A literary typologist would probably want to classify the Novel of the Sensitive Youth as a minor subdivision of the Bildungsroman—less ambitious, less philosophical, and much shorter. Though perennial, it probably reached its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s when a spate of such works appeared in this country—small, carefully wrought novels about teen-age boys or young men standing hesitantly on the threshold of adult life, full of inchoate yearnings, often troubled about their sexual identity, painfully aware of a great gap separating them from their better-adjusted, thicker-skinned peers, for whom they often felt a kind of hopeless love. William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf is perhaps the best known of the group and certainly one of the best. Now David Plante’s The Woods provides evidence that the genre still lives, its tremulous sensitivity intact.
Though it is the third in the series of novels dealing with the Francoeurs, a working-class family of French Canadians settled in Providence, Rhode Island, The Woods is second in chronology, taking place in 1957-1958, four years after the period treated in The Family (1979) and a dozen or so years before the events so movingly narrated in The Country (1981). It is also the shortest and most fragile. Once again the protagonist is the next to youngest of the seven Francoeur sons, Daniel, who, when the book opens, is completing his freshman year at a Catholic institution easily identifiable as Boston College. As he had been in The Family, Daniel is much preoccupied with his body, which he sees only as an assemblage of discrete parts, not as a functioning entity. He is also preoccupied with the body of Charlie Chatellerault, his extroverted roommate, whom he contemplates as Charlie sleeps or takes a shower. “It seemed to Daniel that behind Charlie’s body was a space, a large deep space, and, looking at Charlie’s body, he was looking at that stunning space.” The psychology underlying these musings about bodies and the mysterious space beyond bodies is obscure; there seems to be some connection to a masturbatory fantasy involving the body of the crucified Jesus which Daniel experiences at the age of fourteen in The Family.
Nothing much happens. Daniel and Charlie go to a dance, which Daniel does not enjoy. They go into Boston with a third college friend, and while they are at the Museum of Fine Arts, Charlie goes off with a girl. Daniel is aimless, lost, full of nameless longing. Charlie would like to make love with a girl, something he has never done; neither has Daniel.
The second part of the novel takes place at the lake in northern Rhode Island where Daniel’s parents have a house. There is much mooning about the house and lake. An enigmatic young woman named Lillian Cooper tries to draw Daniel out of the mental woods which he inhabits. They swim together nude one night and on a later occasion make love in the woods—neither of which activities is able to arouse Daniel from his narcissistic (or schizophrenic) sonambulism. More mirror-gazing ensues, much more.
He was obsessed by his body. He needed to be fully aware of it. He wanted to make it itself aware; and his body, in its extreme self-awareness, would exist apart from him. He wanted that body which existed apart from him…. He studied the details, the nipples, the navel, the folds of flesh at the armpits…. But he knew it was not in the angles and details that he could possess it; it was in something else, and trying to get that something else was like trying to touch the soul by touching the skin.
When Daniel’s much older brother Albert, a major in the Marine Corps, arrives for a visit, Daniel decides to declare himself a conscientious objector, an act that will, he expects, infuriate his brother, a militant Catholic who is paying for Daniel’s college education; this decision seems to be part of Daniel’s grand refusal to do what is expected of him—to be a good soldier, a responsible husband and father. If I read the evidence correctly, Daniel also decides, back in Boston, that his sexual destiny lies with men rather than women.
What partly redeems this almost plotless little novel from preciosity is the way in which Plante manages to surround almost every object and every inconsequential event with a kind of luminescent space, like a halo. By following Daniel’s attention as it moves very slowly from one thing to the next, he produces an effect of hallucinatory realism, in which each detail seems to exist in its own right, to have a quasimystical “thingness” about it, quite apart from whatever significance it may or may not have in the larger picture.
He didn’t move, but watched her. She reeled in, slowly this time, and her rod bent; she brought a load of water-lily stems and little twigs to the surface. He watched the slight flexing of her arm muscle, the jerk of her elbow, her round forearm, her wrist, her fingers, all working to free the line. Then his gaze moved up from her hand to her arm to her shoulder, up to her neck and across to her face in profile concentrating on what she was doing. She separated the feathers of the fly and blew on them to dry them. She united the fly from the end of the guide and placed it in the box.
“You’re energetic,” she said.
He didn’t answer.
