When John Casey’s novel Spartina deservedly won the National Book Award for 1989, it was announced as the first volume of “a long cycle of fiction set in Rhode Island”; but its successor, The Half-life of Happiness, set in Virginia and a very different kind of book, is clearly not part of that project.
The main character of Spartina, Dick Pierce, is a fortyish Rhode Island “swamp Yankee” who makes a modest living from the waters and shores of Block Island Sound. He gathers clams and quahogs, traps lobsters and crabs, and fishes for swordfish, striped bass, bluefish—whatever the sea will yield; he grudgingly arranges clambakes for local nobs and summer people; he slowly builds excellent boats. He can never quite forget that his forebears once owned much of the land that others are now developing very profitably, and at sea and ashore he hardly conceals his pride and bad temper.
In this spare but eventful book, Pierce is drawn into an affair with a well-born young woman who works for the state conservation department. He gets her pregnant; he barely escapes arrest for his partly innocent involvement in drug running; he comes to an understanding with his resentful but loyal wife; he finds the money to complete his masterwork, the fifty-foot fishing boat Spartina, which he saves from destruction during a hurricane by taking her out to sea alone. But the novel’s plot is not the point. Though Casey is not an eloquent or even particularly fluent writer, he imagines his main character with impressive delicacy and thoroughness. We see and hear only what Pierce does, and his thoughts are the only ones we know directly. And this unobtrusive concentration persuades us that we understand very well his stubborn, unschooled, self-reliant integrity—his “virtue” in both the everyday meaning and the old sense of “manliness.”
Spartina is by no means a short book, but The Half-life of Happiness is nearly twice as long, and far more ambitious. It tells the story of the failing marriage of two talented and privileged people, and its effects on their children and on the husband’s abortive campaign for Congress in 1978. Mike Reardon, a 1963 Georgetown Law School graduate, did volunteer legal work for the civil rights movement in Georgia and briefly served as a naval officer in Vietnam before becoming an assistant to a Democratic congressman sometime before Watergate. He married, fathered two daughters, and entered private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia, early in the Carter administration, when the book’s main action takes place.
Mike is about forty, he’s good with boats, and he is easily irritated, but he shares little else with Dick Pierce. Both Mike and his moody wife, Joss, belong to a world of achievement and power that Pierce’s acquaintance with the Rhode Island gentry has taught him deeply to mistrust. Mike’s Boston-Irish father was an aide to Franklin Roosevelt and a high official in the Democratic National Committee; Joss’s patrician father, Admiral Rogers, was a hero of World War II and then a senior officer in the CIA, and parts of the book take place at her widowed mother’s elegant country house in tidewater Virginia’s Northern Neck. In Charlottesville Mike becomes his small law firm’s chief litigator, while Joss works as an independent film-maker and drinks more than she should. They buy a remodeled warehouse on the Rivanna River and attract to it a group of bright young people who call themselves “the gang.” Several of them live in cottages on the Reardons’ property.
The gang, it must be said, is something of an embarrassment for Casey’s book. Its members seem almost routinely diverse: Bundy, a painter, pugnacious Vietnam vet, and Catholic convert, whose obscure inner conflicts lead him to suicide; Edmund, a quiet, depressive naturalist, and his wife, Evelyn, a vegetarian veterinarian; Ganny, a talented black woman who’s a lawyer in Mike’s firm; Ezra, also black, a prizefighter and sometime minor criminal; Tyler, who teaches English at the university, and his new fiancée, Bonnie, an art historian. In the beginning the group is intensely close—they see one another most days and dine together several evenings a week at the Reardons’. They are fast talkers, rather too ready to discuss their own failings and too anxious to know what others are feeling; the men wear beards and do their share around the house, and the women take their cooking and their careers very seriously.
They can’t get enough of masquerades, flirtations, and kissing games—when at one point Bonnie irritably asks, “Wouldn’t you say we’re about partied out around here?” the reader may say “Amen.” And their playfulness can serve the author’s purposes a little too neatly, as when Joss and Bonnie insist on shaving off Tyler’s beard at the communal dinner table, a manic anti-patriarchal lark that foreshadows their impending love affair. The gang members clearly belong to the “new” Charlottesville that clusters around the university (where Casey himself is an English professor), a culture of academics, artists, and rich out-of-towners from North and South which, with its real estate agents, architects, and psychiatrists, offends traditionalist natives like Mike’s law partners.
