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Caviar and Poor Fish

ISSUE:  Winter 1978
The Shad Treatment. By Garrett Epps. Putnam. $9.95.

IF one assesses the matter in terms of success relative to total effort, the serious (i.e., basically non-satirical) political novel must be one of the most difficult thematic ventures undertaken by writers of fiction. Among scores of American political novels published over the past three or four decades, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men seems to me to be in a class by itself as a major novel with political power—its uses and abuses and effect on character— as its central concern. In addition to the ordinary difficulties of plot, characterization, and evocation of universal human experience faced by all writers of fiction, the political novelist seems to be subject to some special hazards that few have managed to overcome.

The problem of authenticity is critical, and in many respects it is double-edged. If one develops the plot along the lines of historical events or close approximations of those events (which is often the case), the result may be either too literal to allow the imagination to penetrate to motivations and reveal them in the actions of the characters or, if the deviations from descriptions of things as they happened on the surface is too great, the reader may be diverted from the meaning by the quest for discrepancies.

The public-private dichotomy is a closely related source of difficulty. The politician in his public capacity is an actor playing to a vast audience in a grand drama. How he plays the role may be affected by his character, but the part is not written in terms of his character alone, nor is his private character necessarily revealed through the public presentation. As one of the greatest of political psychologists, Thomas Hobbes, has indicated, the public representative—the politician—speaks through the mask of the classic theater. The political novelist must somehow find a way to make this dramatic persona real in his own right, and this is usually done by trying to connect the private life—the usual territory of the novelist—with public events and the protagonist’s role in them. Failure to do this effectively results in the lapse of the novel into a journalistic account of public events, real or imagined, banal or sensational, and the projection of caricatures instead of characters.

A potentially more dangerous pitfall than either historical authenticity or the public-private dimension is ideology. Since ideology is so much a part of the real world of politics, the political novelist cannot avoid the problem of depicting the effects of ideology on characters and events in political fiction. But too many political novels become political tracts and the characters merely allegorical figures because the novelist has become the captive of an ideological persuasion. Alien Drury’s Advise and Consent, for example, seems to me to be sufficiently flawed by ideological bias that it does not realize its potential as a novel, although Drury is more subtle in his handling of ideas and more perceptive in his understanding of political institutions than most political novelists.

The Shad Treatment is Garrett Epps’s first novel, and in it he makes a bold, and generally impressive, run at the production of a major work of political fiction. It is, first of all, a big book—more than 400 pages—replete with historical and geographic detail and containing several story lines which vary in the extent to which they are related to the central theme of the struggle for political dominance in Virginia between an older patrician and entrepreneurial elite and a new mass-based leadership. Since it is also a novel about the social and political commitments of the members of a particular family over time, its total historical and cultural dimension is much broader than the focal event on which the story turns. At a time when so much American fiction either trivializes grand themes or sensationalizes trivia, one must applaud the courage, perspicacity, and sheer endurance of an author who, at age 27, launches his career as a novelist by attempting to deal with a perennial major theme and treats so many facets of that theme on such a scale.

In matters of geography, personality, and ambience, it would be difficult for anyone even remotely familiar with Virginia politics to deny the book’s historical authenticity, although controversy abounds over specific interpretations of characters and events. The focal point of the plot is a guber-natorial race between Miles Brock, survivor of the now tottering, but formerly impregnable, organization created and dominated for decades by a deceased Bourbon leader referred to only as the “Apple-Farmer,” and Thomas Jefferson Shadwell (“Tom Jeff”), a folksy, compelling politician who has rallied the hitherto perpetual “cuts” for a genuine populist surge. The protagonist of the novel is Macllwain “Mac” Evans, descendant of an old and affluent Richmond family, heir to all the social and education privileges of the upper class, graduate of Harvard, where he had been drawn into the student revolt of the ‘60’s, and recently returned to do battle against the forces of reaction as a dedicated worker (and highly symbolic recruit) on Shadwell’s campaign staff.

