Cotters’ England - Christina Stead
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - Alan Sillitoe
The long-distance title story (over fifty pages) is good, but its potential is meaty enough to be better than good, so in a sense it falls short. Early on we know too much. The boy’s intention to lose the race (which is stated on page six and never wavers) is part of his overall attitude toward life – he’s far beyond any hope for rehabilitation. Sillitoe arms his protagonist with a thoroughly worked-out defiance toward society (“. . . by Christ, I’d rather be like I am – always on the run and breaking into shops for a packet of fags and a jar of jam – than have the whip-hand over somebody else and be dead from the toe nails up”). The boy’s voice is good, but that one note – defiance – is sounded too often. As for the next two pieces – “Uncle Ernest” and “Mr. Raynor the School-Teacher” – the first was weak, the other inconsequential. “The Fishing-Boat Picture” (about a failed marriage) was initially interesting, but it needed an emotional kick at the end. To achieve this the reader must be made to feel emotions, and this won’t happen if they’re directly stated – which is what Sillitoe winds up doing.
These Thousand Hills - A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
When I was in my teens Guthrie’s The Big Sky and The Way West played an important role in furthering my love of books, so reading These Thousand Hills was disheartening. It follows fifteen years in the life of Lat Evans as he moves up in the world of the Montana Territory in the late1800s. I became increasingly uninvolved with this taciturn, stoical, colorless character. I also felt no empathy for him; Guthrie doesn’t develop a basis for some judgmental decisions Lat makes, so he seems heartless. The ending is a melodramatic grab bag (including a gratuitous murder mystery). Lat owns up to his shortcomings, but the impact is diminished because it has no repercussions; on the last page his wife lyrically forgives all. As for that wife, and the prostitute with a heart of gold who precedes her, they’re merely role players. There’s a mechanical, paint-by-numbers feel to this book. The prose is inventive, but in a diligent way, and the re-creation of the past has the type of authenticity that seems researched. Maybe a determination to finish his “Big Sky” series was spurring Guthrie on. Missing is the inspiration that marked those two earlier novels of my boyhood. Or, at least, that’s what I want to believe.