“Sooner or later people suffered for their sins. The neighbors might forget, but God remembered—“

I know it’s been a while since you heard from me on Journey in the Dark, my current Pulitzer novel.  Truthfully, that’s because it’s been going fine—not outstanding, but a solid reading experience.  I finally realized I was more than 3/4 of the way through and hadn’t posted since my initial post on the novel: apologies!  I’ll try to capture in broad strokes why it’s gone well but not memorably enough to make me say “Ah! I must write about that great moment!” or “AAAHHH!  I MUST write about that AWFUL passage!”

The setup, as I wrote initially, was good.  I thought at the time that I was being set up for some thoughtful exploration of race, in particular, maybe also class.  As it’s turned out, the race element has moved to the back: it’s not so much that Flavin mishandles it as that it’s just not what he’s interested in.  Instead, he’s pretty taken with just exploring the character of Sam Braden: what does it take to be a self-made man, and what kind of people do you encounter along the way?  Flavin does have the consistent habit of taking away tension by narrating the ends of stories in flashback before popping back to tell the middle of those stories in “real time”.  I find it irritating, although less so than when it was the consistent device in The Late George Apley.  I have no idea why that would be so, but it is.  For the most part, though, he’s just tracing all these elements he set up at the beginning to their logical conclusion—what would life be like for Sam’s flighty, dreamer sister who was (probably inaccurately) informed by some posh girls in their small town that she had a voice good enough for opera?  Where would it take Sam’s Estella-equivalent (Great Expectations definitely looms large over big stretches of this novel) childhood obsession, a young woman too beautiful and aware of her talents to really be willing to settle, but also a young woman who seems unsure of what it is she wants in the first place (critically important for anyone afraid of “settling”)?  Where would it take Sam?

It’s taken Sam on a sort of picaresque journey through American capitalism—winning his way into the railroad business (at a very low level) as it’s conquering the West, then flopping into sales in the era when advertising and PR become dominant market forces, shifting then into manufacturing and importing/exporting as the world opens up for American mass-produced goods.  He serves in the army in WWI, watches a business fail and then resurface, and makes the miraculously fortunate decision to give up being a business owner—selling all his shares—a few weeks before the Great Crash in 1929 destroys most of the families he knew.  It’s less politically and historically aware than Upton Sinclair’s novel (Dragon’s Teeth, my long-time nemesis, chronicled extensively here), but in some ways I don’t mind that at all: it lets me focus on Sam as a real person dealing with real issues whose magnitude he can’t always assess accurately.

I chose the title I did for this post because the sentiments—expressed by Sam’s spinster elder sister, Madge—rings so true for so much of the novel.  Without seeming vindictive about it, Flavin certainly ensures that his world is a “just” one, at least by some standards.  People who flout convention will reap the consequences.  Everything catches up to you eventually.  Sam’s relatively consistent devotion to ethical behavior—not totally consistent, but certainly more than a lot of his acquaintances—allows him to escape most of this, so far, but I think I see a reckoning coming.

My only concern at this point is that I don’t see this novel signifying much.  Flavin isn’t trying to make Sam emblematic of much of anything, as far as I can tell.  Other than some vaguely positive (while clear-eyed) assessments of capitalism, maybe some general leanings towards supporting society’s strictures about sobriety, modesty, and fidelity, I can’t see that Flavin is trying to say much beyond the flat details of the story—that America is a place where a Sam Braden can make a life, and a successful one.  If that’s all I get from the book, it certainly will have been a better reading experience than a lot of the things I’ve read.  But I can’t say it will stick with me.  I’m already fading on a lot of details earlier in the novel, without having even reached the end yet.  I think I can understand the Pulitzer committee responding to this well in the moment, but I wonder if, even just a few months later, they realized it didn’t have the challenge and controversy that distinguishes real art (most of the time), and came to regret their choice.

We’ll see.  Sam still has a few chickens to come home to roost yet.  I doubt very much I’ll post again until my review, which hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer.  I’ll ponder the calm tone and simple success of the characterization, as opposed to the relatively slim joys of the plot and its underlying significance, and see what it adds up to, in the end.

“Sam Braden never talked about his father.”

So begins Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1944.  Flavin is another of Pulitzer’s forgotten names: his Wikipedia article (linked to in that first sentence) is about as barebones as any of the authors I’ve yet encountered, and it appears this was about his only swing of the bat in terms of making a splash nationally with his art.  Combine that with the fact that this novel starts like several of the worst books I’ve yet read—a slow retrospective glance at a Midwestern family in the 1880s that doesn’t have quite the glamour and money they think they deserve/once might have had—and it seems like a surefire recipe for a bad experience.

