1924: The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson

Literary Merit:

I wouldn’t want to claim that I had never read a worse book than The Able McLaughlins.  I believe I read a Babysitters’ Club book when I was young, and I know I have encountered a few books over the years that probably would have been worse had I been forced by a personal vow to finish them (as I was with Margaret Wilson’s execrable little story).  But this book’s level of wretched flies far above that endurable by the human psyche.  It ping-pongs back and forth between being a pitiful imitation of a poor copy of a mediocre novel, and being something truly bile-raising in its cruel attitudes towards women.

I concluded my slog through the book late last night—its ending, which I will not describe in detail lest I cause the angels themselves to weep, seemed to resolve one question, for me at least.  To the query “what was the intended central theme of this book, anyway”, I can now answer with some certainty “to explore whether it’s possible to feel pity for a man dying in agony, even though he raped the woman you have brow-beaten into marrying you”.  I assume this because, the moment we discover whether or not Wully is capable of such an emotion, the novel ends as abruptly as if a truck had hit Margaret Wilson in the middle of a paragraph.

This novel is bad in almost as many ways as a novel can be.  It is as ill-equipped for the work that fiction ought to do in the human heart as an unlaced boot is for the task of sending Americans to the moon while baking up a nice batch of pumpkin raisin bread.  Its plot only fails to be incomprehensible when it becomes reprehensible; its characters only cease to be wooden and one-dimensional when they discover the ability to oppress people weaker than themselves.  This is a book that believes violence isn’t the answer, not because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, but because blood poisoning killed the guy we wanted to hurt before we could get to him.  If this book expresses “the wholesome atmosphere of American life” (the alleged criterion for the award in 1924–see “How are the Pulitzer Prizes awarded?”), then America in 1924 was as wholesome as Mae West and had the poisonous atmosphere of the planet Venus.

It’s a book that does even the little things badly.  It turns interesting minor characters into caricatures, and sometimes struggles to present the reader with a grammatical sentence.  It alludes constantly and cryptically to future events that seem insignificant at the time (off-hand comments, for example, that “only 40 years later, his grandson would receive a warmer welcome in this very same living room”)…only to never clarify why an unimportant character’s grandson had any bearing whatsoever on the plot that had been so carefully set adrift in a hopeless sea.

I give Margaret Wilson’s novel the following compliments for style–and pay attention, for this is brief.  She creates one genuinely interesting character that she fails to later spoil, John McLaughlin, the little brother of Wully, who resembles Claude Wheeler strikingly and whose active mind is totally out of place on the farm.  She avoids spoiling him by sending him off to college at critical points in the narrative.  And Chirstie, despite how badly she was put together as a character, and how unbelievable she is as a human being, at times, captured a bit of empathy from me—for me to loathe Wully as much as I do for his treatment of his wife, Wilson must have done something right in describing her.  Other than that, see the above remarks.

Historical Insight:

The Able McLaughlins suffers here by an easy comparison–One of Ours, which, you may remember, I criticized a bit for its inability to vividly portray Midwest farming life, was light-years ahead of this novel in its account of real farmers.  The narrow world of Wilson’s story allows for nothing but the farm, and yet at the end of it, almost all of the characters I’ve encountered seem so unrealistic that I don’t believe the few emotions they’ve ever evidenced.  It’s possible I learned something about Scottish immigrants, but frankly I don’t trust the novel enough to believe it, even though it’s very possible that Wilson was meticulous about the “facts” of their lives.  Fiction has to engage the mind before it teaches, and this novel couldn’t get over that initial hurdle.


I rank this book “Refuse to read this book, unless ordered at gunpoint”.  That last clause is important.  The book will (probably) not actively harm you.  There are far more pernicious sexist and racist screeds that populate too many bookshelves (though hopefully not yours), and I can certainly think of worse books to read.  But I cannot, for the life of me, come up with any scenario in which there wouldn’t be something better to do than read this book–if on a desert island with nothing but this book, just scratch all the lettering off the cover except the author’s last name, and carry on a “dialogue” with Wilson the book until rescued or dead.  Either way, the conversation you have with an imaginary friend will be more enriching to the life of your mind than reading The Able McLaughlins.

Last Word:

Normally, this is where I decide, in fairness, to give the last word to the author of the novel rather than taking it for myself.  But I can’t.  I just can’t.

Really.  Because I unthinkingly turned the book back into the library this afternoon, and don’t have it here to quote from.  Yes, I suppose I could try to find a scan (or even a list of quotations, if anyone has posted such a thing) online.  But I’m just not feeling it.  Wilson didn’t really have anything to say here, anyway.  It would be one thing if I thought she actively opposed women’s rights and believed in violence–then maybe the free-speech-absolutist in me could respect giving her a platform (however brief).  But I think she was either lazy or incompetent, and, regardless of which it is, I don’t think that merits giving her another shot.  I know I’ve been tough on this book—some would say too tough—but this is definitely not the kind of reading I signed up for.  If I have to endure more than one or two more of these on the road ahead, I don’t know if I’ll make it to Olive Kitteredge (or whatever the latest Pulitzer winner will be by the time I finish my quest).  Here’s hoping the next one is a lot better.


