Miss HAWKINS seldom goes wrong on fiction. Her estimate of three new and leading novels will give some people an appetite.
PROBABLY most reviewers of fiction would agree that the rarest quality in a first novel is compression. Phil Stong’s ability to say much briefly he may owe to his training as a newspaper man, or it may be an endowment from the gods. State Fair (Century, $2.50) is built compactly around one august event: it tells how Blue Boy, the imperial Hampshire boar, flings down his gage against the world. But it also presents vividly a region, a family, some conscious and unconscious philosophies, and the first encounters of a boy and of a girl with what to-day is called Life.
Mr. Stong has a decided gift for narration. The night journey by truck of Blue Boy and the Frakes to the Fair Grounds is not to he forgotten. He is good too, and swift, at characterization. Mrs. Frake’s cavalier attitude toward her cold, on the journey, is the bud from which her whole warm and selfless character unfolds with the logic of nature itself.
I believe that the storekeeper, that amiable pessimist who silently sums up in the Epilogue, is done from life, and yet, paradoxically perhaps, I fail to find him convincing. I for one should like this sprightly novel as well if it ended when the torpid conqueror, all unaware of the clouds of glory he trails, climbs down into the welcoming mud of his pen and disagreeably greets the Hired Man with ‘Whoosh! Unggh!’
A. J. Cronin’s second novel, Three Loves (Little, Brown, $2.50), lacks the curious sombre power of Hatter’s Castle, but surpasses the earlier book in reality. There is less of melodrama, and the central figure is more credible than the monstrous James Brodie. The style, too, shows increased expertness, though one still feels now and then that the author is taking, as it were, his vocabulary for an airing.
Its single focus gives the novel unity. The character of Lucy Moore grows increasingly real as one watches her, three times, entrusting all her eggs to one basket and smashing them. The fault is partly in Lucy’s star, but partly in herself; consequently her tragedy seems more significant than the blind riot of the spite of the gods in Hatter’s Castle. The author shows special power in portraying the sorrows of a mother. In Hatter’s Castle, the downtrodden Mrs. Brodie is by far the most convincing figure. In Three Loves, Lucy as a wife is real enough in her devotion and her fatal overpossessiveness, but as the adoring and purposeful mother of a weak and selfish son she grows in stature and begins to tear at the reader’s sympathies.
Three Loves seems to me a more deeply pessimistic novel than its murky predecessor. Perhaps this is because the simplicity of its plan emphasizes the disproportion between Lucy’s faults and her punishment. Because of her hastiness in jealous suspicion, her husband loses his life. Because of the overpressure that she puts upon her lackadaisical son, he abandons her treacherously and callously. Because of her crazy impulsiveness in embracing the religious life, she is betrayed by the refuge she desperately sought. Lucy’s crime is that her judgment is less than her pluck; so the gods kill her for their sport.
Magnolia Street, by Louis Golding (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.50), is an extraordinarily fine piece of work. So far as I know, it is quite different from all other novels. Moreover it is amusing, queerly beautiful, and, above all, moving. Time after time a wave of emotion swells in the narrative, and one is lifted with it.
Magnolia Street, in a North-ofEngland town, is very narrow, but spiritually it is ocean-wide. In the even numbers live gentiles; in the odd, Jews. Only on occasions of high excitement do the even numbers shout, ‘Who killed Christ?’ at the odds; but the scornful hate is always alive. It is only less than the scornful hate of the odds for the gentle red-bearded missionary, the apostate Jew who loves Christ so faithfully and sorrowfully.
After showing us this small world in its normal state, the author portrays it in three great crises, three times of truce, three times when it almost seems that hatred has departed forever from Magnolia Street. There is the great love party to celebrate Benny Edelman’s rescue of little Tommie Wright from drowning in the clay croft. There is the truce of shared anguish during the Great War. And there is the indescribably resplendent love party, with no expense whatever spared, given by the two great ones, Battling Kid Shulman, lightweight champion of the world, and Bella Winberg, the profiteer’s heiress, when they dazzlingly revisit their old home.
As effective as the structure of the book is the use of words. John Cooper, the sailor, walks ‘ with a slight swing in the shoulders and hips as if the pavement of Magnolia Street lifted to the moon.’ The old men at prayer in the synagogue sway and mutter, with voices rising and falling, ‘till it is like a trouble among the reeds at the edge of a lake.’ But the power of this novel is in the silent cry behind it — the same as the cry of Sean O’Casey’s Juno: ‘ Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.’
ETHEL WALLACE HAWKINS