Except that I’ve read about the first third of the novel already, and the main reason I’ve moved so quickly is that it’s really good.  Not Steinbeck good; not Wharton good.  Maybe not even Stribling or La Farge good (although I’m not at all sure yet). Still, though, it’s clearly better than any non-Steinbeck novel I’ve read in the last three years (which encompasses about a decade’s worth of Pulitzer winners).  For the first time in a while, I’m sort of hoping one or more of you either has read this or feels like jumping in, since I’d love an outside perspective.  First, though, let me offer my own.

The setting jumps around a bit (I’ll explain in a second), but for the first third, it really is based pretty solidly in fictional Wyattville, Iowa, a small Mississippi River town dominated by the large number of descendants from the founding Wyatt family.  The Bradens are poor, based largely on Sam’s father’s severe laziness, but just high enough in status (his father’s East Coast law degree—earned goodness-only-knows-how—gets him the job as “town marshal”) to hob-nob with the Wyatts in certain social situations (but not all of them).  Sam’s the youngest of four kids—ambitious, thoughtful, a little bit of a dreamer and also a good kid who mostly wants his mother to be proud of him.  I’m calling him a kid, but as I mentioned, this book skips around—so far I’ve seen little vignettes of Sam as a much older, fairly successful businessman.  The glimpses don’t normally explain enough to give away important plot points, and quickly there’s usually some event that causes older Sam to remember being young again, and we flop back into a fairly conventional chronological re-telling of Sam’s rise from being youngest barefoot kid of the town’s no-good sheriff to being a man of substance.  There’s something very Dickensian going on for Sam (it’s no coincidence, I think, that Flavin has Sam’s mother give him a copy of David Copperfield for Christmas, and later there’s brief mention that Sam enjoys Great Expectations, maybe enough to make it his favorite novel: certainly there’s a lot of Pip in him).

All of that, though, is only enough to make this a potentially good novel—it has the bones of better works, but that’s never a guarantee.  What I appreciate most about this novel so far is its modernity and maturity, which is most easily encapsulated in Sam’s relationship with his next door neighbor, a girl named Cassie.  Cassie, you see, is a young black woman—two years older than Sam, adventurous with a sunny demeanor—and by the time she hits her teens, she takes a shine to Sam.  He initially resists, but not for long.  Here’s the remarkable thing: Flavin depicts a real series of sexual encounters.  Not in graphic detail (although there are plenty of lines that would make Edith Wharton blush), but honestly—the tension that builds between the two of them before an illicit encounter in an abandoned warehouse in a storm, then the furtive, repeated liaisons when time allows and no one else is watching.  Furthermore, Cassie and her family are depicted as regular folks: generous, lively, decent neighbors.  Although Sam is aware that he needs to keep his relationship with Cassie secret from his white friends (particularly the toffee-nosed Wyatt girl who lives in the mansion and never says a word to him….yeah, like I said, really inspired by Great Expectations), there’s never a hint of his feeling any kind of internal shame about their racial differences, or any condescension to Cassie’s family (beyond a very brief mention of the fact that Cassie has no discernibly “black” accent, unlike her father—a very neutral statement in context, honestly, although perhaps some judgment is implied).  Even when they are discovered and he must be confronted by an adult, it’s Cassie’s father, a black man, who scolds Sam—and the interracial situation is never even remotely addressed, despite the fact that I was absolutely certain, given the time period, that Sam would catch an earful for “traveling outside of his rightful folk” or something like that.  And Cassie’s father is not even as outraged as I would expect a modest turn-of-the-century man to be when discovering the neighbor boy has been shtupping his daughter regularly on the down-low for a year plus.  He does assert several times that it’s shameful what they’ve been doing, but he’s a deacon in his church, and his daughter has turned up pregnant—this seems pretty much par for the course.  And honestly, he spends more time on praising Sam than on shaming him, emphasizing how good a young man he is in most respects, and how proud his mother (then deceased) would have been to see him grow up, and the burden he feels as a man who’s watched Sam grow up to hold him accountable to the values Sam’s mother would have wanted instilled.

Yeah—racially and sexually progressive.  Or at least the attitudes towards race and sex of the central characters would not be totally out of place in a novel written and set in the 2010s—which is astonishing in 1944.  If Flavin keeps it up, this will win my personal award (which I talked about a long time ago, I think during a terribly racist stretch in Scarlet Sister Mary) for being the earliest American novel I’m familiar with to treat race in a decent and non-embarrassing fashion.  Add to that the fact that, in what is maybe even more evident to me after my long sojourn with Upton Sinclair, Flavin can write a real character.  Sam in particular is incredibly complex—single-minded in some things (like his pursuit of the Wyatt girl, or his ambition to make something of himself), but undecided and malleable in others (for instance, when, as a child, he gets an unexpected gift of cash, he wavers back and forth between buying himself a sled or buying his mother a gift—the balancing act feels very natural).  And most of the townsfolk are distinguishable from each other and operating with sensible motivations in response to the outside stimuli we would expect them to: these feel like real human beings grappling with a world that’s as simultaneously marvelous and malevolent as the real world is.

