“Not for anything in the world would she exchange her lot for her mother’s.”

I’ve been a bit quiet about In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow’s soap-operatic look into the sordid (but not especially compelling) lives of a down-on-their-luck family from somewhere in the Upper South (Virginia?), and that’s for two reasons.  One is that I’ve been busy enough (and uninterested enough in the book) that I haven’t made a ton of progress on it, although recently I’ve gotten further in, close to the book’s half-way point.  The other is that it’s hard to say much about the book, which is largely failing to be bad in an interesting way.

The main focus of the plot, which I addressed myself to earlier, is on the relationship of the father, Asa Timberlake, to his daughters, Roy and Stanley, which is strained by his inability to understand this wild and unconventional young generation, and by the weird fact that although it’s absolutely crystal clear from the information available that Stanley will ditch her fiancé and run off with Roy’s husband, no one (least of all Asa) seems to see it coming.  The only secondary plot of note is about a young African-American man named Parry, who is ambitious and whose skin is very light in color, and his attempts to get Asa’s family’s support as he intends to make something of himself (Parry is associated with the family’s long-time black servant, Virgie, and may I think come from a family that the Timberlakes once owned).  Veterans of this blog will recognize, I think, that the first plot is associated in some ways with Early Autumn, 1927’s winner which reflects on infidelity and fidelity over a couple of generations of a down-on-their-luck family in New England, and a woman’s relationship to her daughter.  And the second plot might as well be carbon-copied (at least at this summary level) from the relationship between Toussaint Vaiden and Colonel Miltiades Vaiden in 1933’s winner, The Store.  Glasgow hasn’t done a bunch with either plot at this point—Stanley has, at least, run off with Roy’s husband, so now the cat’s out of the bag, but it’s not clear she has any notion of what to do about this or where to go now that the tension has been set loose.  Parry, poor soul, just keeps showing up to ask a white man for help, and gets some nonsense—in some cases, nonsensically kind but useless suggestions about “helping if I can” when the speaker clearly can’t, and in other cases nonsensically racist and condescending crap like “there are plenty of white lawyers to help black folks in trouble if they haven’t done any wrong, so why get uppity notions about being a lawyer when you can have a happy life as a postman or something?”  The wheels are spinning for characters and reader alike.  Given that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why the plots aren’t working here, in a book that will avoid the bottom spots on my list only by mostly avoiding crass offensiveness, when they worked moderately to very well in two books that currently rank 5th and 8th out of 22 (soon to be 23) Pulitzer winners.

en:Louis Bromfield photographed by en:Carl Van...

Hey, Louis, is there any chance you could come in for a re-write? I’m losing steam with this one, man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To take Early Autumn in hand first—the lesser of my two “good” examples—I think what Glasgow is missing is a sense of context and broader significance.  In Louis Bromfield‘s book, I got the sense that I was seeing events that went beyond the family in question (in his case, the Pentlands): their diminishing social stature was tied (however subtly) to changes in America and the region they lived in, and the family’s sense of itself and its history helped add a certain grandeur (however decaying) to the anxieties of the older generations as they dealt with the family chaos.  Conversations between characters add to what we already know about the situation as people reveal (or conceal) their emotions in recognizably human fashion, and when in the later stages of the novel the characters confront each other to express hard truths about love and their relationships to each other, I felt the talk was somehow “earned” by having been built up to.  Glasgow’s book, by comparison, gives us a Timberlake family whose moorings are unclear—there’s a lot of talk about wealth in the book, and it opens with Asa looking forlornly at his family’s old home, now lost to their poverty, but none of the characters seem to have walked away with any ideas about the family and what it means to be a Timberlake.  The book (for the sake of the plot) contrives at some pre-existing tensions and relationships but they all feel hollow—I can’t believe that the characters I see in front of me could believably have behaved in the past in such a way as to make the backstory real.  As a result, all the back-and-forth between Asa’s generation and Roy and Stanley’s feels odd—the parents and elders don’t feel like they have much added perspective (other than commenting all the time about “how different these young people are!”) and the young people seem sometimes terribly old.  I think Glasgow is driving at some pretty heavy attacks on modernity and what it does to love and youth (especially for these poor helpless young women, if I may paraphrase the vibe I’m getting from her), but it’s never clear what’s making all this happen, or where these people came from.  Furthermore, as I’ve complained before, the characters wear everything on their sleeves, saying almost everything they might be thinking out loud and to the people they feel it towards—the only exception being explicit mention of the affair between Stanley and Peter.  Anyway, since no human being actually acts this way all of the time, and most of us never act this way more than 5% of the time, it’s irritating to navigate through, since the characters feel like felt puppets bobbing their way through a script.  Some parts of the script are plausibly interesting—Roy, for example, and her feelings about the way she wishes people would treat her after her husband runs off with her sister—but I can’t buy into the emotions because they don’t feel authentic.  Bromfield’s novel is, oddly enough, able to make me feel far more by telling me far less.

