1936: Honey in the Horn, by H. L. Davis

Literary Style:

Well, I survived this book, although by the end it was out of determination more than anything like pleasure.  Davis isn’t the worst writer I’ve read on this quest, and this book isn’t the worst novel I’ve read, but he and the book are so far below what I “signed up for” when I started the Pulitzer journey that I’m finding it hard to sort out exactly what kind things I can say about what I’ve just read.  Davis is the most plodding and single-minded of plotters—the novel cares about only one thing, and that is contriving events so that the main character, Clay, meets one example of every kind of person living in Oregon in 1906-1908, and sees one example of every kind of occupation and natural environment to be found within the borders of the state in those years.  A side effort involves contriving that, at literally every juncture, he finds himself “coincidentally” bumping into one or more of the characters he left behind the last time he pulled up tent stakes and took to the road.  Imagine if literally every stop on the Mississippi for Huck and Jim involved meeting one of the characters from St. Petersburg—not just an occasional “oh my goodness, that’s Pap”, but Tom Sawyer turns out to be visiting his long-lost cousins the Grangerfords, and Joanna, Mary Jane, and Susan turn out to be the Widow Douglas’s nieces and she’s visiting them, and Judge Thatcher’s left his profession to work as a hired hand for the Shepherdsons, etc., etc.  Sadly, these recurring characters are thoroughly one-dimensional—they show up again as plot devices only, not so that Davis can deepen his depiction of them or draw out any meaningful conversation.  He’s so terrible about dialogue that it almost never lasts more than one or two exchanges.  To extend the conversation would be to waste valuable time that can be spent telling me exactly how sack-sewers made their money in 1907, or how the kindly old farmer lost his suspenders one afternoon when a cow ate them, or whatever homespun cornball yarn Davis has lined up to add to the manuscript next.  I swear, The Andy Griffith Show depicted a more realistic and psychologically complex society.

Davis clearly does think he’s Twain—my choice of Huck Finn as an analogy isn’t an accident.  But it takes wit to be witty, and Davis is deficient in that department (as in so many others).  His satire is thin and rarely well-targeted, his humor would be feeble by the standards of 7-year-olds’ knock-knock jokes, and ultimately the book is a self-indulgent ramble.  The story is too cluttered with details about Oregon and Oregonians to be interesting as fiction, but too hackneyed and far-fetched to be plausible as a genuine account of the time and place.  I’m sure a lot of the statements are truthful, but so many more are obvious farmers’ tall tales—the cows freezing standing up in a “tough winter”, etc.—that I can’t really treat what I’m reading as non-fiction.  And, to return to a complaint I’ve probably already voiced too much, the tales aren’t even all that tall!  I was going to add more examples to those frozen cows, but all the stories take too long to tell and have absolutely no pay-off: it’s like listening to someone narrate a long and tedious encounter with their pharmacist, in which you’re pretty sure there’s no way the pharmacist spoke like that to a customer (or that the mix-up in question could really have been as confused as your friend makes it sound), but you can’t work out how to get them to move the story along.  Davis doesn’t know how to pace things, doesn’t know how to bring the threads together, and finishes the book by using the same stupid devices he’d over-used before the half-way point of the novel.  Enough about him.

Historical Insight:

Creek and old-growth forest on Larch Mountain ...

Old-growth forest in Oregon: the fact that Davis occasionally helped me imagine scenes like this is among the novel’s few highlights. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve already alluded to this above—it’s the book’s only strong point, but Davis undercuts it by trying to be a comic novelist (and failing).  I grant you, if you like old settlers and are interested in the history of the settlement of the Northwest, there’s a certain charm to the book in stretches.  Ignoring the main characters and the wholly implausible plot frees up a lot of brainwaves that can, at times, be usefully set to taking in some nice descriptions of the natural environment, or the difficult working conditions faced by many workers in the fields.  But Davis doesn’t have anything in particular to say about America at the turn of the century other than “hey, these people were here!”  We can give him a bit of credit for noticing the working classes, I suppose, but he doesn’t understand them or offer them any genuine and authentic opportunities to speak through the novel.  He outpaces some of the books I’ve read so far in being interested in a real historical moment in America, and that’s about all that made this bearable.  But I could name you three or four books just off the top of my head that do a better job with rural life in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century: where Davis is good, he’s not particularly original, and so there’s not much to recommend him or the book.