The dialogue doesn’t have a ton of sparkle to it, and the narration falls a little flat at times.  The jerks back and forth between the main, chronological storyline and these “flash-forwards” to an older, wealthier Sam don’t always work very smoothly and can be a little disorienting.  And again, this book at times drags so much out of Great Expectations (seriously: there is a scene where Sam arrives at the Wyatt house on an errand and sees the Wyatt girl he likes playing with a rich young boy, who he hates immediately and wants to fight….it’s like Pip and Estella are both ill and we’re watching their American understudies) that it can feel a little needlessly redundant.  All of these criticisms are valid, and unless Flavin can master them, will keep this novel out of the highest levels of the Pulitzer stratosphere.  But there’s so much else to like right now, I’m rooting for him to take this as far as it can go—there’s a real “American success story” planted inside Sam Braden, and Flavin seems ready to set the story in the real America.  Again, if you’ve read this before (or have time to grab a copy), please hop into the comments—this one has me wanting to talk it out!

“I cannot believe that God is still alive.”

Well, we’ve hit the intense portion of Dragon’s Teeth.  Hitler is bringing down the hammer on the Jews of Germany, and it’s striking just the characters that have been sitting in its shadow this whole time—in particular, arms dealer Johannes Robin, who has been insisting to Lanny Budd that he knows how to handle the Nazis and stay on their good side.  And it really is the first part of the novel that works (although not without its issues).  I’ll try to say why without giving up too much of the plot, given that I’m nearing the end of the novel—close enough that this may well be my last post before writing a review.

One of the problems with Upton Sinclair’s novel, in my estimation, is that it’s the 3rd novel in an incredibly long series of books on Lanny Budd (Sinclair will wrap up with the 11th book in the series in the early 1950s).  In works of this kind, an impossible number of characters are floated because the author needs to keep everyone hanging around in case they become useful again.  Then add to this the fact that the novels are really just Sinclair’s pretext for being able to opine about world events, and you have to add in all the real people he needs them to interact with—Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring both make extended cameos in this section, for example.  The result, for much of the book, is a sea of names marching in and out, and if you can’t remember the difference between Zoltan and Zaharoff, neither of whom have actually appeared in a scene in hundreds of pages but both of whom will be referred to casually by their last names multiple times in situations where context cannot possibly help you, dear reader, work out who in the heck they are….well, let’s say it’s been frustrating and leave it at that.

But in this scenario, suddenly the world has telescoped down to something very small—really it’s just Lanny and his wife Irma, making their way into Hitler’s Germany to try to secure the freedom of Lanny’s Jewish relatives (in-laws via his sister’s marriage to one of the Robin boys) without either endangering them further or risking their own lives too hastily.  Upton is forced to spend a lot of time with the two of them, to the exclusion of the parade of other characters who (for various sensible reasons) can’t really gallivant into Nazi Germany on a whim.  So we actually get to know them, and to understand how differently they see the world.  And we get to see them try to “play” the Nazis and lose terribly, since fundamentally a man like Göring—monstrous, lacking all conscience and utterly unrestrained by what little was left of law and decency in the Nazi state—held all the cards and knew it.  In the end, they must leave at least one innocent man in Germany because they cannot secure all the freedoms they wanted, which gives cause to Mama Robin’s despairing borderline atheism that provides me with the post’s title.  I’m at the point where they’re now exploring their options for another German rescue, while simultaneously trying to work out how to care for everyone they know in need during a massive worldwide depression.  It’s exciting, page-turning stuff, and it makes for a fairly rewarding experience.

And yet.  The two things that still bug me are the things that will bug me to the end—they’re not accidental on Upton’s part, they’re almost integral to his project, and so even now at his best, they’re in the way.  The first is that almost all the characters are cardboard—they exist to drive the plot and to allow him to make meaningful commentary as the narrator.  Mama Robin is an excellent example—he gives her a couple of heart-breaking lines (like the one I quote above), but he never really deals with her grief.  She agrees to leave Germany with some of her loved ones despite the fact that she’s leaving someone else behind she loves dearly….how can she do that?  What toll does it take?  It has no bearing on Upton’s project and so he literally doesn’t deal with it at all.  When (most of) the family is reunited, he brushes it off with some narrative sentence like “there were many tears, but they eventually subsided” since he couldn’t care less, really, how these characters feel or what they’re going through.  Not unless their feelings can be plumbed for some trenchant political commentary.

