“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!

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“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

The Grapes of Wrath is turning out to be a really marvelous reading experience, full of great characters and great moments, but maybe the most interesting aspect of all at this point is the way Steinbeck and his characters play with morality.  The quotation that serves as this post’s title is from the (former) Reverend Casy, whose dialogues with Tom Joad explore faith and meaning and ethics in remarkably natural language.  He puts forward that thesis of moral relativism pretty early on in their conversation, but the nice thing about Grapes is its complexity—it’s not at all clear to me that Casy believes it himself, let alone Steinbeck.  The world inhabited by the characters is fraught with moral concerns, whether we’re considering the simple personal level (as when Muley Graves considers the problem of being asked by two hungry men for food, and his explanation of why he is compelled to share with them) or the much larger corporate level (as when the characters and the narrator explore how to make sense of right and wrong when the agent doing wrong is an impersonal company—how do you hold to account a person that isn’t a person?).  Casy and Joad and Graves aren’t moral relativists at all.  Sure, they make allowances for reality, as when Joad gives up the house and sprints into the cotton rather than stand his ground for his idea of what’s right.  But in the end it’s clear that all three of them understand that there are lines that should not be crossed.  One of the delights of the book, though, is that they don’t become particularly self-righteous, and they don’t have any immediate solutions to present.  They explore the landscape, both physically and through the sharing of stories, without drawing too many conclusions too quickly.  I’m loving it.

Another aspect of the book I’m enjoying is its richness, like an abundant harvest of lines and moments that I can’t quite hold in my arms.  I read on, realizing as I go that I’m letting great things spill past me on either side.  I just can’t pay rapt attention to everything I like or I’ll never get through.  And Steinbeck has a way of giving you scenes that work on enough levels that you can get something and move on—the (in?)famous turtle, who spawned so many high school English assignments, is a great example.  We can take it, if we like, as just the account of a turtle, just Steinbeck giving us another vision of how nature is being violated and damaged by human activity.  We can go just a little deeper, and read a few lines as symbolism—the turtle’s thrashing accidentally plants some seeds, for example, and it’s revealing and thought-provoking to spend a little time trying to tie a few elements of its experience allegorically to the small farmers of Oklahoma who are being driven off the land.  I got the feeling at that point that there was almost nothing about the chapter that I couldn’t continue to dig into and explore, but I wanted to keep moving, and so I did—whatever else there is to get out of the turtle (feel free to share in the comments any perspectives you have) will have to be saved for my next read of the novel, since I can already sense I’ll be returning to this novel again someday.  Anyway, that level of detail and interest is all over the book, and I keep pausing and then moving on all over the place, making little bits of meaning out of Joad’s childhood baptism and the blood of Muley Graves’s father in the soil and the ravenous hunger of the grey cat.  It makes me feel caught up in something huge, an emotion that I have only rarely felt in the Pulitzer journey…only Wharton and Age of Innocence really comes to mind as a comparison, and even that is not really right.  It’s like reading Melville, or Homer.  I hope the feeling lasts.

English: Buried machinery in barn lot in Dalla...

The Dust Bowl swallows a farmer’s livelihood, South Dakota, 1936 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steinbeck’s attention to detail doesn’t just work on that momentary symbolic level, either—the structure of the novel is working beautifully so far.  I loved the transition from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6.  In 5, Steinbeck’s telling the broad general story of the Dust Bowl, and there are nameless families being cast off their land.  It works great to give a sense of the great big thing that’s happening in Oklahoma, but it’s admittedly just a little remote.  But then there’s this perfect pivoting image—5 ends with a generic corporate employee knocking a generic farmer’s house off its foundations, and then immediately 6 begins with Tom Joad and the Reverend Casy arriving at Joad’s family’s house, only to find that it’s been knocked off its foundations in exactly the same way.  The sudden leap from the general to the very specific is incredibly smart—it makes personal the events I’ve just read in parable form in Chapter 5, and it reminds me how impersonal the injustice suffered by the Joads really is.  Tom’s family isn’t the victim of some vendetta—it’s just one more bystander getting eaten up by a machine that will not be sated.  And then Muley shows up and Joad and Casy pump him for some information, and the story gets so incredibly rich.  I kept flagging paragraphs saying to myself, “oh, I have to quote that in my blog post,” until I realized I’d marked about half of Chapter 6 for inclusion.  Really I just want some of you (all of you!) to try reading this book, since I’m really taken by it so far, and I’d love to talk it over with some fellow travelers.