T. S. Stribling‘s book, The Store, really is the book Glasgow wanted to write, although it’s much smarter about race than hers is, with livelier characters and more complicated and interesting interpersonal relationships.  The Vaidens of Stribling’s book, though, have fallen down from somewhere specific, and it’s easy to see how that’s affected them and what it pushes them to do.  Even the relationship between the Colonel and his wife (one of the few things I complained about with this book) is more nuanced than Asa’s relationship with his wife, Lavinia—at least I am forced to work out their relationship to each other and try to make sense of it, rather than read the narrator flatly telling me things like “Asa no longer loved his wife, and could not believe that he ever had, but now adopted an attitude towards her as of a stranger, although one who felt obligated to care for her.”  I mean, what’s the point of writing a book when you can give it all to me in synopsis form?  Anyway, to dial in on the racial subplot in Glasgow’s novel and contrast it with Stribling, Stribling makes the world of freed slaves and their descendants a living one.  People have fights with each other, are complex enough to be both wise and foolish, saintly and sinful, and ultimately it’s not always clear how we’re supposed to take them.  Toussaint Vaiden, the upwardly mobile, light-skinned black man of Stribling’s novel, is so ambitious as to be almost a scoundrel in some ways, but his arrogance and confidence make sense because of who he is and where he comes from, and they do not diminish the sympathy his character rightly gets from the reader in the novel’s tragic conclusion.  By comparison, Glasgow has given us a poor man’s copy in the figure of Parry Clay—a young black man who never loses his temper or speaks out of turn, who studies hard and merely needs a loan (which he will pay back! every penny!) to get his schooling to become a lawyer.  Parry never feels as urgent as Toussaint, and he arises out of almost nowhere in Glasgow’s novel, which treats the African-American characters as a real sideline—despite this novel being set 40ish years after Stribling’s, the black characters seem more obsessed with the lives of the white family they know, and more unmoored from any larger African-American community, and it feels like laziness (or impoverished imagination) on the part of the author, rather than any kind of real statement about the fracturing of communities, etc.

Anyway, I could go on, but given that I’m comparing a novel no one has read to two other novels no one has read, this is more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I suppose!  All I really need to do for those of you who, for reasons best known to yourselves, follow my aimless path through the Pulitzers is to tell you that I’ve read another 100 pages or so of a book I wish I didn’t have to read, and that once I’ve read another 300 pages or so, I’ll never have to pick it up again.  I may post again on this one if I manage to get anywhere worth relating, but something tells me I may just take my medicine as fast as I can and then write a review when all’s said and done.

“No one, not even her husband, had ever heard her utter a disagreeable word, and seldom a true one.”

Edith wharton face

Edith, you have GOT to come and save me from this book. I will pay you a large sum of money (for your time period) if you’ll rewrite this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote that serves as this post’s title leads me right into what my ongoing problem is with In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow—as I suggested in my first post on the novel, she simply doesn’t trust us to understand what she’s doing.  As a consequence, she labors over events that should come naturally, over-explains situations, and generally weighs down the novel with too much exposition.  Take this quotation, then—it’s clever, isn’t it?  I think it’s a good indication of the kind of writing that Glasgow can do when she’s on her game.  In one sentence, we get a nice sketch of a character we don’t know much about—this is Maggie, the wife of Asa Timberlake’s son Andrew, whose geniality is captured in a turn of phrase I think is pretty well constructed.  There’s an edge to it that’s slightly Whartonian: the woman whose desire to please is so excessive that she’s totally unreliable.  So, you say, why do I raise it as a complaint?  Because it is immediately followed by this sentence: “But, as with most persons who see only the best, her vision was usually short-sighted and often inaccurate.”

ARGH.  She just (pardon my metaphor) craps all over the nice little sentence she’d crafted.  Instead of letting the quick cut go by nicely—“and seldom a true one” gives the image of the kind daughter-in-law a cheeky little twist, after all—she stops and explains what “and seldom a true one” means in excessive detail.  I learn nothing I didn’t already basically know, but now I feel like I’m being treated like a five year old.  This happens in every single paragraph.  Characters have long conversations, spurred by nothing other than the narrator’s (author’s) desire to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.  The first three chapters, for instance, refer again and again to the awkwardness Asa feels over the fact that he and his family have been forced to rely on the charity of his wife’s Uncle William.  I must have heard on at least six occasions about how hesitant Asa is to ask for help, but how they really couldn’t manage without him, and how strained the emotions are around the house as a result.  And then, after all of that, Asa comes home and has a lengthy chat with his daughter, Roy (again, his daughters’ names are Roy and Stanley), in which Roy explicitly complains about Uncle William, remarks on how his character dominates family gatherings, regrets that the family is forced to live in a house William owns, REITERATES (for crying out loud) that William really does own the house (doesn’t he Daddy?), notes that she should feel grateful to him, adds that instead she resents him, and then observes that in fact probably she resents the fact that she has to feel grateful.  All of this takes place in a three-minute conversation on a random weekday evening, apropos of nothing (certainly William hasn’t done anything of note that day, or that week, as far as I am aware), and all of it explicitly and rapid-fire.

