“Invasion had come to the town of Adano.”

So begins A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for 1945.  Hersey’s approach to the novel is explicitly didactic from the beginning—prior to this opening sentence, he offers a foreword that explains his purpose in writing the novel, and it’s all the optimism and exceptionalism and spirited nationalism (maybe the best of all these impulses, to be sure) you would expect from an American writing in the flowering of the Pax Americana, a world-altering victory that would usher in a new era, and one in which the Stars and Stripes reigned supreme.

He informs us in the foreword that his interest is in showing us “a good man”, Major Joppolo, an Italian-American tasked with establishing law and order in the Sicilian city of Adano now that it’s under American occupation as the Allies press on into Italy to topple Mussolini.  He informs us, before the story even begins, that Joppolo “represented in miniature what America can and cannot do in Europe,” and eventually claims sweepingly that “he is our future in the world.  Neither the eloquence of Churchill nor the humaneness of Roosevelt, no Charter, no four freedoms or fourteen points, no dreamer’s diagram so symmetrical and so faultless on paper, no plan, no hope, no treaty—none of these things can guarantee anything.  Only men can guarantee, only the behavior of men under pressure, only our Joppolos.”

That’s a lot of weight to hang on a single character in a novel before we’ve heard him speak or seen him step from his landing craft and survey the town he will inhabit.  My initial criticism of this novel is that, stylistically, it proceeds to give every sign of being just that single-minded, presenting Major Joppolo in the simplest possible light and bringing in basically every other character and situation in such a way as to show both how stacked the odds are against his success and yet of course how inevitably he will succeed by dint of his sheer goodness.  On the other hand, this is the sort of criticism I floated about The Bridge of San Luis Rey when it began, in moralistic fashion and aggressively foreshadowing the book’s ending, and that turned out to be a gem of a novel, one of the brighter stars in Pulitzer’s constellation.  Wilder made the style work, and turned the novel’s limitations into a powerful rhetorical device that imbued each of his characters with seriousness and meaning.  So who am I to say yet that Hersey will not do the same?  I only express concern at the outset.

Licata Sicily from Wikipedia

The fictional Adano is allegedly based on this gorgeous Sicilian city, Licata: the panorama (courtesy of Wikipedia) is a wonderful image to carry with me as I read.

Victor Joppolo is middle-aged, steady, almost too classically the picture of the stoic, determined man of justice so beloved by American popular art in the middle of the 20th century (I think of Gary Cooper here, and his many imitators), although I’ll note with satisfaction that Hersey could easily have skewed towards making him a dialect-spouting, excitable caricature of an Italian immigrant, and totally avoids it.  Still, though, I find myself more drawn in the early going to the much more cynical, sharp-minded sergeant who accompanies Joppolo ashore, a Hungarian-American named Leonard Borth, who has traveled the world, it seems, and likes a good joke more than Major Joppolo.  The two of them have to figure out how to control a town full of people they don’t know—half of them ex-Fascists who dream Mussolini will rise again, and the other half Italians who hated Mussolini and Fascism but hardly can be expected to trust a couple of American G.I.s to do much better.  The little I know about this book suggests that the titular bell—and recovering or restoring it somehow for the town—plays a big role in that.  But surely the book will have to cover more than this kind of architectural rescue mission.

There’s not much more to say as yet—as is my custom, I make this first post based on only the first few pages, just to give me something to reference later (either to note happily how spot on I was, or to cringe a little at how far off my guesses flew).  I approach Hersey’s novel right now, thinking that at best I’m reading a pleasant but slightly forgettable “rah rah America” story, and at worst an excessively stereotypical and pig-headed “rah rah America” story.  Above the floor of the worst Pulitzers but well below the altitudes reached by the best.  Time will tell.

1944: Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin

Literary Style:

This book took me less long than the last one, but still much too long—especially because it’s a much better novel, and deserved better from me.  My chief complaint (already described at some length in a previous post) is Flavin’s weirdly circuitous style, that depends so heavily on flashbacks and informing us of sudden, shocking information off-handedly in retrospect that it can be a bit irritating at a plot level.  You can only read passages that go like this—“His mother had arrived by hired limousine, although he didn’t know it at the time.  She looked well when she walked in; so well that neither of them would have suspected this was the last time they saw each other before her untimely death.”—a few times before you start grousing out loud to the narrator.

