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Plunging into Life

The Car Thief

by Theodore Weesner
Random House, 370 pp., $6.95

By all rights, John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman should have been much worse than it is. Its method is documentary, its aim is consciousness raising, not the loftiest of fictional ways and goals. Williams has, apparently, gone over every inch of ground where, at any time in American history, black soldiers have fought. As he did so, he tried to imagine not only the men he knew had been there but also a binding single figure, a soldier named Abraham Blackman, who fought in all the battles, from Lexington to New Orleans to Petersburg to Fort Sill in the Indian wars, to San Juan Hill, to France, Spain, Italy, Korea, and Vietnam. As the novel opens Blackman is wounded in Vietnam trying to shield some of his company from slaughter, and the rest is his dreams and hallucinations of his role in all the earlier battles.

As a novel the book doesn’t even begin to count. Blackman himself may not be superhuman, but he is strictly a fantasy figure: huge, strong, brave, serious, always right, always able to speak the deeper ironies. His women, most of whom are named Mimosa Rogers, are always strong, sexy, eager, and tough-minded. The episodes, though many and varied, always carry the same message: whites are always willing to use blacks in battle, always afraid of the power blacks might have if properly rewarded for their service, always willing to find ways to ignore, degrade, or simply kill black soldiers who become a problem. So Williams has given himself practically no fictional room to move in. The coins have to keep falling exactly as Williams calls them.

But, given this, Captain Blackman is not without merit. At the beginning, when Blackman finds himself walking toward Lexington with Peter Salem, he says, “This is 1775 and you’re on your way to Lexington because a cat named Paul Revere rode through these parts last night talkin about the British’re coming.” It looks as if a long read is ahead. But soon Williams takes Blackman’s foreknowledge away from him, and it all begins to move more smoothly. It reads less like “You Are There” in jive talk. Williams’s travels have given him a clear sense of the history of the army, and why it acted as it did, and he keeps showing the way it is racist, though not always bigoted. Whites assume the rightness of their history and their institutions, yet in moments of crisis, when they declare blacks expendable, they can see the folly and irony of their behavior as well as the blacks can. Though of course they very seldom try to do anything about it.

At the beginning of the Second World War, for instance, a high-level meeting is called to decide what to do about the race riots that are breaking out at army and navy bases all over the country. A Southerner says: “Now, goddammit, you just cain’t take northern nigras and station em in the South,” and someone answers: “But we did because you wanted the bases there to give your economy a boost.” The general in charge then wonders where the blacks can be sent, and he is told the Aussies are nervous, and Gruening doesn’t want them mixing with Eskimos. “Panama wants us to remove a company of Negroes.” “Isn’t that something! That damned canal was built by niggers!” Chile and Venezuela say no, there are political reservations in China, and the Belgians in exile say no black troops in the Congo. It is all cartoon work, but Williams is never blind to the comic fact that whites simply don’t know what to think or do about black soldiers. That damned canal was built by niggers, but of course the Panamanians don’t want black troops.

Or, later, in Viareggio, a general discovers that two hundred black troops have deserted and taken up a position in the swamps. The general is stuck:

Take these people, kick them in their asses all their lives, then put them in an incomplete unit, with all kinds of shitheads for officers; court-martial a bunch of their own Negro officers and send them out to fight. What the hell for? Of course, Blackman’s right. But what am I to do, let all of what’s wrong come to rest on my shoulders, ruin my life? Am I supposed to be the guy who says, You’re right? Quit, don’t fight, desert into the swamps of Tombolo and Migliarino? I can’t change history.

So he orders his men to go in and kill the deserters, but he also, doing as much as his thin strain of decency will allow, tells Blackman the orders too so he can give warning. Grim, sad, awful.

So if Williams’s fictional device is clumsy, and many of his attempts to flesh out history are vulgar, the central vision is one worth reading. It may not matter much that we learn about this or that incident that we’ve never heard of, but the grim joke that is our racial history does need to be told over and over, and the very sameness of the joke in each of Williams’s many episodes is necessarily part of the telling, the irony, the joke. We may like to think that by now we’ve moved beyond such simple versions of the story, but that is exactly what people said in response to Richard Wright’s Native Son, and they were wrong, and that was more than thirty years ago. Captain Blackman, like Native Son, is not a novel, but it is hard to wish that either had never been written.

Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief is an almost unbearably grim and painful book. After a hundred pages I wanted very much not to go on, to escape to the much simpler world of Captain Blackman, yet every word is haunting, forcing one on. The novel is set in small city America, an automobile factory town in Michigan. It is a scummy November morning, after a flash snowstorm, and Alex Housman is driving around the city and countryside in a car he has just stolen, his fourteenth. He parks outside a school where he might see a girl he has picked up a few times who wears a coat he stole and gave her. He peers into the tavern run by his mother’s husband, where his brother lives, but he has seen none of these people for years. He flicks the dial on the car radio, trying to find music he can float away on. He goes back to the city, to his own school, but can’t stand the idea of afternoon classes, so he goes to a movie. He goes home, sleeps awhile, and is awakened by the girl, who calls to say she has told her parents of Alex’s thefts and they have called the police. His father comes home from the second shift at the Chevrolet factory and for once he is not drunk. The two have a desultory conversation, then go to bed. The next day Alex is arrested and sent to a detention home.

It is not easy to say or show why the prose in these early pages is so awful and wonderful. It seems naturalistic, but compared to the simple pile-it-up naturalism of, say, James T. Farrell, it is sharp, pointed, locking us into each moment, suspending us from all other possible moments, giving us a sense that something is going to happen soon:

He had a nickel in his fingers now but he had no desire to play the pinball machine, no more than he wanted to be there. Still, he worked the nickel flatways into the slot, pushed the handle in, held it as the balls fell, pulled the handle out. The machine lighted and clicked itself back to zero, alive under his hands. But he stood mute. His mind’s voice was telling him, trying to tell him, that he did not want to play it. Nor did he want the packaged pie he had bought, or the Pepsi-Cola. He saw everything going this way, the way of this morning, driving here, driving there, doing things he did not want to do.

All the actions seem arbitrary, pointed nowhere, each one suspending us from the past by giving us so little connection to what has preceded, each one thus locking us into its own charged, sullen, pointless atmosphere.

What we have is something like the prose of short stories, where events can be described but not explained, where we get our slice of life and have our brief clarifying vision. Weesner takes this prose, but keeps insisting that clarity is not yet, perhaps not ever, and we must pay attention to that very fact. Alex Housman is almost totally without any sense of himself, and because Weesner is interested in showing us what that means, he must move very slowly, so we can discover the disappointment and frustration of its tedium. We are given material for a dozen sociological or psychological explanations for Alex—grimy factory town; a child of a brief wartime marriage; an unknown mother and an alcoholic, willing, failed father; Alex’s only companion, his brother, taken from him some years earlier. But such explanations are, in a sense, short story explanations, neat and tidy, and Weesner scorns them and forces us to do so too.

In the detention home Alex does almost nothing for two months, and slowly he begins to remember things that have happened to him, living in foster homes, learning about his father, playing in a muddy river with his brother, clinging to the edges of his very few pleasures. But we cannot say whether he ended up a car thief because he wanted something to do, because he sought some revenge, or because he wanted to be caught and for someone thus to pay him attention. Best to say that when the car was stolen something was defined, yet that definition turns to nothing in the detention home. Thus, when he is released and sent home and back to school, Alex is free, given a chance, yet nothing has happened. He tries to do better in school and even partly succeeds, but it makes no sense or difference to him. He goes out for the basketball team and does very well for a while, but quits when he realizes he is being given little chance because he is a jailbird. He then can act out his sense of being excluded only by becoming more voyeuristic. He takes a paper route and peeps in early morning windows. He seeks a girl he has always dreamed of, but when she responds he cannot accept her kindness.

Page by page, as Weesner patiently builds, we realize we are coming better to understand Alex, or at least better able to accept and even to predict some of his apparently aimless and desperate actions. The truth of novels, after all, is that lives do have shapes, even this one.

One afternoon the girl he is following catches him watching her, and “he had the thought that something was wrong.” Voyeurism has become intolerable; if he insists he is nothing he will become nothing. He goes to a blue movie but must leave quickly:

…he saw himself, alas, as a mean and worthless son of a bitch, invulnerable, and cruel, and saying to himself, I don’t give a shit, I don’t give a shit, they can go fuck a duck, believing he desired not the detention home but the fierce world of the penitentiary. He had known, leaving the theater, that he was going after a car.

As he does, Weesner at last shows us why he stole the first car, and each detail is clear and defining; even that “alas,” which is so strange, seems just right.

This comes after 250 pages and, regardless of what comes after, is enough to make The Car Thief the best American novel I’ve read in some time. Despite the grimness, despite Weesner’s refusal to resort to even a moment of wit or humor, I felt something close to exhilaration approaching this moment in the book. As a form the novel has always tended to repudiate tragedy and to embrace pathos in the rendering of ordinary lives, and Weesner, claiming only that Alex’s life demands patience and clarification, justifies that repudiation.