This kind of exposition is so unbelievably tedious, it makes me wonder why Glasgow had such a great reputation as a novelist.  I can see that she has a flair for writing under the right circumstances, but conveying plot details or the inner life of characters seems to be incredibly difficult for her: as an essayist, a woman of letters perhaps, even a poet, I can envision how her talents would be put to good use.  But the Glasgow writing this book is a novelist at the end of a long and successful career.  How could she think that people talk this way, suddenly relating years of backstory and the fermenting unspoken feelings of their hearts to someone they’ve spoken to every day of their lives, as though they just realized the camera was running?  And why does she think we need to be given all of this in carefully typed dialogue, anyway?  Can’t I already make plenty of inferences about the family’s attitude based on the information I have?  Aren’t there, in fact, a lot of ways for helping me understand the complicated balance of feelings between gratitude to a generous wealthy family member and resentment over the need for that gratitude that do not involve me having to hear one character explain it to another?  Much of the time, we’re even unaware of that kind of thing ourselves—great novels draw this sort of thing out over time, and if a character does ultimately make this kind of revelation, it comes at a cost, and it’s spoken at the right moment because on some level it needs to be said then, and to the right person.  This chat, by comparison, is just Glasgow trying to get us from Asa warming up leftovers to him checking in on his invalid wife.  There’s no setup or payoff, and barely any emotion to it.  It’s like saying to your cashier at the supermarket “has it been a busy day?” while you’re pulling out your debit card, and having her say “well, not really, but my mind’s been occupied with the question of whether or not I can finally forgive my father for driving my mother into the alcoholism that killed her”.  Sure, the revelation is a sad one objectively, but in the moment you’re not really sure why you’re hearing it, or what prompted it, or whether any of this is real.  No matter what happens afterwards, you’re not going to respond to that news the way you would if you had first become invested in this woman’s life on any level.

The frustration is compounded, then, by the fact that, although 98% of this novel is obvious information that gets pounded away at us so that we and all the characters know exactly who is holding what cards at each point in the game, the other 2% is mind-blowingly stupid and implausible in its attempts to hide from at least the main character (if not the reader) a totally obvious fact.  Again, remember that these characters say every important emotional thing on their mind to each other at all times, and that the narrator fills in any gaps with flat assertions about who believes what and how they feel about it.  The following events occur — Asa is walking home when a car speeds by.  He notices that the car is driven by Peter (Roy’s husband of two years), but for some reason the passenger is Asa’s other daughter, Stanley, who is engaged and will marry a man named Craig later that week.  Asa notes briefly that it’s odd that Peter should be driving Stanley around, especially as A) Stanley owns her own car and can drive it, and B) Roy has been feeling a little down lately and would probably appreciate a nice drive out.  He gets home to find Roy down in the dumps.  She keeps talking about how stressed she is, and emphasizes that she wants Stanley married as soon as possible.  He asks why she’s unhappy, and she literally says “I can be happy as long as I know I have Peter.”  He replies, “Well, obviously you do have Peter since you’ve married him, so that’s that.”  (Seriously.  “So that’s that.”)  She gives him an odd look, and continues the conversation.  Later on she says, again apropos of nothing, “Peter has his freedom.  I told him that from the beginning.  If he doesn’t want to be with me, he doesn’t have to be.”  And Asa says, well, that’s fine I guess, you and he are clearly both honest with each other.  He asks where Stanley is.  Roy says she’s “visiting Aunt Charlotte”.  He asks where Peter is.  She says he’s “working late”.  Asa does not comment at all on the car that passed him.  Roy then goes off depressed to deal with Stanley’s wedding gifts.  Asa goes upstairs where his wife tells him, among other things, that Stanley is flighty, that she doesn’t seem to be all that in love with Craig anymore, and that she’d be kind of surprised if Stanley wasn’t getting ready to dump her fiance before the wedding that Saturday.  Now, I know I’ve narrated a ton of events here, but I wanted you to see what’s going on.  When did you first suspect that Peter and Stanley were cheating with each other?  Okay, and then when did you decide you pretty much knew that they were?  Well, old Asa has no idea.  He keeps asking himself (and others, occasionally) what’s wrong with Roy, and can’t figure it out for the life of him.  I’d submit to you that this entire subplot is totally implausible—not the cheating, obviously, but the fact that I’m supposed to believe that this guy cannot connect these dots.  Furthermore, I’m supposed to believe that Roy, who shares all her emotions in clinical detail with her father, can bring herself to say (effectively) “I think Roy will leave me, I’ve told him that he can make that choice, and it’s making me sad” but without actually saying “Roy and I are likely to get divorced”.  I just can’t figure this book out.  Who are these people?  On what planet do events like this occur or characters like this live?