And the second issue is that he still doesn’t really like Lanny and Irma, and has made the colossal error of making them his central characters.  In the hands of another author, we might not notice or care, but he really can’t help being snide about them, Irma especially, and it’s irritating.  He hates her naivete and the inherited wealth that made it possible, and now, while he is at least (to his credit) letting her voice her opinions, he makes it clear how vapid and heartless a woman like her really is, without even meaning to be.  And that would be fine—it really would (I think of how Fitzgerald treats Daisy Buchanan)—except that it distracts him from really developing her character much beyond what is needed for the immediate purposes of the plot (Lanny fares only a little better), and since he’s only given the two of them a vital task to do now, at the end and in the heart of a terrible crisis, the sliver we get of their personalities is necessarily limited and therefore frustrating.

Really, again, it goes back to the issues I raised in my last post.  The Holocaust is such rich and tragic emotional territory than any artist worth his salt (and a few unworthy of it) can turn a little paint-by-numbers story into something that feels very profound and significant just by setting it in Nazi Germany with some major Jewish characters.  Upton has at least chosen to make this situation the central focus of the story, at last, and so is getting all he can out of it.  I just feel that his frequent boredom with the characters, combined with his condescension and his political agenda, leaves the story short of what it could have accomplished.  The novel’s reputation with me is getting better—I can’t deny I’m riveted by what’s going on, and I desperately want to know how this turns out.  I just feel that, given the reputation of the author, and the high praise implied by the awarding of a Pulitzer, I deserve something better than a potboiler with some stock characters and an author who plainly thinks he’s smarter than me, maybe than everybody else.  If the whole book were like this section, it would be worth recommending (maybe as an airplane read), but since I had to slog a ways to even get here, I’m not sure what to make of it yet.  We’ll see how this last stretch goes.

“Then Göring, President of the Reichstag, declared the session adjourned, and so a great people lost their liberties while rejoicing over gaining them.”

There’s a conventional wisdom about Holocaust movies and the Academy Awards—namely, that if you can just manage to set your movie in that ghastly genocidal event somewhere, the overwhelming emotions associated with it will lend your film a gravity and importance that it might not deserve, and earn you some nominations/awards you otherwise wouldn’t get.  And there’s some truth to it.  For every Schindler’s List, which is a truly great movie, there’s a The Reader or The Pianist (arthouse films that, set in almost any other historical era of oppression and violence, probably wouldn’t get quite the notice), and then the occasional Life is Beautiful, a film that almost no one likes as well in retrospect as they did when it came out, a film that (for many of us) really cheated its way into our hearts by dialing up our emotions to 11 but without giving the subject matter the depth of understanding it deserved, now that we think about it.

Welcome to the rise of Nazi Germany, then, in the hands of Upton Sinclair, because that’s right, dear readers, James is back on the Pulitzer trail and half-way through the 1943 winner of the prize, Dragon’s Teeth.  I’m making more headway now, and it’s time to come up for air and share a few thoughts with you all.  Sinclair’s approach to the novel is still not totally successful for me, but somehow the story is becoming more and more engrossing.  Yet, if I step back to think about it, I worry a little that it’s a Life is Beautiful phenomenon.  The story is set in such an urgent and important time period in German and Jewish history, and several of our main characters (though not the protagonists) are German Jews, and it can be easy to get swept up in the power of what the actual lives of those characters would have been that I don’t think as much about whether Sinclair’s work with them is actually successful writing.  And it’s hard to say exactly where I stand.

Sinclair does some things well—the quote that serves as the post’s title is a nice example.  He does great with these sweeping movements of history, noting what the famous real-life people are doing, sneaking notes about their intrigues and scheming into conversations wherever he can, and moralizing extensively about them in the voice of the narrator—“The Germans gained an empire and lost their souls”, stuff like that—without it being remotely tied to any individual character’s perspective on the situation.  Much of it feels like just a memoir written by a thoughtful and aggressive partisan, which really it is: Sinclair’s perspective on the gross errors made by Americans and Western Europeans in the 1930s which had led to the position the world is in as he writes, engulfed in the second world war, the war they’d sworn to avoid in 1917 and yet had somehow planted the seeds of in the very peace they signed in 1919.  Honestly, I’d rather read his memoir.  He’s much better at dicing up the leftist movements into factions and explaining how they thwarted each other, or examining the ways in which Fascism could present itself as respectable in so many different lights, than he is at writing meaningful dialogue or constructing characters we care about as people.  Sinclair, in other words, could easily have written half of The Grapes of Wrath—the non-Joad chapters, in which Steinbeck told the story of the people and their movements and what it all signified—but would have found even the worst Joad chapter hopelessly above his reach.  That’s my impression as it stands now.

