1936: Honey in the Horn, by H. L. Davis

Literary Style:

Well, I survived this book, although by the end it was out of determination more than anything like pleasure.  Davis isn’t the worst writer I’ve read on this quest, and this book isn’t the worst novel I’ve read, but he and the book are so far below what I “signed up for” when I started the Pulitzer journey that I’m finding it hard to sort out exactly what kind things I can say about what I’ve just read.  Davis is the most plodding and single-minded of plotters—the novel cares about only one thing, and that is contriving events so that the main character, Clay, meets one example of every kind of person living in Oregon in 1906-1908, and sees one example of every kind of occupation and natural environment to be found within the borders of the state in those years.  A side effort involves contriving that, at literally every juncture, he finds himself “coincidentally” bumping into one or more of the characters he left behind the last time he pulled up tent stakes and took to the road.  Imagine if literally every stop on the Mississippi for Huck and Jim involved meeting one of the characters from St. Petersburg—not just an occasional “oh my goodness, that’s Pap”, but Tom Sawyer turns out to be visiting his long-lost cousins the Grangerfords, and Joanna, Mary Jane, and Susan turn out to be the Widow Douglas’s nieces and she’s visiting them, and Judge Thatcher’s left his profession to work as a hired hand for the Shepherdsons, etc., etc.  Sadly, these recurring characters are thoroughly one-dimensional—they show up again as plot devices only, not so that Davis can deepen his depiction of them or draw out any meaningful conversation.  He’s so terrible about dialogue that it almost never lasts more than one or two exchanges.  To extend the conversation would be to waste valuable time that can be spent telling me exactly how sack-sewers made their money in 1907, or how the kindly old farmer lost his suspenders one afternoon when a cow ate them, or whatever homespun cornball yarn Davis has lined up to add to the manuscript next.  I swear, The Andy Griffith Show depicted a more realistic and psychologically complex society.

Davis clearly does think he’s Twain—my choice of Huck Finn as an analogy isn’t an accident.  But it takes wit to be witty, and Davis is deficient in that department (as in so many others).  His satire is thin and rarely well-targeted, his humor would be feeble by the standards of 7-year-olds’ knock-knock jokes, and ultimately the book is a self-indulgent ramble.  The story is too cluttered with details about Oregon and Oregonians to be interesting as fiction, but too hackneyed and far-fetched to be plausible as a genuine account of the time and place.  I’m sure a lot of the statements are truthful, but so many more are obvious farmers’ tall tales—the cows freezing standing up in a “tough winter”, etc.—that I can’t really treat what I’m reading as non-fiction.  And, to return to a complaint I’ve probably already voiced too much, the tales aren’t even all that tall!  I was going to add more examples to those frozen cows, but all the stories take too long to tell and have absolutely no pay-off: it’s like listening to someone narrate a long and tedious encounter with their pharmacist, in which you’re pretty sure there’s no way the pharmacist spoke like that to a customer (or that the mix-up in question could really have been as confused as your friend makes it sound), but you can’t work out how to get them to move the story along.  Davis doesn’t know how to pace things, doesn’t know how to bring the threads together, and finishes the book by using the same stupid devices he’d over-used before the half-way point of the novel.  Enough about him.

Historical Insight:

Creek and old-growth forest on Larch Mountain ...

Old-growth forest in Oregon: the fact that Davis occasionally helped me imagine scenes like this is among the novel’s few highlights. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve already alluded to this above—it’s the book’s only strong point, but Davis undercuts it by trying to be a comic novelist (and failing).  I grant you, if you like old settlers and are interested in the history of the settlement of the Northwest, there’s a certain charm to the book in stretches.  Ignoring the main characters and the wholly implausible plot frees up a lot of brainwaves that can, at times, be usefully set to taking in some nice descriptions of the natural environment, or the difficult working conditions faced by many workers in the fields.  But Davis doesn’t have anything in particular to say about America at the turn of the century other than “hey, these people were here!”  We can give him a bit of credit for noticing the working classes, I suppose, but he doesn’t understand them or offer them any genuine and authentic opportunities to speak through the novel.  He outpaces some of the books I’ve read so far in being interested in a real historical moment in America, and that’s about all that made this bearable.  But I could name you three or four books just off the top of my head that do a better job with rural life in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century: where Davis is good, he’s not particularly original, and so there’s not much to recommend him or the book.