There’s a whole racial thing going on too that I can’t even get into yet.  So far I can’t work out how much of the terrible racism is the characters’ racism (which would be accurate for the time and place) and how much is the narrator asserting “true” things about black people (which I really don’t stand for).  At this point, the novel is turning out to be a lot like The Store except really bad at all the things that T. S. Stribling managed to do well.  I fear I’m going to continue dismantling it in public the rest of the way, but I hear that my “takedowns” of novels are more fun to read anyhow, so perhaps you all don’t mind as much.  I certainly mind having to read it.  We’ll see if Glasgow can figure out a way to make the thing tolerable, at least, in the chapters ahead.

1933: The Store, by T. S. Stribling

Literary Style:

Stribling’s talent lies in presenting human characters—specifically, the ways we do and do not perceive our real feelings and motives, the ways in which our self-absorption limits and distorts our understanding of events, and the ways we come to learn who we are.  He is not a flawless writer in other respects: several of his subplots just seem to end in mid-air (likely because he intends to return to them in the sequel—this being the 2nd in a trilogy—but that’s no excuse for handling them shabbily now).  I’d argue that he’s skilled in setting, but not as skilled as the best writers are: I am not as truly present at Toussaint and Lucy’s wedding, or at The Colonel’s day in court, as I am at Gatsby’s parties or following Newland Archer into Ellen Olenska’s home.  Overall, this novel feels to me like the best outing of a merely solid writer—the single All-Star season amid a career of reliable play, the one vivid lead performance for the character actor whose life is otherwise characterized by words like “supporting” and “also starring”.  But it’s no less enjoyable for being somewhat anomalous: Stribling finds people and situations worth investing in, and he manages to invest in them.

At the end of the novel, he really does finally bring the boat around (later than I’d hoped and expected) to the course he’s wanted to chart all along—the cruel racial dynamics at the heart of Florence society, the violence that lives underground most days, the simple fact that The Colonel’s inability to recognize “his” African-Americans as real people like him is perhaps his most crucial and lasting flaw.  I admire Stribling’s courage in tackling these issues—a Tennessean by birth, schooled in Florence, Alabama, itself, and living in the South throughout his literary career—especially given that 1933 was a long time ago, racially speaking.  When The Store hit the shelves in 1933, Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land, and racial covenants restricting black families from living in white neighborhoods were perfectly legal.  The trend in American society was, bizarre as it may seem, moving towards segregation: the NFL, which had been racially integrated, segregates itself officially in 1933.  The Scottsboro Boys had narrowly escaped execution only two years prior, and Billie Holliday wouldn’t sing “Strange Fruit” for another six.  For a white Southerner to speak real black characters into the poisoned atmosphere of Southern race relations is a worthy and courageous choice.  That Stribling doesn’t do enough to elevate those characters (with one or two exceptions), and that he presents his trilogy as being essentially the story of the white Vaidens (with the black Vaidens as important but lesser elements) is, for me, forgivable.  He does as much as an artist like him could reasonably have attempted, and it works on enough levels to be a novel I can still engage with thoughtfully here in 2012.

Lastly, I think Stribling should also be praised for his scope.  The novel handles issues of property rights (and legal action), the “mystic ties” that bind old soldiers (and their families), the questions of faith and God and public observance, and a host of other topics too numerous to be listed.  He really is trying to capture the feeling of life in a reasonably small town, where everyone is in everyone else’s business.  I am glad he chooses to present a small town that is not filled with simple people and simple problems.  And I’m willing to accept that a certain amount of the flaws I found in the book—particularly Stribling’s seeming inability to tie up loose ends and make characters and their decisions mean something—are in fact just Stribling’s tacit acknowledgement that lives do not go as easily and sensibly as plots do in novels, and that some things happen because they happen (and not because any later significant events will be connected with them).

Historical Insight:

Top marks here for Stribling, who is really the first Pulitzer-winning author to deal with racism—the American societal disease—directly and honestly.  I’ve had writers who moved above it (Wharton, Cather), writers who played it for cheap laughs (Tarkington) or sentiment (Peterkin), or writers who dealt fairly with non-white characters but outside the paradigm of whites and minorities in American society (Wilder, La Farge, Buck).  Stribling recognizes that to tell the story of race relations in the South is to tell our story.  That this story can’t really be told until all the people involved are presented as real people.  He doesn’t get far enough into the heads of African-Americans for my liking, but he does more than I could ever have expected him to do.  My ideas about the South, and about whites and blacks in the South in the 19th Century, are smarter and more complicated than before, and I’m grateful to Stribling for giving me that.