And it’s such a shame, because he sets himself up beautifully.  We’re in 1933, and Hitler has seized power—Jews are fleeing the German Republic as it loses the very name of “republic”, and some of our central characters are among them.  I’ve just read about how the young German Jewish musician, Hansi Robin, fled with his wife across the border into France (with the Budds’ assistance), and then played the music of his people with tears in his eyes before a crowd as an act of political protest once the abuses of the Nazi party against Jews in Germany are starting to make the news.  And it really is powerful, right up until I realize that the character I’m sympathizing with is a guy I personally am constructing.  I’m piecing him together from some of the movies I mentioned, and some stories I’ve read, and the words of a couple of Holocaust survivors whose stories I was privileged enough to hear in person, more than a decade ago.  If I knew nothing about this era other than what Sinclair is giving me, I’d have almost no emotion to bring to the table—unless he has a violin in his hands, I literally cannot even tell one Robin brother from the other, let alone remember which one is socialist and which one communist.

The result is difficult to characterize.  The art of the West is now well steeped in Holocaust memories and events—most potential readers could bring a rich palate of emotions to these chapters just as I can, and get something out of them that Upton never put in.  So, does that make this a good reading experience?  But then every time I try to really grab hold of someone—to ask myself who this American heir to a munitions manufacturer, Lanny Budd, really is, or what I think his rich wife, Irma, really thinks about the power struggle in Germany—I realize they’re just paper people.  I turn them in my hands to try to see them better, and they are so thin that they disappear to me almost entirely.

So, am I enjoying myself?  I’m getting something from the reading, that’s for sure.  At least some of it is new to me—Sinclair knew the politics of leftist movements internationally very well, and I’m sure I can trust those details in the story.  Much of it resonates with other non-fiction books I’ve read, maybe most centrally Erik Larson’s (he of The Devil in the White City: if you haven’t read Larson, you need to hunt something down) In The Garden of Beasts, which is about a real American family, a wealthy one, that came to Germany when the paterfamilias was appointed ambassador to the new Nazi state, and his adult kids came piling along with him to meet these fresh-faced young Aryans and learn more about the young German empire as it was being reborn.  It’s exactly the book Sinclair wants to write, truthfully, and the fact that I’ve read it means that I really can add dimension to some of the conversations he’s supplying.  The novel itself isn’t terrible—it’s just sloppy, because he doesn’t really care about these people as people.  They’re there solely to serve Sinclair’s agenda, like characters in a Dan Brown novel, who are there only to help Dan tell us his latest “insights” into world religion or history or whatever he thinks he’s an expert on this year.  Now, again, as I said earlier, I think Sinclair is fascinating, and I’d have read his memoir about the 1930s with interest—he’s well ahead of Brown in that regard, for me.  So I forgive him more, I think, for the fact that this is more a piece of propaganda, combined with a bit of a scolding tone aimed at the middle-class folks who should have listened more to people like Upton Sinclair in the ’30s, than it is a work of art.  That’s the way it feels now, at any rate: we’ll see if the last half can move me from this position at all!

“So passed a pleasant period in the well-cushioned limousine in which Lanny Budd was rolling through life.”

That’s right, I’m back on the Pulitzer train!  After a very, very long delay, I’ve picked up Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and am charging through as fast as I can just to get it over with.  I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and thought I could share at least a few of my reflections, although truthfully Sinclair doesn’t give me much to talk about.

The reason for that is something I discussed last year when I began the novel—Sinclair’s more a propagandist than a prose stylist, and the novel is therefore more an opportunity for him to talk about politics and economics than it is a work of literature.  The Budds and Robins (our two principal families) are still doing their respective things as American and Jewish-German munitions dealers during the interwar period (specifically, 1930, at this point in the book), and it’s still giving Sinclair plenty of opportunity to talk about all the things he cared about in the aftermath of WWI and the slow rise of the conditions that created WWII.  I still don’t think these characters are very deep or interesting, and I still find that a shame, since there ought to be scope for some really artful psychological stuff here, especially for the Robin paterfamilias whose status as a rich, arms-dealing Jew in Berlin society as the National Socialists rise to power should give him a lot to chew over.  We just don’t see it.