And yet Flavin makes it work.  In part he does manage at times to achieve that almost Tristram Shandy effect that I imagine he’s going for, where we move back and forth around some key times in the life of our main character, Sam Braden—the sound of an old iron fence being brought down one afternoon punctuates I don’t know how many chapters late in the book, and it comes to take on a certain significance as he keeps bringing us back to Sam in his study that afternoon.  But more importantly, Flavin has such a sure hand on these characters that, even when I know startling news about them in that narrator’s shorthanded asides, finally seeing that same event play out in real time is still gripping to me.  Even when I know what they’ll say in the end, I like to hear them say it.  Life has distracted me away from this book more than once, but Flavin’s hold on the characters—and on me, the reader—is so strong that I never need to retrace my steps.  I am immediately and vividly right back with them, I remember why we are where we are, and I want to observe them again just as intensely as when I set the book down last.

This really is the book that The Late George Apley set out to be and failed at—a long rambling walk through the life of an almost-great man and his family and friends, that illuminates a lot about America from 1900-1940 and has something left to say to a wartime home front.  Sam is remarkable, with just enough flaws and just enough virtues to be interesting to watch, sometimes a good guy to root for, but never the expression of wish fulfillment or some silly notion about “the ideal American businessman”.  Through his eyes we see poverty, opportunity, race, class, gender—you name it.  Flavin isn’t quite progressive enough to give us a novel that could withstand our modern sensibilities, but this is light years beyond the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s and 1930s, dealing very calmly with interracial romance, religious bigotry, and extreme political and class struggle tensions between characters.  It will never be read and dissected like a Steinbeck or a Fitzgerald, but it ought to be better remembered than it is: the story is expansive, the characters fragile and unpredictable in their humanity, and ultimately more than one scene moved me emotionally to the point that I felt at least misty-eyed.  This is a good novel.

Historical Insight:

A well-thought-out book on this front—it certainly captures the sea change that a small Midwestern river town would have gone through over fifty years, including the rise of the railroads, the impact of two wars and the intervening depression, and ultimately the rise of commercialism and factory production.  Sam is reflective enough (and involved enough in a lot of this change) to help us imagine what this looked like to Americans passing through it, and he has two close friends on opposite sides of this America—a grizzled, American Legion type businessman with a fire for competition and an idealist, leftist newspaper man with no head for numbers or accounting but a passion for the rights of the working poor—whose conversations help draw some of these images out in more detail.  A lot of the story of Sam Braden and his family is about class, too—what America will let you overcome and what it won’t, what money will buy and what it won’t—and given this particular era in American history, that makes a real difference to me as the reader.  This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a novel like my last one by Upton Sinclair, but it’s not trying to: what Flavin wants to do on this front, I think he succeeds with, and it certainly is more than good enough at evoking America in this time period to make me happy with it as a Pulitzer winner.


My unscientific scale calls this “a great read for anyone who enjoys well-developed characters, especially if you like a longer family saga or a historical novel”.  Not among the very best Pulitzers I’ve read, but close behind them, totally worth reading, and a book I’m glad won an award, since I want it to be remembered.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the last word to the author, and let you be the judge of what you find.  Here, late in the story (after World War II has already engulfed America), Sam Braden is writing a letter to his son, Hath:

“He did not mean, he said, to accuse himself uniquely, for it was his generation which much be indicted; he, himself, was no more than a reflection of the world in which he’d lived, not atypical at all.  He could only be convicted of having realized the fruit which his fellow men had coveted, of being a winner in a race in which, as it turned out, there were not any winners, since there were not any stakes—no real reward for winning; but only the winners had a chance to find that out.  He would plead guilty to success—the very same in pursuit of which most people lived and died, never knowing that the stars at which they grasped were fireflies and marsh lights.  And success had this advantage: once in your hand you could examine it and appraise its actual value—a benefit denied to less successful men.

