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The Threshold of War

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

None but the Lonely Heart. By Richard Llewellyn. The Macmillan Company. $2.75. My Days of Anger. By James T. Farrell. The Vanguard Press. $2.75. The Darker Brother. By Bucklin Moon. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. By Wallace Stegner. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $3.00. At Heaven’s Gate. By Robert Penn Warren. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. So Little Time. By John P. Marquand. Little, Brown and Company. $2.75.

The time has not yet come for the present war to be depicted in fiction of serious importance. Of the six novels here reviewed, all deal with American or English life of the past twenty years, but only two come up to the time of this war, and in these two it is only a background or a termination for the story.

If the war is not yet material for novels, however, it has inevitably affected the attitude of the reader so profoundly that he cannot turn a page of one of these books without thinking of the cataclysm so soon to overtake the characters and the world they lived in. And he cannot help assuming that the same thought was constantly present in the novelist’s mind as he wrote. On the whole, the books offer the same picture of modern life as others have done for more than a decade—a drab picture of frustration, unrest, selfishness, greed, and all the seven deadly sins actively rampant. But the reader, instead of accepting the portrayal with a cynical smile or outraged lamentation, now looks at it with a mixture of clinical analysis and ironic fatalism. This is the morass that bred the pestilence. These are the blind victims of their own vices and follies, insignificant atoms in themselves, but aggregating to form a doomed world. One reads with the sense of impending disaster that the Greek audience felt at a Sophoclean tragedy, knowing all too well how the vengeance of the gods was about to be fulfilled.

The only English novel in the batch will arouse the sharpest controversy. Richard Llewellyn’s first novel won a vast audience by its idyllic tragedy of Welsh villagers. Many of those readers will be affronted by the ugly elements in his new book. From a critical standpoint, however, the crucial question is concerned with his techniques. The novel is a tour de force, but to the present reviewer the virtuosity remains conspicuous instead of fusing into an artistically satisfactory result. As in “How Green Was My Valley,” Mr. Llewellyn follows the example of the Abbey dramatists by reproducing dialect not in phonetic spellings but in constant adherence to certain idioms and rhythms. This was pleasing in the lilting Welsh speech that was supposed to convey an old man’s retrospective musings. “None but the Lonely Heart,” however, is a stream-of-eonsciousness novel which inhabits the mind of an adolescent Cockney. As the London dialect is jerky in rhythm and restricted in vocabulary, and as Mr. Llewellyn is a keenly imaginative writer, he seeks to add beauty by a constant torrent of similes, metaphors, personifications, all based upon sensitive observation and poetic fancy. In themselves these are usually original, often lovely, sometimes quaintly comic. But they grow monotonous through over-frequency, and they fail to carry conviction as the thought processes of the flabby-spirited, woolly-minded young Ernie Mott. Furthermore, the author has his hero think of himself invariably in the third person, with “He” and “Him” spelled with a capital, to differentiate from ordinary third-personal pronouns and perhaps to emphasize egotism. It is an artificial trick, and confuses the reader more than it enlightens him. And the perpetual capital “H” is strange as the expression of a person who would not possess the aspirate in his vocal repertory.

An American novel with a very similar setting and central character is “My Days of Anger,” by James T. Farrell. This is the fourth volume of a tetralogy which is in its turn a sort of sequel to the trilogy that established Mr. Farrell’s fame. In style, it is the antithesis of Mr. Llewellyn’s pyrotechnics. The diction is as trite and colorless as the Chicago streets where Danny O’Neill struggles drearily through adolescence. Yet this author, too, has his technical artifices. Each chapter is preceded by a brief episode, printed in italics, giving a page from Danny’s notebook or a snatch of conversation of persons unrelated to the central events. These recall the “montage” method of Dos Passos, or the “inter-chapters” of “The Grapes of Wrath.” As sources of strength Mr. Farrell depends upon the short sentence, the abrupt transition, and the foul word. One chapter, describing a North-Side studio party, is chopped into no less than twenty-four “snapshot” moments, with results that verge on the ludicrous. One regrets that Mr. Farrell takes his art too seriously to realize when he is parodying himself.