After the much more full-blooded treatment of the Francoeur family in the earlier parts of the trilogy, The Woods comes as a disappointment. Plante is a powerful writer when he wants to be, capable of locking the reader in the mute, chest-crushing hug of inarticulate family love, of creating scenes of raw anguish as brothers strive and their parents grow old, crack, die, or helplessly survive. His ability to render the physical world is never less than impressive. But in The Woods Daniel is too numbed a character to engage our sympathies, and the events narrated are too brief, too fragmentary, to provide the thematic weightiness that the author apparently intends them to have.
By contrast, A Midnight Clear has a stirring story to tell, a war story that follows a classical line of action. It is set in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. A handful of very young American soldiers is sent on a reconnaissance mission in unfamiliar territory, where they make contact with an enemy who seems eager to make friendly contact with them. It is the Christmas season, snow is falling; the war has been going on for a long time and many have been killed on both sides. The desire to drop out, to make a separate peace, is strong. A Christmas fraternization begins, carols are sung, and for a while it looks as if both sides will achieve their respective goals without bloodshed. But a terrible blunder occurs, and war, with all its brutality, stamps out the small fire of common humanity that has barely begun to shed its light in the thickening gloom.
Such a summary may well stir coals of memory. Other books—and old films—may come to mind. One can almost see the godfatherly ghosts of Stephen Crane and Erich Maria Remarque as they fade into the background. What the summary leaves out is an element to which Wharton attaches much significance: the GIs who make up the squad are, with two exceptions, “brains,” “Whiz Kids,” culled from the ranks of the bright students (all of them high scorers on the Army intelligence test) enrolled in the ASTPR (Army Specialized Training Program Reserve). Scheduled to be sent back to college after basic training, they had instead found themselves—when the program was suddenly abolished in mid-war—in the same predicament as all the common recruits and draftees. Wharton’s little band see themselves (and are presented by the author) as an intellectual and moral elite, given to reading aloud such novels as A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front, to playing bridge and chess, and to doing crossword puzzles. Under pressure from “Father” Mundy, an older, saintly man who had once studied for the priesthood, they have forsworn the joys of swearing and go to rather elaborate lengths to find substitutes for the comforting GI obscenities. None of these airs and graces protects them, of course, from the horrors, deprivations, and stupidities of life in the front lines.
The action of A Midnight Clear is well sustained, providing abundant opportunities for suspense, alarm, sentiment, comedy, terror, and grief. The catastrophe is properly appalling (though one anticipates its coming and has already guessed the identity of the blunderer). The details of the deserted château which the squad uses as an outpost, of the dense woods and snow, of the myriad discomforts (cold, wetness, diarrhea, etc.) of soldiering—all of these are made graphic enough. Still, the novel does not work. There are several reasons for this failure, the most damaging having to do with Wharton’s use of a first-person narrator.
The voice that we hear throughout the novel is that of the nineteen-year-old sergeant and squad leader, Will Knott, known variously as “Wont” or “Won’t.” He is meant to be intelligent, decent, droll, and full of warm, comradely feelings for his squad mates. Unfortunately, the language Wharton gives his narrator—and through which we must gauge Won’t’s responses, attitudes, and sentiments—is unflaggingly banal. Here is a sample of his interior monologue:
But we were ready to give up today, even Shutzer. It was so easy, nothing to do. And God, you can get killed fast; I was expecting it, tight inside, feeling my last time slipping past me, waiting, helpless.
I’ve got to stop. If you think about what’s happening or what might happen, you’ll never make it. If you start looking at those ideas, then soon you’re waiting and if you start waiting, you’re finished.
Apart from such clichés, technical lapses damage the narrator’s credibility. Is Won’t’s narration that of a youngster from whom a considerable degree of callowness might be expected or that of a man in his late fifties, looking back? We are invited to assume the former, but what then are we to do with the sudden leaps from the novel’s “present” (1944) to our own inflation-ridden present (1982)—with, for instance, Won’t’s comment that “Forty dollars was a lot of money in those days”? At another point he interrupts the flow of the novel’s events (Won’t is in his tent, about to go to sleep) to introduce expository material by saying, “There is a typical military briefing coming up soon but I think I should give our real briefing here while I’m supposed to be drifting off to sleep.” In a different kind of novel such violations of the imagined present could be made integral to the mode of narration, but A Midnight Clear has not been set up that way; except for these and a few other such breaks, the narrative movement is linear and rendered entirely in the callow, corny language of the nineteen-year-old Won’t. Consequently, the inconsistencies seem merely crude.
