This book took me less long than the last one, but still much too long—especially because it’s a much better novel, and deserved better from me. My chief complaint (already described at some length in a previous post) is Flavin’s weirdly circuitous style, that depends so heavily on flashbacks and informing us of sudden, shocking information off-handedly in retrospect that it can be a bit irritating at a plot level. You can only read passages that go like this—“His mother had arrived by hired limousine, although he didn’t know it at the time. She looked well when she walked in; so well that neither of them would have suspected this was the last time they saw each other before her untimely death.”—a few times before you start grousing out loud to the narrator.
And yet Flavin makes it work. In part he does manage at times to achieve that almost Tristram Shandy effect that I imagine he’s going for, where we move back and forth around some key times in the life of our main character, Sam Braden—the sound of an old iron fence being brought down one afternoon punctuates I don’t know how many chapters late in the book, and it comes to take on a certain significance as he keeps bringing us back to Sam in his study that afternoon. But more importantly, Flavin has such a sure hand on these characters that, even when I know startling news about them in that narrator’s shorthanded asides, finally seeing that same event play out in real time is still gripping to me. Even when I know what they’ll say in the end, I like to hear them say it. Life has distracted me away from this book more than once, but Flavin’s hold on the characters—and on me, the reader—is so strong that I never need to retrace my steps. I am immediately and vividly right back with them, I remember why we are where we are, and I want to observe them again just as intensely as when I set the book down last.
This really is the book that The Late George Apley set out to be and failed at—a long rambling walk through the life of an almost-great man and his family and friends, that illuminates a lot about America from 1900-1940 and has something left to say to a wartime home front. Sam is remarkable, with just enough flaws and just enough virtues to be interesting to watch, sometimes a good guy to root for, but never the expression of wish fulfillment or some silly notion about “the ideal American businessman”. Through his eyes we see poverty, opportunity, race, class, gender—you name it. Flavin isn’t quite progressive enough to give us a novel that could withstand our modern sensibilities, but this is light years beyond the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s and 1930s, dealing very calmly with interracial romance, religious bigotry, and extreme political and class struggle tensions between characters. It will never be read and dissected like a Steinbeck or a Fitzgerald, but it ought to be better remembered than it is: the story is expansive, the characters fragile and unpredictable in their humanity, and ultimately more than one scene moved me emotionally to the point that I felt at least misty-eyed. This is a good novel.
A well-thought-out book on this front—it certainly captures the sea change that a small Midwestern river town would have gone through over fifty years, including the rise of the railroads, the impact of two wars and the intervening depression, and ultimately the rise of commercialism and factory production. Sam is reflective enough (and involved enough in a lot of this change) to help us imagine what this looked like to Americans passing through it, and he has two close friends on opposite sides of this America—a grizzled, American Legion type businessman with a fire for competition and an idealist, leftist newspaper man with no head for numbers or accounting but a passion for the rights of the working poor—whose conversations help draw some of these images out in more detail. A lot of the story of Sam Braden and his family is about class, too—what America will let you overcome and what it won’t, what money will buy and what it won’t—and given this particular era in American history, that makes a real difference to me as the reader. This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a novel like my last one by Upton Sinclair, but it’s not trying to: what Flavin wants to do on this front, I think he succeeds with, and it certainly is more than good enough at evoking America in this time period to make me happy with it as a Pulitzer winner.
My unscientific scale calls this “a great read for anyone who enjoys well-developed characters, especially if you like a longer family saga or a historical novel”. Not among the very best Pulitzers I’ve read, but close behind them, totally worth reading, and a book I’m glad won an award, since I want it to be remembered.
The Last Word:
As is my custom, I give the last word to the author, and let you be the judge of what you find. Here, late in the story (after World War II has already engulfed America), Sam Braden is writing a letter to his son, Hath:
“He did not mean, he said, to accuse himself uniquely, for it was his generation which much be indicted; he, himself, was no more than a reflection of the world in which he’d lived, not atypical at all. He could only be convicted of having realized the fruit which his fellow men had coveted, of being a winner in a race in which, as it turned out, there were not any winners, since there were not any stakes—no real reward for winning; but only the winners had a chance to find that out. He would plead guilty to success—the very same in pursuit of which most people lived and died, never knowing that the stars at which they grasped were fireflies and marsh lights. And success had this advantage: once in your hand you could examine it and appraise its actual value—a benefit denied to less successful men.
‘Values,’ he wrote, ‘that’s where we have been wrong: bad accounting methods, confusing liabilities with assets; the books are in a mess. But I think that it is changing—not just for the duration, as many people say. And I believe in you, Hath, all you fine young men who must suffer for our faults, who must fight and win a war which you had no part in making, and who must remake a world which we have wrecked—I believe that you will not repeat the old mistakes.'”