In another respect the book contrasts with Llewellyn’s. The London boy’s career is progressive failure and disintegration; his Chicago counterpart’s is—in its dismal way—a “success story.” There is nothing of the starry-eyed Alger tradition, but Danny does succeed in supporting himself by various jobs, in getting through the university with good grades, and finally in departing for New York with the determination of making his name as a newspaperman.

Another story that stays close to the underprivileged level is “The Darker Brother,” by Bucklin Moon. In recent seasons there have been several striking novels of the modern Negro, most of them written by colored authors and imbued with bitterness. Mr. Moon, who is white, writes about his Negroes with a friendliness that does not become sentimental and with an understanding that gives a convincing illusion of reality. It is a brief book, and gains its best effects by implication and understatement. He tells about a little family that removes from the deep South, where they are reasonably happy because they are adjusted to their environment, in spite of poverty and segregation, to Harlem, which seems at first a paradise of such luxuries as radios, movies, and Father Divine’s picnics, but which soon oppresses them with subtle complexities of racial friction and economic insecurity. For this novel the war provides the climax; in the army young Ben Johnson finds new aspects of his people’s problems, but the book ends on a note of better understanding and sturdy hope.

Although sordid city streets are replaced by some of the loneliest spaces of the western prairies in Wallace Stegner’s novel, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” a good many of the essential traits are like those of the other books. There is the same pathetically hopeful struggle against forces that allow little scope for individual achievement, the same detailed record of adolescent sexual explorations, the same bursts of lust and cruelty and cowardice. But the long novel is crowded with varied and vigorous life and gusto for experience, disinfecting its stenches and conveying the atmosphere of the West that was still virile though past its “wild” and “wide open” heyday.

The remaining two novels portray a higher social stratum. The most unforgettable of the six, in this reviewer’s opinion, is “At Heaven’s Gate,” by Robert Penn Warren. An indictment of the political and financial malpractices rife in American urban civilization is here made particularly effective by being placed in a Southern city, with the ironic contrasts of old traditions and new enterprises. To base a work of fiction upon recent well-known events and personalities is always a perilous venture, and Mr. Warren’s reader is constantly being tantalized by recollections of material he has read in the newspapers. It carries conviction, no doubt, but at some risk of degenerating into a muck-raking roman a-clef. That the novel successfully avoids this disaster is evidence of Mr. Warren’s skill and power. He writes with a precision of word and image that might become mannered, were it not so brilliantly varied. Structure and characters zation are equally admirable. Space permits mentioning but two examples of his expert handling. Inserted at in- tervals are instalments of a confession laboriously written by a simple-souled mountaineer, and not until near the end is there any indication of how this relates to the main thread of the story. It displays the strange beauty of that archaic diction which survives in the southern Appalachians; it contrasts vividly with the sophistication of the central narrative; and gradually it acquires a fatalistic potency as the reader begins to suspect how its theme will eventually merge with the climax in the lives of the other characters. The other device is that in the course of the story the reader is carried into the mind of each important personage in turn, with one exception: the “villain” of the piece, the rich and dignified Bogan Murdock, is seen only through the eyes of the others, and thus assumes a sinister distinction all his own.

Mr. J. P. Marquand’s book, “So Little Time,” does not probe so deeply as any of the others, and thereby conveys its chief impression of the people it depicts—that there is nothing to probe for. It can serve as a measure of what happened to American society in twenty years, for in essential character and circumstances Jeffrey Wilson is George F. Babbitt. But he is a sophisticated New York “play doctor” instead of a naive middle-western realtor. The chief butt of the author’s sarcasm is not Chum Frink, the syndicated poet, but Walter Newcombe, the foreign correspondent. The hero’s greatest concern is not the Zenith general strike, but the attitude of the United States toward the second world war. And in place of the affectionate satire with which Mr. Lewis gleefully spanked his America of 1920, we have Mr. Marquand’s remote and somewhat redundant irony.

Mr. Marquand, like Mr. Lewis, has a firm grasp of techniques and uses them with precision. The novel is efficient and topical. Alohe among the six it discusses lengthily the blind and helpless folly with which the world in general and the United States in particular stumbled along the road to war. Yet somehow all the other five seem to shed a more revealing light upon that topic.


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