‘Values,’ he wrote, ‘that’s where we have been wrong: bad accounting methods, confusing liabilities with assets; the books are in a mess.  But I think that it is changing—not just for the duration, as many people say.  And I believe in you, Hath, all you fine young men who must suffer for our faults, who must fight and win a war which you had no part in making, and who must remake a world which we have wrecked—I believe that you will not repeat the old mistakes.'”

Poetry Friday: Armistice Day 2016

The years roll on, and take their toll.  I come to this day a little wearier each time.  I have less to say, other than to trot out the familiar phrases—my unease with American jingoism on holidays like this one, where we pretend that the day is to honor the brave and not the fallen, to exult in the nobility of war rather than to lament its destructive wrath; then, more sadly, something pious and humble and mostly true about what the memory of those long dead, especially the dead from the Great War whose hallowed day this November 11th was from the very beginning (and will always be, to me), means to someone born many decades later.  You can click on the Veterans Day tag and see the rest, if you like.  I hope the collection of my reflections and each year’s poem or poems brings you solace, or solemnity, or anything fitting the occasion.

But that’s more than enough from me: as always, I yield the floor (and will not comment afterwards) to a poet who knew the horrors of war.  This is the final section of Alan Seeger’s “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”, written in 1916.  It has been a century, Alan.  Young American volunteers still die—not for France, but for other nations the world over, for causes that (however they seem to us at our safe remove) must have seemed good to them.  May we honor their memories as you do.  May we end the wars and bring them home before next year, for their sake, and their families’.

“There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
They lie—our comrades—lie among their peers,
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
Grim clustered under thorny trellises,
Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
And earth in her divine indifference
Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
But they are silent, clam; their eloquence
Is that incomparable attitude;
No human presences their witness are,
But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
And showers and night winds and the northern star
Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
Our salutations calling from afar,
From our ignobler plane
And undistinction of our lesser parts:
Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us.”

“Sooner or later people suffered for their sins. The neighbors might forget, but God remembered—“

I know it’s been a while since you heard from me on Journey in the Dark, my current Pulitzer novel.  Truthfully, that’s because it’s been going fine—not outstanding, but a solid reading experience.  I finally realized I was more than 3/4 of the way through and hadn’t posted since my initial post on the novel: apologies!  I’ll try to capture in broad strokes why it’s gone well but not memorably enough to make me say “Ah! I must write about that great moment!” or “AAAHHH!  I MUST write about that AWFUL passage!”

The setup, as I wrote initially, was good.  I thought at the time that I was being set up for some thoughtful exploration of race, in particular, maybe also class.  As it’s turned out, the race element has moved to the back: it’s not so much that Flavin mishandles it as that it’s just not what he’s interested in.  Instead, he’s pretty taken with just exploring the character of Sam Braden: what does it take to be a self-made man, and what kind of people do you encounter along the way?  Flavin does have the consistent habit of taking away tension by narrating the ends of stories in flashback before popping back to tell the middle of those stories in “real time”.  I find it irritating, although less so than when it was the consistent device in The Late George Apley.  I have no idea why that would be so, but it is.  For the most part, though, he’s just tracing all these elements he set up at the beginning to their logical conclusion—what would life be like for Sam’s flighty, dreamer sister who was (probably inaccurately) informed by some posh girls in their small town that she had a voice good enough for opera?  Where would it take Sam’s Estella-equivalent (Great Expectations definitely looms large over big stretches of this novel) childhood obsession, a young woman too beautiful and aware of her talents to really be willing to settle, but also a young woman who seems unsure of what it is she wants in the first place (critically important for anyone afraid of “settling”)?  Where would it take Sam?

It’s taken Sam on a sort of picaresque journey through American capitalism—winning his way into the railroad business (at a very low level) as it’s conquering the West, then flopping into sales in the era when advertising and PR become dominant market forces, shifting then into manufacturing and importing/exporting as the world opens up for American mass-produced goods.  He serves in the army in WWI, watches a business fail and then resurface, and makes the miraculously fortunate decision to give up being a business owner—selling all his shares—a few weeks before the Great Crash in 1929 destroys most of the families he knew.  It’s less politically and historically aware than Upton Sinclair’s novel (Dragon’s Teeth, my long-time nemesis, chronicled extensively here), but in some ways I don’t mind that at all: it lets me focus on Sam as a real person dealing with real issues whose magnitude he can’t always assess accurately.

