The Blacking Factory and Pennsylvania Gothic
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B
In two of these books matricidal small boys play a prominent part, and in a third an adolescent very nearly stabs the sweet old lady next door with a carving knife. If this becomes a steady trend we shall perhaps see a fusion of two dominant themes in American life: childhood and violence. Wilfrid Sheed’s new book is subtitled “a short novel and a long story.” The long story, “Pennsylvania Gothic,” is about Charles Trimble, a depressed only child whose parents move out of Philadelphia to a small town in Pennsylvania, where the only person who takes any interest in him is Miss Skinner, the old lady who lives next door. Charles’s parents are not happy and one day his father commits suicide; after the funeral Miss Skinner talks to Charles about his father’s early life, and the recital ends with an obscure sexual encounter between the boy and the old lady, recapitulating, as Charles discovers, something that happened years before between Miss Skinner and his father. Charles and his mother move away to New York, but he returns when Miss Skinner is dying and is about to go through the abovementioned ritual with the carving knife when she forestalls him by dying first from natural causes. He contents himself with leaving a little scratch on the corpse.
As my deliberately unsympathetic summary may have made clear, this isn’t much more than a story made up of the familiar properties of American gothic fiction. Such novelty as there is comes from Mr. Sheed’s having transposed its creepy elements from the southern settings where we usually find them to the more asceptic air of Updike country. It’s an efficiently written piece, undoubtedly, but a lot of people could have written it, and, indeed, have. Coming from Wilfrid Sheed it raises an interesting point, however: he is an expatriate Englishman, and his previous novels have been full of an outsider’s sharp observations of American mores; in “Pennsylvania Gothic” he seems to be attempting to see whether he can manage the gothic mode as effectively as native-born Americans do. For what it’s worth, the answer is yes.
The other piece in his book, the novel called The Blacking Factory, is far more serious and seems to me the best thing Sheed has done so far. Once more we are back with the seemingly inexhaustible topic of childhood (the title alludes to the short but intensely miserable period that Dickens spent as a child, working in a blacking factory). The hero, James Bannister III, owns and operates two radio stations in a small California town, not far from Los Angeles. He talks on these two stations for at least two hours a day, giving his view on current issues, and pushing a familiar line of right-wing politics and American patriotism, though his particular slant is an intense Anglophobia; he regards England as a dangerous source of corruption. Yet Bannister, who is both intelligent and charming, has …