Review:

My curious and idiosyncratic reviewing scale gives The Store a “I definitely recommend this book”.  It’s not the best one I’ve read yet, but it’s absolutely worthwhile.  Some will like it more than others.  Some will have a harder time than others with the constant racism and racial slurs used by the white characters.  Some will be more or less in need of raised awareness about the racial issues Stribling takes on.  But I’d be surprised if anybody who likes a good (and thought-provoking) American novel would be disappointed by The Store.  I’m sorry it’s not better known, and I hope its reputation rebounds, since I think it’s a novel that continues to have something to say to Americans.

The Last Word:

As always, I defer to the author for the final words—a last little glimpse at style and content before moving on to the next work.  In this case, a conversation from late in the book between two black women, Gracie and Lucy.  Gracie is the daughter of a slave woman and a white man—a slave herself once, she became a mistress for many years to wealthy white men, and her son Toussaint “passes for white” in many situations (a source of great pride to Gracie).  Lucy is an educated young black woman—she shares her skills with young black children (and occasional white children) in a makeshift schoolhouse in the fields.  She is married to Toussaint, and has high hopes for their future.  Where my excerpt picks up, The Colonel has just left the two women, having offered Lucy and Toussaint a chance to work for him as domestic servants: Gracie has just asked why on earth her daughter-in-law didn’t jump at the chance:

“Well, first,” said Lucy, “I want me and Toussaint to lead our own sort of lives.  I don’t want to be too close to white folks.”

“Too close to white folks . . . why, everything we get is from white folks.”

“We don’t get our hair, or our color, or our voices.”

“M-m . . . we get ’em changed a good deal,” observed Gracie obscurely.  “But why do you want to stay here at all if you don’t want to be caretaker of the manor?”

“Because I would like for the colored people in the Reserve to see that a dark woman can live and talk and act with correctness and fineness without being associated with whites all the time.”

“Lucy,” said the quadroon uneasily, “I don’t like the way you look at things.  You take a kind of stand against white people.  Toussaint thinks everything you do is just right.  I hope you’ll never get him into any trouble.”

“The reason I ever loved him is because he didn’t bow his head to anybody.”

“The reason you loved him,” said Gracie with an undertone of bitterness, “is because he is a white man, and you know it.”

“Novels are written the way people wish life could be lived, Sydna, not as things really happen.”

I’ve taken a liking to quotations like the one above, in which The Store’s main character, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, attempts to reason with the emotional daughter of the woman who jilted him at the altar long ago.  Novelists seem to like these little asides that assert what novels will and won’t do—in general, I find that novels are referred to as unrealistic flights of fancy, or at least that is how they are referred to in these Pulitzer winners.  I find it strange, since I think it’s fair to say that almost nothing about The Store reflects the way T.S. Stribling wishes life could be lived: to the contrary, I think it’s his best attempt to reveal how things really are.  So why does he (and why do other authors like him) take shots at the novel?  Is it self-deprecation, or a sort of reverse psychology designed to make readers shout “no, novels are vivid and realistic!”?  I always find these passages curious.

Stribling is proving a minor disappointment in this latter stretch of the book.  Most of his talents are still fully at work—the skill and honesty with which he depicts a series of strained conversations between The Colonel, Sydna, and Sydna’s mother Drusilla Crowninshield, is really marvelous.  Drusilla in particular is excellently realized, with a sharp eye and sharper tongue, and a very solid head on her shoulders.  She feels very real and somehow a little larger than life—she would have gotten on splendidly with Mrs. Manson Mingott (from The Age of Innocence), and I think Wharton would not be at all ashamed to have written Drusilla.  She’s a character with enough dimension to stand up to Wharton’s realism, anyway.  I wish there were more opportunities for her to talk in this novel, since the conversations really sing when she’s in them.

My disappointment in Stribling comes from the fact that he keeps missing the chance to do something as thoughtful and detailed with the African-American characters.  There are nicely moving conversations, and there’s certainly a plot of significance involving them.  But they never rise to quite the rhetorical levels achieved by Drusilla and The Colonel, or even such lesser lights (and lesser intellects) as Jerry Catlin in courtship with Sydna Crowninshield.  Stribling won’t give them quite as much scope, or allow quite as deft an insight, and it’s a shame.  I had hoped, and half-way expected, that he was setting himself up to pivot several black characters into the heart of the story, perhaps most of all Grace Vaiden and her son, Toussaint.  But we’re denied that pleasure, and I think it weakens the book’s power to an extent.

The more I read, the more I feel that I really am missing out on the first chapter of the trilogy (for which this novel forms the middle book).  In other “middle books” that won Pulitzers, I didn’t notice much, if any, difficulty, but here I keep sensing that I’m missing the depth and significance of certain encounters.  It would be like starting with The Two Towers—it wouldn’t be hard to get into the story, but there would be moments (someone named Gandalf is back? why are Frodo and Sam so interested in the fact that this Faramir guy had a brother named Boromir….maybe they knew him before? man, this Smeagol guy seems pretty intense about something or other…) where even the narrator’s helpful insertions wouldn’t quite give the reader the full resonance of images and conversations.  I get the very strong sense that it would have helped a lot to have read the first novel, where I surmise that The Colonel and Drusilla and many of the other middle-aged characters were as young and impetuous as their children (Jerry, Sydna, etc.) are now.  There are subtleties to a number of conversations—half-finished thoughts, looks or nods of seeming import—that I’m not able to do enough with.