The recorded dialogue of the Whiz Kids is wholly lacking in the intellectual playfulness and range of reference that we might expect from such high scorers; worse, it is afflicted with the banality of Won’t’s language and his laborious strainings for humor:
“I admit I’ve given up on any idea the war’s over, or is even about to be, but that’s what I keep wishing.”
“Wouldn’t it make a great Christmas present? OK this is it, folks. Noël, No Hell, go home! I’ve got to say this is one creepy place to spend Christmas.”
“Looks real goyish to me, Wont. Here you’re got the whole thing: Christmas trees by the thousands, snow, pinecones, fireplace, the works. What else could you want?”
“How about a small-size…Douglas fir nailed to the living-room floor, with artificial icicles and tinsel,…trains running around the tree and some colored lights with a few shiny, colored Christmas balls?”
“All very commercial, no real Christmas spirit there….”
The clichés extend to their characterizations as well, especially to that of Shutzer, the squad’s “professional Jew,” who is given to such outbursts as “Those filthy, Nazi, Kraut-headed, super-Aryan, motherfucking bastards…. We should shove them in their gas ovens and wipe them all out. I personally would be glad to supervise the entire operation.” (Never mind that “motherfucking” was a term still confined to the black ghettos in 1944 and that a GI was not likely to have heard of the gas ovens at that date.)
Nowhere in A Midnight Clear do I find the visionary power or the passages of incandescent description that made the author’s first novel, Birdy, so striking; nor do I find anything comparable to the painfully felt, honestly rendered account of family life that more than compensated for the rather amateurish construction of his second novel, Dad. Were it not for these accomplishments, a reader might be inclined, on the basis of this most recent production, to dismiss the psuedonymous William Wharton as a well-intentioned hack.
Vision and technique come exhilaratingly together in Bobbie Ann Mason’s collection of stories. She is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader. Less tragically gloomy than Raymond Carver, Mason nonetheless resembles that fine writer in the way she lays bare the heart of a domestic drama; and like him she holds up for our inspection a whole class of unremarkable people who are seldom noticed in fiction.
The territory of Shiloh and Other Stories is western Kentucky, where farms; no longer profitable, are giving way to subdivisions spreading across the landscape like oil slicks; where the women take jobs in supermarkets, and where a harassed preacher, faced with dwindling congregations, makes his living during the week as an electrician, working out of a van. Marriages are breaking up—or casually coming apart. Retired farmers leave for Florida in their fancy campers, planning to stop off in Plains, Georgia, in hopes of catching a glimpse of Billy Carter. Here indeed is the “New South,” and Mason, with alert scrutiny and an attuned ear for dialogue, is able to immerse us in its regional colors while never letting us forget that her small district encompasses much of the US as we now experience it.
The change from the old to the new is incomplete. The older, farm-reared generation still disapproves of smoking, drinking, and loose living. When, in “Offerings,” Sandra’s grandmother comes to visit, she must be kept ignorant of the fact that Sandra’s husband Jerry has left her to work at a K Mart in Louisville. The grandmother notices (but pretends not to notice) the run-down condition of Sandra’s house and grounds.
“I declare, Sandy Lee, you have moved plumb out into the wilderness,” says Grandmother.
In her white pants suit, Sandra’s grandmother looks like a waitress. The dog pokes at her crotch as she picks her way down the stone path to the porch. Sandra has not mowed in three weeks. The mower is broken, and there are little bushes of ragweed all over the yard.
“See how beautiful it is,” says Mama. “It’s just as pretty as a picture.” She waves at a hillside of wild apple trees and weeds, with a patch of woods at the top. A long-haired calico cat sits under an overgrown lilac bush, also admiring the view.
“You need you some goats on that hill,” says Grandmother.
Meanwhile Jerry is presumably watching go-go dancers in smoky bars in Louisville, where Sandra—who loves the ducks, the predatory foxes, and even “the thousands of large golden garden spiders hidden in the field”—refuses to follow him.