What we do see, jarringly, is the first fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve ever read.  Oh, of course I’ve seen him on television and in film portrayed by actors, I’ve read non-fiction about him, and I’ve certainly seen some of the footage taken of his speeches in the 1930s.  It’s just odd to have him as a character in a novel I’m reading—a man Lanny Budd is invited to luncheon with, and with whom Budd then has a long, strained conversation.  In some ways I liked it—Hitler is so clearly one of the most important men in world history, and the notion that a novel might explore what he was like outside the carefully scripted world of speech-giving and military planning is kind of intriguing.  But of course I have Sinclair’s limitations as a writer of character, and unfortunately, with Hitler, even slightly wrong tones can start to feel really odd—you wonder if the novelist is being too sympathetic to a genocidal maniac, or too sloppy in caricaturing a complex man, or any number of other things.  In short, a good novelist should try this (and maybe they have), but this isn’t a good idea for Sinclair.

I do like that Upton allows us some complexity in the main characters, at least.  For instance, when they spend the summer of 1930 at their villa, Lanny and his wife have a real liberal argument about the poor.  Lanny sees them starving and wants to buy cheap food and distribute it to them.  His wife, Irma, thinks it’s better to buy their usual expensive food, which puts more money in the hands of locals who will use it in the local economy, and not to bother with charitable handouts, which she thinks will at best encourage laziness and at worst will make people feel disrespected and dependent.  As much as I feel more sympathy to one side of the argument, there’s undeniably a case on each side, and Upton, to his unexpected credit, lets both sides have their say.

One complaint, and a common one for me: if you can’t, as an author, get the little details of your setting right, don’t bother writing at all, because it wrecks my concentration to see badly misrepresented reality.  For instance, Sinclair in a passage I just read notes that Lanny’s infant, which is a few months old, just said her first word and is now trying to learn to stand.  But the timing of these events is weirdly backwards, as I know now (as a parent of an infant).  It’s a small thing, Upton, but because it’s small, can’t we fix it?

I will keep plodding—there are much better books ahead, and I want to get to them!  But the above is all I have for now.

“Instead of peace, the nations had got more armaments and more debts.”

This much, at least, can be said for Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and the current monkey on my back—it does all it can to summon up the picture of how chaotic Europe felt in the period following World War I, particularly the first dangerous signs of the worldwide depression that creeps up around our main characters here in the spring of 1930.  What is frustrating is how little else Sinclair is interested in doing with the novel.  The cast of characters is pretty broad, at this point—we have Lanny Budd, the scion of a munitions magnate, and his wealthy wife Irma, and their little infant; Lanny’s friend, the wealthy German Jewish importer/exporter, Johannes Robin, along with his wife and assorted leftist kids, one of whom has married Lanny’s communist half-sister; snooty parents galore, supercilious nurses and servants, a crusty yacht captain, an aging Greek industrialist, a middle-aged Polish woman who claims to be able to contact a Native American named Tecumseh in the spirit world, and the list goes on.  This mix of people ought to yield almost unending delight and fascination, but instead, Sinclair is running the whole book aground on what the late Roger Ebert called “Brotman’s Law“—“If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”  I am, translating movie reels into novel pages, about two reels into Dragon’s Teeth at this point, and I fear Brotman is right about my fate.

It’s not that nothing at all happens: it’s only that no meaningful tension or conflict is being built up to.  Every incident seems to pass quickly and unimportantly: Lanny and Irma have some little tensions but I’m not waiting with bated breath for their marriage’s house of cards to rise or fall.  Robin’s concerns for his childrens’ leftist sympathies keep recurring, but with no apparent end in mind.  For crying out loud, our Polish psychic with the Indian spirit guide, who ought to be good for at least a laugh (if not some spooky mystery), is of no significance in the novel’s terms either—she does seem to have freakish abilities to talk about facts she should have no way of knowing, but the characters themselves are not terribly interested, and so far all it’s done is provide Lanny with an opportunity to intrigue a businessman into coming down to the yacht for a seance.  None of this is gripping writing.  I have no idea why I’m following all these people, why I care if someone’s making money or losing money, whether it matters that someone is coming on the yacht, or buying a painting, or worried about their mother, etc.  There isn’t a single character in the novel who, if Sinclair killed them off on the next page, would make even a small ripple in the pool of the story: I wouldn’t wonder about an unfinished thought or a storyline that might never resolve.  As I think about it, isn’t that a pretty damning statement to be able to make about any novel?