One last thought for this reflection: I feel like I’m learning a lot more about the economic realities for Alabama in the late 1800s.  The weakening of cotton, the rise of the little “company stores”, the conviction that a “Demmycrat” in the White House would unleash the purse strings and pour patronage like manna onto the impoverished worthies of the Old South.  I can see how the system is trapping not only the black sharecroppers but the petty white men whose minor successes only chain them more and more tightly to a business that will never really grow.  There’s a tension that feels like violence in the air in this little town, and someone will have to pay the piper sooner or later.

I’m flying through this thing now—by Friday or Saturday I’ll be posting a review, I think.  My hat’s off to Stribling for writing a really solid novel thus far: here’s hoping he can finish it with the same talent he’s exhibited up to this point.

“He detested lying to anybody, not because he had any scruples against it, but because it appeared cowardly.”

That quotation from The Store sums up a lot about The Colonel’s character pretty aptly, and demonstrates why I’m finding real depth in Stribling’s novel.  Colonel Miltiades Vaiden is a man who does the right things for the wrong reasons—and a few wrong things for what he, at least, believes to be the right reasons.  There’s a moral flexibility to The Colonel that is interesting because his spectrum doesn’t run from good to evil, like a character in a melodrama.  His spectrum seems to be based much more on honor, like a samurai’s bushido or Achilles’ pursuit of timë and kleos, only he combines this obsession about personal glory with a personality that seems much too milquetoast to carry out his career with success.  I alluded to Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman played by William H. Macy in Fargo, in my last post, and there’s a lot of Jerry in The Colonel still, despite the fact that Miltiades is a war veteran who clearly had access to a better reserve of courage at one point in his life.

The Colonel’s straining for glory hits some unexpected curves in the point of the story I’ve reached—I continue to be intrigued by his plot line, even as he becomes more and more reprehensible.  What I like best about Stribling is the way his novel sides with the African-Americans living in Florence in the subtlest of ways—he lingers on certain images (the starving family in the darkness rejected by Jerry Catlin, the look in Grace’s eyes as she delivers bad news, etc.) like a director taking an extra beat at the end of a scene before the movie moves on.  The narrator is a personless omniscient 3rd person voice, so there’s no one to opine about the plight of impoverished black people—just the reality of who they are as people, and it’s a reality Stribling never lets too far away from the stage, even though it rarely takes the spotlight.

One of the sides that I therefore find most fascinating is the attitude The Colonel holds towards the people who were formerly his family’s slaves.  They bear his surname of Vaiden, and continue to feel a connection to him.  He feels the connection also, and carries it in a variety of ways—at times he seems sympathetic, and deals with them almost as though a distant family member, but too often their names and lives seem to be his possessions.  He can deal with them as he likes, not because they are Vaidens, but because they are the Vaidens’—no longer legal property, but still somehow beholden to him (in his mind) because of some unspoken bond between them.  The fair hair and eyes of some of these young African-Americans is such a visible marker, for me, of the real biological connections between the families, but Miltiades seems blind to it.  Given my examination of my family’s history (which is explored online in two places thanks to my conversations with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates about his and my ancestors—black and white families named Smack and living in the same Maryland town—and what I’ve come to learn about them), this is personal for me.  And personal in a way I hardly know how to share.  Was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather a Miltiades, looking down on (and simultaneously emotionally bound to) Ta-Nehisi’s ancestors, his own son or nephew or cousin?  Or were we better than that, somehow—a family who accepted the black Smack families as freed individuals before the war?  Is it possible they could have acknowledged real kinship to each other?  And what would it mean to me, if so?  If I am lucky, some day I may find out the truth about our connection—by which I mean, only to know that he and I share an ancestor (and what that implies).  But the rest of it—the truths I want to know about how these men and women thought of each other and spoke to each other, how they made sense of their lives in relationship to each other—these are truths I cannot even think of looking for.  They are lost to me.

So reading The Store draws me (and weighs on me) because I can see how complicated these relationships were after the war (Stribling makes them feel very honest, at least—I trust that he is showing me the real South at the time), and almost against my will I am forced to walk in the white Vaidens’ shoes.  I ask myself how this complicated blend of ideas and feelings, some of them contradictory, came to be, and how long it would have to take to change those feelings.  I ask myself what events would really make these families separate and equal, to appropriate (and change the meaning of) the language of Plessy.  Would it take dying side-by-side in a war?  Voting side-by-side in a polling station?  Sitting side-by-side as children marry each other across racial boundaries?  When would the wrong bonds be broken, so that the right bonds can form?

