Too True to Be Good

Columnist and Assistant Editor of the Bergen Evening Record, Hackensack, New Jersey, WILLIAM A. CALDWELL thinks too many erudite mid-twentieth-century practitioners of psychological fiction put into their novels everything but a point. An art without a morality, he suggests, isno matter what its other virtuesno art at all; it is just an autopsy report. At the present time Mr. Caldwell is writing a book about gambling games and their accompanying social atmosphere.

by WILLIAM A. CALDWELL

I

I HAVE just finished reading a rather prim little story about a solvent urbane 42-year-old citizen who so loved his wife — who just so loved her and who so poignantly realized that she had made him what he was that in the last paragraph

he went to her door and there in the hall took off his clothes. She was lying on her back, her lips parted: he could hear her snoring. In the dark he tiptoed across the hall to the bathroom — his bathroom, mannish every inch of it, she would say, explaining what was mannish about it — and he set the cold water to running gently in the bowl so that, when he came out, he would remember to wash up. Now he was ready. In his left hand was the bright brass knob of her door. In his right was the thin long saw-toothed knife with which he had so many years ago — before she decided it was a downright uneconomical sport — gutted so many a fat trout. He began to wonder if she would flop and twist, but only began; that was all. Silently he opened the door and went in, and then closed it carefully behind him. This had better be done in the dark . . .

That is to say, in an ecstasy of shy acknowledgment of all she had been and done to him, the guy was about to chop her head off. That much is clear. I did not exactly like the story, but I respected it. It was architecturally sound, it was written with a kind of sordid minimal competence, and because it recommended a just solution for say ten or twelve million American marriage problems it was wonderfully improving.

I have just stuffed it in my wastebasket: much too late I have discovered that all I omitted from my manuscript was a point. Otherwise it was fine. I had followed Breck and his marvelous, unspeakable Fran around Upper Montclair with a microscope, taking down what they did and how they acted, showing how he had become the captive slave of her aspirations and dreams, indicating how he found that to win his honor and his salvation and the right to dreams of his own he must kill her. It was tolerably accurate, being mainly an abridgment of some notes on my friends, but it was not in any honest sense of the word a story, it was far from art, and it was too true to be good.

I could rewrite Breck and Fran into a detective story but this, I think, would be cheating. Detective stories are written in an austere moral atmosphere which does not exist in life: the central idea, that crime does not pay, is forced on the mystery writer. He has no real work to do.

I could, having brought these people to the breaking point over some triviality, manage to effect a reconciliation by discovering that the misunderstanding was all a mistake, a semantic problem, a sort of pun. I should have to dress him decently, but there would be quite a tender bedside scene, and they would laugh and cry and the author would choke back the lump in his throat and deposit the check. But it seems to me that this kind of writing has about the same relationship to literature that putting a nickel in a pneumatic piano has to symphonic composition.

What I still wanted to do was to show some of my fellow men how the manner in which they run their marriages, the minutiae of their indifferent daily bliss, can and should be an overpowering provocation to murder. I still wanted to tell my moral little story.

Well, perhaps we could make the point in some sanitary symbolic way. Perhaps, a day or so after Fran has gone downtown to get a hat and see about this swelling under her armpit, the doctor calls Breck to his office and tells him gently that the biopsy has turned out most unfavorably. Breck doesn’t get it. “I didn’t know Fran had a biopsy, and she tells me everything,”Breck mumbles. “What is it, sir?" “I’ve seen you kids grow up together till I can’t think of you except as one,” says old Doc Truman, blinking back the sudden brightness on his eyes. “But I got to tell you in plain layman’s language, Breck Truesdale, that the test shows your wife has a cancer. An inoperable cancer.”Now what does Breck Truesdale do? Faint? Cry? Commit suicide? The hell he does. He goes over to Fifty-second Street and gets barrel-house drunk. He does not know why, and we shall not say outright why, but the perspicacious reader, having encountered the phenomenon before, quite understands. Breck is saying hurray—see? It is a symbolic act of murder. He hates her. He wants her dead. He is glad. End of story.

