Oil! - Upton Sinclair
As Bunny and his father make a long drive over the mountains into California an endearing relationship is established. I liked the man, I liked the little kid. In the opening sections of Oil! Sinclair displays the gift of sustained narrative. Even when we get into the technical aspects of drilling and the business side of the industry (which includes deception and bribes) I was pulled along. Unfortunately for the book, Bunny grows up and becomes an idealistic prig; worse, his father fades into the background. The people who take center stage are crude stereotypes. The rich girl Bunny gets involved with is shallow, manipulative and has no morals (that’s how the rich are). Eli is an over-the-top evangelist, spouting revelations while accumulating wealth (religious hypocrisy in action). Paul – the poor boy who grows into a man with a clear-thinking mind – is a spokesman for all that is just. And so on. Sinclair’s most important work – one which led to reform in the meat packing industry– was The Jungle. In this novel he’s on the side of labor, and is out to show how an “evil Power roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women.” I peeked at the last sentence to get that quote; I didn’t make it halfway through this very long polemic. It’s no surprise that Sinclair was a politician – he ran for Congress as a Socialist and for governor as a Progressive Democrat under the banner of “End Poverty in California.” I’m not here to judge his political views – my judgment has to do with his ability as a novelist (he produced forty-five). He had talent – that opening section was good. But then the use of props to make political points took over. And the workmanlike prose turned clumsy; especially irritating was the overuse of exclamation marks. The one lesson I took from Oil! is to avoid any novel that has an exclamation mark in the title.
The Big Clock - Kenneth Fearing
This is one of the six crime novels in The Library of America’s American Noir of the 1930s and 40s (the lead off selection is The Postman Always Rings Twice). But Clock is atypical for the genre. Though there’s one act of violence (not depicted graphically) never does a gun appear, nor are any of the characters tough guys. This is a cerebral work, literary in nature, and it takes place mostly in the office of a New York publishing house or in the suburban home of George Stroud. He’s the main first person narrator, though others briefly take that role. The book involves the choices we make. George chooses to have an affair, and as the result he becomes the suspect in a murder: Who was that man with Pauline Delos on the night of her death? George was that man, and the plot twist is that he’s assigned the job of locating himself. He also knows the identity of the murderer, but to reveal what he knows would expose his affair and thus end his marriage. I found the novel to be engrossing and well-written; it’s a good character study of a flawed man. I was especially grateful that there weren’t any red herrings – we aren’t intentionally misled. That said, the ending was too abrupt and left some important loose ends unresolved. If Fearing could have continued for another twenty pages, pursuing the track he had established while keeping the proceedings logical, he might have a produced a real gem. I have a feeling he tried but found the task too complex to pull off. So maybe his choice to bail out was the right one. A letdown is better than a collapse.
The Cossacks - Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
Tolstoy began this short novel when he was twenty-four and worked intermittently on it for ten years. He was an author who always wanted to impart a higher meaning to his writing, and I think he was searching for – and having trouble finding – more than just a picaresque depiction of the Cossacks. His Olenin is a young Russian nobleman who becomes disenchanted with his profligate life in Moscow; he joins the army as a cadet and is sent to the Caucasus. He becomes enamored by the simplicity of that world and its people. He’s boarded at the home of a family, and he goes from admiring the sturdy beauty of the daughter to deciding that he wants to marry her and live the life of a Cossack. This is a silly idea; he isn’t, and never could be, a Cossack. Nor is there any foundation to his feelings of love for the girl; they don’t even have one conversation of substance. Though Maryanka somewhat encourages Olenin, she’s engaged to Lukashka, a freewheeling young man who’s a Cossack to his marrow. I thought the ending would involve a confrontation between Luka and Olenin; a duel seemed to be in the offing. This never takes place; instead Luka is shot in the stomach during a battle with Chechens. At this point things are wrapped up in a cursory manner: Maryanka turns hostile, Olenin’s regiment gets orders to relocate, he leaves the village (whether or not Luka dies is never disclosed). Later in life Tolstoy expressed dissatisfaction with the book; I’d like to know his reasons why, because I’d probably agree. Olenin’s moony romanticizing annoyed me; Maryanka came across as a tease; Luka was over-the-top with his flamboyant virility; the skirmishes with the Chechins seemed to be an excuse for exhibits of masculine bravado. As for that higher meaning Tolstoy was after, it seems to boil down to this: you can’t be what you’re not cut out to be. Not a bad little novel, but it wouldn’t be in the Everyman Library if it hadn’t been written by Tolstoy. And it certainly doesn’t deserve the words like “masterpiece” and “great” that John Bayley uses in his Introduction.