Stribling’s doing something that works, here.  He knows how to play this game—how to distract with the left hand while the right sneaks the rabbit into the hat.  All the things that should go wrong for The Colonel go right, and the last things he expected to fall apart, do.  I’m still working out what this story is really about, but the more I read, the more I think The Colonel himself is a waved handkerchief, a puff of smoke.  His story is real and matters, but Stribling wants to keep me focused on him in order to bring other guns to bear.  I’m trying to pace myself a bit and enjoy this (as I did with Wharton’s novel), but I won’t be able to slow down much: I’m hooked.

“Honors used to seek men, but nowadays men seek honors.”

Finally.  After a string of novels that meandered between “acceptable” and “dissatisfying”, we have a real winner on our hands in The Store.  I don’t have unlimited praise to offer Stribling, but right now I’d say this is easily in the top 4 of the Pulitzers I’ve read so far, and it may be in contention for a spot as high as #2 on the list.

Getting at why is, in some ways, very easy.  Stribling is managing to present a wide array of characters who are all three-dimensional—full of that mixture of emotions, motives, flaws and strengths that make up people like you and me.  Even the above-average Pulitzer novels thus far have only managed to present one or two main characters in this level of complexity, with the exceptions of the incomparable Edith Wharton and the talented Thornton Wilder.  That I’m putting the relatively unknown T. S. Stribling in their company is high praise, I know, but so far it’s deserved.  What he captures most beautifully is how self-centered every human’s worldview is: Person A takes an action for some private motive, but Persons B, C, and D each assume A must be motivated by some personal slight or vendetta aimed at them specifically.  Stribling’s handy enough with the characters that I can simultaneously think it’s laughable that young Sydna Crowninshield would expect that family friend Colonel Miltiades Vaiden has taken a job at the Handbacks’ store out of some misguided attempt to protect her virtue and good name, and yet completely understand why, from Sydna’s point of view, no other motive can be half as believable.  Everyone’s private agendas are well known to Stribling and the reader, and we can see how they intersect—sometimes harmoniously, sometimes disastrously—and how two characters can be talking to one another, and yet be having two different conversations.  Stribling’s not operating at an Austen or Wharton level of psychological insight, but he’s doing very sturdy work and is making the characters come alive, which is all I need to get hooked.

And yes, miraculously, Stribling’s novel (set in the post-Reconstruction South) extends that level of complex dimensions to his black characters.  Racism is rampant in the town of Florence—slurs fly, and even the best white folks express the vilest sentiments with the most light-hearted of airs.  Stribling is being very honest in presenting this, but it would collapse the novel (for me, anyway) if he didn’t present black characters as individuals with some level of dignity and agency.  This is not, incidentally, the same as presenting the black characters as “the good ones”.  He’s actually taken care to demonstrate their motives as being similarly complex—the wizened “man of God”, Lump Mowbray, whose impulses are not entirely pure; the proud “white negro” (as everyone refers to him), Toussaint Vaiden, whose confidence is either inspirational or arrogant, depending on how you think a man should respond to condescension; Gracie, an experienced mistress, consort of the powerful and white, whose plans for her future seem on the borders of delusion.  They aren’t the butt of the narrator’s jokes, as black characters have been in many novels thus far.  But they aren’t here to teach us the virtues of enduring scorn with patience; they’re here because they live in Florence, and the vicissitudes of their daily existence affect events both large and small as much as the actions taken by a man like Colonel Miltiades.

The Colonel is clearly our main character, but Stribling has at least five plots on the burners right now—The Colonel’s dream of a better, more financially successful life; the strange interrelationships (and attending obligations) of all the men who served in the The Colonel’s Confederate regiment, and their families; the courtship of the delicate Sydna Crowninshield by the lascivious Lucius Handback (and others); the spiritual journey of the self-described “infidel” Jerry Catlin (The Colonel’s nephew); and the attempts by Toussaint and his mother Gracie to find a way to escape Florence and find a home where he (and she?) can pass as “white”, and the future that will come with it.  There’s a lot of overlap here, since The Colonel is a major figure in two plots, and is only one degree of separation from the other three.  This is a small town, and everyone is in everyone else’s business, whether it’s welcome or not.

