The better novelists always seem to know how to make literary capital out of their limitations and incapacities. In writing I Was Dancing, probably his best book and one of the subtlest and most suggestive novels to come out of the Hub since The Bostonians, Edwin O’Connor, prose laureate of the Boston Irish, has done just that. What, by the way, are these limitations? Well, O’Connor cannot do women at all—the youngish wife of I Was Dancing is his usual stick figure paid off in a fine phrase (“fair-haired, fresh-faced with great grey eyes”) and banished from the book within a chapter or so while the men settle to business; his grasp of Boston’s peculiarly ethnocentric social and political patterns is, on the evidence of The Last Hurrah, superficial and melodramatic, especially in relation to the Yankee-Irish cleavage; and the characteristically somber atmosphere of his writing is anything but appropriate to the mode of straight comedy in which many of his admirers insist on pigeonholing practically all his writing. For example if The Last Hurrah—any of it—is “hilarious” then the defenestration of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear is a laff-riot. On the other hand. Skeffington’s story does perfectly well as sad comedy, although I do believe that actual Boston is not and never was so dim and drear as the prevailing tone and mood of The Last Hurrah make it seem.
In his new book O’Connor transcends his limitations by a process of purification and concentration. The somber atmosphere is refined to a pearly gray (the color of old age); dense social documentation, local color, and anecdotal set pieces are kept to a minimum—you know for sure it’s Boston only because on page 69 Loew’s State Theater is mentioned; the plot, focusing on a fundamental conflict of interest and willing between a father and his grown-up son, is simple and archetypal; and the action completes itself within the space of a single day.
Waltzing Daniel Considine, an aged vaudevillian who had neglected wife and child while he barnstormed around the world, has returned to his son’s house and holed up in the guest room. After a year of torment—Daniel is the complete egotist and has never quite managed to learn the wife’s first name—the son and the wife give the tyrannical old person a checkout date and a booking at the local R. C. old people’s home. Daniel, a born twister, expects to beat the rap by histrionic trickery on the last day of his scheduled stay but the son, an experienced trial lawyer with steady nerves, is not taken in. Then all masks fall. In a prolonged, deadly, powerfully written scene the two men, tied together by blood and instinct yet in fact strangers and opponents, have it out between them. When the father’s cronies, a priest of bottomless pessimism about the condition of the world named Feeley, an old stagestruck Jew named Gottlieb, and a practitioner of fringe medicine named Ryan, return to hear of the success of his ruse, he brazens it out and, almost literally, walzes his way Smiling Valley Old Folks Homewards Earlier scenes in which these ancients perform as a delicately stylized chorus of admirers provide some of the most delightful passages of comic writing in recent memory.
The book is very Irish (including Boston-Irish) in that at its emotional center occurs the phenomenon of the father’s unrepentant rejection of domesticity, more particularly his rejection of the paternal role. And yet it seems very American—Anglo-Saxon-American, that is—in its insistence on making the father finally accountable for behavior which no Irish Irishman would expect to have to defend. Like Joyce’s Simon Dedalus, like O’Casey’s Captain Boyle, and like all the devout Irish boys who each year discover they have a vocation for the celibate priesthood, Daniel has found something to do which attracts him more than looking after progeny and keeping home fires burning. But, like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, like Rip Van Winkle, and even like world-waltzing Captain Ahab, Daniel simply mustn’t be allowed to get away with it without paying a fine to American conscientiousness. The dullish, half-Yankified son, typifying that conscientiousness in contrast to Irish male insouciance, playing the part of “coast defender” against the father’s part of pioneer-adventurer, exacts the penalty while we readers, moved and amused, ponder once again the complex fate of being what Woodrow Wilson once snobbishly called a hyphenated American.
The over-plot of Miss Dundy’s The Old Man and Me also involves cultural confrontation, in this case between America and Britain, whereas its roots are planted in the dank soil of the Electra Complex. The story in between fails on the whole to connect the top and bottom of the author’s imaginative world, with the result that we are left with semi-allegorical bits, psychological bits, reportorial bits, plus a lot of first-person palaver that is too tense and shrill in a word too Egg-and-Iish-cum-London-&-New-York-hip for my taste altogether.
The involved story has to do with a New York magazine girl named Betsy Lou who tracks down in London a fat and snobbish middle-aged Briton of parts named C. D. McKee with the aim of murdering or marrying him in order to gain possession of monies he indirectly and by happenstance inherited from her own father. Unfortunately, C. P. isn’t very clearly seen apart from the role for which the half-crazed Betsy’s fantasy casts him, and the turns of the plot lead too frequently to outpourings of unhappy feelings of abandonment and infantile jealousy to be acceptable as merely a cool, flowery device of high black comedy after the school of Nabokov. I could have done with fewer descriptions of well-worn landmarks of central London like the Shepherd’s Market and with less on Betsy’s early tribulations over father-love in exchange for some hard analysis of, say, the cultural bearings of McKee’s snobbery or an explanation of why Betsy, father-fixated or not, is so bitchily destructive. The Old Man and Me is about as good as Miss Dundy’s first book, The Dud Avocado, but certainly no better. I wish this writer would jitter less, gush less, and develop a bit more respect for and conscience about the abundant literary talent she possesses.
Since nothing can be said for it, perhaps the less said about Love You Good, See You Later, a “satirical” novel of Alabama bayou life, the better. Its properties—a dog called Yellow Boy, fey children who throw their voices into cupboards, a grandmother permanently in heat, her pansy brother, a wise soothsaying Negro conjure man named Mister, a young midwestern sailor of marginal masculinity named Claud—leak sawdust from every worn and broken seam. Sometimes Mr. Webster writes baby talk masquerading as southern folk speech:
“Oh Mister Neddy,” said the old woman, “Possum climbing our simmony tree” (p. 77)
“Humph!” said K. Amelie, making sourmouth (p. 158).
Frequently he gives the illusion, through intrusive authorial comment and ejaculation, that he finds his personages and their lives extraordinary. He is wrong about that.
April 30, 1964