Though Casey may be too willing to describe what his characters are thinking or feeling at any moment, his own view of things is not so clear. This group’s resemblance to Tom Sawyer’s gang is acknowledged at one point, but no Huck Finn is on hand to question its excesses, and when Joss irritably dismisses the old Mickey Rooney- Judy Garland kind of song-and-dance movie, and scoffs at Rooney’s line “Let’s put on our own show,” she doesn’t notice that she comes close to describing what she and her friends are doing. If Casey sees how vulnerable the gang is to comic irony, and how sketchy and predictable they are, he never quite tips his hand. In any case he gets rid of most of them before the book is half done; Bundy kills himself, while Tyler disappears into marriage to an outsider when Bonnie takes up with Joss.
But the account of the gang and of Mike’s and Joss’s marital collapse takes up half the book, and tedium is a continual threat. These people tend to go on and on about whatever they happen to know—Roman history, the habits of orangutans, pi rings in nuclear physics, Catholicism, and their own often depressed mental states. And the prose has a way of shifting into cruise control:
A misgiving that Mike sometimes had was that all the others were contemplating enlarging their lives. He knew Ganny would move on, ought to move on. Bundy, for all his talk about the impossibility of making a living as an artist, wanted to get better, had days when he knew he was getting better…. Edmund was using his Fish and Wildlife Service job to gather material so that he could eventually say something about the nature of nature…. Mike didn’t know what Joss was up to….
The author speaks for Mike, Mike speaks for his friends, and somewhere nearby, we can imagine, they’re speaking for him, but it sounds less like fiction than census-taking.
An aesthetic principle of the author’s may be showing when Mike rebukes Joss for her habit of concealing her own feelings behind clichés from old movies:
He said, “Do you care? Do you care if I care? Maybe things would be easier if I just didn’t give a damn.”
“Ah,” Joss said. “‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”‘
“Look. I’m not Clark Gable, you’re not Scarlett O’Hara. We’re not Nick and Nora Charles. We’re not in the movies. Real life is slow. Not a laugh riot, not a lot of plot twists.”
Real life can indeed be slow, but books about it may benefit from more briskness than this one can muster up. Even the characters occasionally seem to notice. When at one point Mike, a lapsed but by no means forgetful Catholic, interrupts a story he’s telling to pontificate about beauty as an “outward and visible sign of… grace,” the scientific-minded Evelyn asks, “But what happened?” It is a question one keeps wanting to ask the author.
As the gang drifts away, shaken by Joss’s romance with Bonnie, Mike accepts the invitation of the local Democratic organization to run for Congress against a six-term Republican, Howard Fenton. He knows that he’s not his party’s first choice and that his chances are small. Joss agrees to defer their potentially scandalous separation until after the election, but he’s a liberal, nominally a Catholic, a Yankee outsider; his campaign funds are limited, and his public manner is a handicap—he likes to sing, his jokes are subtle, and his speeches are over the heads of most of the voters. Yet despite the blundering of his cynical “media advisor,” he almost wins, in no small part because Fenton dies of a stroke on election day and his staff fails to keep the news from coming out while the polls are still open.
John Casey’s own father was a Massachusetts congressman, and he knows how practical politics work. The book describes Mike Reardon’s campaign with a seriocomic energy that’s especially welcome after its earlier longueurs. I particularly admire his painfully funny account of the ritual humiliation of candidates and office-holders that American politics now seems to demand. In a public forum that’s packed with well-dressed, well-rehearsed Young Republicans and ranting Christian fundamentalists, Mike has to endure virulent attacks for favoring abortion rights, opposing toxic-waste dumps, and being married to a woman who makes “perverse” films. Meanwhile the moderator, a local judge, tolerates even the wildest slurs against him, including a claim by Fenton’s daughter Charlotte (who promptly faints) that Mike once tried to “accost” her “in an indecent way” in a darkened movie theater.