What happens after this is not bad, but it is nowhere near so good. Alex does take the car, but he isn’t caught or sent to the penitentiary, because, and I think rightly, Weesner feels that would be too simplifying, and would yield the book up to Alex’s sense of his worthlessness when the whole point is that Weesner values Alex where Alex himself cannot. He also feels, and rightly, that just getting to the moment where he takes the car is a kind of triumph for Alex, a demonstration that no old solution will work and that new ones simply must be found. But this leaves Weesner with the pattern of a Bildungsroman—Alex leaves school, and after a summer of slow dying, joins the army, leaving home for a new life. This of course is much too easy, and Weesner knows it, so he resorts, oddly and arbitrarily, to the suicide of Alex’s father as a means of somehow paying for the failures of the past and opening the doors to the future. But the father’s steady drinking is not the despair of suicide but of slow dying, so the event is uncalled for.

The repudiation of tragedy has always left the novel plagued with the problem of climactic actions. Countless novels like The Car Thief resort to gratuitous violence near the end to resolve issues that have become intractable for their authors. The wrongness in this case is only a sign that Weesner has been unable to see his story through on its own terms, but this does not injure the excellence of the first three quarters of the book.

Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye raises all the same issues as The Car Thief, but in a very different way. The fact that parts of Weesner’s novel appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and the Atlantic means that it is not doomed to obscurity by any means, but by comparison Margaret Drabble already has a following. She is a writer that many already find they prefer to her elders and presumed betters, Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. Like Weesner, she writes about people not in themselves very interesting but for the care she pays them. One knows, especially after having read a number of her books, that this care is not the result of self-identification but of a deep curiosity and absorption in the facts of daily life.

The Needle’s Eye is her richest book to date. As a narrator Theodore Weesner is endlessly patient and slow; Margaret Drabble is by comparison expansive, brilliant, meditative, obtrusive, so that The Car Thief is Alex Housman’s book and The Needle’s Eye is Miss Drabble’s. There are characters here, and a story, but they exist not so much in themselves as to allow their author another chance to say what she sees. The thing to do with her is to quote:

The week before she had been waiting in the queue to buy some stamps, and a girl in front of her had been trying to post a parcel. She was a nice girl, a timid girl, and she said very politely, as she stuck the stamps on, “Do you think it will get there by the end of the week?” “Don’t ask me,” the post-office lady replied, crossly. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the girl, immediately apologetic, sorry to have annoyed her: whereupon the post-office lady glowered ferociously through the grill (which took on the aspect, suddenly, of a restraining cage) and said, “Look here, you’re asking me for a cast-iron guarantee, aren’t you, a cast-iron guarantee about whether that parcel of yours will get there by the end of the week. Well, I’m not going to give you one, it’s not my job. I don’t give cast-iron guarantees to no one.” The girl looked shattered by this attack, as well she might: but a sense of pride and justice compelled her to assert, as she moved away, “I wasn’t asking for a guarantee, I only asked.”

Had Doris Lessing written that incident it would have been a portent of an impending breakdown in English society, or at least in the bureaucracy. Had Iris Murdoch written it she would have gone on with a long story showing how the post-office lady came to be so awful. But for Margaret Drabble it is simply there, at most a sign that the woman doing the remembering, the heroine, knows her neighborhood. If the writing doesn’t justify the telling, little in the context can.

Here is another passage, this time meditative, Miss Drabble’s meditations are usually quite long, so one has to break in, and some of the accumulated force is lost. A man is thinking about the results of having been raised by his mother:

Perhaps, after all, his childhood had been in sum more nearly what she had intended than what she had achieved? She had fought herself, valiantly, she had courageously denied the truth of the bleakness which was what she truly had to offer. If she had not aspired she would have sunk or died. Oh Christ, it was exhausting, this living on the will, this denial of nature, this unnatural distortion: but if one’s nature were harsh, what could one do but deny it, and repudiate it in the hope that something better might thereby be? It was for him that she had hoped, and so on, through the generations. And to what end, to what end, to what right end of life, to what gracious form of living, to what possible joy…. He thought once more of John Stuart Mill and the despair that had seized him: to conceive the right end, and then to despair, that was a fate he had feared often enough for himself, with his petty tinkerings and his niggling readjustments and his dreary slow calculations.

These quotations may not be the best things in the book, but they are characteristic, so if they attract or repel, so will the book. The Needle’s Eye is not all fragments, but mostly occasions for Miss Drabble. The characters, except for the heroine, are worthless, the dialogue is aimless, the big scenes are few.

But there are cumulative effects nonetheless. The vignette with the post-office lady, for instance, is only one of what seems almost a series. The novel opens with a marvelous scene in a liquor store, it too has a line of customers, and there are bits scattered throughout about gardeners and servants and helpful and helpless lawyers and a hateful governess and a defeated baby sitter. But we are not asked to think about the decline of servants and service in a welfare state, but only to see or to remember that of course these things are the stuff of our lives. So too characters here think hard about their children, fret over their memories of their parents, worry about money and its presence and absence, and they do so directly, passionately yet unevenly, the way one does in life, the way that never happens in novels that force themselves more strictly to attend to story and scene. The violence here will not be that of a climatic suicide, but of a remembered bad marriage. The big scene, so called, is a walk to the beach where the major concern is how to keep the children from whining.