It is, of course, no good. Besides being ham, it is less elevating than candid gristly butchery. Yet this interlude was productive in its own perverse way. It presented me eventually with the fact that my Fran and Breck were not characters in a story, were not the living people of any kind of created art, but were the dramatis personae of a tank-town specialist’s clinical report. What is this man of mine; a heel, a hero, a poor passionate fool, an idiot, a villain? Indeed none of these; the crux of the matter is that you and I agree that the doctor’s announcement broke a barrier in the superego and Breck, being released, behaved quite naturally. It is not the writer’s point of view. It is the psychiatrist’s, Breck is not a man moving through intricate trouble to crisis. He is the Mr. F of any case history in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

And so, although I had some modest ambitions for him and his lady, I have stuffed them in the basket. I can have no faith in them and, now that I know them for what they are two poker-faced little nonentities in a waiting room on Central Park West — no interest in them. I could write a book about them and make you believe it; but Mr. Pickwick is more real to me and truer, and so are Hotspur and Jurgen and Huck Finn’s paw. For the writers of these people had what I think I and the rest of the writers of my moral habitat and generation never had or have lost: they had a point of view. They not only examined people; they saw people.

2

PLEASE let me tell you about Breck and Fran. They had been married when very young. She was a Macomb, and the Macombs just about owned Fpper Montclair, N.J., and he was nobody to speak of. But across the chasm between them cell voohooed to cell, and she didn’t mind telling you that she proposed to him. The wedding took place the following June. He oflen told her he had never regretted it. She often asked.

For a few years after that he studied law nights and put in time in a real-estate office days, earning enough to get by on, and each evening after he had closed his books she would drift over to his desk in the corner of the living room and put him through a severely cozy little examination on his homework. She’d trip him up once in a while, and he’d lean back and say, “I’m glad you brought that up, counselor,”and she’d twinkle out and get beer and sandwiches, and they’d go over the whole problem of contracts right then and there, and they’d get to bed at one or maybe two o’clock, and she’d come over and sit on the edge of his bed and murmur, “Love me, Fresh?” He’d have to be up by 6 A.M, to catch his train, and he’d make his own breakfast and wash the beery-smelling glasses, and he’d find the socks he needed there in her workbasket where she’d be getting at them any month now if the Community Chest and the Milk Fund and the Theatre Guild subscription would ever let her.

When he got his law degree he wanted to get a mortgage on the house and go into practice for himself; but when he saw the look on her face and the way she was biting her lip to keep it from trembling, he took a good safe job w ith an insurance company. She had steered him straight. The depression came along right after that, and country lawyers went under by the dozen, but his $87.50 kept rolling in week after week.

“Breck, you’d be one of the biggest men in New York if you had any guts,”his boss told him once after a rather complicated little out-of-court settlement; but Breck replied, “Mr. Fowler, I’ll never swap the bigness I might have had for the happiness I have had.”They had had three abortions and no children, security and no serenity, danger without adventure, love without friendship, a roaring drunk every Saturday night for no excuse they could clap a name to, drudgery without work, years without days. They had traveled, and knew not the streets of their suburb. They had read, and could remember only the names and prices of the books. They had succeeded, but the sentence had to end there. They had never tried to define the success.

They hated Roosevelt, bought and as promptly as possible cashed war bonds, read Pegler and Sokolsky and sometimes suspected that what this country needs is a leadership commanding the respect of the superior and the obedience of the rabble, and — and went through all the other knee-jerks of the timid, ignorant, and insecure.

One night another hoarse old man had said on the radio that — this time for certain — the Third World War was upon us. Something had stirred in Breck, and he had turned his attention inward and attempted to identify what the stirring was.

He was interested to find after a little while that it was a small, sweaty, frantic joy. Breck wanted the war. He put down his World-Telegram, and got up uneasily. “Here’s a bathroom for you,”Fran had said; and then, glancing at him over her House Beautiful and seeing the look on his face, she had rearranged matters. “If you’re going to make a highball, one for me too, pleasie,” she said.

“I’m not going to make a highball. I’m going for a walk.”He didn’t look at her. “Alone.”

