Two first novels by very young writers, two others by veterans, all raise in different ways the problem of arbitrariness. In each of them I find myself reading about this person or these circumstances, then read about a quite different person or different circumstances. Why so long here, so short there, why the shift now? One usual way to create a shift that doesn’t seem arbitrary is by means of story, that old device that assures us all is well, the writer knows, and will show us. If not story, then intellectual schemes, patterns, the psychology of a character, something that creates a reason for this then and that now.
Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire is a long ambitious novel of almost spectacular arbitrariness. It opens with Marshall Pearl in a hospital bed in Haifa, seeing or dreaming things that we, at least, do not understand. We then shift back almost thirty years to an American naval officer who decides to run immigrants to Israel through the British blockade after World War II. In the course of this he finds a newborn baby, Marshall Pearl, with whom we began. We might assume the book will bring us back to the opening scene, and to refine the boy by fire to the point where he can become a heroic victim in Israel.
This happens, but Helprin seems most of the time not to know or care about whether the events intervening are part of a process. Marshall is raised on the Hudson, the child of rich parents, a lonely prodigy. He goes to New York, briefly falls in love; goes to Harvard where he reads a great deal, and listens to an old Scotsman lecture on the greatness of the European explorers. During a long episode involving some rich Indians playing a brutal kind of polo in the mud of the Massachusetts countryside, Helprin began to convince me that he did not care what happened, or who his hero was or would become. Just before graduating, Marshall and a close friend decide to leave, for Australia ostensibly, but they get no closer than a nightmarish Midwestern meat packing plant, after which the friend just drops out, and Marshall has an idyll in the Colorado Rockies with a woman doing research on golden eagles at twelve thousand feet and up.
These episodes might have comic possibilities but Helprin’s tone is cool and unamused. A pattern does begin to form, and damned if it doesn’t seem designed by Ayn Rand, all about the light of the West, the refining energy of a naturally endowed aristocracy: “There was nothing greater, thought Marshall, than men like this who had lasted, who were old, whose passions had been refined in fire and in ice and yet whose love was solid and gentle and true.” The fit mate for such men is Lydia, who declares:
I’m going to have a family, and I will love them and be devoted to them. The rest will work itself out. And if that’s a dangerous pronouncement in these times, then I choose to live dangerously. I can do it, even if I’m the last woman in the world who does.
Just after this, a British ship captain plays even larger chords:
Half a thousand years ago the Spaniards, as if sprung from seed, burst in virility upon the sea and passed this point in little ships to find and conquer a new world. Since that time we have been retracing and elaborating their routes, but have none of our own. Since that time we have become immobile as whales upon the beach—fat, shoddy, recreant, dissolving. For there is only one condition in which a man’s soul and flesh become as lean and as pure as his armor…. I fear that I will die before I see such dancing anew, directing us after half a thousand years outward and to the heavens, where we must go if we are to be men.
Awful talk that, but it does clarify some of the preceding. Be like the golden eagles, that dying species, avoid softness, cities, blacks, be men.
Marshall is a Jew, and must be got back to Israel somehow, where perhaps he will find a new heaven and a new earth. But Helprin does not seem interested in Jews and his Israel is positively distasteful. Marshall is thrown into an Israeli regiment of criminals, idiots, sadistic officers, and a few others like himself, though what fifty pages of suffering do for him is unclear, because we don’t know if or how much Marshall has been refined before or during it. He ends up on the Golan Heights, and we can presume he has become refined at the very end when, wounded, in the hospital, he pulls the tubes from his body and says, twice, “By God, I’m not down yet.” Refiner’s Fire has enjoyed a good press—John Gardner thinks it is one of the major books of 1977. Is it subtler and more carefully worked than I think it is? If the pieces can be made to fit, they will turn out to be held together, I suggest, by a dreamy romanticism of a silly and bigoted kind.