Joss is outraged by the way his campaign exploits their two young daughters, who aren’t thrilled by it themselves. Mike thinks he has “hollowed himself out” by the ethical compromises candidacy demands, and he mourns his loss of innocence, as the book seems also to do:
He’d tried to make do with the remnants of schooling, institutional molding, fatherly advice, general orders—even plastered himself with slogans and bumper stickers. He hadn’t dared to begin all over again. He’d gone back to his adolescent hope that his life was guided by good spirits, to his hope, when he was a nice young man, that he was part of the general progress of an ever-more-civilized America in which, fortunately, there was always room for bright, eager officers…. The dumb part was that he’d thought that chipping in here and there with service to the commonwealth would take care of all the other parts of life.
This seems too plaintive and self-accusing. Few people ever dare to begin all over again, and it isn’t just politicians who feel like this. About what we are to make of Mike and his disillusionment, Casey remains inscrutable as ever.
Mike never enters Congress. Fenton, though dead, has been duly chosen by the voters, and a special election must be held. The Republicans name Charlotte to run for her father’s seat, but the Democrats, sensing an unexpected chance for a win, nominate not Mike but someone less easy to attack. (Charlotte wins anyway.) His party offers Mike a judgeship, and despite his contempt for the low motives at work around him, he accepts. In truth, he seems better suited to being a judge than a legislator, and in the book’s retrospective coda he has been serving on the bench, not unhappily, for two decades.
Not that he hasn’t been depressed. Near the end of the novel his daughter Nora tells her sister Edith of finding him in a bad state after Joss left him:
He was at the dining-room table reading the newspapers at arm’s length. This was just before he got reading glasses. It was a hot summer night. It had been so hot that the unlit candles had drooped over like weeping-willow branches. The screens were ripped and he hadn’t fixed them, so there were moths and damselflies and God knows what else hovering from one end of the house to the other. There were huge paw prints in the dust on the floor. I didn’t know it was a cat until it ran out from behind the sofa, jumped in the air, and batted down a moth and ate it.
After he loses the dissatisfied, com-bative Joss—“a hypochondriac of marriage,” he calls her—his luck with women improves. Despite his “Catholic hangover about divorce,” he has one affair after another—with an easygoing marriage counselor and country singer (whom I wish Casey hadn’t named Bonnie so that everyone could call her “Bonnie Two” to distinguish her from Joss’s lover), then with a tough-minded young Scottish woman who had worked in his campaign, not to mention his daughters’ former pediatrician, and even—very briefly—with his old enemy Charlotte. And he stays on close, if mutually watchful, terms with his daughters. A man who has always sought the interest and approval of women lives on not unpleasantly although—as the title’s allusion to nuclear physics implies—any capacity he once had for more vigorous happiness has spent itself.
But all this is, in Gatsby’s dismissive sense, “just personal,” and The Half-life of Happiness clearly has larger ends in view. One of them may simply be a wish for a broader, socially more complex fictional world than Spartina afforded, but any such ambition is hampered by a problem of technique. Where Spartina stays close to the mind of Dick Pierce, Half-life distributes the storytelling among several perspectives and voices. We see and hear most of the events from somewhere over Mike Reardon’s shoulder, as it were, but at times the point of view shifts to Joss (and, once, to her mother), while long stretches are told directly by their older daughter, Edith, a preteen in 1978 who, in the late 1990s, looks back on the collapse of her parents’ marriage and what it cost them all.
Edith and Nora, in their affectionate, skeptical, and resentful thoughts about Mike and Joss then and now, are the most appealing people in the book. It seems a waste to make them spend most of their time trying to figure out their parents, or treat them less as participants in the family agon than as a kind of Greek chorus periodically interrupting the action. It might have been more interesting to let these girls tell the whole story, creating a plausible version of what happened to the Reardons; but Casey seems reluctant to trust anyone, whether characters or readers, to find an adequate perspective on things. This seems to be, in short, a history that no one can tell right.
In splitting the book between the demise of the gang and Mike’s congressional campaign, Casey seems to be asking what useful relation may now be imaginable between sensitive, educated, intelligent people and the proper running of the nation. “None at all” appears to be the book’s answer, which seems true enough for our time and place; but as presented here, it isn’t so surprising and provocative a truth as to be worth the effort expended on arriving at it. The Half-life of Happiness is an intelligent and serious novel, but more (which may be to say “less”) could have been hoped for from the author of Spartina.
August 13, 1998