The Shad Treatment virtually demands comparison with All the Kings Men because Epps has so obviously studied Warren’s novel. In Mac Evans, Epps has created a protagonist who bears a strong resemblance to Warren’s Jack Burden. Evans and Burden are from remarkably similar backgrounds. Both have all of the social and political connections with the dominant Bourbon and Whig elements of their respective states that go with “old” family money and status, the right schools, and exclusive local clubs, But they are also at stages in their respective lives and circumstances (Burden in the depression years, Evans in the ‘60’s and after) when they are not merely questioning their individual, family, and social identities, but are in active states of rebellion against the latter two sources of their respective self-identities. Both stories turn on the impact on the political and social attitudes and personal and family relations made by the protagonists’ rebellious associations with populist revival politicians whose origins, political stands, and styles are in total social and ideological contrast with the Burden and Evans heritages.

The structures and supporting techniques of the two novels are also remarkably similar, although the time span in which the main plot unfolds in The Shad Treatment is confined to the single election campaign, with only a brief postlude, whereas All the King’s Men runs the full gamut of Willie Stark’s career, from tentative origins to assassination, followed by a long coda which pulls the disparate or dangling pieces into a coherent theme.

Epps tries to follow Warren in the use of at least two of the latter’s most notable methods of securing effects. The first is elaborate description of places or motion to create moods that are intensely related to theme, and the other is the reflective flashback as a means of uniting the larger human dimension with the immediate drama of the main line of political action. The first has to do with place, the second with memory and time.

It would be too much to expect Epps to have the eye for detail, the philosophical acuity, and the verbal illuminator’s patience that enable a novelist of Warren’s skill to use this integrative device so effectively, but his talent in this area is substantial. He knows Richmond and its environs, including the whole of Southside Virginia, extraordinarily well, and uses this knowledge to establish an impressive backdrop for the family and political dynasties which constitute an intimate world of dominant insiders. He also understands the frenetically exhaustive pace and dissociative nature of a political campaign and symbolizes these qualities by rapidly alternating scenes and by developing attenuated, single-purpose contacts among characters in settings which help to define their roles.

The use of retrospective as a means of establishing the relations between private and public character and action is much less successful in The Shad Treatment than it is in All the King’s Men. The long historical account of the Evans family, for instance, is digressionary rather than integral in relation to characterization and plot. The Harvard episode is somewhat more pertinent but still does not add enough to the development of the total novel to warrant its extension. Although concurrent with the main plot rather than retroactive, even the romantic interlude seems more contrived and intrusive than natural and essential to the realization of the action (Is it possible for any new novelist to write a book these days without including at least one explicit sexual episode?).

The only flashbacks that really help move the plot and round out several of the characters are those which describe the relation between Mac Evans and his older brother Lester, who died of a brain tumor after a meteoric political career had taken him as far as the office of lieutenant governor and gave promise of virtually unlimited future success. As a politician with stunning personal gifts, the financial independence to practice politics as a full-time vocation, and access by birth-right to the major centers of power, Lester Evans had all of the attributes needed to free Virginia politics from the constrictive forces that had controlled it for half a century or more by overriding barriers of class and ethnicity without altering them fundamentally. A sporadic rake-hell in private life, his claim on leadership was asserted with such bold naturalness that almost every individual and group he encountered not only yielded to his persuasion, but did so with an admiration bordering on awe. Epps manages to evoke in Lester the rounded character of a Renaissance Prince (or a neo-American Kennedy) who displays his strength by combining flamboyant with cunning behavior, and motivates his supporters through both fear and favor, in the successful effort to retain a total constituency popularity as the foundation for an otherwise unimpeded personal exercise of both private and public power.

