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 changer nor a representative of a disaffected generation. He is, alas, a good but dim young man, not particularly gifted, with a compulsion to make honest emotive noises no matter what the situation—and this compulsion, as literature profane and sacred has taught us, soon puts one on a collision course with Caesar’s laws and the society which is founded on them.
The main narrative event of The Pursuit of Happiness is an automobile accident in which William runs over and kills a woman. Suddenly the holy categories of society, which the enlightenment of a university education had taught him to be vague, amusing annoyances, settle upon him with their behavioral demands, to which his response is, like Melville’s Bartleby’s, “I prefer not to.” He will not show suitable grief immediately after the accident; he will not desist from seeing and sleeping with his girl friend; he will visit the dead woman’s relatives and announce he doesn’t believe in God. When this candor succeeds in earning him a sentence of a year’s hard labor, his non-dissembling ways entangle him in a homosexual triangle and an eventual murder. Called upon to testify about the crime, he is caught between the vengeance of the murderer’s friends if he tells the truth and self-repugnance if he takes his lawyer’s counsel and delivers legally ambiguous testimony at the trial. Pinned between these alternatives, the sense of self-preservation rises in William and he escapes from the courthouse, picks up a few thousand dollars from his grandmother, and takes his girl across the border into Mexico, there to live with his emotional integrity on the earnings from a mutual fund.
Now, had Thomas Rogers written a new L’Etranger, a work which pared down human response and pitted a life against the emotional rituals expected of it, one might find his character admirable, perhaps even saintlike in his innocent wonder that truth is not enough in the world. But The Pursuit of Happiness is a much smaller book, its scope is meant to include little more than distaste with the curiosities of a particular set of social circumstances, and neither the novel’s detail nor design in any way enforces William Popper’s “honesty” or makes of it something more than a quaint stubbornness. In the end, William is simply a pleasant person who is going to find a hard time of it so long as he remains on this planet, for if he thinks he has seen a mad society at work, wait until the rich young gringo runs over an old lady in Mexico.
There is, of course, another way of looking at Mr. Rogers’s book, and that is as pure farce, with William Popper as a sort of modern Alceste—a quiet, wellbred misanthrope with just enough money to indulge his capacity for frankness. However much I would like to think that this was Rogers’s intention, there is too much underlying serious approval of William’s actions throughout the book to sustain that notion. It is more likely that the author finds American society so absurdly intolerable that even someone so ordinary as William Popper, who has little perception and no imagination, can be turned from it. For it must be said that Rogers, in a kindly, sotto voce way, draws up a formidable list of charges against recognizable national types and attitudes. There is a pragmatic lawyer, defender of a legal system based as much on sentimentality as on justice, and an imprisoned political boss, still loyal to his old party and pleased with his old ethics. The desperate stabs by the rich at some form of spiritual life are embodied in William’s mother who has left an amiable and good husband to read The Prophet and paint; and there are the bourgeois anxieties of the successful academic liberal—in short, a good sampling of the American lie which Rogers, near the book’s end, summarizes in an old vagabond William and his girl pick up on their way to Mexico. He is full of mythic braggadocio, a veritable slice of Americana on the road. So long as he is fed and ferried along his way, he remains a tolerable old bluff, spewing out stories of past wars, of adventures in oil fields and other frontiers, and of a half dozen or so ex-wives and children scattered across the land. However, the old myth turns vicious when the young couple make it plain that they no longer want his company. Even a parting gift of money won’t propitiate his rage:
“Young folks! Got no time for old people. It’s all they care about is just themselves, but who kept the country free for you, I’d like to know? We liberated Cuba, and you young folks lost it. Colonel Roosevelt spoke to me personally. He said, Beat that drum, boy, beat it like hell. Where’s the spirit now, I’d like to know, letting the Japanese decide everything? You ain’t married, I can tell. Kids! I’m proud to be an American. Never voted Democratic in my life, and never going to. You’ll see, sailing along in that car, breaking all the speed limits. They’ll get you.”
Although the arrival of such a warped old legend may be a little too pat, it is a good enough way for Rogers to bring his elements together. Where they would have been better met, of course, is in William himself, but here we return to my opening remarks. The young hero does not have enough life for his actions and desires to be more than convenient, generalized responses to what the author has set against him. The great difficulty, of course, is that such a character, who will neither prick nor accept the social order, is forced to make of himself his own society. Since William Popper is far from capable of the imaginative exercise necessary to accomplish this, we are left with the simplistic geographic solution of Mexico. This is unfortunate, for there are many very good things in Rogers’s novel that hover about the exasperating emptiness at its center.