There are things to deal with, of course—Steinbeck is very blunt and honest about sexuality (and how men like these men would talk about it), and the characters clearly feel on some level emasculated by what’s happening to them.  At one point they use pretty clear (although not very graphic) language to employ a rape metaphor in the context of the companies taking over the land—this is problematic, of course, although it’s still a fair question what is accurate character depiction and what is Steinbeck’s insensitivity.  I’m keenly aware of having no real female characters yet, and I’m anxious to meet some and see if Steinbeck can handle them better than he did in Of Mice and Men.  And at some point I should probably tackle the question of whether this novel is propaganda, given that it was so radical for its era that Steinbeck was denounced on the floor of Congress as a dangerous man.  I think it’s telling important and hard truths about what it’s like for one man, or one family, to try to take on and beat the pitiless progress demanded by a beast that lives on nothing but profits.  In this way, it’s talking about people’s connection to the land in a way that Pearl S. Buck only kidded herself she was doing, and it’s confronting the political causes of the suffering in the Great Depression that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t (although there the decision was a conscious one, and I don’t blame her for it).  But it is also fair to ask the novel some hard questions, since the Dust Bowl and the migration west of the Okies and the Great Depression are not merely the fault of a few soulless banks—not only that, at least.  I don’t know what I really expect of Steinbeck on that front, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about, and I expect to post about it sooner or later.  For now, the energy of the book is pulling me forward, and hopefully I’ve shared enough that it’s pulling a few of you, as well.

“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.

“Cean turned and lifted her hand briefly in farewell as she rode away beside Lonzo in the ox-cart.”

So begins Lamb in his Bosom, by Caroline Miller, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for 1934.  And I have to say, I’m getting weary of the Pulitzer board’s tastes.

That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the novels: there have been some great discoveries so far, amid the dreck.  But this particular setup—young married couple, out on the land ready to pioneer it—is getting incredibly old.  I’ve watched with mild interest Selina DeJong’s marriage meander unhappily in the fields, I’ve waded painfully through the agonizingly offensive marriage of Wully McLaughlin, I’ve gazed curiously and sadly at the fragile falling-out of Claude and Enid, and more recently I slogged along as Wang Lung gradually crushed his long-suffering wife beneath his self-regard.  And that’s not even half of the examples.  So starting off in an ox-cart with the just-married Lonzo and Cean feels like the Pulitzers on auto-pilot, rattling down the rut they’ve dug for themselves.  Some of these stories are better than others, but I think it’s fair to say that, in general, the best of the novels were the ones most able to get free from the trials of young marriage and the perils of the farm.  I’m not saying there’s no good novel in either subject.  But they seem awfully elusive (and strangely compelling) to the novelists of this era.

Added to that is this novel’s weird (and off-putting, at present) obsession with sexuality—it reminds me of The Able McLaughlins at its very worst.  Within a page of the opener, we get a not-that-vaguely incestuous longing for Cean from her jealous younger brother who (I kid you not) is angry that she’s marrying Lonzo because he liked sharing a bed with his sister.  The brother is, as far as I can tell, more than old enough for this to be uncomfortably weird.  And the rest of the opening chapter follows Cean and Lonzo tensely to the home they will share.  Every few sentences Cean “notices” her husband as a sexual being—the sweat on his powerful neck, the thick black hair on his chest, etc.—and nearly crawls right off the edge of the ox-cart.  He seems painfully awkward around her also.  The chapter closes with him leaving the house while she undresses and crawls into bed to wait, silently and seemingly rigid with anxiety.  He walks around his land and the narrator keeps mentioning Lonzo’s thoughts turning to “planting his seed”.  Hmmm….could that possibly be a metaphor of some kind?  No, surely not.

All of the above—the young couple, the farm setting, the creepy sexual vibe (which seems to be totally dominated by the notion of sex as something a man “does” to a woman)—and a bit more thrown in (the usual 1930s dialect slang in the dialogue, an odd father-daughter dynamic between Lonzo and Cean…he keeps calling his newly-wed wife “little ‘un” in a way I find unsettling) make me think I’m being hurled from one of the best novels I’ve read thus far to something even Julia Peterkin wasn’t capable of.  First impressions can easily be wrong, of course—they were wrong about The Store, and about The Bridge of San Luis Rey—but I’m edgy about this one.  It appears to be relatively short, and we’ll see if that means speeding through becomes the necessary option.