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!