ONE OF THE THINGS I admired about The Pursuit of Happiness is that it fixed itself in time and place and was not afraid to let the reader compare his notion of the reality of the moment with that of the author. George P. Elliott’s collection of stories, An Hour of Last Things, possesses an opposite virtue which I would call professional timelessness. Professional, because these are clearly workmen-like, made-up tales—stories pulled out of thin air, albeit with much obvious labor, and placed just far enough beyond the reach of ordinary verification to make them seem much more mysterious than they would if they had ever touched ground. This is not an objection to Elliott’s work by any means. Keeping a tale out of the reach of gravity has a legitimate purpose, especially if the writer is more given to creating parables than to the slower task of shaping characters. To me, most of Elliott’s tales seem just that—parables dreamed up around a gadget or magic event which will hold the imagination for the narrative.
Now the cardinal rule of a parable is that it should not tell all, that it must leave its borders vague so that the reader won’t be too tightly held and can drift off toward his own meanings. Stories like “Into the Cone of Cold” and “Is He Dead?” are good examples of the parabolist’s art of insinuation. The first concerns a machine, created in a laboratory of a Catholic University, which is capable of bringing a man to a point of absolute zero temperature and, in the process, rearranging his body and personality. The resident poet who volunteers for an experiment finds that he has been converted from an egocentric artist into a confused spiritualist, and he actually begins to prefer teaching to writing poems. He nearly ruins his life in a vague quest for meaning and love before he re-enters the machine and is changed back into his old self-concern and his contentment with the random concreteness of poetry. Observations on science, religion, and art drift through the story, but never far enough out of the shadows for any single meaning to snare them.
“Is He Dead?” is the most successful piece in the collection, because, while keeping its distance, it still manages to get close to real experience. Its main character, John Haffner, is a man running for governor in a state set upon by a fanatical party with a platform based squarely on immortality. Haffner’s insistence on reason and his fear that he might be seduced finally into the politician’s art of titillating a mob’s dark impulses and controlling them, bring about his resignation from the race. Much of the lunacy in democratic politics seems caught up in this very short story, and it has seldom been made more terrifying.
Oddly enough, the story I found least satisfying was the collection’s title piece, “An Hour of Last Things.” In this account of a widow tentatively rebuilding her life, Elliott seems to be on alien ground, unsure of what to do with all the details and people he’s allowed into this conventional story. Planted at a party in Staten Island, his characters, somewhat frantic to begin with owing to their author’s fondness for the broad and outlandish, become grotesques, and it is only when Elliott can get them into the near supernatural setting of a rally of Jehovah’s Witnesses at Yankee Stadium that they and the reader can relax and things seem to fit again with the sensibility that’s directing them.
Finally, the main impression one has of An Hour of Last Things is that the author loves to write and will go to any lengths to create a pretext for doing so. The result is that sometimes the stitching together of the original notion and its narrative embodiment shows, but I don’t think less of a craft if there are in it evidences of labor. When the stitching is successful, one is forced to admire Elliott for the hard work words always are, and to be grateful for writers like him who can concoct beginnings, middles, and ends with such an abundance of imagination.
AND NOW to a sad coda.
At the age of thirteen, after having seduced her father, Melinda was placed under the care of the best analyst in the world, Professor Hochtensteil.
That is the opening sentence of Melinda, a novel by Gaia Servadio. My heart sank on reading it. With such a beginning one knows that either a most extraordinary tour-de-force is at hand or else some disastrous pretentiousness. Miss Servadio has not written a tour-de-force.
At least she had not by the time I left her novel somewhere around Melinda’s sixth husband and her new involvement in a spy ring. By that time I was so numb from the long catalogue of the heroine’s outrageous adventures—adventures that had lain on the pages frantically winking for attention—that I had to let her continue alone. It is hard for me even now to return to the book just to ferret out a quotation or two, but as a democrat in the service of letters I have found the following:
“Miss Publishing,” the Duchess said while she ate her veal cutlet, “I hear you would like to marry my son Lawrence.” “You’re mistaken, Your Grace,” replied Melinda. “It’s your son Lawrence who wants to marry me.”
Description of courtship:
Their relationship, which could not have been purer, more delicate, or more boring, developed through parties and lunches, clubs and meetings.
One turns away embarrassed from the first, but the second might prompt a kind critical admonishment that such qualifiers as “boring” are for the reader to affix; for if the writer has done her job they are superfluous, and if she has not they are acts of desperation. But that is Miss Servadio’s literary style: she tells us that things are happening in Melinda which are scandalous, witty, and amusing, supposing that as good ladies and gentlemen we will believe her. At least I can be gracious about the unread pages. Going through those I did manage….
But enough. I remember a remark made by Arnold Bennett after the better part of a dinner had been wasted trying to find just the right critical pejoratives for a lady novelist now forgotten.
“She can’t write,” Bennett said, and the table got back to its roast beef.