What Time Collects
The Rector of Justin
Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday
Criticism has been having its way with James T. Farrell for so long now, that there seems little point in putting more energy into what has been said for the past thirty years. Reduced to its simplicity, it is just that the man can’t write readable stories. Why, in the face of this amply registered opinion, he continues to undertake ever bigger, longer, and heavier narrative projects, is one of the mysteries of the age. It seems like only yesterday that the first volume of a projected four-volume autobiography was being hailed as a paralyzing bore. Now we are already two volumes deep into another four-volume saga, this one dealing with existence in the suburbs of Chicago between 1870 and 1920. What Time Collects must surely be ranked among the most vulnerable titles of the current season; I shall leave each reader to make his own jokes on it, and observe simply that the mixture is here very much as before. The characters are seedy semi-respectables with no perspectives and little shrewdness, the locale is drab, and the prose an odd combination of Victor Appleton and Horatio Alger:
Not only was Jack Pearson handsome and possessed of so strong and hypnotizing a physical appeal but, more, he was destined to be a very rich man. His father was piling up a new fortune in successful speculations on wheat downtown in the Board of Trade building, on Marathon Street. And Frances was far from being unmindful of all the advantages, and the prospects of future splendor that would be hers, were she to become the bride of Jack Pearson. She wanted this to be. She dreamed of it. She began planning to become Mrs. Jack Pearson.
“Far from being unmindful of”—that’s the sort of phrase that gives a real delicate and scrupulous rendering of a jeune fille‘s inmost yearnings.
The one new element in the book is an overpowering insistence on the sex-lives of Mr. Farrell’s Valley-City aborigines. There’s little or no love connected with this topic, just sex, turgid, mechanical, and explicit as a textbook of botany. It preoccupies the characters to the exclusion of all other interests, and, being laid on impasto, gives to life in the suburbs of our great Middle West at the turn of the century an eerie coloring. I once owned a little manual of sex-instruction, dedicated to the perfectly sensible proposition that sex should be considered as simply and naturally as any other process. The instruction was therefore conveyed in a set of exemplary dialogues between members of a household as they went through their daily routines and the effect was to make them sound like a set of nuts. Fore-gathering around the breakfast table, they launched with enthusiasm into bacon, eggs, and a rousing discussion of masturbation. While playing a swift set of tennis, they batted around the topic of menopause; and mother, over her pre-dinner sherry, discoursed wisely on the female orgasm. Mr. Farrell’s relentless …