I chose the title I did for this post because the sentiments—expressed by Sam’s spinster elder sister, Madge—rings so true for so much of the novel.  Without seeming vindictive about it, Flavin certainly ensures that his world is a “just” one, at least by some standards.  People who flout convention will reap the consequences.  Everything catches up to you eventually.  Sam’s relatively consistent devotion to ethical behavior—not totally consistent, but certainly more than a lot of his acquaintances—allows him to escape most of this, so far, but I think I see a reckoning coming.

My only concern at this point is that I don’t see this novel signifying much.  Flavin isn’t trying to make Sam emblematic of much of anything, as far as I can tell.  Other than some vaguely positive (while clear-eyed) assessments of capitalism, maybe some general leanings towards supporting society’s strictures about sobriety, modesty, and fidelity, I can’t see that Flavin is trying to say much beyond the flat details of the story—that America is a place where a Sam Braden can make a life, and a successful one.  If that’s all I get from the book, it certainly will have been a better reading experience than a lot of the things I’ve read.  But I can’t say it will stick with me.  I’m already fading on a lot of details earlier in the novel, without having even reached the end yet.  I think I can understand the Pulitzer committee responding to this well in the moment, but I wonder if, even just a few months later, they realized it didn’t have the challenge and controversy that distinguishes real art (most of the time), and came to regret their choice.

We’ll see.  Sam still has a few chickens to come home to roost yet.  I doubt very much I’ll post again until my review, which hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer.  I’ll ponder the calm tone and simple success of the characterization, as opposed to the relatively slim joys of the plot and its underlying significance, and see what it adds up to, in the end.

Poetry Friday: May Day with Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The combination of May Day (with its many undertones of justice for the downtrodden—whether the moderate justice of the eight hour working day, which May 1 was intended to celebrate, or the more radical justice called for by socialists on this day for most of the last century and all of this present one) with the events in Baltimore (which, thankfully, are tending toward justice, now that we know that there will be serious judicial inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray) make it impossible not to post a poem.  Whether you like it or not, folks, it’s going to be a return to a poem I posted many years ago (with only a little commentary on my part and a response from one of you)—a return to the power and the uninimidated force of thought that was the incomparable Claude McKay, one of the most beautifully and unapologetically honest of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and he’s coming right at you (and me) with “If We Must Die”, which was written in 1919 and published in the also great James Weldon Johnson‘s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  Here it is:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

McKay pulls no punches in this sonnet, nor should he have to.  The injustices he addresses, while diminished meaningfully by the hard-won victories of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are with us still—no fair reading of the treatment of minorities in our nation’s major cities can deny that completely (however much some may want to argue about how and to whom blame is to be apportioned).  McKay bolts out of the gate like a thoroughbred—“if we must die” is a brutal attention-getter, and to have the iambic bounce us right from that thought into “let it not be like hogs” is both genius and horrifying.  In the universe envisioned by McKay, death is inevitable, and unless we are careful, it will be an ignominious and panicked death, the death of beasts who have been cornered for the slaughter.  So, he commands, we must choose instead to go down swinging—not in some hip, casual, Tom Petty sense, but in the blood-and-bone sense of a man who knows the grave is in front of him and refuses to be the only one battered at day’s end.

This is unlike many of the sonnets I’ve spotlighted—McKay executes no unexpected turn at the end of the octet, no surprising connection blazing out of a final couplet.  The theme and the tone are sustained throughout.  He is too angry for artifice here—or rather I should say that he limits the sonnet’s grip on him to the mere boundaries of the form.  Inside it, rather than the artful musings and playful rhetoric of a poet in love with words, we see instead the passion of a wounded heart and the determination that words will mean something real.

It may seem odd that I, a literary blogger who doesn’t drift into politics all that often, should offer up McKay and this particular poem of his today.  It might also seem unsettling (even unpleasant) to some of you that I’ve shared a poem that pretty explicitly calls for violence and death—this might even surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition.  It must speak to our anger as much as to our love; to our moments of violence as much as to our moments of mercy.  In sharing Millay or McKay with you, in neither case am I asking for unquestioning acceptance of what they say—to the contrary, I think poetry is valuable in part because it usually demands that we question what we’re reading.  What I do ask for, though, is that we consistently ask those questions—that we don’t shut out McKay but instead try to hear what he might be saying, and what kind of lived experience might bring him to this sonnet.  That we extend the same courtesy to Millay, and to Frost and Whitman and all the other poets who come our way over the years.

