So begins Lamb in his Bosom, by Caroline Miller, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for 1934. And I have to say, I’m getting weary of the Pulitzer board’s tastes.
That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the novels: there have been some great discoveries so far, amid the dreck. But this particular setup—young married couple, out on the land ready to pioneer it—is getting incredibly old. I’ve watched with mild interest 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 recently I slogged along as Wang Lung gradually crushed his long-suffering wife beneath his self-regard. And that’s not even half of the examples. So starting off in an ox-cart with the just-married Lonzo and Cean feels like the Pulitzers on auto-pilot, rattling down the rut they’ve dug for themselves. Some of these stories are better than others, but I think it’s fair to say that, in general, the best of the novels were the ones most able to get free from the trials of young marriage and the perils of the farm. I’m not saying there’s no good novel in either subject. But they seem awfully elusive (and strangely compelling) to the novelists of this era.
Added to that is this novel’s weird (and off-putting, at present) obsession with sexuality—it reminds me of The Able McLaughlins at its very worst. Within a page of the opener, we get a not-that-vaguely incestuous longing for Cean from her jealous younger brother who (I kid you not) is angry that she’s marrying Lonzo because he liked sharing a bed with his sister. The brother is, as far as I can tell, more than old enough for this to be uncomfortably weird. And the rest of the opening chapter follows Cean and Lonzo tensely to the home they will share. Every few sentences Cean “notices” her husband as a sexual being—the sweat on his powerful neck, the thick black hair on his chest, etc.—and nearly crawls right off the edge of the ox-cart. He seems painfully awkward around her also. The chapter closes with him leaving the house while she undresses and crawls into bed to wait, silently and seemingly rigid with anxiety. He walks around his land and the narrator keeps mentioning Lonzo’s thoughts turning to “planting his seed”. Hmmm….could that possibly be a metaphor of some kind? No, surely not.
All of the above—the young couple, the farm setting, the creepy sexual vibe (which seems to be totally dominated by the notion of sex as something a man “does” to a woman)—and a bit more thrown in (the usual 1930s dialect slang in the dialogue, an odd father-daughter dynamic between Lonzo and Cean…he keeps calling his newly-wed wife “little ‘un” in a way I find unsettling) make me think I’m being hurled from one of the best novels I’ve read thus far to something even Julia Peterkin wasn’t capable of. First impressions can easily be wrong, of course—they were wrong about The Store, and about The Bridge of San Luis Rey—but I’m edgy about this one. It appears to be relatively short, and we’ll see if that means speeding through becomes the necessary option.