The Confession of a Child of the Century, by Samuel Heather
Eat of Me, I am the Savior
Time was when first-person novels were intensely personal affairs, opportunities to glimpse the private workings of a self too tender to be yielded up to the ministrations of third-person narrators, or to note the precise details of a love affair, a marriage, or a friendship. But since fiction has gotten more open and external, more showy and splashy, first-person narrators have become more like carnival barkers or auctioneers, people who show and tell their experience rather than explore or discover it.
Inevitably, when such events take place there will be those who will deplore the change, and in this case they will lament the absence of domestic life, the apparent coarsening of human sensibility, the tendency to be entertaining rather than serious. Those who think all novels should be like Clarissa or Great Expectations will probably not care much for any of the three new first-person novels to hand. They are all so written, somehow, so filled with words and a self-conscious sense of words, as though language might well be the alternative to humanity. Still, they are all very interesting, one being an honorable failure, the other two distinct if finally limited successes.
The Confession of a Child of the Century, by Samuel Heather by Thomas Rogers is, like Oliver’s Hamlet, about a man who could not make up his mind. Unfortunately the man in question is not the putative author, Heather, but the real one, Rogers. It begins fine and familiar and hokey and breezy. Heather, son of the Episcopal Bishop of Kansas City, arrives at Harvard in the late Forties, reads books, sleeps with a girl, is generally unhappy. The confessional habit of the older Heather looking back on all this is not one that encourages us to take it very seriously:
I took Martha to a tea parlor near Copley Square where we took tea.
“I’m leaving Harvard,” I told her. “I’m not getting anything out of the place. I’m going to go to the Far East. Will you miss me?”
She never took my lies seriously. “Will you go?” she asked.
Dull question. Even the most petite charmer can occasionally say the wrong thing.
End of scene. What Heather wants that he is “not getting” at Harvard, how he knows he is lying about going to the Far East, why we are being told this little scene—Heather’s manner presumes all these are silly questions. He is a raconteur, amusing us, catching sights and sounds of the familiar and the bygone.
When Heather has a vision, one can be relaxed and charmed about it:
I saw that happiness was the worst rationalization of all. How dared those miserable old Greeks and Hebrews with their lousy climate and incessant wars and atrocious dooms, how dared they even raise the possibility of men being happy? Socrates talking about the good life! Isaiah putting specious words into the Lord’s mouth! Comfort ye, comfort ye, saith the Lord. Speak ye comfortably to …