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.