The truly determined gloominess of Joseph Caldwell’s In Such Dark Places comes as something of a relief. It is even a quite bracing book as long as Caldwell is leading us he knows not whither, depressing only in the last third when it unfolds a symbolic pattern reminiscent of some of the religious novels of Graham Greene. Caldwell’s hero is Eugene, a wanderer in the lower East Side, a photographer who finds himself in the opening scene taking pictures of a Good Friday procession of Spanish-speaking mourners; the procession turns into an odd auto-da-fé in which a young man named Johnny is killed and Eugene’s camera is stolen. Eugene goes to ask the local priest if he’s heard about the camera and ends up dressing a wounded man’s leg; he searches for a boy who has followed him around during the procession, finds him, but ends up convinced he lies easily but did not steal the camera. It would all seem pointless except the prose is so consistently, earnestly intent in telling us all it seems able to know; if Eugene wanders and stumbles and discovers little, so must the writing:
“I’m looking for David,” said Eugene.
Still smiling and without reacting at all to what Eugene had said, the man slapped him on the face.
“He’s from the priest!” screamed the woman.
The man slapped Eugene again, still smiling, not disturbing the glasses on his nose or the hair on his head.
“He’s from the priest, I told you!”
This proved to be no protection. With Eugene too surprised to fight back, the man simply kept slapping him, not so much to hurt him as to steer him out into the hallway. This accomplished, the man, still smiling, closed the door.
We see no more of this strange man, though Eugene knows at least one reason why David, the boy, no longer lives at home.
Eugene is a homosexual. But Caldwell simply allows that fact to emerge as he intently follows Eugene through his experiences. Eugene had tentatively wanted Johnny, the dead man, and later Johnny’s friend, the mournful Raimundo, but these are just facts in the monosyllabic hammering out of Eugene’s days after the procession. While reading the novel one feels free of “subjects” such as poverty or homosexuality and engaged with human lives. But Caldwell begins to lose his nerve, and begins tidying up, as when he has Eugene contemplate the relation of sex to violence:
Murder, thought Eugene, jealousy, revenge, all aroused by sex. But was there even more to it than that? As he had lain there in the nighttime dark, there came to him as well his wish from the Saturday procession, that Johnny thrust all his strength, not at the cross, but at him, so that after his orgasm of fury the youth would lie conquered and spent, helpless and defeated. A kind of castration, a kind of death.
Caldwell wants to honor this thought, but he does so by arranging his story to make it true. First the priest returns Eugene’s camera to him, and as Eugene develops the negatives he suddenly sees the victim as David, not Johnny, because Eugene himself wants to have sex with David as a way of killing him. Next he comes on Raimundo buggering David, and, at knife point, Raimundo forces Eugene to do the same, so the wish has become father to the deed. Finally, Eugene goes back over the pictures again, enlarging every clue, and discovers he himself held the knife that murdered Johnny, though there’s no way one can reread the opening description of the procession and riot so this might be true.
The story, of course, expires with so much neatness and strained meaning; the title In Such Dark Places, which had served the novel well so long as it referred only to the obscure streets of the lower East Side, now is awash with “resonance.” The dark places are in Eugene’s photographs, Eugene’s desire, the bodies of Johnny and David. Caldwell can be a memorable writer when he allows himself to concentrate on the murky, shapeless events that occur in much of his novel; his spare gloomy prose is an excellent instrument so long as he does not force it to produce grand implications.
Thomas Savage is in his mid-sixties, and I Heard My Sister Speak My Name is his tenth novel. At least half of his books deserve to be much better known than they are. His current novel may not be one of his very best, but it is good enough to give those who have never read him a chance to see what he can do. Savage writes about lives moving inexorably toward a decisive moment; he himself has said he writes the last line of a book first and then drives his story toward that line. The voice of his narrator is, thus, always omniscient, and in I Heard My Sister Speak My Name he even allows himself the dangerous luxury of making that voice also a character within the story, describing much he could not possibly know about. And it turns out that this does not hurt the novel at all.
The narrator, Tom Burton, is a novelist living on the coast of Maine, and he begins by describing the life of a woman who was left at birth on the doorstep of a respectable lawyer in Seattle, that house having been chosen because the lawyer and his wife have recently lost their son in an accident. The girl grows up placidly, and is only mildly disturbed when she learns that her real parents had abandoned her. It is only after her adoptive parents have died, and she has lived through a friendly but unsuccessful marriage, that she decides she must try to find out who her parents were. We then shift back three generations to a gold prospector who strikes it rich in Idaho, to his son who becomes a wealthy rancher and who marries a woman who becomes the Sheep Queen of Idaho, to their children, of whom the eldest is about to marry a respectable man of her mother’s choice but goes off with a drummer instead. This pair are the parents of Tom Burton and of the girl who was left on the doorstep in Seattle, and the last half of the book is the story of the ways Tom eventually hears his sister speak his name long after all the previous generations have gone away or died.