If Lester’s character and influence come through as fully developed in terms of the emotional, intellectual, and moral complexities and contingencies of real human relations by means of the reflective flashback, the same cannot be said of the development of either Tom Jeff Shadwell’s character or his influence on Mac in the unfolding of the straight story line. And this central weakness can hardly be ascribed to anything other than an ideological intrusion that tends to undermine the reader’s sense of the reality of the book’s putative hero and his effect on the protagonist. Only in the physical descriptions of the candidate and in a brief exemplification of his sound truck campaign technique do we get some flavor of the man, and even then it is the public image and not the character that comes through. In fact, the author keeps the reader at a surprising distance from Shadwell simply by giving him little direct exposure in the novel’s scenes. At the same time, we are offered abstract descriptions of Tom Jeff’s simple virtues that would make a paragon of him if they were backed up by a sufficiently skillful fictional portrayal to force a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the observer. But the goodness is “dramatized” in such stilted episodes that one might interpret the characterization as subtle parody if it were not for the larger setting within which the story unfolds.

Tom Jeff speculates randomly to his staff in a motel room, and Mac Evans sees him as “. . . larger than life, an enormous little man . . . a stone idol, some impossible hill-country Buddha, the myopic gaze concealing secret knowlege.” (Page 72) Watching Miles Brock’s televised attack on Shadwell for his alleged position on the busing issue, Mac turns his own anger aside in a comparison of the nature of Knocko Cheatam’s anger with that of Tom Jeff. Knocko is Shadwell’s campaign manager, a shrewd professional politician whose hatred is of a mortal enemy with whom he still shares much, but Tom Jeff’s “. . . anger seemed deeper and more fundamental, . . . a direct childlike hatred of falsehood and dishonesty . . . Tom Jeff was a crusader. . .”. The insult to him was not to his ego “. . . but deeper, in the place where his sense of the universe lived, his sense of the order of things which was still offended and threatened by lies and liars. Where most politicians eventually give up their sense of truth, Tom Jeff defiantly retained his, at the cost of much pain and fury.” (Page 79) During the course of arranging a counter to Brock’s charge that Shadwell favored a gun control law, Tom Jeff lectures Mac on the purity of popular government: The gun laws will not be changed because the people don’t want them changed “. . . and that’s all right, that’s the way it should be, because all power is vested in the people and magistrates are their servants and amenable to them.” (Page 286) Tom Jeff refuses to distribute minor expense funds to certain organizations supporting him because, although legal, it would be like buying votes; and for fear of offending his sense of propriety, Mac does not even dare tell Shadwell about Knocko’s arrangement of a deal to guarantee a university presidency to a leading “retired” politician in exchange for a public endorsement. In a book larded with back-room political language reminiscent of the barracks and meeting rooms of radical student organizations, Evans recalls having heard Tom Jeff curse only twice. Even in defeat Shadwell displays neither bitterness nor a desire for personal retaliation, only a profound sorrow for the half-million loyal supporters who wanted an honest, hard-working governor, and a determination to keep the faith.

Such a unidimerisional creature defies plausibility on two levels. One cannot believe that such platitudinous moral responses to those closest to him are adequate representations of any historical politician or set of politicians upon whom the author may have drawn for his portrait. Nor can one accept Tom Jeff Shadwell as a generic representative of the Southern Populist. Politics is so human an activity conducted on so grand a scale that it tends to exaggerate defects as much as it does virtues, so it is not a game into which saints are welcomed very effusively, or which they play very well if they do get admitted, Can one readily conceive of a politican so devoid of personal ambition and so totally self-sacrificial on the altar of power as Shadwell? Or one so undefiled by contact with the political world as it is described as having been before his advent? Was ever a Populist so selfless in his detestation of privilege as to be devoid of all taint of envy or so pristine in his devotion to democratic processes as to forego every deceit and all dirty tricks in his bid for office? More concretely, how many politicians does one know (even in a state with Virginia’s reputation for pecuniary rectitude) who are so solicitous of the purity of higher education that they would not commit a university presidency to so large a cause as victory in a gubernatorial election? If Shad well were really the fundamentalist prude he is made out to be, the old guard would not even have had to spend their money on the campaign of vilification waged against him. The public on its own would have done the same thing to him in the election.

