In two of these books matricidal small boys play a prominent part, and in a third an adolescent very nearly stabs the sweet old lady next door with a carving knife. If this becomes a steady trend we shall perhaps see a fusion of two dominant themes in American life: childhood and violence. Wilfrid Sheed’s new book is subtitled “a short novel and a long story.” The long story, “Pennsylvania Gothic,” is about Charles Trimble, a depressed only child whose parents move out of Philadelphia to a small town in Pennsylvania, where the only person who takes any interest in him is Miss Skinner, the old lady who lives next door. Charles’s parents are not happy and one day his father commits suicide; after the funeral Miss Skinner talks to Charles about his father’s early life, and the recital ends with an obscure sexual encounter between the boy and the old lady, recapitulating, as Charles discovers, something that happened years before between Miss Skinner and his father. Charles and his mother move away to New York, but he returns when Miss Skinner is dying and is about to go through the abovementioned ritual with the carving knife when she forestalls him by dying first from natural causes. He contents himself with leaving a little scratch on the corpse.
As my deliberately unsympathetic summary may have made clear, this isn’t much more than a story made up of the familiar properties of American gothic fiction. Such novelty as there is comes from Mr. Sheed’s having transposed its creepy elements from the southern settings where we usually find them to the more asceptic air of Updike country. It’s an efficiently written piece, undoubtedly, but a lot of people could have written it, and, indeed, have. Coming from Wilfrid Sheed it raises an interesting point, however: he is an expatriate Englishman, and his previous novels have been full of an outsider’s sharp observations of American mores; in “Pennsylvania Gothic” he seems to be attempting to see whether he can manage the gothic mode as effectively as native-born Americans do. For what it’s worth, the answer is yes.
The other piece in his book, the novel called The Blacking Factory, is far more serious and seems to me the best thing Sheed has done so far. Once more we are back with the seemingly inexhaustible topic of childhood (the title alludes to the short but intensely miserable period that Dickens spent as a child, working in a blacking factory). The hero, James Bannister III, owns and operates two radio stations in a small California town, not far from Los Angeles. He talks on these two stations for at least two hours a day, giving his view on current issues, and pushing a familiar line of right-wing politics and American patriotism, though his particular slant is an intense Anglophobia; he regards England as a dangerous source of corruption. Yet Bannister, who is both intelligent and charming, has an indefinably British manner and even seems to speak with a slight English accent. In the course of a heated radio interview with a supercilious English novelist Bannister claims that he really loves England and was even briefly at school there.
The rest of the novel shows what lies behind this surprising assertion. In 1946, Jimmy Bannister, aged fifteen and the child of a broken marriage, is placed by his father in a minor English public school, since Bannister senior has become convinced of the virtues of English education. Jimmy has a miserable time subjecting himself to the bizarre patterns of the English school; by degrees he learns to tolerate them, but he longs to get back to America for the summer vacation. When, at last, he goes home again he finds himself unexpectedly dissatisfied; his father’s Babbittish crudity disgusts him, and his friends, who clearly regard him as odd, strike him as desperately cloddish after the sophisticated nuances of English speech and social behavior. Unexpectedly he finds himself idealizing the school where he has been so unhappy and longing for the start of the new term. Yet once he is back in England, the reality proves as horrible as before; Bannister goes to pieces and is speedily transported back to the United States “ticketed for a regular American prep school.” The English experience has permanently affected him, and results, twenty years later, in his bitter but ambivalent radio tirades against England.
Sheed handles this particular version of the international theme with Jamesian absorption, and in the chapters about James Bannister’s experiences in the English school he deals in depth with English material of a kind that he has not touched since his first novel, A Middle Class Education. If I have any criticism to make, it is that the juxtaposition between the mature Bannister, as a rightist nut, and the likable Jim, an unhappy American schoolboy in England, is too neat. We should have known much more about what happened in the intervening years, even though this would have made a longer novel. Nevertheless The Blacking Factory is a fascinating and plausible study of the origins of an ideologue, which has some suggestive affinities with Sartre’s story about the boyhood of a fascist, “L’Enfance d’un Chef.”
