So begins Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1922. Tarkington, as has already been mentioned, is one of only three authors to receive the Pulitzer for the Novel/Fiction on two occasions. In my opinion, his first Pulitzer for The Magnificent Ambersons could hardly have been deserved–the book was thoroughly mediocre. I wish I could say Alice Adams showed signs of marked improvement, but events so far are leaving me wary.
The unpleasant old man in that first sentence is Virgil Adams, who at the age of 55 has come down with some lingering malady that confines him to his bed under the care of a nurse (Miss Perry) whose attentions to him are accepted as gracelessly as he can manage. His wife seems hopeless in her attempts to steer him back to health. His son, Walter, is the walking definition of a ne’er-do-well. And his daughter, Alice, possesses some disturbingly familiar traits–she talks condescendingly to essentially everyone in her life, particularly her mother, while feeling a sense of entitlement that doesn’t (as yet) seem warranted. I know that, if I’m constantly looking for reminders of the Ambersons, I’ll spoil any chance I have of enjoying this book, but Alice’s resemblance to Georgie Minafer seems pretty evident at the moment. I hope I’m reading her wrong, or that Tarkington has a lighter, more measured touch with this story that will avoid the problems I saw in his last book. We’ll see.
I could go on–the weird casual racism is back (already, only a couple dozen pages in), and the dialogue is no better than I remembered. But I really do want to withhold judgment for now, if I possibly can, and see if I can revive my opinion of Tarkington. If not, I have a real conundrum to face down–how did the board that picked two clunkers by Booth Tarkington manage to put Wharton’s masterpiece in the same list between them? What did they see in Tarkington at the beginning of the 1920s that is not evident to me now? I’m not content to say that they were uncultured or unsophisticated simply because it was a long time ago. There must be something they valued that I have difficulty seeing, but trying to see it is part of this whole journey I’m trying to take. What can Tarkington, who I’m really learning to dislike, tell me about America, or at least American literature?