Friday, September 29, 2023

The Big Sky – A. B. Guthrie
In our country’s northwest, in the mid-1800s, there existed a strange breed called mountain men. Guthrie’s considerable achievement is to bring them and their world alive. This panoramic novel rings true, and the truth is often brutal. To survive these men had to be resourceful, courageous, hard. If they were to eat, they must kill. If they were to make the little money they needed (they mostly lived off the land, but certain necessities must be bought), they had to kill beaver and buffalo for the skins and hides. They faced the constant threat of Indians (who are depicted as far from noble), wild animals, the weather – it was a hostile world. Yet it’s the world the mountain men chose, with no personal gain in mind. Populated places were alien to them. That’s not to say they were solitary – they usually traveled in small groups, partly for protection. Boone Caudill, the novel’s main character, makes two friendships that last for many years. Jim Deakins is a philosopher with a humorist’s bent, old Dick Summers is a teller of yarns; both contribute rich, colorful dialogue (Boone uses words sparingly). The Big Sky is a tragedy on several levels. The Native American culture begins its disintegration, the great buffalo herds start to dwindle, the pure and wild land sees the arrival of settlers. But before all that comes to completion, Boone – who’s too hard, too unflinching – will alienate himself forever from the only world he can live in. We understand what makes this deeply flawed man what he becomes, though we shrink from his decisions and actions. When I first read The Big Sky as a teenager I thought it was a great novel. I still do. 5

End of the Road – John Barth
I found the ending of this novel to be very disturbing, and to elicit such a response Barth deserves credit. Mostly the novel resides in the realm of the bizarre. Jacob suffers from an inability to make decisions. A doctor spots him sitting in the same spot, motionless, in a train station on consecutive days, and Jacob enters his therapy (the nameless doctor’s speciality is nihilistic paralysis). Part of Jacob’s therapy leads him to a job at a State Teachers College where he meets another teacher, Joe Morgan, and his wife Rennie. This couple share a marriage based on a highly rigorous dedication to authenticity. All these elements are buried in convoluted intellectual verbiage. And they’re unconvincing. Indecisive Jacob constantly makes decisions, and the authenticity Joe imposes on Rennie (once with a punch on the jaw that knocks her out – simply because she continually apologizes) struck me as insane. At one point Rennie says “I think all our troubles comes from thinking too much and talking too much.” My response was: Exactly! So why did I read the book, why did I get emotionally involved? Partly because for long stretches it was intelligible and inventive, even stimulating. And partly because I grew to care about Rennie. She bears a good deal of responsibility for what befalls her, but if she never met Joe and Jacob she could have led a normal life. Road is early Barth – before he started writing 800 page postmodernistic blockbusters. It’s strong stuff. 4

S. S. San Pedro – James Gould Cozzens
This odd little novel takes place entirely aboard a ship sailing from New York to Argentina. Besides 172 passengers and a full crew, it’s loaded with cargo (cars, cash registers, machine guns, cotton shirts, children’s toys, a million dollars in gold, etc.). We begin in port, where a doctor who has been seeing the captain is about to leave. This doctor, so weird looking as to cause people to recoil, asks for a tour of the ship, and this task is assigned to a senior officer, Anthony Bradell. At one point the doctor makes an offhand remark: “But you do not float quite level, do you?” Bradell will remember these words near the end of the book, when the ship is going through the final agonizing stages of sinking. He will also remember that the doctor, when describing the captain’s condition, says, “People grow old, Mr. Bradell. They break down, they wear out.” This turns out to be true: the captain cannot make decisions, though continuing to demand that he be obeyed. What makes the book odd is the way it’s told. There’s a sense of detachment. With a single exception (and that’s a brief one) we see things only from the perspective of various members of the crew. And though they diligently struggle on, they recognize their inadequacy: the uncaring, devouring sea will have its way. This is early Cozzens – before he, like Barth, expanded his scope. Which was unfortunate. He did his best work when he was short and concise. 4

The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain
What a disappointment! I can forgive myself for once liking this crime novel, for I was probably in my twenties when I first read it, and its serving of sadomasochistic sex and tough guy action must have impressed me. Now it seems fake and ridiculous (Cora’s “Bite me! Bite me!” made me cringe in embarrassment). The occasional musings by Frank of a religious nature are corny (looking in Cora’s eyes “was like being in church”). Not even the plot, involving the murder of Cora’s “greasy” Greek husband, is convincing. Like the attempts to kill him, the book is an ill-conceived mess. Yet on publication in 1934 it was a huge hit with the public and the intelligentsia (well, some of them). It gained praise from big name critics (Edmund Wilson) and writers (Albert Camus). Dorothy Parker claimed it was a love story; how a cynic like her could have found any love on these pages is beyond me. The Modern Library included it in its list of the one hundred greatest novels of the 20th Century; there are many movie versions, and even an opera. Am I missing something? The terse dialogue and minimalistic approach may have been innovative at the time. Yet even with those virtues, the plot drags on when Cain tries to explain things at length. Maybe the harshness of this review stems from the fact that I’ve actually recommended this book to people. 1 (Delete)

1 comment:

kmoomo said...

I may not want to read any of these books myself, the subject matter is not my cup of tea, but.... I DO love reading your descriptions and reviews of these books. Much better than the books themselves, for me.