by Henry G. Aikman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1921. 12mo, 326 pp. $2.50.
Zell should take an honorable place on the shelf of novels which interpret American life truthfully and artistically. Its sordidness has not the relentless horror of a book like McTeague, though occasionally one thinks of the stark realism of Frank Norris in reading the unvarnished descriptions of Mr. Henry Aikman. Nor would Miss Lulu Bett’s family be wholly alien to the Middle-Western entourage of the ‘Zell Microcosm.’
Almost half the book, of which Avery Zell is the central figure, is devoted to the years of his early boyhood, and in spite of much good charact er-drawing, the movement sometimes slightly drags. Herman Zell, the boy’s drunken and bombastic brute of a father, stands out with the definiteness of a Dickens type; and the utter failure of his weak and well-intentioned wife to understand either her husband or her children forms the material out of which much of the book is made. It is the early influences of Avery’s childhood, the reactions of an unhappy home upon a sensitive temperament, which make intelligible, and even inevitable, the twists and tangles of his own mature experience. Winifred Zell is one of the real characters in the book. She sums up to her brother the cause of their differing tragedies: ‘There was no one to understand us, to direct us. Home for us was a place of hatreds. . . . We were deprived of our birthright. So we’ve just drifted, lived stupid, ordinary lives. And the sad thing is, neither of us is stupid or ordinary. We’ve never been able to get what was in us, out.'
All through this book the second-rate people of a small Middle-Western city press insistently upon us with their crudities and their vulgarities, their artistic strivings, and their petty ambitions. They are so convincingly ‘themselves,’ that we should become oppressed by their constant society were it not for the humor and the light touch with which their foibles are portrayed. The chapter describing the social evening of the Five Hundred Club is a masterpiece of unexaggerated humor.
Here, indeed, is the material for a Spoon Riverful of hopeless epitaphs, were it not for the nice sense of proportion displayed by the author. He plays fairly, not with loaded dice. Fate is often unjust, generally ironic, and always unkind; heredity and environment join their diabolic forces to mutilate character and to crush all hope of accomplishment, and yet — a spark disturbs the clod, animating with life, and therefore with hope, characters which contain the germ of something not wholly sordid.
On the last page, Avery Zell is able to snatch a sense of satisfaction that his failure in life was not complete. The realization of even that mild victory over fate is enough to turn many a human tragedy into sanity, and its recognition by the younger school of novelists would more often vitalize fiction into life. ‘At least,’ soliloquizes Avery, on this final page, ‘I have not strutted. At least I have not shirked. At least I am no mere pretence of a man.’
Much more than this could thepromising young author of Zell truthfully say of his own work.