Rating:

By my unscientific ranking system, Honey in the Horn gets a “don’t bother”.  It’s not as morally objectionable as the worst of the Pulitzers—there is racism but it’s less prevalent than I’ve seen, and it is occasionally balanced by semi-positive accounts of Native Americans[the more I think about it, the more this seems too kind: it’s at least plausibly accurate on occasion, but enough time is spent depicting native men as lazy fools and native women as empty-headed whores that I really shouldn’t cut him any slack]—and I think there were a few authors whose prose was worse.  If the novel was half as long, and funnier, it might be worth a very conditional “hey, maybe in the right mood for the right person” rating, but it’s not, and it isn’t, and Heaven knows what kind of mood/person combination would make this a delightful read.  I’m sure it works for some people—probably people with much more patience than I have, for a start—and good for them.  If you want my advice, steer well clear.

Last Word:

The one advantage of Davis’s approach is that there’s very little to “give away”, and the book is full of one-paragraph long stories that relate to absolutely nothing else, so that it’s very easy to choose from an abundance of potential excerpts for a last piece here.  I’ve decided to snag something from about the 3/4 point of the novel, where I think Davis’s little story is about as close to really perceptive satire as he gets.  If reading this makes you want 400 more pages of it (and you recognize many of those pages won’t be either as funny or as witty), disregard my rating and go get yourself a copy: you and Davis will be good friends.  I’d give you context for the paragraph, but there really isn’t any, other than to say that the plot has allowed Davis to mention a bridge, and there you go:

“The man who owned it was in Congress and therefore under such heavy expenses that he couldn’t afford repairs.  The reason he was in Congress was that the county kept threatening to build a competitive public bridge and let people cross free, and he had to keep hold of a good deal of political influence to prevent them doing it.  His system for holding his constituency together was sweeping and simple.  He owned all of the wool warehouses around the upper country, and when anybody started to electioneer against him, all his superintendents got orders not to handle the sonofagun’s wool any more.  If he hired a freighter to haul it to the railroad for him, orders went out to the warehouses that the freighter was to do no more hauling for them.  Under such management, things stayed pretty well in line, and the bridge, in slack times when there were a good many people on the road, took in on an average of four hundred dollars a week, counting sheep at a nickel a head and cattle at a dime.  A man with brains enough to keep up a business like that was a good man to have in Congress.  His ability to take care of his own interests proved that he was qualified to look out for other people’s.  The public issues which he had dedicated himself to were to acquaint the provincial East with the ravishing beauties of Western scenery and climate, and to levy an import tariff of two or three hundred percent on foreign wool.  He also believed that the United States had done perfectly right to separate from Great Britain,  and he wasn’t afraid to come right out and say so.  He was a smart man and a profound statesman.”

Kind of clever, right?  You can envision the Congressman, anyway, and there’s something both humorous and sharp about the portrayal.  The character is never heard from again.  Classic Davis.  I know, I know, the authors are supposed to get the last word, but I endured too many of Davis’s words, and couldn’t help taking one last shot on behalf of my beleaguered brain. On to Gone With The Wind!

“He would have to learn to be meek.”

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.

P. G. Wodehouse, Bolton's friend and collaborator

P. G. Wodehouse, whose talents were so marvelous that even comparing him to H. L. Davis favorably feels a bit like a slight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

1934: Lamb in His Bosom, by Caroline Miller

Literary Style:

I’ll admit that, since abandoning my “update” posts halfway through the novel, Miller made some progress climbing out of the deep hole she put herself in.  Not sufficient progress to warrant my recommending this book to you, I should make absolutely clear.  But it has put sufficient distance between itself and the bottom of the barrel that I think Miller should get some kind of acknowledgement.

Miller is at her best when she is drawing out the features of the confined, isolated, lonely lives of the people of the rural Deep South in the antebellum period, especially the housewives.  At times, she manages to portray their combination of grit and innocence, of piety and practicality, in a very hushed and humble way that really does shine, if only for a few paragraphs.  In those moments, I am reminded most of Thornton Wilder’s much better Pulitzer-winner, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and his ability to weave understanding of a character out of very little dialogue, preferring the juxtaposition of significant moments and images.  These moments do not last.