So, what is Sinclair doing, if not creating some sort of meaningful plot?  Well, on the one hand, I think he expects his setting to do the heavy lifting here: we know, from the vantage point of 1943, what these characters do not.  We know to shake our heads sadly as Lanny and his father hope that the family fortunes rebound once the stock market dusts itself off from that one-time little hiccup in October of 1929.  We know to cringe with fear as Robin, the wealthy German Jew, makes a little cash selling guns to the Nazi Party while simultaneously betting on the fact that they’ll never seize power.  We suck in our breath quietly as the rich folks tour the Mediterranean by yacht and see all the terrible battlefields of what they don’t know yet should be called the First World War.  But that’s not enough, Upton, and you really ought to be able to know it.  All it does is give a sense of forboding, the knowledge that there’s a horizon and crossing it will have consequences.  What differentiates this from a truly tragic and ironic piece (say, Oedipus Rex) is the impulse that drives the action forward, the captain wrecking the ship on the rocks only we know are there, the plague in Thebes that will force its ruler to unearth the true cause even as it unmakes his whole life.  It wouldn’t take much for Sinclair to crack the whip a little and get us there—some specific dealing for Robin vis-a-vis the Nazis that will force a meaningful confrontation, or maybe some leftist shenanigans that a few young Budds and Robins get mixed up in (maybe in the Soviet Union?) that forces the rest of the family to get off their butts.  But he’s not interested in writing that kind of book.

What is he writing?  Propaganda—the folks who bash Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck for being “too political” really should read this to understand their error.  Sinclair’s not interested in writing a story; he’s trying to inculcate us, to fix in our minds certain images about the world and the people in it, and the result is clunkily phrased and not really very compelling.  Take this paragraph as an example: the Budds wait at the train station for the arrival of their friends, the Robins:

“Two happy members of the prosperous classes welcoming five of their intimate friends on the platform of a railroad station.  Everybody there knew who the Budds were, and knew that when they hugged and kissed people, and laughed and chatted with them gaily, the people must be wealthy and famous like themselves.  A pleasant thing to have friends whom you can love and appreciate, and who will love and appreciate you.  Pleasant also to have villas and motorcars and yachts; but many people do not have them, and do not have many dear friends.  They know themselves to be dull and undistinguished, and feel themselves to be lonely; they stand and watch with a sad envy the behavior of the fortunate classes on those few occasions when they condescend to manifest their feelings in public.”

First off, if you like that, go get this book because it was written just for you.  For the rest of us, you hear, I think, how snippy Sinclair gets when he talks about these families.  Even granting him that they are too rich for their own good, and oblivious to how that affects others (though I’m not sure this isn’t just a caricature), is it too much to ask that he grant them the respect of being people who also have genuine feelings and, you know, more than one dimension?  Here he seems to bundle up their genuine joy at seeing their friends—not because they’re rich but because they’re human beings who care about each other—with crass consumerism and oppressive class warfare.  Upton, buddy, if you hate these people, at least make them interesting to watch, or hey, original idea here, maybe write a novel that isn’t fixated entirely on a class of people you think are parasites?  Because the sneering narration just makes it that much harder to care about a group of people whose uneventful and totally carefree lives are not the makings of a really gripping thriller.  The sad thing here is, I really want to care about these characters, a lot more than Sinclair does.  I see, in ways that he doesn’t, how complicated and fascinating a man like Johannes Robin would really have to be—the German Jew profiteering off World War I and turning a buck off of supplying Hitler with machine guns, whose leftist children are sending cash to the Communists and would move to Stalin’s USSR if Dad would let them, the devoted husband and conscientious friend who sticks loyally by his commitments and who grew up in such poverty in the ghetto that he means never to be unsafe again.  This is a guy you ought to be able to construct a towering novel around, with intrigue and connections to the German underworld, whispers of Nazi outrages but it’s 1930 and who knows, maybe Hitler’s just burning off steam, etc.  And all Sinclair can do with him is make some weird remarks about his Jewishness (sometimes it feels like a defense against anti-Semitism, and other times it feels a little deferential to it), a couple of quick quips about the Nazis, and then mostly a long streak of semi-judgmental incidents that show us that rich dudes are out of touch.  It’s not even edgy, pointed satire: most of the time it’s paint-by-numbers, lots of “X didn’t think much about the servants” or “Y wished that Z would realize how much money she’d brought to the marriage, and relax a little about making a success of his business”.

Oh, and as if all this isn’t enough, Sinclair has the fatal combination of A) casting two nursing mothers as central characters in his novel while B) clearly being a guy who cannot talk like a decent human being about nursing mothers.  And I’m not just talking about him creepily dwelling on it all the time, although he does: almost no scene is complete without either the nursing mothers being somehow inconvenient or noteworthy, or else the narrator alluding to what they’re doing.  I’ve read the phrase “the lactant mothers” more times than anyone should have to.  But he also weirdly analogizes them constantly to cows—I know, it sounds like a bad joke, but I’m serious, he refers to any social outing including both nursing mothers as a “dairy farm”, and the adjective “bovine” is used more than once in reference to them.  I mean, that’s so comically offensive, it’s hard to know how to respond.  I’ve certainly read and heard a wide array of profoundly stupidly sexist things in my day, but I don’t know if I can remember encountering anything as unexpectedly outrageous and vulgar as that in a long while.  I grant that there are exceedingly childish dudes out there who act this way around women when their bodies are being used for anything other than sexual objectification for the benefit of men, and that there were probably more of them in 1943 than there are today.  But do we have to award Pulitzer Prizes to these cretins?