Today, though, let’s concentrate especially on McKay.  Let’s ask ourselves how much violence black Americans a century ago lived through to give this particular black man—an artist and (so far as I know) a man who never in his life struck another man in anger—this poem and these deeply felt passions.  Let’s ask ourselves what about our nation might still inspire that kind of passion: even as we deplore the use of violence by citizens in the streets, we must ask ourselves what kinds of violence (physical and otherwise) exerted by the institutions and authorities in this country might provoke such a response.  I personally want no one to die in the street as McKay envisions, but that desire demands of me not merely that I ask the riots to end, but that I reach behind my nation’s facade of equality and opportunity to wrestle to the ground also that side of America that oppresses the lives of the least fortunate so forcefully that a riot can seem to them like the only way out.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2015

As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition.  I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all.  And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me).  For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:

“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”

Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver.  But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.

There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance.  One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state?  Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away?  Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost?  Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary?  The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.

For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended.  It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means.  Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present.  Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space.  But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together.  Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe.  The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up.  It is abandoned but not empty.  It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace.  There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another).  I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.

Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important.  What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die.  What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place.  To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended.  She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”.  She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time.  I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution.  Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained.  His mother was there.  Did they hold him close, any of them?  Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy?  Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms?  When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them?  I wonder.  Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s.  That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby.  I hope they did.

For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think.  Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery.  Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising.  I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring.  Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows.  I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.

“Sam Braden never talked about his father.”

So begins Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1944.  Flavin is another of Pulitzer’s forgotten names: his Wikipedia article (linked to in that first sentence) is about as barebones as any of the authors I’ve yet encountered, and it appears this was about his only swing of the bat in terms of making a splash nationally with his art.  Combine that with the fact that this novel starts like several of the worst books I’ve yet read—a slow retrospective glance at a Midwestern family in the 1880s that doesn’t have quite the glamour and money they think they deserve/once might have had—and it seems like a surefire recipe for a bad experience.

Except that I’ve read about the first third of the novel already, and the main reason I’ve moved so quickly is that it’s really good.  Not Steinbeck good; not Wharton good.  Maybe not even Stribling or La Farge good (although I’m not at all sure yet). Still, though, it’s clearly better than any non-Steinbeck novel I’ve read in the last three years (which encompasses about a decade’s worth of Pulitzer winners).  For the first time in a while, I’m sort of hoping one or more of you either has read this or feels like jumping in, since I’d love an outside perspective.  First, though, let me offer my own.

The setting jumps around a bit (I’ll explain in a second), but for the first third, it really is based pretty solidly in fictional Wyattville, Iowa, a small Mississippi River town dominated by the large number of descendants from the founding Wyatt family.  The Bradens are poor, based largely on Sam’s father’s severe laziness, but just high enough in status (his father’s East Coast law degree—earned goodness-only-knows-how—gets him the job as “town marshal”) to hob-nob with the Wyatts in certain social situations (but not all of them).  Sam’s the youngest of four kids—ambitious, thoughtful, a little bit of a dreamer and also a good kid who mostly wants his mother to be proud of him.  I’m calling him a kid, but as I mentioned, this book skips around—so far I’ve seen little vignettes of Sam as a much older, fairly successful businessman.  The glimpses don’t normally explain enough to give away important plot points, and quickly there’s usually some event that causes older Sam to remember being young again, and we flop back into a fairly conventional chronological re-telling of Sam’s rise from being youngest barefoot kid of the town’s no-good sheriff to being a man of substance.  There’s something very Dickensian going on for Sam (it’s no coincidence, I think, that Flavin has Sam’s mother give him a copy of David Copperfield for Christmas, and later there’s brief mention that Sam enjoys Great Expectations, maybe enough to make it his favorite novel: certainly there’s a lot of Pip in him).