By the time he got back he knew three reasons which were an interlocked single reason why, despite whatever his mind argued, the prospect of war gladdened his inwards. War would be adventure, it would be living; war might very possibly this time kill-him; there was even a remote chance since the Russians are notoriously casual artillerists — that some atomic bomb aimed Irom l’ranz Josel Land for Manhattan might drift into Montclair and bag Fran. That was about as close as a man could get to it: he hated his existence, he hated himself, he hated his wife. Looking back as he returned to the house, walking fast, Breek had realized with a sudden flush of bitterness what a hell of a life it had been. He had not even really lived: he could not remember one day of the last fifteen years from any other day; he had slopped consisting as a separate entity. Step by step, coolly and clinically, she had enslaved him, castrated him, sucked out his soul with her lips, reduced him finally to existing only as a quaint biological appendage of herself, lie would just as soon die; but, dying, he would have to face God and answer what use he had made of the talents lent him. He could not answer; and so he could not die; and so, leaving the water running to remind him to wash up afterward, he went into her room and, I suppose, killed her.

I shall not acknowledge that as an argument this theme is decidedly inferior to the stuff of which great writing consists. But between me and, say, Shakespeare or Arthur Maehen there is a difference with which our relative craftsmanship has nothing to do. The difference is that — lucky devil! Shakespeare did not understand his characters as we moderns understand ours.

Consider a single example of how things would have turned out if he had grasped the whole problem — social, economic, semantic, genetic, environmental as competently as any mid-twentieth-century plug grasps it. “Ah, well, Hamlet would have said (taking another secona I capsule and pouring a double slug of bourbon), “poor old Ma, she posts to th’ incestuous sheets with Uncle because she is a pathological dependent, and moreover sees in him the image of my dear father. After all, It is a subtle and moving compliment to Dad. It would please him. Emotionally immature, perhaps but who isn’t ? I hear there are some strolling players in town. Let’s see what’s playing, Horace!”

Shakespeare’s drama, like Dickens s and Milton’s and Homer’s and Balzac’s, consists in collision between moral forces whose validity they believed and we concede. But this concession is a feat only of intellectual gymnastics. We actually believe in nothing. We only know.

Shakespeare would have made of my Breek a man cruelly and systematically emasculated, his valor sapped, his dreams nibbled away between highballs in mere gluttony. Ins whole being a betrayal of life and love, of mankind and God. Such a Breek would have knocked off Fran with gusto. And the audience would have cheered.

But no man now writing could do it, because there is so much to be said in defense of this Frances! What! Is not her every action a mule pitiful appeal for our compassion? Why did she insist on marriage when obviously it was the most disastrous thing that could have happened to her man? Explore her family background with couch and notebook, and you will find her no villainess at all but the lonely heroine of a struggle for survival, beautiful and ferocious in her integrity. Her father was a domineering old lecher, her mother an emotional cretin. As a child (unwanted) she was rejected by the group; all her life she had hungered for reassurance; what she asked from Breek was only that he let her walk with him and suffer with him, and with him discover her soul and weep and be great. And he had failed her. Why did she stick her little snoot into his law studies? Because the big clown didn’t realize that they threatened her position as top dog; it was his fault. Why did she insist on his becoming a wage slave? Because, much as she loves money, she loves better to be able to tell the girls that she is Breck’s career. He could have solved that problem if he tried. He didn’t try, the bounder! All that’s the matter with Fran is that she is infected with a rigid compulsion to dominate.

It is not an incurable ailment. It is not uncommon. It is not noble. It is far from I ragic. You can take it around to any half-dozen linkerers in any city in the LAnted Slates with a population of over 20,000 and get it repaired in six weeks or so at $25 a session. There is nothing on earth but conditioning: no good, no evil, no love, no hate, nothing worth your passion and nothing fit for woe. Othello is a commonplace product of suppressed resentment against a recognized latent race prejudice; cure: wholesome outgoing activities with boys of his own age, environment, and color. Shylock’s sadism, while indicating deep-seated personality readjustment, bespeaks the need mainly of trank consultation with a rabbi trained in the Adlerian techniques. Organization of a municipal interracial committee is warmly recommended. Romeo and Juliet? A shocking case of parental neglect; no wonder they are juvenile delinquents! No one is good. No one is bad. No one is fine. No one is hopeless.

Breek and Fran seemed to me a good story. But it is dead now, and I shall never write another, unless I need the money badly enough to overlook the tawdrier aspects of what actually happens when boy meets girl. You know about that, of course. She sees in him her (perhaps prenatal) father image, and thus embarks on the romance in a sweet miasma of incestuous fornication. What he sees in her is the same old tiling. Soon they are in the garden, gently perspiring against each other. Little do they know that, one of these fine decades, for reasons perfectly plain then and there, he will stand at her bedroom door with a long thin saw-toothed blade in his hand. . . .