This is because Miller is a writer out of her depth—reading the novel is like listening to a well-meaning 7th grader declaim a Shakespearean soliloquy, or watching a dog swim.  No matter how much you may admire the mixture of courage and foolhardiness involved, you can’t really praise the skill exhibited.  It’s just beyond their ability (in the case of the 7th grader, perhaps they’ll grow into it; in the case of the dog, it’s a matter of finding some other outlet for its talents—the jury’s out, as far as I’m concerned, regarding which category we should place Miller in).  Her dialogue is usually pretty lousy, and her narration is often not much better.  She falls into the same trap as other writers of dialect—because she doesn’t know how to express complicated and mature ideas in the sing-song slang of the backwoods, she ends up producing characters who aren’t capable of complicated or mature ideas, which is irritatingly patronizing.  Worse yet, her dialect comes and goes—the narrator talks in perfect English half the time, only to lapse suddenly and without warning into words and phrases only slightly more decipherable than Eliza Doolittle‘s (pre-Higgins).

And Miller’s plots are a mish-mash.  At times, I commended her for giving us some straight accounts of life on a struggling farm.  As someone obsessed with genealogy (my own, and other people’s), I’ve seen the records—the numerous children dying young, the accidental deaths happening to people in their prime, the toll that childbirth after childbirth took on very young women.  There was something moving (and tragic) about seeing a lot of these events enacted.  But Miller can’t quite manage all the work she has to do—too often she simply drifts into sentimentality, or else into unseemly family chaos (the Jerry Springer themes surrounding poor “loose” Margot never really go away).  And when she handles difficult moments, her eyes always seem to be on the wrong things, almost as though she doesn’t understand which moments we want to be present for, and which thoughts we need to be given insight into.  Imagine Sophocles telling the story of Oedipus marrying his mother, Iocasta, as the social faux pas of a woman who wore white despite its being her second marriage, and the tragedy of a man who didn’t realize until after his wedding that his wife’s age meant that she would never understand the pop culture references he was making.  Your jaw hits the table as the narrator slowly works around the room, avoiding the elephant but describing the dust bunnies under the couch in real detail.  I may be exaggerating, but only slightly—Miller never really seems to understand what in the story is worth relating.

Because of this, Miller writes with her head down, failing to look ahead to see where the story is going: in the end, there seems to be no particular point to the book.  It ends abruptly and in perhaps the worst possible way, leaping away from every character of importance to someone long since written out of the story.  She explains in painstaking detail “whatever became of X”, but since A) we already figured that’s what had happened, and B) X is almost completely unimportant to the novel at that point, the choice to close with several pages of X is baffling.  This is especially true given that she had narrated several other characters into at least mildly tense situations that more or less cry out for some kind of resolution.  But Miller may have forgotten about them entirely.

Miller writes sweetly at times, and it’s clear she felt a lot of sympathy for her main characters.  I suspect she saw herself in Cean—certainly her stories are the liveliest, and the life of her mind is the most believable.  There were moments as I read this book that made me almost think of recommending it—almost.  But then I remember how even the best scenes are larded up with bad writing, and how the narrative bounces around so unexpectedly that it really doesn’t linger on anything worthwhile for long enough.  There’s no denying that, having lived through the first half and therefore invested myself (on some level) in the characters, I got some enjoyment out of watching them grow up, and see who married who, etc.  But it’s no real argument in favor of you attempting the same thing.

Historical Insight:

As mentioned above, Miller is effective at evoking the solitude of life as a farmer in the relative wilderness of rural Georgia—what it would be like to grow up never meeting anyone of another race, to grow up using words like “ocean” and “wave” as metaphors (say, in a beloved hymn) without ever having seen even a decent-sized lake, let alone the sea.  This gives her some small amount of latitude to explore why poor Southern white people might have been invested in the institution of slavery despite the fact that they had never benefited from it directly, and never would.  She does so only in the leanest and most glancing of ways.  Stribling’s Reconstruction-era novel, The Store, which had won the Pulitzer just the year prior, is immeasurably better at examining the South and what race and conflict meant to that culture.  So, a slight nod of the head to Miller for giving me insight into the lives of Southern women and rural farm life as it concerns their husbands, their families, and to a small extent, their religion.  I just can’t do much with that knowledge, given Miller’s inability to draw on a larger picture.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, Lamb in His Bosom receives a “there’s no way I can envision you sticking with this book long enough to extract its few worthwhile elements”.  At its best, maybe 2/3 of the way through, there were definitely situations I liked better than any comparable paragraph in maybe half of the Pulitzers I’ve read.  But I can’t envision why on earth I would have stuck it out if I hadn’t been compelled by my Pulitzer pledge to keep going.  And I can’t say, all in all, that the benefits are even close to commensurate with the amount of time I had to invest getting there.  If for whatever reason you think yourself inordinately interested in the home life of rural Southern farmers, and you’re particularly forgiving of dialect, sentimentality, and loose plotting, I imagine you could read and enjoy this book.  But don’t consider this as any kind of endorsement.

Last Word:

It’s tempting to choose one of Miller’s best passages here, but I realized that it would kind of be a misrepresentation of her work, since the rare moments I enjoyed were certainly neither typical of her novel nor characteristic of her goals as a writer.  It’s also difficult to find passages that stand up, anyhow, since most of their success stems from my knowing and being invested in the characters (to the extent that I was), which you won’t have going for you.  So I thought I’d grab a fairly typical moment from the world of Cean Carver Smith, where she is thinking about her family and of the future, since I think it’s always interesting to notice places where novelists envision historical characters looking forward.  It at least has the merits of avoiding almost entirely any dialect intrusions (for a whole paragraph!), and while it’s undeniably sentimental, there’s something sincere at the heart of it.  Here is the narrator’s account of Cean’s musings one day:

Through the varying seasons the crêpe myrtle shed its bark, its fluttering loam of bloom, its leaves, like a pretty woman changing her garments of differing colors and texture as befits the season.  Cean sometimes wondered how a senseless thing like a tree or a flower can feel heat and cold, can count days and months like a body, can change her garb to suit the weather.  Two years gone, Lonzo had brought her a century plant from the Coast, and Cean set it in a far corner of her yard and watered it.  She wondered how anybody would ever know if it counted a hundred years right till it was time for it to bloom.  She would not be here, nor Lonzo, nor the last youngest child that she might bear.  She would never know; the only way would be to write this flower bush’s true age out in Pa’s bible, and let her grandchildren wait and see about it.  But she did not like to ponder over such matters.  In a hundred years the almanac would say Anna Dominy Nineteen-Fifty, and she would be dead and rotten long ago.  There would be nothing alive that she had known—not a child, nor a cow, nor a bird.  Yes, the ‘gators were long-lived creatures; they would go on bellowing in the spring; and the turtles would go on sticking out their ugly heads on leathery necks.  The pines would go on living, and Cean’s boxwood and evergreens.  But she and hers would be gone, like prince’s-feathers and old-maid flowers and bachelor-buttons that die with killing frost, leaving only dried seeds for a careful hand to garner if it will; blazing-star and mulberry geraniums will leave roots to sleep in the earth like a wild thing; Cean would leave no roots to wake again to the sun of another year.  Her children, she judged, were her seeds and roots and new life.  Godalmighty must have meant it to be that way.

“Well he knew that loving a woman overmuch is evil, a thing to guard against, a taint of the flesh to pray away…”

And young Lias (Cean’s brother) steps with care into the world of marriage.  In my last post, I was a little dubious about this book, as the author, Caroline Miller, had flung me on the road with a bunch of characters I didn’t know or care much about.  I remain dubious—in some ways I think Miller’s working things out better than I’d expected, but in others I still feel like Miller’s mired in a plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere interesting.  Lias is an excellent example.

Lias goes, with his father, his older and younger brothers, and his new brother-in-law, to the coast to trade.  While there, he meets and falls in love with someone I think we can fairly call a “tavern wench”—a pretty and daring young woman named Margot.  Lias is bewitched by her loveliness (and her worldliness?), Margot is clearly smitten by this country bumpkin, and he determines to marry her.  His father, Vince, warns Lias about Margot’s reputation, but Lias insists these are lies.  Vince considers, and ultimately rejects, telling his son that he knows from experience that the talk is true.  (Catch that?  From experience.  Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.)

