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.