I’ve been waiting to give an update on my current Pulitzer novel, Honey in the Horn, until there was something worthy of remark. I’m closing in on the half-way point, and I guess it’s time to remark upon the unremarkable.
H. L. Davis’s book is about the book I expected it would be based on its opening pages: a tale told by someone with very little native ability to edit themselves. Almost no moment can pass without a story—it’s not enough to tell me that, when Clay hears a bit of news, he looks surprised. I have to be told that his face looked as surprised as Old Man Simmons that night he found a polecat in his bed. You see, the polecat had gotten lost in the snow and had somehow climbed in the upstairs window, and into one of the nightgowns left behind by Simmons’s wife who had run off… Several sentences later, we’re back at Clay and ready to move forward until Davis can work out how to shoehorn in another little tale. These tales vary widely in their level of charm and wit. It reminds me a bit of old Nestor, Homer’s aging warrior who cannot admonish or exhort an Argive spearman without reference to some figure from the Greek Golden Age, except that all of Davis’s stories are about weird old men, usually experiencing some kind of physically injurious or romantically upsetting mishap, which tend to produce less awe-inspiring wonder than Nestor’s tales of Hercules, etc. Forget Nestor—let’s bring the analogy closer to home. It’s like being stuck at the table at your family reunion with your Uncle Melvin. There are worse tables to be stuck at (you can see your younger sister stuck at “the racist table”, and wouldn’t change places with her for $50), but you’re wondering how many more stories there can possibly be about Melvin’s dachshund, or the few apparently prank-filled months he spent at Fort Bragg 45 years ago. Sure, sometimes the dog story catches your fancy, or the tale of what he and “Crazy Eddie” did to the arrogant lieutenant’s jeep is humorous enough to pass the time. But not often enough for you to quite forgive your parents for insisting that you attend the family gathering.
But my analogy is wandering too far afield, and it’s not Davis’s only fault. The other grating aspect of the book is that the man’s eye for detail is incredibly unreliable. I mean, I’ve read a number of pulpy novels in which the author (who knows nothing about guns) describes a gunshot victim as being “knocked back” by the force of the bullet (which is nonsense). But Davis is so ill-informed (or so careless) that he at one point describes a shot coyote literally bouncing as the force of the bullet drives it to the ground. If the man ever went hunting, clearly he kept his eyes closed at all the critical moments—and that goes for any physics classes he may have taken, as well. For an author who thinks my fascination with weird Oregonian pioneers ought to be high enough to get detailed recipes for canning venison, his inattention to relatively minor matters is very strange. No team and wagon on earth could have survived the hell-ride Sheriff Geary and Clay take down a flooded and badly-graded mountain road—at one point, the wagon is sideways, careening downhill at breakneck speed, and dragging the horses down with it like Messala in Ben-Hur. Somehow, the moment the wagon comes to a stop, the horses, which should be beaten into dog food at this point, get up and start pulling it again like they’d been taking a nap. Now, I grant you, a novelist can do this sort of thing for humor—the circumstances which fill Bertie Wooster’s bedroom with cats in “Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch” are hardly likely, but P. G. Wodehouse gets plenty of latitude given that A) believability was totally irrelevant to his genius, and B) the stories are friggin’ hilarious, which covers a multitude of sins. If Davis is trying to write a comic novel, it needs to be funnier—and I don’t think his intentions are comic. I just don’t think he’s very good at much of this.
And yet, you haven’t heard me squalling here about the wretchedness of the thing, as I have been known to do in the past (pick any post on The Able McLaughlins…or no, perhaps you’d better not). This is because Davis does manage to keep a plot going, often by means of improbable coincidences and due to the fact that he has no particular interest in the other aspects of the novel—things like complex three-dimensional characters and care with language really don’t seem to be high priorities, at least. The plot has careened about a bit, but I’ll credit him with settling on probably his most interesting character: the twentyish Clay Calvert, an orphan taken in by Preston Shiveley, who has (by a series of contrivances) gotten himself connected to a group of “wagon-campers” out of interest in (what else?) a socially unconventional yet beautiful young woman, and is roaming towards the hop-fields of Southern Oregon in their company. This has some oblique connection to all the work Davis did with plotlines connected to the Shiveleys for the first few chapters in the book, but precious little. Clay’s learning how to live on the run, how to avoid raising the ire of the folks on whose land you intend to bivouac (hence the meek quotation that heads this post), and probably some other things. Davis is either bad at dialogue or unaware that it exists: in either case, he doesn’t write much of it, so our insight into these characters is limited a bit by a third-person narrator more interested in weird stories about Old Man Simmons than in what might be going on psychologically with Clay. But there’s some tension and a little intrigue—enough to make this merely a sort of disappointing but readable novel along the lines of Years of Grace more than anything bad enough to really draw my ire and inspire a couple of nicely savage blog posts (apologies to those readers of mine who look forward to them—I don’t think Davis is likely to inspire many fireworks).
There’s more to say, which I’ll try to keep brief—Davis slides back into the casual racism (in this case, towards the Native Americans of the Pacific Coast) that was pretty widespread in the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s, but which the 1930s had been starting to trend away from. As usual, it’s not the mean-spirited and therefore loudly ugly racism, but rather the mild-mannered racism of someone who thinks we shouldn’t mistreat other races, who after all have so many challenges being born just a bit stupider and more sexually perverted than us white folks. I won’t try to work out which kind is more offensive to me personally, or whether it’s possible to see it as a kind of evolution towards some kind of half-way decent attitude about human beings of every tribe and color. It just depresses the hell out of me every time it surfaces.
Lastly, I’ll admit I am just slightly curious to see if Davis can work his way out of trouble. The only cause for hope is that Calvert and his band of wanderers are headed out of the valley where he knows everyone. It’s just possible that this transition will get Davis out of his “storytelling mode” long enough to give me some kind of reason to invest in the characters. Clay is awfully low on personality, although still light-years ahead of Luce, the woman he’s interested in, whose personality traits mostly boil down to being unconventional and being beautiful, thus far. With a couple of hundred pages to go, though, he must have some kind of conflict in mind to get things going, and it’s plausible to me that this could at least rise to the level of being a good potboiler. The possibility of “great literature”, alas, we left in the rear-view mirror about when the wagon starting running downhill, dragging the team with it. And it’s largely been downhill since. But we’ll see where the road takes us.