Boyhood figures again in Joyce Carol Oates’s Expensive People, which adroitly manipulates some highly familiar properties: a clever lonely child of unhappy parents; the mother beautiful, unstable, domineering, and gifted, the father an insensitive but highly successful businessman. The setting is suburbia at its most lushly and oppressively affluent, and the story describes how, and to some extent why, Richard Everett came to shoot his unspeakable mother (and get away with it). Miss Oates is an intelligent writer with considerable mimetic skill if not, on the face of it, much originality. Her previous books were written in a turgid, sub-Faulknerian manner; by contrast, Expensive People is stylistically more relaxed and sharper. Here the mentors seem to be Salinger and Updike and Nabokov. In particular Miss Oates uses Nabokovian tricks in manipulating the relation of the narrative to ordinary reality: Expensive People is really supposed to be a true story written by Richard Everett, and he keeps reminding us that it isn’t mere fiction. He even imagines what the reviews will be like, and prints a selection of them from The New York Times Book Review, Time, and the New Republic, as well as a fierce attack by a critic called Hanley Stuart Hingham. The pastiche is adroit: at one point the narrator archly refers in a footnote to Fiedler’s Waiting for the End; and there is a crucial development in the plot when Richard reads a short story by his mother in The Quarterly Review of Literature—reproduced in full—and his interpretation fills in many previously obscure details about his mother’s attitude to him.
Yet beneath the cleverness of manner some traditional literary material is being worked over. Miss Oates’s talents are evident enough; but the real question is what she intends doing with them, and whether she can see herself going beyond the imitation of established masters and the reenactment of familiar cultural myths.
J.P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B is very nearly as depressing as its fatuous and portentous title might suggest. This, too, is about childhood, although in more than one sense: the hero, Balthazar, is a rich young Frenchman, whom we meet as a baby in his pram on page one; later he is sent to a school in England, which, although meant to be pretty awful, is rendered crudely and externally, in contrast with the accuracy and subtlety of Wilfrid Sheed’s treatment. Balthazar grows up, though he remains essentially infantile; he becomes a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and is involved in countless riotous japes, pranks, romps, etc.
Donleavy has been over much of this ground before in The Ginger Man, and if his forced, coarse-grained humor was, on occasion, mildly funny in that book, on the second round it is a good deal less so. There are certain questionable assumptions involved; one of them being that the most labored bit of farce becomes exquisitely funny if it takes place in Dublin and involves comic Irishmen, another that any mention of a male erection is sublimely humorous. The source of this kind of fun is Balthazar’s friend Beefy, who is a pale imitation of Joyce’s Buck Mulligan; the whole story, in fact, is intensely literary. Donleavy does try to inject some seriousness into the story from time to time. For example, Balthazar falls in love with a fellow student, but the engagement is broken off mysteriously and she dies soon after. Yet in such a prevailingly childish atmosphere these grave implications can hardly be taken seriously.
Elizabeth Bowen has been writing novels for a long time; indeed, long before the three writers I have discussed were born. Her newest novel has all the effortless ease of the highly practiced professional writer, where everything comes naturally and there is no straining after effect. The eponymous heroine is a strange naïve girl, a childlike heiress, whom people like but cannot understand. Nor for that matter can the reader, and perhaps is not meant to. Although one constantly sees Eva in the various short scenes that carry the narrative through eight years of her life, one never gets any sense of her in depth, nor even of a true continuity in the unfolding of her personality. This could be a central failure in the rendering, but with so practiced a writer we might well have a deliberate piece of mystification, of the kind we have come to expect from the nouveau roman in France. There are many settings: the countryside and coast of England, the American Middle West, Paris and Fontainebleau, the smarter parts of London. Elizabeth Bowen has always described physical environment superbly—one thinks of the marvelous description of the wintry Regent’s Park in London that opens The Death of the Heart—and this quality is everywhere apparent in Eva Trout. At the same time, its very convincingness is troubling; by degrees, one comes to feel that too much energy is being diverted from the human characters into a description of their surroundings. When, for instance, Eva takes to her bed with a heavy cold, the qualities of the bed and the room are described with a strange glowing warmth, and yet they add nothing to our fragmentary understanding of Eva. Elizabeth Bowen’s stylistic mannerisms are not ones that I admire but as the story developed, becoming an intricate aesthetic artifact, I acquired considerable admiration for it, though never simple liking. As the plot reached its climax, concerning Eva and a strange deaf-mute child who is generally believed to be her illegitimate son, I could not fight back a sense of mounting incredulity about what I was being told, a feeling which became overwhelming at the violently melodramatic conclusion. This novel is a clear example of the kind that Iris Murdoch once called “crystalline,” where the author’s desire to make tight aesthetic patterns out of life takes precedence over any inclination to convey the sense of life itself. This is, I think, ultimately a claustrophobic book.
January 2, 1969