So they marry and everyone rides home together on the oxcart.  This is the most bizarre turn of events I could have expected, and Miller doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with it.  On the one hand, she doesn’t play out any of the kind of psychological depth you’d expect here—the father’s a little socially awkward, I guess, but we don’t get even a moment’s puzzling from Margot.  It would take someone really supremely skilled to work this one out in a manner that avoids being tawdry and salacious—a skill on par with Wharton’s or Fitzgerald’s, I think, though with considerably less restraint—and Miller doesn’t evidence that she even thinks it’s worth an attempt.  But the other approach you’d expect—the Jerry Springer “she’s carrying his dad’s baby”, or even Sophocles’ “Lias is Margot’s baby and the gods have sent a plague upon his city that he is sworn to investigate“—doesn’t seem to arrive either.  Instead it’s a mild and unimportant complication that fades into the distance pretty quickly.

We could argue that Miller’s playing the long game, and that all these uneventful events—the snakebite, the marriage, the purchase of a white rat as a pet—all of it is designed to work together in some kind of fascinating denouement.  If it is, I will doff my cap to her.  For now, it seems like the novelist is afraid of the novel becoming too complicated, and so she’s rushing to resolve any signs of tension before they can build into anything of interest.  It’s not terrible writing, but it’s terribly timid and somewhat boring.  Where I left off, she’d finally intersected Margot and Cean in such a way that I finally understand why she spent so much time in both characters.  But this really is ten dollars’ worth of preparation for a dime’s worth of dramatic payoff.  She can’t do this for the rest of the book, or at least I dearly hope not.

She also is developing a bad habit of circumlocutions that insert into the narrative without warning…for example, Margot looks back at her home as she leaves it, and suddenly we spend pages with the backstory of the mother she never knew, and where this mother lived, and why her mother’s life went the way it did.  We then return to the plot with no indication that these bird-walks have any real relevance to the story.  I can’t plausibly defend that they’re the thoughts of the characters, since some of the details couldn’t possibly be known by the people present at the time of departure.  It’s just odd—like Miller had written up a lot of backstory and, by gum, she was going to get all her work on the page.

I’ll admit, there’s something likable about these simple folks—their lives are so humdrum that the least little things give them delight.  Certainly I’d like it all to work out for Lonzo and Cean, and Lias and Margot, and whomever ends up married to Jasper and Jake.  But I never managed to sit through a whole episode of The Waltons, and it’s difficult to see how any of these characters are even as morally complicated as John-Boy.  Margot, the reformed ex-tart, might prove an exception, but it’s hard to see how Miller plays that up without her having to play out Vince and Lias talking openly about having slept with the same woman, and short of two brain transplants or some folding chairs and a screaming audience, I really don’t see how she’ll do it.

One last note: the narrator, who is not a character, but is clearly omniscient and 3rd person, narrates in dialect.  It’s bad enough reading the silly dialogue, which is only in dialect when Miller remembers (seemingly, only when she realizes they are beginning to sound intelligent).  But the narrator occasionally dipping into dialect is worse.  It’s exacerbated further by it happening only occasionally—as you can see from the quotation that serves as the post’s title, the narrator handles tough prose fine much of the time.  But then out of nowhere we are told that Person A “didn’t much cyare” about Person B’s opinion, or something like it, and the “cyare” bangs in there like a wrong note at a recital and then just hangs in the air.  I know I’m too picky about language, but the early 20th Century American fascination with local slang crosses lines I think most of us can agree on.

So, Lamb in His Bosom continues onward, with very little occurring of note, and with me growing increasingly confused as to why the board picked something so trifling.  If Miller can’t get this plot on the road in the next few chapters, it’s hard to see how she’ll ever get me excited enough to read the book for any reason beyond a dutiful commitment to see this project to its end.

Resurfacing…

Sorry for the long silence on my end.  Finishing school was a marathon of reading and writing, and when it finished, I guess I needed space to recharge my batteries, both reading and writing.  I’ve read some science fiction, written some letters to friends, etc., and feel better now about returning to the blog.

