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 …