All of that, though, is only enough to make this a potentially good novel—it has the bones of better works, but that’s never a guarantee.  What I appreciate most about this novel so far is its modernity and maturity, which is most easily encapsulated in Sam’s relationship with his next door neighbor, a girl named Cassie.  Cassie, you see, is a young black woman—two years older than Sam, adventurous with a sunny demeanor—and by the time she hits her teens, she takes a shine to Sam.  He initially resists, but not for long.  Here’s the remarkable thing: Flavin depicts a real series of sexual encounters.  Not in graphic detail (although there are plenty of lines that would make Edith Wharton blush), but honestly—the tension that builds between the two of them before an illicit encounter in an abandoned warehouse in a storm, then the furtive, repeated liaisons when time allows and no one else is watching.  Furthermore, Cassie and her family are depicted as regular folks: generous, lively, decent neighbors.  Although Sam is aware that he needs to keep his relationship with Cassie secret from his white friends (particularly the toffee-nosed Wyatt girl who lives in the mansion and never says a word to him….yeah, like I said, really inspired by Great Expectations), there’s never a hint of his feeling any kind of internal shame about their racial differences, or any condescension to Cassie’s family (beyond a very brief mention of the fact that Cassie has no discernibly “black” accent, unlike her father—a very neutral statement in context, honestly, although perhaps some judgment is implied).  Even when they are discovered and he must be confronted by an adult, it’s Cassie’s father, a black man, who scolds Sam—and the interracial situation is never even remotely addressed, despite the fact that I was absolutely certain, given the time period, that Sam would catch an earful for “traveling outside of his rightful folk” or something like that.  And Cassie’s father is not even as outraged as I would expect a modest turn-of-the-century man to be when discovering the neighbor boy has been shtupping his daughter regularly on the down-low for a year plus.  He does assert several times that it’s shameful what they’ve been doing, but he’s a deacon in his church, and his daughter has turned up pregnant—this seems pretty much par for the course.  And honestly, he spends more time on praising Sam than on shaming him, emphasizing how good a young man he is in most respects, and how proud his mother (then deceased) would have been to see him grow up, and the burden he feels as a man who’s watched Sam grow up to hold him accountable to the values Sam’s mother would have wanted instilled.

Yeah—racially and sexually progressive.  Or at least the attitudes towards race and sex of the central characters would not be totally out of place in a novel written and set in the 2010s—which is astonishing in 1944.  If Flavin keeps it up, this will win my personal award (which I talked about a long time ago, I think during a terribly racist stretch in Scarlet Sister Mary) for being the earliest American novel I’m familiar with to treat race in a decent and non-embarrassing fashion.  Add to that the fact that, in what is maybe even more evident to me after my long sojourn with Upton Sinclair, Flavin can write a real character.  Sam in particular is incredibly complex—single-minded in some things (like his pursuit of the Wyatt girl, or his ambition to make something of himself), but undecided and malleable in others (for instance, when, as a child, he gets an unexpected gift of cash, he wavers back and forth between buying himself a sled or buying his mother a gift—the balancing act feels very natural).  And most of the townsfolk are distinguishable from each other and operating with sensible motivations in response to the outside stimuli we would expect them to: these feel like real human beings grappling with a world that’s as simultaneously marvelous and malevolent as the real world is.

The dialogue doesn’t have a ton of sparkle to it, and the narration falls a little flat at times.  The jerks back and forth between the main, chronological storyline and these “flash-forwards” to an older, wealthier Sam don’t always work very smoothly and can be a little disorienting.  And again, this book at times drags so much out of Great Expectations (seriously: there is a scene where Sam arrives at the Wyatt house on an errand and sees the Wyatt girl he likes playing with a rich young boy, who he hates immediately and wants to fight….it’s like Pip and Estella are both ill and we’re watching their American understudies) that it can feel a little needlessly redundant.  All of these criticisms are valid, and unless Flavin can master them, will keep this novel out of the highest levels of the Pulitzer stratosphere.  But there’s so much else to like right now, I’m rooting for him to take this as far as it can go—there’s a real “American success story” planted inside Sam Braden, and Flavin seems ready to set the story in the real America.  Again, if you’ve read this before (or have time to grab a copy), please hop into the comments—this one has me wanting to talk it out!