The Pursuit of Happiness
An Hour of Last Things
A curiosity of the American novel is the difficulty it seems to have producing young, adult protagonists. Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield prove it can manage quite well up through late adolescence, but as soon as its young heroes enter their early twenties something happens to them: all oddities of character seem to fade away, intelligence atrophies, and instincts, without which they could never have survived childhood, desert them. They begin to brood, become tepidly cantankerous and puffed with a morality that, so far as the reader is aware, is completely unearned either through experience or revelation. Though they may be involved in a number of adventures, they are rarely active in them; rather, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, they are played upon by events until finally, if one listens carefully to the book’s last pages, they give forth a tentative melody of their own.
Young adventurers like Tom Jones or Becky Sharp or Julien Sorel, who have made some conclusions, even if incorrect, about society and how to get along in it, rarely find a home in serious American fiction, which is content to produce their counterparts in naïve parables of success and failure. Our novel of the young quester is much closer to the German Bildungsroman, with the hero as student and all experience immediately digested into a philosophy to be judged and valued according to the author’s prejudices. As students, however, the young Americans seem empty vessels compared to Wilhelm Meister or even Hans Castorp, and one wonders at the prodigality of the artist in having provided them with such sharp instruction when their response is generally a pouting slouch in the rear of the classroom. During the last twenty years, only Augie March and the hero of Goodbye Columbus have struck me as young men who brought any sort of personality to the books that they inhabited.
THOMAS ROGERS’S The Pursuit of Happiness is the latest novel I’ve read with this singular defect. There is a great deal to admire in Rogers’s work: intelligence, humor, several happily drawn minor characters. But what is one to make of the book’s hero, William Popper, a young man on the verge of leaving college who, through a series of accidents, finds himself at the book’s end an expatriate in Mexico uttering a concise “No” to his aunt’s question, “And don’t you ever want to live in your country again?” I have little idea just what Mr. Rogers wants us to make of him, though some reviewers have found the young man to be the prototypical youth of his time, morally repulsed by the society which nurtured him. They may be right, but if they are, we are in for a most flaccid form of social protest based on moral egoism and buttressed by an independent income. No, whatever else William Popper may be and whatever battles he engages in with the mores of his country, he is not a social …