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 Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished.
Ha! Jerusalem’s warfare was just getting well underway when Isaiah wrote those words. And yet both Socrates and Isaiah paled into insignificance compared to the Christian message. What a flood of false expectations had been let loose there! I thought of the early Christians, their hearts reeling with love as the Empire collapsed around them and the aqueducts dried up. Ahead stretched more than a thousand years when one could not have even a decent bath, and all they talked about was being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Well, thank God I’d seen through it all early enough so I could go through the rest of my life with a firm, sober, rational understanding that things were just going to get worse and worse.
Ask novels to be like Jane Austen, and this won’t do at all; think of Bellow’s Herzog as sophomoric in his historical insights and Samuel Heather is at best an early adolescent. But it seems to me splendid; a thousand years in his sight are as but a single sentence.
It is fitting that having lied to his girl about going to the Orient Heather does in fact go there, albeit as a soldier to Korea, and when he gets there we have a bouncy account of his induction into battle, actually learning that he is being fired at, actually deciding to fire back. But then Heather is taken prisoner and something happens to the novel. Rogers seems to have decided that at this point the fun and games are over and that he really wants to write a Bildungsroman, a Sons and Lovers or a Portrait of the Artist. In the prison camp Rogers surrounds Heather with a lot of other prisoners who don’t like him and, we see, with good reason. But the moment this happens our relation to the book is forced to change, from listening to an entertaining “comical-historical-pastoral,” as Heather calls it, to seeing the painful limitations and needs of a spoiled, educated, callow, aggressive young man.
For this new purpose Rogers’s original mode is all wrong. All might have been well had Rogers tried to drop the chatty tone and thereby indicate that such tones are possible only to the breezy young. But though the tone does get more somber and strident, the superficiality of Heather’s vision of himself defeats whatever changes in tone Rogers was trying to dramatize. When Heather decides to defect to China, for instance, after giving us a slambang account of how Truman came to believe in voluntary repatriation, he says it was the decision of a moment. The trouble is that we have too little to go on to see it as anything other than a whim, a novelistic signal for new adventures, a petulant judgment by Heather against the other prisoners, perhaps, or a dimly understood retaliation against Daddy or Harvard. Then when Daddy becomes important in the novel, we are asked to believe that Heather’s whole problem is being the son of a man who serves The Son, but we have no private or personal Heather on whom this possibility can register as anything other than a joke.
Finally, when Heather goes to China and meets and falls in love with a Chinese girl, we are told we will hear nothing of their private life because Heather eventually marries the girl and she, Mrs. Heather, doesn’t want personal affairs discussed in her husband’s public confession. You can get away with that kind of nonsense in a raconteur novel, maybe, but when we are being asked to figure out what happened to Samuel Heather, we can only be affronted by the presence of a censoring Mrs. Heather in a novel by Thomas Rogers.
Thus it is that for long stretches in the second half of the novel one longs to help Rogers, to see that the tone is just right after all, to deny that the novelist is trapped. But it won’t do:
I feel I am not giving my girls a sufficiently impressive image of fatherhood to get through life with. And certainly they’re not going to get much from the young men I see around these days, urban rubes with their hair in a braid. One of the main reasons we’re going to Paris is to get the girls away from American boys for a while. Keeping children virginal is a mighty task. I’ve begun to appreciate Father’s efforts along these lines. His argument seems to me more and more irrefutable. One cannot give oneself to everyone. It’s both foolhardy and vain.
This comes at the very end, where we will know how to read rightly, if we ever will. One sees immediately the bankruptcy of this voice: Heather is involved in sexual competition with the potential seducers of his daughters; he is afraid and in flight; he cannot begin to remember accurately the conversations he had with his father about sex; he is pompous, and so foolhardy and vain himself. But we can only guess if Rogers wants us to share this view, and my guess is that, on the contrary, he would like us to be both convinced and amused by Heather as much at the end as at the beginning. Even if Rogers does want us to see Heather’s bankruptcy and blindness, he has long since given up finding ways to make him interesting, whether as raconteur or defeated and pathetic hero. The sadness is that after a fine beginning we gradually cease to care.
Don DeLillo’s End Zone is often similar to Rogers’s novel in tone and manner. It fails to solve all its problems, too, but it is on the whole much more successful. DeLillo’s essential engagement is not with people but with words, with modern jargons, with the almost torrential power organized and systematic language can have to invade and dominate a life, with the possibility that our country is unrecognizable to itself except when we are inside the wombs of technical vocabularies.
DeLillo starts off even more brilliantly than does Rogers. We are in a tiny college in western Texas, and the subject is football. A man who has started and scrubbed out of collegiate careers at Syracuse, Penn State, Miami, and Michigan State is talking to us from Logos College, where the landscape is like the moon. We are primed for a book where the jock is king and for a world that would be totally inarticulate except for football. Here is the coach addressing his team, without pre-emptive comment from the narrator-fullback:
“Write home on a regular basis. Dress neatly. Be courteous. Articulate your problems. Do not dragass. Anything I have no use for, it’s a football player who consistently drag-asses. Move swiftly from place to place, both on the field and in corridors of buildings. Don’t ever get too proud to pray.”
A football novel indeed. It’s only a game, but it’s the only game. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
But then we are thrown off guard. A player named Bing Jackmin talks like this:
“Reality is constantly being interrupted. We’re hardly even aware of it when we’re out there. We perform like things with metal claws. But there’s the other element. For lack of a better term I call it psychomythical…. Ancient warriorship. Cults devoted to pagan forms of technology. What we do out on that field harks back. It harks back.”
Then there is the narrator’s roommate, Anatole Bloomberg, who weighs almost 300 pounds:
“History is guilt. It’s also the placement of bodies. What men say is relevant only to the point at which language moves masses of people or a few momentous objects into significant juxtaposition. After that it becomes almost mathematical. The placements take over. It becomes some sort of historical calculus…. A million pilgrims face Mecca. Think of the power behind that fact. All turning now. And bending. And praying. History is the angle at which realities meet.”