and Ralph’s wife Kitty figures of authentic passion and weakness and complexity—is a great part of his achievement. The setting for most of the action is a slumswallowed old mansion, choked with twenty years’ accumulation of Uncle Max’s packrat junk—so that the landscape, no less than the figures in it, could easily degenerate into cutout and caricature. It doesn’t do so, for Mr. Swados is careful with the haunted-house horrors, and meticulous in recreating the grubby American meanness of his slums. But again he trembles on the verge of the theatrical cliché. When a man treads so perilous a path, he is either a skilled wire-walker (and you know this because he never really loses equilibrium, however he seems to teeter) or else he is careless. Mr. Swados takes a couple of liberties with his characters and episodes which give one seriously to think about this distinction.
Why, for example, does the pretty little Jehovah’s Witness (Laura Leone) whom Raymond has been watching from his attic eyrie suddenly turn up as Mel’s nurse in the hospital? We have a story explaining in “realistic” terms how it happened that way; disillusioned with watchtowering, she took a quick course and, zip, she was in charge of Mel. Metaphorically, symbolically, she’s always going to be a witness and a messenger. But the coincidence can’t help straining our sense of social probability, and her encounter with Ray, a fellow-innocent, produces one of the really soft scenes of the story. Or again, why does Mel’s past include the seduction and abandonment of a girl who, it turns out, was the sister of the detective currently investigating the affairs of the Land brothers? Dostoevsky got away with artificial coups de théatre like this, but Dostoevsky’s characters are so passionately oblivious of circumstance that coincidences appear simply as natural elements of the universal nightmare. Mr. Swados grants more sovereignty to external reality; indeed, it’s one of his big points that intentions shift under pressure of social circumstance. And this theme is central to the story. Though they all claim to be pretty principled, and use words like “justice” without the quotation marks, the Land brothers are more vigorously attracted to the money than they realize. This gutty, textured quality of their lives is one strong reason for our interest and belief in them. So why complicate the social scene with contrived coincidences and recognitions out of East Lynne and Roger the Rover? One has a sense that Mr. Swados may be making fun of his own fable—which is scarcely the way to encourage readers to take it seriously. While I’m at it, I might as well register the conviction that Dr. Solomon Stark, the novel’s raisonneur, is often no more than a lovable old fictional shortcut.
Yet, for all these reservations, this is a massive and moving novel, with its horsepower rooted not in style or tricks, where it shouldn’t be, but in character, where it should. Even Ray, whose blank innocence could easily degenerate into cuteness, maintains throughout most of the story a tough and wiry outline, a flare of wit that lightens and livens. Mr. Swados has written a direct and gutty novel, dealing with sex, money, and morals in a manner neither precious nor commonplace, but imaginative. Its deficiencies are deficiencies of control. There are a good many fine points of prose, and some of narrative discipline, where the novel would profit from a more radical simplicity. But for the energy and insights which are Mr. Swados’s true talent there is nothing to express but admiration. The Will is a story one can respect as well as absorb, and I don’t doubt that it will give general pleasure.
Cause for Wonder is Wright Morris’s fifteenth book in twenty years, and carries onward his personal tradition of writing between the genres or in several genres at once. It also carries on his tradition of striking for a relatively small effect; he isn’t, and never will be, a belly-writer. But I suspect his present effort, which is a zany, realistic, philosophic tragi-comedy with a ghost story mixed in, is more limited than usual by the multiplicity of its small effects. Let’s not say it invites mental indigestion—just that a prudent reader won’t sit down to it without a Bromo-Seltzer handy.
The fable concerns a man named Warren Howe, who once spent time (a winter, a couple of months?) as a semi-enforced guest in a remote castle in the Wachau district of Austria. Now resident in Southern California, he receives a notice that the castle-owner, his former host/jailer, is dead; and for reasons which are never made very distinct he files to the funeral, accompanied (for other nuclear reasons) by a junk dealer named Sam Spiegel, who had also spent time at the castle. They go to bury M. Etienne Dulac, but find him alive, though not very compos. There are other oddball visitors, including a moody red-headed boy and his grandmother; a poltergeist named George Washington plays assorted tricks: M. Dulac dies, and the party breaks up; it all proves something about time.