Because of the wooden characterization of Shadwell, Mac Evans’s devotion to him also seems implausible, and the denouement of the novel as a whole is affected by the haziness of the effect of this central personal relationship on the self-realization of Mac as a political activist. And here again, ideological commitment rather than a sure grasp of reality seems to direct the course of the novel. Mac never really comes to terms with the contingencies of existence and the limits and possibilities of moral and political action in the way that Jack Burden does, because he never is pushed beyond the romantic quest for a morally and politically pure world. Mac seems to remain convinced that the roots of evil are social and readily identifiable rather than human and enormously complex. And even though he should understand by reason of his closeness to Lester that natural gifts may have ambivalent moral effects on both the gifted and those who are swayed by them, that incrementalism is all one can hope for and fate has more disposal over the realization of those hopes than does the individual, and that political benefits are usually bestowed by means that are a bit shabby, he still cannot accept Lester’s amoral qualities as contributory to public virtti, any more than he can forego his idealization of the dispossessed for Lester’s apparent cynicism about the purity of Rousseau’s man of nature. Finally, his compulsion to redemptive political action emerges as so intense that he apparently would have preferred stoic martyrdom to his father’s self-exile to South America after a noble career of public service was rewarded by character assassination and a pending indictment for perjury during the course of an anti-Communist binge. If Tom Jeff Shadwell had shown a single human weakness (envy of Lester’s charm is suggested once, but even that is less personal than it is a wistful hankering after the opportunity it affords for doing good), the allegorical symbol might have been broken, and this to the benefit of the characterization of both the hero of the book and its protagonist. But it would have had to be at the expense (and well worth it) of the domination of the story by a rather banal set of social and political attitudes. Like many practicing political ideologues, Mr. Epps is much better at exposing traits of character which tend to incur hatred for individuals than in aiding us in understanding those we are supposed to love.

The quality of writing in the book is uniformly high except for the author’s unwillingness to control his metaphors. A girl at a party, for instance, has in her eye a “. . . predatory sparkle which cut Mac’s eyes like bright sunlight over snow.” (Page 57) On another occasion Mac’s hand wanders through his girlfriend’s hair “. . . like a herdsman through his flock.” (Page 293) And after one of Shad well’s “terrific” speechs and a brief uplifting encounter with Mac, his plane disappears into the clouds “. . . like a steel paraclete . . . .” (Page 85) But Epps does know how to tell a story, and he has the capacity for organization and the mastery of the language to develop a style suited to his gift for narration. In this respect the novel is a compliment to the author, and perhaps to his prep school, St. Christopher’s, and to Harvard College, for the maintenance of decent standards of prose when our deculturation in politics (as in other things) is so distressingly apparent in the general abuse of the language through which such activities are conducted.

The Shad Treatment has become, as one might have expected, something of a sensation in Virginia. It is too literal not to have scandalized the vociferous defenders of the genteel tradition, and it is a must for the state’s academic version of the radical chic set. It is also good entertainment, especially for the Virginia political buff, and the author himself has said that the first duty of a writer is to entertain. Whether it will have more than a parochial effect is problematic. Time and experience will tell both how the novel stands up as something other than a bit of local color, and how much Epps makes of his donnee.

All the King’s Men became the prototype of the political novel by penetrating to psychological depths of political motivation that have not been explored so completely before or since. In the most basic terms it might be said that Warren understood original sin in its profoundest sense, and he handles the problem of hubris fictionally as well as any writer of the modern era. In consequence, his treatment of Burden and Stark evokes a recognition of experience that completely transcends the local circumstances which furnish the setting for the story, as dramatic as those circumstances were in their own historical right. Though seriously deficient in this central measure of fictional achievement, it says much for other qualities in The Shad Treatment that one so readily accepts its implicit invitation to compare it with Warren’s masterpiece.


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