A cow

In case it’s not clear, it’s not like I hate cows: cows are awesome. But there are lines you just don’t cross. (Photo credit: SocialRobot)

So, yeah, that’s where we are so far with Upton Sinclair—a dull piece of political propaganda that’s faintly anti-Semitic and distinctly sexist (although I think most sexists would object that calling a woman lovingly nursing her infant “cow-like” is beyond the pale even for them).  I am making the experience of reading it sound way more exciting than it actually is.  I’m hanging in there, though, in part because I chained myself to the mast of this ship, and in part because I know just enough about Europe in the 1930s that I can basically have a fan-fic track running in my head as I go in which all of these scenes are a lot more interesting and all of these characters are a lot more three-dimensional.  We’ll see if Sinclair can salvage this voyage (despite the dictates of Brotman’s Law), but hope is fading.

“Lanny Budd was the only occupant of a small-sized reception-room.”

So begins Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943.  Upton Sinclair, of course, is a famous name—the kind of name that folks who don’t read literature may remember from a high school class, the kind of name that creeps into Trivial Pursuit questions and Jeopardy answers.  But most of us, of course, haven’t read any of his stuff: his magnum opus is 1906’s The Jungle, a look at the Chicago stockyards that’s so famously harrowing that most of us don’t have the stomach for reading it.  I myself have only ever read excerpts, and generally haven’t wanted a hot dog for days afterwards.  Maybe a very select few of us have encountered 1927’s Oil!, although I’ll admit I’ve never even picked it up once, and might never have heard of the novel (or that Sinclair wrote it) had Paul Thomas Anderson not chosen to adapt it (loosely) in an Oscar-nominated film called There Will Be Blood a couple years ago.  Dragon’s Teeth, then, feels to me a little like one of those consolation prizes coming in—the author that the Pulitzers never got the chance to recognize (or felt like recognizing) before, winning a little too late in his career, perhaps?  Certainly another Sinclair (Lewis, that is) got one of those pity prizes for Arrowsmith, anyway.  The novel is the third in an eleven novel series (yes, eleven) that arcs through most of 20th Century American history up to that point, following along with the life and career of a man named Lanny Budd (a reference to Melville’s Billy? I kind of doubt it, but you tell me).

Lanny is the bright, cosmopolitan son of an American arms manufacturer, and as the novel opens, he is waiting for the news that his wife has given birth. The initial story we get is a bit outlandish: we are apparently in Europe (France, I’m pretty sure) and Lanny’s wife is someone who married him at the drop of a hat.  Literally, we are expected to believe that she was a debutante who got into trouble in Italy, asked the advice of an American reporter there whose advice she trusted, and when he told her “ditch the guy you’re with, get on a train, find Lanny Budd and marry him”, she did, despite the fact that she’d never met Lanny before.  They married within 24 hours of her stepping off the train.  So now, here he is, a fish out of water as an American overseas, waiting for some nurse to stick her head into the reception room and let him know he’s a father.  That’s as much as I’ve read so far, and it’s a little too far-fetched for me so far.  Maybe all of this will settle down soon, but for now it’s hard to see how I’ll identify much with these characters, or take an interest in them.  I wonder (as I always do when the Pulitzers award a sequel) whether or not I’m just out of luck picking up characters who were really introduced elsewhere, and who I won’t ever really understand.

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. as depicted on the co...

Upton Sinclair in 1934—a guy spoiling for a fight in defense of California’s poor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinclair, though, is a fascinating guy, and it’s possible that this novel (which seems to be starting out around the late 1920s) will explore some of the political landscape of America in a meaningful way.  Sinclair wasn’t just the muckraker who exposed contaminated food in the stockyards—he remained active in politics throughout the first half of the century, backing socialist candidates, founding ACLU chapters, ultimately running for Governor of California on the EPIC platform (End Poverty in California) unsuccessfully.  He remained a little marginalized by all sides—a man too capitalist for the real radicals but too radical for the mainstream—and for that reason is interesting to me.  I learned a little about the leftist movements on the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s when I was working on digitizing labor history documents at the University of Washington, reading the letters of folks like Anna Louise Strong and Lincoln Steffens and occasionally encountering mentions of Upton Sinclair and his work, and it makes me curious to see what his fiction is like.  I think right now my expectations of him as a novelist are not very high, but that I’m trying to make myself ready to be satisfied with a work that’s historically and politically interesting even if it’s not very successful as prose.  But I also don’t want to draw too many conclusions just yet: Lanny may yet win me over!  Onward and upward.