What is remarkable about all this is that the story is based on truth. On a local Seattle talk show this past fall, Savage appeared with a sister who spoke his name for the first time when both were in their fifties. Furthermore, readers of earlier Savage novels will recognize many places in this one where he has reworked earlier material. Savage is obsessed by family, “I see now that my belief was not in God or church but in the family and the family’s traditions; this belief I hope to pass on to my sons and my daughter because I don’t know what there is to believe in except Family.” Now, long after he had first set out to tell the wonder and agony of growing up in Montana, he has had given to him a strange true tale to validate his obsession.
The crucial point for Burton-Savage is why his mother gave up her daughter, and why he should care so much. The mother was a beauty, the darling of her father, the dream of her mother, and she went off with Ben Burton, the drummer, because she loved the way he spoke to her and touched her. After whatever it was that led to her giving up her daughter in Seattle, she left her husband and came back to Idaho with her young son Tom and worked at herding sheep and scrubbing floors. Until a single man from Montana, with a ranching fortune, a man as respectable as Mr. Bingley and even duller, asks her to become the wife her mother wanted her to be all along. Tom grows up adoring her, fearing his stepfather, fearing especially his stepfather’s brother. He takes their family name as his own and is mortified when someone in high school whispers to him, “You’re name isn’t Brewer.” Tom Burton always feels not quite legitimate.
Savage himself has always seemed fascinated with names, with precise social information and the problem of getting it right. He lectures us a good deal, often in arbitrary ways, about the excellence of Royal Coachman dry flies, for example, about the vogue of Spain in 1920s popular music, about how smart people knew World War I was coming, about the beliefs of Episcopalians and Presbyterians, about the way women smoked and drank in fashionable magazines fifty years ago, about the importance of objects in the maintenance of Family, about, God save us, what is left on benches in a Maine post office:
As the summer people moved in, the New Yorker appeared, but was seldom touched; those who would read the New Yorker had already read it. Forbes and Business Week declared that a thirst for money is unquenchable.
The voice that wants to sound omniscient is sometimes in danger of seeming a voice afraid it does not know enough.
But these annoying details are expressive of the same obsessiveness that can make Savage a powerful storyteller. Just as he worries over what works and what belongs, he becomes skeptical and driven when a woman writes claiming to be his sister. Near the end he knows he can accept her only if he also can find out why his mother might have abandoned her daughter on a doorstep. And this he can only speculate about. If she wanted to make some atoning sacrifice for having run away against her mother’s wishes, as Savage suspects, this must always remain uncertain. Savage can no longer be a wholly assured narrator. This final obscurity, however, which concedes that the hidden truth may be more powerful than arbitrary clarifying fiction, makes the ending, for me at least, more interesting than it would have been otherwise.
Fred Wursup, in Richard Stern’s Natural Shocks, is a very successful writer, recently divorced from his wife, who still lives in an apartment he can see when he goes up to his roof on upper Lexington Avenue. Now the lover of the beautiful geologist Sookie, he finds himself at loose ends after getting rich from a book called Down the American Drain. He tries a post-Watergate piece, but “Farsightedness bored Wursup. When people tell you to watch the stars, keep your hand on your wallet.” An editor telephones him:
“You’ve done the country, you’re doing the world. Where else is there? Mars? Not your meat. You want to change sex like Jimmy Morris? Turn black like Jack Griffin? Shrink like Alice? Pose as a bunny? What? What can you do now?” (“Now” was a key Schilp word.) “Death is still ‘undiscovered country.’ ”
Death is the fashionable subject, “The blues send people through the ceiling. Last quartets, last plays, last words. Irresistible.” “Find a gloomier Gus, Michael,” Wursup answers, but two hours later he reads the obituary of his best friend’s father and he calls back to say he will write on death.