The effect is to make one greatly interested while reading, but not altogether certain if or how it all adds up after one has finished. What keeps it interesting is the intensity of Miss Drabble’s absorption, her sense that life has meaning that cannot be rendered in narrative and that is far too tremblingly ordinary to be subjected to experimental prose. In the average person’s thoughts over a ten minute span a great deal happens. To render the span as a stream of consciousness is to insist that the actual motion of the thoughts is crucial, and we all know that is a little bit clinical and therefore fake. To put the same span into a strong narrative is to insist that the thoughts be important and lead to important events, and that too can lead to falsities.

To take the span, and to reassemble the images, memories, and odd thoughts so that the merely associative is thrown away and the importance, say, of a disturbing memory is heightened, is to do some injustice to the ten minutes themselves, perhaps, but it may begin to do great justice to the life being lived. Margaret Drabble takes away the unit of ten minutes, transforms the disturbing memory into a vignette or a meditation, showing that this is how to clarify the facts and quality of our lives. Her intelligence and sensibility are so traditionally novelistic that it is easy to overlook the originality of her method.

But to make it all add up is hard. Rose Vassilou, a wealthy heiress who hates her money, marries for love. The first pathetic fact is that by the time she marries the struggle against her parents has been so great that she no longer loves the man she marries. The second pathetic fact is that he is not a fortune hunter but a man baffled in his clumsy efforts to love her. The third is that even after she divorces him and achieves the plain domestic squalor she has so avidly sought she cannot rid herself of her passion for renunciation and so wears herself away by foolishly agreeing to take back her husband. But to put the matter this way is to give the book a shape that Miss Drabble insists on not giving it. The first two facts I’ve mentioned have long since happened by the time the novel opens and are discovered only in meditation, and the third takes place in an epilogue.

The wind bloweth where it listeth, she says more than once in The Needle’s Eye; passions and meanings come and go and a good life is one that knows this and fusses little. As a sense of life it has great validity but it also tends to make what happens, the individual scenes and events, unimportant. It is one’s sense of this, I think, that creates the suspicion near the end of the novel and afterward that maybe Miss Drabble just hasn’t looked hard enough at her subjects and situations, that even their failure to resolve could be more clearly seen.

The big scene on the beach, for instance, is wonderfully and enticingly low-keyed. The ex-husband has spirited off the children and has even threatened to take them out of the country. Rose and her lawyer friend scurry around getting injunctions, then rush up to her parents’ East Anglia estate, where the ex-husband and the kids were last heard from. Indeed they are there, but it turns out that no kidnapping was ever seriously intended, and so the excitement dwindles down to the afternoon excursion to the sea. But Miss Drabble knows this won’t quite do. To leave the matter there is not just to say that the wind bloweth where it listeth but to evade the issue of what will become of her characters. So she adds an epilogue, and that leaves her announcing some important events in a nonchalant tone that is annoying.

Unlike the ending of The Car Thief, this one does mar one’s sense of the whole book because it leads one to think that in some ultimate way Miss Drabble hasn’t cared enough and so has exploited her characters but not fully attended to them. I’m not sure how serious a defect this is, and I suspect I stress it precisely because The Needle’s Eye is so good page-by-page and because it is the work of someone who seems on the brink of being a major writer. Margaret Drabble has come a long way from A Summer Bird-cage, even from Jerusalem the Golden. She is much freer, much more conscious of what she can do, than before, and this leads to a wonderful freshness of tone and detail. However flawed. The Needle’s Eye is that rare thing, a book one wishes were longer than it is.

The novel remains the bright book of life, both in its ability to celebrate our lot with pathos and in its insistence that we all do have lives, lives that shape into strange and bitter forms, perhaps, but shape nonetheless. It thus remains able to be its own critic, expose its own flaws. The closed circuit work of John A. Williams, however clever or even moving, remains closed circuit work and to that extent without life. The intense care of Theodore Weesner for Alex Housman shows us the book is flawed when that care becomes blurred. The superb intelligence and curiosity of Margaret Drabble create regret, even as they make us grateful, that she has not stuck longer with or looked more deeply into her fiction. The novel insists that we plunge into life, also that we understand and literally come to terms with it. Williams has not plunged; Weesner and Miss Drabble have. For all their shortcomings they also have gone far toward giving us the final assurance that a writer can know the pain and squalor of life and yet gain, in their presence and despite them, an individual, an action, that yields up a pathetic triumph.

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