A Married Man
by Piers Paul Read
Lippincott, 264 pp., $10.95
by John McGahern
Harper & Row, 252 pp., $10.00
“To understand the story which follows,” says the author’s note to Piers Paul Read’s seventh novel, A Married Man, “the reader should know a little about the English legal profession.” A solicitor prepares a defense brief for the accused. A barrister wigged and gowned pleads this case in court. And a barrister may rise to one of those adornments of his name that the English love, trailing the initials of Queen’s Counsel.
Films have made us familiar with the costumed English trial if not with the intricate customs and laws behind it. Of the class system behind that we are well aware too from novels and films but few Americans can ever hope to get it straight. “In no other country in the world, except perhaps India, is there so much unnecessary and purposeless differentiation as in England”—A Married Man. To us, any “British accent” but the squeakiest cockney is classy while the English of course put a man precisely in his place the moment he opens his mouth. One must grow up knowing it like cricket.
Our own class system is difficult too for foreigners, like the rituals of baseball, and costumes no longer help. The lobby of the Plaza Hotel today looks like the lobby of the Chelsea twenty years ago, swarming with cowboys and motorcycle girls who would have been given the bum’s rush once, now honored guests.
Piers Paul Read charts the levels of his bourgeois milieu very carefully for us, city houses, country houses, cars, clothes, restaurants, tenuous aspirations, immutable privileges. Americans need this, and it all gives to the American reader an extra dimension of pleasure. If we add to this the mystery, to us, of religious manifestation, we have the interest of trying to figure out the rules of the game as it is played.
Still, the people look like us, the language is familiar, marriage is marriage, a lie is a lie, money is money whether pounds or dollars. In A Married Man, a successful barrister, John Strickland, advises a young mechanic charged, probably wrongly, with receiving stolen goods, to plead guilty and receive doubtless a suspended sentence. Strickland does not want to delay his vacation for a trial. The solicitor, intimidated by the barrister’s eminence, goes along with it. “John Strickland made good his escape from the court in time to catch the five o’clock train to Norwich, the young mechanic was dragged down to the cell below.” Strickland is troubled by his miscalculation but more troubled by the squalor around him as he travels. It is a threat to his pin-striped suit and a sign of a nation’s decline, “its people no longer take the trouble to dress themselves decently or keep themselves clean.” No mysteries for Americans or anyone else here. The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine. But this young wretch has a mere six months to do, he will not hang. As …