Stern thus begins with a crowded world of successful and famous people in publishing and politics and fashion, and his early pages whirl by in a rush of characters and commentary. The aim is not satiric, since Stern loves his characters and expects us to, but he wants to show that in this world death is a subject you read and take notes about:
Now Wursup swam in death texts. Some cheered and exalted him (Hume’s decorous stroll with stomach cancer); some (the death of Paul Dombey, or the Wertenbaker death, which had made Schilp weep) devastated him.
The novel takes us away from there, toward these, the last sentences of the book:
To his right, the Carlyle looked like a great ship upended in the sea, going down with all lights on. Wursup looked across Lexington, at his old apartment. It was dark. The new tenants were out. Or perhaps it hadn’t been rented yet.
The shift is from feverishness to quiet, from everything being pressed into consequence to moment-to-moment observation. Stern’s tone is very different from Savage’s, but both begin knowing the final point of their novels and write toward it.
The event that provides that point in Stern’s novel is the death of an eighteen-year-old woman, Francesca Buell, called Cicia. Wursup meets her through her nurse, who hears of his project, and writes asking if he would like to meet any of her terminal patients. There is nothing extraordinary about Cicia, but Wursup starts to fall in love with her because, though he doesn’t realize it, her sickness has brought her down to caring about what she can see, touch, hear. (She neither knows nor cares about the News, she thinks Wursup’s book is called American Dream.)
Romance seems intended here, the weaning of Wursup from what he calls the Gospel of News by means of this interesting dying girl. I’m not sure why Stern resisted the impulse. What he has done instead is to make Wursup’s relation with Cicia the spine of the novel, her death the climactic event, but it is a weak spine, and the resultant creature is built rather like a lobster. Almost as much space is given to Cicia’s father, a well-to-do autodidact glass manufacturer, as to Cicia herself. There is also a section about two friends of Wursup’s that seems largely gratuitous—their connection with the rest of the story is mainly that Wursup writes a sympathetic essay about the inability of one of them to love his father.
We can say that Stern, like Thomas Savage, may simply be interested in too many things to try to write a coherent narrative. We can add that everything in the book is connected with dying or with News as Gospel, and that Stern has a range of styles to adapt for his large cast of characters. The book is good page by page, but it never avoids giving the sense that it is a little indulgent, about all the people and events Stern can think of when he contemplates certain subjects.
For instance, at one point Wursup is lying in bed in Bruges, next to a woman he has picked up for the trip, contemplating the word he has just received that his father and his father’s companion-housekeeper have committed suicide:
Under the sheet Gretchen slept. Vines knocked the wooden shutters, leaves chattered, boats moaned in the canal; voices talked of Burgundy, Charles the Bald, Van Eyck, Memling. The little room thickened with absence. Gretchen grew noisier. A human bassoon. Under the sheet, skin to skin, Wursup thought if only one of her sounds could come from his father’s body now, it would undo the universe. His father was gone. And great-bottomed Mona, with all her languages. Little Poppa, who gave him cells, his fat nose, and archless feet. Poppa and Mona, two of the four billion, paying nature’s debt before it was due. (Perhaps.)
The writing is flexible and moving, but it also takes on the central themes of the novel all too easily. Why is Wursup in Bruges? Why did his father and his father’s mistress kill themselves? So that Stern could write this paragraph? One hardly wishes it unwritten, good as it is, but it seems to float arbitrarily on the page.
Passages like the one above suggest to me a stylistic relation with Bellow. Some later scenes in the book—good scenes, too—in which Wursup goes back to his father’s funeral could fit easily into Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift. At certain points during Natural Shocks I felt sure Stern was trying to show he could outdo Bellow at Bellow’s kind of novel by being less omnivorous, more restrained; at others I felt he had just fallen victim to the master’s touch. In any event, strange things happen before Wursup climbs up on the roof of his apartment for the last time, things so strangely assorted that I cannot see how Stern could have been satisfied with their lack of connection. Nonetheless, Natural Shocks has intelligence and energy, and Stern, like Savage, deserves to be taken more seriously than he has been. But I hope he doesn’t try this kind of mixture again.
February 23, 1978