I’ve taken a liking to quotations like the one above, in which The Store’s main character, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, attempts to reason with the emotional daughter of the woman who jilted him at the altar long ago. Novelists seem to like these little asides that assert what novels will and won’t do—in general, I find that novels are referred to as unrealistic flights of fancy, or at least that is how they are referred to in these Pulitzer winners. I find it strange, since I think it’s fair to say that almost nothing about The Store reflects the way T.S. Stribling wishes life could be lived: to the contrary, I think it’s his best attempt to reveal how things really are. So why does he (and why do other authors like him) take shots at the novel? Is it self-deprecation, or a sort of reverse psychology designed to make readers shout “no, novels are vivid and realistic!”? I always find these passages curious.
Stribling is proving a minor disappointment in this latter stretch of the book. Most of his talents are still fully at work—the skill and honesty with which he depicts a series of strained conversations between The Colonel, Sydna, and Sydna’s mother Drusilla Crowninshield, is really marvelous. Drusilla in particular is excellently realized, with a sharp eye and sharper tongue, and a very solid head on her shoulders. She feels very real and somehow a little larger than life—she would have gotten on splendidly with Mrs. Manson Mingott (from The Age of Innocence), and I think Wharton would not be at all ashamed to have written Drusilla. She’s a character with enough dimension to stand up to Wharton’s realism, anyway. I wish there were more opportunities for her to talk in this novel, since the conversations really sing when she’s in them.
My disappointment in Stribling comes from the fact that he keeps missing the chance to do something as thoughtful and detailed with the African-American characters. There are nicely moving conversations, and there’s certainly a plot of significance involving them. But they never rise to quite the rhetorical levels achieved by Drusilla and The Colonel, or even such lesser lights (and lesser intellects) as Jerry Catlin in courtship with Sydna Crowninshield. Stribling won’t give them quite as much scope, or allow quite as deft an insight, and it’s a shame. I had hoped, and half-way expected, that he was setting himself up to pivot several black characters into the heart of the story, perhaps most of all Grace Vaiden and her son, Toussaint. But we’re denied that pleasure, and I think it weakens the book’s power to an extent.
The more I read, the more I feel that I really am missing out on the first chapter of the trilogy (for which this novel forms the middle book). In other “middle books” that won Pulitzers, I didn’t notice much, if any, difficulty, but here I keep sensing that I’m missing the depth and significance of certain encounters. It would be like starting with The Two Towers—it wouldn’t be hard to get into the story, but there would be moments (someone named Gandalf is back? why are Frodo and Sam so interested in the fact that this Faramir guy had a brother named Boromir….maybe they knew him before? man, this Smeagol guy seems pretty intense about something or other…) where even the narrator’s helpful insertions wouldn’t quite give the reader the full resonance of images and conversations. I get the very strong sense that it would have helped a lot to have read the first novel, where I surmise that The Colonel and Drusilla and many of the other middle-aged characters were as young and impetuous as their children (Jerry, Sydna, etc.) are now. There are subtleties to a number of conversations—half-finished thoughts, looks or nods of seeming import—that I’m not able to do enough with.
One last thought for this reflection: I feel like I’m learning a lot more about the economic realities for Alabama in the late 1800s. The weakening of cotton, the rise of the little “company stores”, the conviction that a “Demmycrat” in the White House would unleash the purse strings and pour patronage like manna onto the impoverished worthies of the Old South. I can see how the system is trapping not only the black sharecroppers but the petty white men whose minor successes only chain them more and more tightly to a business that will never really grow. There’s a tension that feels like violence in the air in this little town, and someone will have to pay the piper sooner or later.
I’m flying through this thing now—by Friday or Saturday I’ll be posting a review, I think. My hat’s off to Stribling for writing a really solid novel thus far: here’s hoping he can finish it with the same talent he’s exhibited up to this point.