Mr. Morris presents the characters of his story largely through their oddities, quirks, and idées fixes; but his generosity is unwilling to exclude anything real crazy from the gallery, and we get, as free supplements so to speak, an extended report on Mr. Howe’s Uncle Fremont Older and a shorter one on his Aunt Winona. Neither has anything in particular to do with the fable; both are viewed chiefly in their exasperated eccentricities. The result is like cracker-barrel mythology; one gets that sort of insight into character which could be summarized in the phrase, “Golly, he’s a real sketch, that Herman.” And occasionally it seemed to me that Mr. Morris was convulsed over a perfectly private joke—if it was all that funny, he should have told it before breaking up.
I’ve dismissed rather blithely Mr. Morris’s philosophical point, and should warn the reader that this may be just obtuseness before philosophical insights that were too deep for me. Setting out to bury the past and finding it obstinately unburyable is a recognizable jape on the part of Mr. Warren Howe; the junk dealer has a clearly redemptive role in relation to the disasters of time; and M. Dulac, having lived his life as nearly as possible backwards, is now in the almost speechless state of advanced second childhood. These are philosophical jests which embark one on a fairly definite train of thought. But, once embarked, what do we do with George the ghost and Uncle Fremont Older? Survivals from the lost past, they can do nothing more than play grotesque and foolish jokes now; and even if their unrelatedness is taken as a point in itself, it goes a long way toward disintegrating a structure of motivation and causation that is pretty ramshackle to begin with. The book leads off with a dim project for selling either the castle (presumably willed to Howe?) or a book about the castle that Howe wrote and published some years ago. This project of selling something (a script or a piece of real estate) to an actual potential purchaser named Ehrlich seems to be the original reason for the pilgrimage of Howe and Spiegel, but after it has given the story an initial shove, the scheme fades from view, and we never hear from it again. Getting a convincing metaphysical joke out of a story that is literally so untidy threatens to be more work than any jest is worth. Indeed, the few metaphysical jokes with which I’m acquainted are thin as jokes and doubtful as metaphysics. There’s vintage Wright Morris around for the thirsty reader; Cause for Wonder, I think, will rank as the product of an off-year.
Last and least of the present batch is a novel called Confusions by Jack Ludwig. It is an Augie March rerun, transferred to academia, fitted out with a grade-B plot and narrated at a Bob Hope pace. The only thing it lacks is canned laughter. Mr. Ludwig’s protagonist claims to be confused, hence his title; but to this jaundiced reader he seemed all too simple and familiar. He is nothing more than a devoted young exhibitionist on the make. His narrative style is kittenish and tricksy to a degree matched only by Peter de Vries. It has in addition a special quality best described as the old vaudeville switcheroo hitched onto the synopticon. Any literary tag you want to name, Mr. Ludwig’s hero has a twist for it. He’ll turn it upside down or inside out, pun on it, misapply it, boot it in the rear, throw it on its prat—always he has a gimmick, and the cheap holds no terrors for him. Very humorous it is. His wit is like a leaky faucet, and after a while you’d pay plumbers’ wages to be rid of it.
Our Hero is a schlemihl from Roxbury. We get, to begin with, a full dose of his amorous education; and for our particular instruction he is very real indeed with his Radcliffe wife. This stagy authenticity may set some readers’ teeth on edge; it’s too fun for anything. Then we develop a sense that he’s properly neither Jew nor Gentile, and there’s some rather arch business with a Good Self and a Bad Self, à la Ancient English Drama. At last we transfer to California, where adventures in the Royce College English Department consume the rest of the book. Everyone else in this department is vicious, dishonest, flabby, or sodden, except Our Hero. As is usual in academic novels, neither he nor anyone else has the slightest interest in his work or in any sort of cultural activity, snob academic politics being their exclusive preoccupation. As usual, there are no scientists in this college, no historians, no mathematicians, no philosophers, no economists—just English teachers, administrators, and a single good-guy psychologist for variety’s sake. They all drink like sick, never meet classes, sneer at their comically inept students, and play dirty academic politics day and night. And in this scuffle of mewling eunuchs, our authentic and genuine hero scores, of course, a splendid triumph—a triumph which has to do with the earlier Jewish-Gentile bit and the sex-displays only as it shows what a real genuine fellow he is and always has been. Confusions? I confess I don’t see them. The whole thing is all too plain. And when this egregious young pup, flushed with triumph, turns to lecturing us on the need to “change our lives” and lead richer, fuller existences as he has done—well, somebody, it seems to me, has to be kidding. It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Ludwig does not see any more widely or deeply than his complacent Candide, but the page as printed contains no evidence that he does.
Incidentally, there’s an anti-defamation league to protect the Jews from libel at the hands of their enemies; isn’t it about time to set up some equivalent organization to save them from their friends?