The disasters that befall the characters also reflect the conjunction of the contemporary and the archaic. At a baby shower in “Third Monday,” Ruby, who has just had a radical mastectomy, watches her pregnant friend Linda exclaim over a bib and a terry-cloth sleeper. Linda, who is thirty-seven, is unmarried; what’s more, she has refused to marry the baby’s father, a man from out of town who promised to get Linda a laundromat franchise and then turned out to be a fraud. Thanks to medical science, the baby’s sex is known and she has already been given a name—Holly—which is emblazoned on a cake at the shower.
Ruby, who is also a guest of honor, has a problem: her once-a-month lover has not been told about the mastectomy. This lover, Buddy Landon, lives far off in eastern Tennessee and “travels the flea-market circuit, trading hunting dogs and pocket knives.” He comes to western Kentucky every third Monday of the month, when the local flea market is held. Buddy and Rub originally met at the fairgrounds, where the flirtatious Buddy tried to persuade the “little lady” that she wanted to buy a coon hound. The scene comes vividly to life:
…he had chained the dogs to a line between two trees. Ruby approached them cautiously, and they all leaped into the air before their chains jerked them back.
“That little beagle there’s the best in the field,” Buddy said to a man in a blue cap who had sidled up beside them.
“What kind of voice has he got?” the man said.
“It’s music to your ears!”
“I don’t need a rabbit dog,” the man said…. “I need me a good coon dog.”
“This black-and-tan’s ambitious,” said Buddy, patting a black spot on a dog’s head. The spot was like a little beanie. “His mama and daddy were both ambitious, and he’s ambitious. This dog won’t run trash.”
“What’s trash?” Ruby asked.
“Skunk. Possum,” Buddy explained.
“I’ve only knowed two women in my life that I could get out coon hunting,” the man in the blue cap said.
“This lady claims she wants a bird dog, but I think I can make a coon hunter out of her,” said Buddy, grinning at Ruby.
Easy come, easy go, Buddy, with his billed cap and gold-stitched jacket, is an old-fashioned backwoods Southerner who holds strong views on the training of dogs and guards his independence. He is also affectionate. How will he react to Ruby’s operation? The question is never resolved: Buddy fails to show up for the next third Monday, and Ruby learns from an old black woman at the flea market that he has been jailed for peddling a hot TV.
The once-meaningful old and the mindless new clash again in “The Retreat.” Georgeann, the discontented wife of a hard-pressed Methodist minister named Shelby, reluctantly goes with him to a religious retreat. There, in the basement of the lodge where the retreat is being held, she becomes hooked on electronic games and spends hours playing them while Shelby stays busy with workshops and lectures upstairs. When Shelby finds her in the basement, she has spent all their reserve cash.
Shelby is treating her like a mental case. When she tries to explain to him how it feels to play the game, he looks at her indulgently, the way he looks at shut-ins when he takes them baskets of fruit. “You forget everything but who you are,” Georgeann tells him. “Your mind leaves your body.” Shelby looks depressed.
As they drive home, he says, “What can I do to make you happy?”
Georgeann doesn’t answer at first. She’s still blasting aliens off a screen in her mind. “I’ll tell you when I get it figured out,” she says slowly. “Just let me work on it.”
Bobbie Ann Mason is wonderfully even-handed and nonjudgmental in the handling of her characters, male as well as female. They are what they are, she seems to say, as restless women strain against the confines of marriage, as restless men take off in pickup trucks for Texas or the Rockies, leaving their women stuck with more rent than they can afford to pay. Her interest in them is both friendly and detached—and it extends to cats and ancient, ailing dogs (“Lying Doggo”) and to mechanical objects as well: an injured truck-driver’s rig “sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost.” She avoids extended descriptions, depending upon a few exactly observed details to establish her situations and scenes.
Individually effective as they are, there is a degree of sameness to the stories read as a collection. This is due partly to the rather narrow restrictions of class and circumstance and outlook within which the characters lead their untidy lives; it is due more, I think, to the fact that Mason seldom varies the form and rhythmic pattern of her pieces. She is a superb technician, but I wish she did not adhere quite so closely to the conventions that seem to apply chiefly to women writing for The New Yorker: i.e., the use of the present tense for narration and the avoidance of anything resembling a “closed” ending. Mason’s stories are open-ended with a vengeance. Most often her conclusions swerve abruptly from the path that has been hitherto pursued and take off across the fields. A few resolutions might add some needed variety to an otherwise remarkable achievement. Shiloh and Other Stories is among the best of the recent good collections that have once again brought the short story to the forefront of literary interest.
December 16, 1982