The Thread of Flame

by Basil King. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1920. 12mo, vi+ 351 pp. Illustrated. $2.00.
THIS is the story of a man who waked up one morning to find himself on shipboard, returning from France to America, with absolutely no idea who he was or what his past life had been. His memory was shattered as a result of shell-shock. He dared not confess to a soul his ignominious predicament. Alone and unaided, he set about the long task of solving the mystery of his own identity.
The tale of this search for a lost personality, of the attempts of the hero to find work for which his past career — whatever it was — had fitted him, of his struggles with poverty and despair in New York, is skillfully told by Mr. King. Although one may question how a man of some former standing in Boston — as Billy Harrowby later turned out to be—could live so long in New York, pacing the hotel lobbies in the hope of being recognized, without a single acquaintance clapping him on the back, one must grant that Mr. King makes the narrative real as well as readable. The best thing in the book is the dramatic suspense of the vivid scene in which Harrowby, reduced to a position as carpet porter for a Fifth Avenue rug concern, finally meets a friend of his wife’s and all at once regains contact with his forgotten past. After this the story begins to flounder. Harrowby returns to the fleshpots of fashionable Boston, to tailor-made clothes, to his imperious wife. But he sickens of a society which looks out upon life through the purple window-panes of Beacon Street; he longs for the company of the simple-hearted carpet porters; and full of a vague social unrest, he goes back to New York and poverty. Only his wife’s complete change of heart reconciles her to him in the last chapter, when she finds him satisfying his new social conscience by teaching little poor boys to appreciate the ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum.
It is too bad that Harrowby had to be converted from a perfectly natural prig into the sentimental and unconvincing prophet of a New World. ‘You are the queerest guy I ever met,’ says Lydia Blair to him after he has forsaken Beacon Street; and the reader feels that she has expressed his own misgivings when she adds, ‘I sometimes wonder if you’re all there.’ The truth seems to be that Mr. King is a competent novelist, but only a middling sociologist, and that, like Harrowby, he is really more at home among connoisseurs of Chinese rugs than among those who wait for jobs in employment offices.
Some of the characters in The Thread of Flame, notably Lydia Blair and Vio Harrowby, are ably drawn. Basil King’s dialogue is always excellent. The novel as a whole is entertaining, and as conscientious as that admirable but uneffervescent character, Mildred Averill, who just misses being its heroine. F. L. A.
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