I wish I could say I felt better about Scarlet Sister Mary—it’s not that it’s racist (well, that’s not the current problem).  It’s that it’s leapt forward in time in an insensible fashion.  I’ll credit Peterkin.  I was worried this was a traditional romance story, where she’d built up July as unreliable and unfaithful, and June as stable and loyal, and we’re just waiting for Mary to find happiness with June.  But in one fell swoop, Peterkin races Mary into a relationship with June, then flies forward a decade and change, past June’s having abandoned Mary (why? absolutely nothing in her portrayal of June makes that believable) and past her oldest children leaving the home (the only kids we have any connection to).  We’re left looking at an older Mary dealing with the struggle of raising kids we have no identity for—one of them loses a leg, but honestly it makes him pitiful and not sympathetic because I don’t have time to meet him before the accident.

I don’t know why authors think they can get away with this.  It feels as though Peterkin saw the plot hole she was falling into, and bailed out.  But that’s not good writing, even if it is self-aware.  Wharton can jump forward in time for an epilogue because at that point, only one thing matters…we need to see the outcome of a single relationship, and the fast-forwarding of all else isn’t a problem because ultimately, these side issues aren’t relevant.  But jumping forward half-way through the story, and jettisoning relationships with half of these characters, is just silliness.  Especially because the other relationships in the story don’t seem to have gone anywhere—I can’t see, for example, that Mary’s relationship to Maum Hannah and Budda Ben has altered at all.  I don’t see the point in having spent all that time on relationships that are left by the wayside.  Maybe they’re all coming back into the story and it will all make sense, but right now I feel more disorientation than anything else.  If this is clever plotting, it’s poor execution.

Anyway, we’ll see where it goes.  I’m glad to be back—and glad you’re back also.

“Get de box, June, and play me a tune. I rather dance by myself out here in de yard.”

I wish I could say I was getting into this novel, for Scarlet Sister Mary’s sake.  She is a sad figure in many respects, caught between worlds.  After her wedding to the rakish July (the boy’s name might as well be Trouble, given how boldly the author makes it clear that this is not a man to marry), July convinces her to go to a dance.  Being a “good Christian”, though, like her Maum Hannah wants her to be, she can’t dance.  July, though, is unencumbered by faith (or decency, or compassion, or…) and proceeds to dance wildly and a bit sensually with a girl named “Cinder” who’s long had her eye on him.  This is on his wedding night, mind you—not that it’s any better three days later, but it gives you a sense of the man’s awareness of the feelings of others.  So Mary, out of anger and desperation that she’s losing her man, gets his twin brother June to play a song, and she dances by herself outside with such fury and passion that she’s the talk of the dance, and July loses interest in Cinder (for the moment).  And the next day she’s thrown out of the church.

And their marriage proceeds much as you’d imagine it would.  The child is born, early enough to be a scandal—July names him “Unexpected”, a word Mary needs to have defined for her.  They agree to call the little boy by the nickname “Unex”.  And then everything runs downhill…Cinder returns to town and puts on her best wiles, July hears the call of the wild, and wedding vows seem to be of little importance.  There’s a longing in Mary for something more—a longing she feels for July at times, but also for the sound of singing at Christmas, or when she is picking cotton in the fields.  But that longing isn’t well expressed, either by the character or her narrator, so it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to glean from all this.

We’re back to my standard complaint about these Pulitzer novels.  I’m done with 1/3 of the book, and I’m still trapped in a painful paint-by-numbers plot I saw coming a mile down the track.  There’s no real depth to Mary as a character (her limited intellect diminishes the author’s ability to do much more with her), and July and Cinder are even more one-dimensional.  The deep, interesting possibilities I saw in Maum Hannah and her son are totally unexplored…the characters are almost forgotten.  (Even so, the best moment in this section is Hannah’s—her willingness to forgive Mary’s “sin” is heartwarming, and her statement that she forgives Mary, but God might not be so forgiving, is intriguing.  Who does Hannah think God is, that she’s more merciful than him?  What does faith really mean in this community?  Ah well….Peterkin’s not going there.)  Even June, who may be of some importance to Mary’s future escape from this marriage (at least, I anticipate an upcoming escape), isn’t doing anything—I know as much about him now as I did one paragraph after seeing him first described.