Rating:

By my unscientific ranking system, Honey in the Horn gets a “don’t bother”.  It’s not as morally objectionable as the worst of the Pulitzers—there is racism but it’s less prevalent than I’ve seen, and it is occasionally balanced by semi-positive accounts of Native Americans[the more I think about it, the more this seems too kind: it's at least plausibly accurate on occasion, but enough time is spent depicting native men as lazy fools and native women as empty-headed whores that I really shouldn't cut him any slack]—and I think there were a few authors whose prose was worse.  If the novel was half as long, and funnier, it might be worth a very conditional “hey, maybe in the right mood for the right person” rating, but it’s not, and it isn’t, and Heaven knows what kind of mood/person combination would make this a delightful read.  I’m sure it works for some people—probably people with much more patience than I have, for a start—and good for them.  If you want my advice, steer well clear.

Last Word:

The one advantage of Davis’s approach is that there’s very little to “give away”, and the book is full of one-paragraph long stories that relate to absolutely nothing else, so that it’s very easy to choose from an abundance of potential excerpts for a last piece here.  I’ve decided to snag something from about the 3/4 point of the novel, where I think Davis’s little story is about as close to really perceptive satire as he gets.  If reading this makes you want 400 more pages of it (and you recognize many of those pages won’t be either as funny or as witty), disregard my rating and go get yourself a copy: you and Davis will be good friends.  I’d give you context for the paragraph, but there really isn’t any, other than to say that the plot has allowed Davis to mention a bridge, and there you go:

“The man who owned it was in Congress and therefore under such heavy expenses that he couldn’t afford repairs.  The reason he was in Congress was that the county kept threatening to build a competitive public bridge and let people cross free, and he had to keep hold of a good deal of political influence to prevent them doing it.  His system for holding his constituency together was sweeping and simple.  He owned all of the wool warehouses around the upper country, and when anybody started to electioneer against him, all his superintendents got orders not to handle the sonofagun’s wool any more.  If he hired a freighter to haul it to the railroad for him, orders went out to the warehouses that the freighter was to do no more hauling for them.  Under such management, things stayed pretty well in line, and the bridge, in slack times when there were a good many people on the road, took in on an average of four hundred dollars a week, counting sheep at a nickel a head and cattle at a dime.  A man with brains enough to keep up a business like that was a good man to have in Congress.  His ability to take care of his own interests proved that he was qualified to look out for other people’s.  The public issues which he had dedicated himself to were to acquaint the provincial East with the ravishing beauties of Western scenery and climate, and to levy an import tariff of two or three hundred percent on foreign wool.  He also believed that the United States had done perfectly right to separate from Great Britain,  and he wasn’t afraid to come right out and say so.  He was a smart man and a profound statesman.”

Kind of clever, right?  You can envision the Congressman, anyway, and there’s something both humorous and sharp about the portrayal.  The character is never heard from again.  Classic Davis.  I know, I know, the authors are supposed to get the last word, but I endured too many of Davis’s words, and couldn’t help taking one last shot on behalf of my beleaguered brain. On to Gone With The Wind!

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3 comments on “1936: Honey in the Horn, by H. L. Davis

  1. [...] I feel that it’s obviously here, and there’s no need for it.  Even Honey in the Horn ascribes more agency to women than this novel does; despite all its faults, Lamb in His Bosom [...]

  2. Maria says:

    I too am working my way through the Pulitzers (http://thepulitzersurprizes.blogspot.com/) and this book almost killed me. I cannot believe all the 4+ star ratings on Good Reads. Every page was excruciating. I almost quit reading it on a dozen different occasions, but I’m stubborn so I slogged through it. Hands down the worst of the Pulitzers I’ve read so far. (We’re going in chronological order, too.) Blech.

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