The Colonel is fascinating to me, in part because he combines so much ambition with so much haplessness.  He’s dignified but without being accorded societal respect; he’s honest and decent in his public dealings, but more than a bit scheming and unkind in his private thoughts.  The sentence that begins this post is spoken to The Colonel, and expresses part of his paralysis: he thinks a man of his distinction and service ought to be lauded (and he expects someone to seek him out), but he thinks it would be gauche to thrust himself into the limelight.  But that kind of dignified privacy only really operates in full view of the crowd: in the shadows, he’s a bit less particular about his aims and means.  At the point I’ve reached in the novel, he’s about to try and undo a familial disaster he suffered two decades prior by engaging in subterfuge that is utterly unlikely to succeed: his Jerry Lundegaard moment, if you will.  He is just as appealing and appalling as Jerry is, and therefore just as watchable.  The Colonel also provides us with a really easy connection to all the levels of society in Florence—he thinks of himself as upper class, and has connections to that world, but he lives among the relatively low middle class.  He has business that takes him among the rural poor—where, significantly, he is generally idolized as a war hero who led many folks’ fathers and uncles in battle—and his commitment to a certain level of basic fairness (along with his past as an overseer on a cotton plantation) give him a place of some small importance in the eyes of local black farmers.  I know, I know…in some ways it sounds like I’m describing Wang Lung, who I could not stand in the last novel.  I can’t really say what appeals to me about The Colonel, beyond the fact that he seems more human than Wang Lung, and that his particular flaws make him far more of an underdog (and therefore more pleasant to observe and even root for).

The only thing that continues to bother me is Stribling’s ridiculous approach to The Colonel’s wife, Ponny.  As I mentioned before, he lays on about her weight pretty aggressively in the opening paragraph.  This continues throughout—the narrator never calls her “Ponny”,  but always “his fat wife” or “his fat wife, Ponny”.  Whenever The Colonel sees her, we get some remark on her “shapeless bulk” or how “non-sexual” she is in his eyes.  Stribling can’t say something like “He briefly embraced his wife as he left.”  He can’t even say “He briefly embraced his fat wife as he left.”  It’s usually something like “He reached his arm around her large back, his hand gripping her pudgy shoulder, as he laid a brief kiss on her ponderous, swollen cheek.”  I recognize that it’s important to build up how disgusted The Colonel is by his wife, at least physically (he seems at least somewhat affectionate toward her personally), since it ties into some larger narratives about what The Colonel has done with his life and how it might have been different.  But the extent to which he’s going with the adjectives and the repetition becomes a parody of itself.  It also degrades Ponny as a real person, and not just some globular plot point, more than I think he should—in the end, I’m just disgusted by her, and not sympathetic to her, because Stribling never shows her through anyone else’s eyes, and certainly not her own.  (This is a real contrast to the black characters, who are often spoken of in the harshest terms, but who stand on their own two feet, and about whom the narrator is generally very neutral, if not even somewhat sympathetic.)

In short, for once, I have a novel I think I can really recommend.  If you’ve been looking for a read, and want to take a trip through the post-War South with me, I think this will reward your investment of time.  I’ll have a lot more to say about this one, I think, and it’s really nice and refreshing to be able to look forward to reading it and sharing those thoughts.

“In response to his wife’s uncertain inquiry about the political speaking, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden called back from his gate that he did not think there would be any ladies at the courthouse that evening.”

Well, then.  So begins The Store, by T. S. Stribling, which (my copy, at least) announces itself on its cover to be “a stirring novel of the post-Reconstruction South”.  I’ve gotten as far as the third paragraph, and already I can see that 1) this is going to be another sexist novel, based on the way the Colonel and his wife are presented and interact, and 2) this is also going to be a stereotypical and badly written novel.  The third paragraph not only refers to the Colonel’s wife casually as “the heavy woman” but then goes on for sentences about how, as a fat woman, she’s obviously naturally outgoing, and really likes being in loud social gatherings like other fat people do.  Stribling’s got his thesaurus open, so she’s called not only “heavy” and “fat”, but “fleshy” and “ponderous”, all within a sentence or two of each other.  I wish I was joking, but I’m giving it to you pretty straight.  This may be a “chug down my medicine” book, but it’s a long thing, and it’s hard to move fast through this dreck.

Some brief thoughts (other than “Kyrie eleison”)—I suspected before I even got to paragraph three that any novel whose main character’s name is “Miltiades” is either going to be excellent or awful.  Seriously, isn’t “Miltiades” a name you expect from a novel set in the magical land of Eregoss, where the evil lord Dwildrim will be vanquished by Prince Miltiades’s mighty blade?  I presume his mother called him “Milt”.

This is yet another (saints preserve us) middle book from a ponderous trilogy—the Victorians had the three-volume novel, Americans (in the 20s and 30s, at least) have the trilogy set in the same little town.  I know that The Magnificent Ambersons (awful) and Early Autumn (decent but shaky) were Pulitzer-winning middle novels.  I think there was at least one other, so far.  I can’t help but see it as dirty pool: it’s hard enough enjoying most of these, without being disoriented also.

This is at least (I can say one good thing about it) a person writing what they know.  Stribling’s setting his novel in the north Alabama country where he grew up, and this particular novel’s set in the late Gilded Age of his childhood (the action begins when he would have been three years old).  An Alabaman writing about Alabama right after the Yankees were sent home and the white folk “took back their state”?  Well, I’ll get some insights into a worldview, I guess.  Keep your head low, though, Stribling.  I sense a disaster of McLaughlin-level proportions in the near future, and I won’t be shy about my opinions.