I get the feeling that, in the 1920s, just having a bit of a potboiler for a plot, combined with some scandal (unmarried sex! infidelity! stories about black people for a white audience!) and some local color (in this case, dialect and the plantation setting) was pretty startling.  Somehow it was impressing the Pulitzer board, at least.  But color me bored.  I’m hoping this book gets moving soon, since 200 more pages of drawn-out marital tension followed by Mary’s inevitable escape into the faithful arms of June is going to be a Harlequin romance without the sexuality, and I don’t know anybody who reads Harlequins for the dialogue and character development.   More on this soon, I hope.

“He was so absorbed in staphylolysin and in calculus that he did not realize the world was about to be made safe for democracy.”

I just can’t figure Sinclair Lewis out.  Skill with dialogue?  Yes, I think so.  Ability to write a convincing and engaging character?  We have one example: Martin Arrowsmith.  Edgy ability to see the culture and society in interesting ways?  Absolutely…look at my early posts on this novel for more on this.  An interesting setting?  A great one, really—the changing world for scientists and medical professionals over a fairly critical decade in which huge amounts of progress are realized.  So why is this novel becoming an absolute chore?

I think it’s that he has no idea where to go with it.  The most recent section sees Martin break the cycle (finally!) he’s been going through since he was a teenager.  Just when he gets a bit irritated and is about to rebel against his job as a research scientist (as he has many times before), the stars align.  Gottlieb and Wickett take him under their wing, and teach him the mathematical tools he needs to do some “real” science.  The war arrives, giving him a fancy uniform and a certain amount of responsibility (though also a drudge of a task mass-producing certain things in the lab for the war effort).  And he has a delightful accidental discovery—something that invigorates his interest in science.  He experiments and believes it may not be a fluke.  Gradually he takes more and more people into his confidence—his boss is thrilled at the possibility that a real leap forward will occur.  He’s promised a position of importance, a huge salary increase, fame and fortune.  But Martin gets a bit too worried that he’ll publish something incomplete and look foolish.  So he delays, doing more and more experimentation to make sure he’s covered all his bases.  And because of this, a Frenchman publishes the same discovery first.  Martin’s work is instantly unimportant.  His bosses simply abandon all their plans for him, relegating him to the shadows again, a simple “lab grunt” doing repetitive and unchallenging work.

Why go through all this?  Are some scientists over-cautious?  Yes, I suppose so, but Martin hasn’t shown much sign of it before.  In many ways, all of these actions are Martin bucking his personal trends—choosing to respect the expertise of his “elders” rather than turn proudly away from it, choosing to be patient and see what can come of his dedication, choosing not to run away from hardships but to work through them.  And the net result is nothing different than what he’s achieved the other way.  So what is this?  A nihilist fable?  Lewis isn’t writing that—he’s not Kafka, he’s not Sartre or Camus.  He doesn’t have their eye for situation, or their interest in laying the human condition bare.  And he’s not writing a delicate little novel that isn’t interested in plot: as I’ve mentioned before, most of the characters are left a bit thin (in part by Martin’s itinerant lifestyle), most of the settings aren’t carefully evoked (again, Martin’s wanderings mean most of these towns never come to life as places, even cities like Chicago that ought to leap off the page).  None of that would matter in a novel where the critically important thing was Martin and his personal struggle against…against something.  But that’s the very thing he makes ridiculous by his toying with Martin and his dreams.

I think one of my real struggles is that I do tend to be a reader who likes novels with a character I identify with and like.  I do tend to like novels that send a positive message, whether overt or subliminal.  These are not the only kind of novels to read, or write, for that matter.  But I know I’ve branched out also—that I’ve enjoyed novels that aren’t “traditional” in this way.  And I think even the novels I don’t enjoy, I can at least understand how they work.  I don’t think this is one of those.  But it’s not a novel that’s fun to bash (like those wretched Mclaughlins), or one that’s easy to pick apart (like those unenjoyable Ambersons).  I can’t imagine where it’s ending—we’ll see if these last 100 pages (a long, difficult road to walk lies in front of me) help rehabilitate the book.