20 comments on “1924: The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    Be careful. You may be sued for libel by pumpkin raisin bread.

    I congratulate you on your endurance. You make Chekhov characters look like kittens.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Pumpkin raisin bread and I are on good terms. I’m a bit more concerned about the estate of Mae West, to be frank. 🙂

      And thank you for your high praise. I may not know the pain of a Russian winter, but then I did manage to conquer this novel entirely unaided by vodka.

  2. Elka says:

    This has got to be the best book review I’ve ever read. XD Very persuasive, at least.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’d say “it’s just my opinion, I probably shouldn’t impose it on you”, but for the sake of your own happiness, I’m glad I persuaded you not to read it.

  3. Wow. You really, REALLY did not enjoy that book. I definitely know how you feel, though. I was forced to read David Copperfield when I was in 5th grade, and to this day it remains at the top of my “This book is the slowest form of death” list. Based on your description though, I think I would rather read David Copperfield twice and shoot myself in the knee before reading The Able McLaughlins.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I may have overdone my anger at it a touch, but then again, maybe not. I have to say, as someone familiar with Dickens’ work (and his mis-steps) that Dickens at his worst is easily twice as good as this novel (even taking into account the gunshot to the knee).

  4. Diablevert says:

    Buck up, little shaver. (If I can channel Tom Waits for a second.) So Big’s much better; me and DP both found Able the pits, and ranked it last among the books of the decade.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Er, thanks, Diablevert? 🙂 (What’s “buck up, little shaver” mean, exactly?) And I’m very glad that Edna Ferber’s upcoming book will revive my spirits (and that you folks at Hammer won’t want to argue with my assessment!). I read a critic who talked about Wilson’s book in at least vaguely positive tones….I want to go back and find that critic’s book to read it again, largely out of incredulity.

      • Diablevert says:

        My google-fu has failed me, and I cannot dig up the Tom Waits song I have stuck in my head — but basically it means, “cheer up, kiddo.”

        I looked up some old reviews of the books at the library a whle back, and I swear I read that Wilson was a first time novelist who won some kind of contest…but I could be wrong, there’s not much about her…

  5. Competent Girl says:

    Suddenly, I feel as though we were reading high literature that night when Margot, El and I hung out in the hayloft, snickering over Amanda Ros’ crap.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      No, having read brief selections of Ros’s work, Wilson could beat her in a contest of literary merit. Which is kind of like saying my cat could beat an egg-beater in a race to see who could first recite Macbeth’s soliloquy from Act II, Scene I, in that Houdini might make a noise that could be construed as an attempt at a word.

      But no, if there had been a novel by Ros on this list, it would have either ended my journey in its tracks, or I would have sought a special dispensation allowing me to skip it. As I said in the review, there are undeniably worse books in the world. But I will never read all of any of them, and I’m glad I will never again read all (or even part) of this one.

  6. Betsy says:

    I’m saddened that you so malign the Babysitters’ Club, from the sounds of it I would rather read one of them (again) than read this book.

  7. […] Selina DeJong’s marriage meander unhappily in the fields, I’ve waded painfully through the agonizingly offensive marriage of Wully McLaughlin, I’ve gazed curiously and sadly at the fragile falling-out of Claude and Enid, and more […]

  8. […] stuck to their guns, since they proffered as the year’s best novel Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, a book so profoundly offensive on every moral and artistic level that the review I wrote is still […]

  9. […] away from the much more reserved and composed tone I generally strike here (okay, nobody haul out the Able McLaughlins review as counter-evidence: the Dalai Lama would have cursed like a sailor at that book).  Anyway, […]

  10. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for your comments and review. I will not read this book, and so my world will be a better place. It took me years to be able to stop reading a book that is not worth my time. This one was clearly not worth yours, but look what you have done for us by soldiering on.

    On the matter of style, it is hard to say why sometimes style is distasteful, but it has something to do with overwriting — piling on the adjectives or using goofy comparisons or inferring emotions for which no evidence exists. Sometimes the writer tries too hard, showing a lack of confidence in less-is-more. Catcher in the Rye is considered a classic, for example, but it is overdone, with it’s reliance on teen-age slang and angst.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m glad I was so persuasive….although, truthfully, if I could rewrite any post on this site, it’s this one (I leave it up because A) it was a totally honest outpouring of how the book made me feel, and B) sometimes I need a reminder that a bit more humility in reviewing is usually best). I guess I have, in a small way, made the world better if I’ve steered folks from this to another, more worthy book: that’s definitely a nice way to look at it!

      I like your point about style: I think the underconfidence is an element in a number of the books I didn’t particularly enjoy. I can’t really work out my reaction to Salinger—I certainly agree about the slang and angst, but the book has been such a major turning point in the lives/reading careers of people I know that I’m wary that I may be missing something.

  11. […] casual use of rape and emotional abuse in her “love story” at the heart of The Able McLaughlins—but I feel that it’s obviously here, and there’s no need for it.  Even Honey in […]

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