BY PHOEBE ADAMS
WILLIAM STYRON’S new novel, SET THIS HOUSE ON FIRE (Random House, $5.95), is essentially religious in intention, its title derived from a splendid passage of John Donne on the horror of separation from God. Mr. Styron believes, or fears, that America is today altogether separated from God. His book is a study of the unconscious search for religion in a society that has repudiated it and the effect on the human mind of the attempt to live by purely material standards.
Mr. Styron’s story concerns the collision, in Italy, of a drunken, penniless, half-mad painter named Gass Kinsolving and a rich, altogether mad dilettante named Mason Flagg. The struggle between the two is described by yet a third American. whose chici function is to permit the author to tell his story with a Conradian indirection that extracts every possible twitch of suspense from a plot equally complicated in its psychology and its action.
The action includes unpredictable Italian police, a disorderly Hollywood outfit making what will undoubtedly be the worst film in history if it ever gets done, theft, rape, † murder, and the death of Mason Flagg. Enough excitement for several novels, in fact, and all of it controlled by Mr. Styron with immense ingenuity. He has a habit of introducing what appear to be minor characters and developing them with baroque flamboyance, an elaboration that at first seems merely exuberant literary doodling. A hundred pages further on, the reader discovers that each of these gilded scrolls and curlicues is an architectural necessity.
Mr. Styron is not one of those novelists who assume that serious purpose constitutes a license to bore. Flagg is the devil in this morality play, a synthesis of all the evils that Mr. Styron sees rampant in our society; but this poisonous nuisance, with his money and mistresses and cheap swindles and neurotic lies, with his mania for pornography and his lack of any real sexual feeling, his suspicious loneliness and bullying attempts to control everyone within reach, is also an amusing wit and a sharp caricature of a particular type of artistic dabbler.
The scene in which Flagg, confused by a similarity of names, says ail the right nonrepresentational things to the wrong representational painter can only be described as memorable. There is a nightmarish episode in which Kinsolving, drunk and dependent on Flagg’s mean charity, is compelled to make an idiot exhibition of himself for the tag end of a cocktail party. Part of the act is the rebel yell which, committed and repeated late at night in a heavily populated house, raises a Persian cat, previously invisible and never seen again, servants from the kitchen, and guests from their beds. 1 he place is, as Mr. Styron puts it, “Like a churchyard transfigured by the trump of Judgment Day,” and while the whole incident is horrifying, it is also wildly, savagely comic.
It is typical of the logical framework supporting Mr. Styron’s gorgeous palace of words that the actual material of Gass’s performance, which at the time seems a random muddle, includes everything in American life against which the author is protesting: disregard of history, frivolity in religion, destruction of human dignity, and the reduction of sexual love to the level of a vaudeville turn. Moreover, Cass is jumping through hoops, if not directly for money at least for what money will buy.
What goes on in Kinsolving’s head is explained in detail, a goulash of dreams, mystical visions, drunken fantasies, and fits oi remorse or selfpity. Mr. Styron can undoubtedly justify every line as a step in the progress of Gass Kinsolving from darkness to light, but if this admirable book has a weakness, it is in the assumption that every step of that progress must be recorded. It is clear from the beginning that Gass is a good man trying to escape his own nature, that t he hound of heaven will catch up with him. and that he will be saved. Gass’s visions are never dull some of them have a hairraising political power — but at times they come dangerously close to being redundant.
LORD RUSSELL’S OPINIONS
BERTRAM) RUSSELL SPEAKS HIS MIND (World, $3.50) consists of thirteen dialogues which came into being as unrehearsed television programs. It is hard to imagine Lord Russell being anything but brilliant, but the interviewer, Woodrow Wyatt, deserves credit for asking the right kind of questions and then getting out of the way of the fireworks.
As the title suggests, the book is nothing like a system of philosophy, and no great application of mind is required to enjoy it. Lord Russell talks about philosophy, religion, peace and war, fanaticism and tolerance, and other large topics, his peppery opinions based on a common sense so superb that it verges on the Olympian. His style is a masterpiece of simplicity, never using two syllables where one will do, never using a generality when a specific example is available, never indirect, and never oratorical. His only concession to the fogginess of normal conversation is an occasional “well.”
“Well,”he begins, on the difference between philosophy and science, “roughly, you’d say science is what we know and philosophy is what we don’t know.” On the uses of philosophy: “One of them is to keep alive speculation about things that are not yet amenable to scientific knowledge. . . . But there’s another use that I think is equally important, which is to show that there are things which we thought we knew and don’t know. ... If you’re certain, you’re certainly w rong, because nothing deserves certainty . . . and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.”
Despite this high regard for doubt, Lord Russell is, or sounds, certain about a number of things: “I still think that a great many people enjoy a war provided it’s not in their neighborhood and not too bad.”“Only about one per cent of my writings are concerned with sex, but the conventional public is so obsessed with sex that it hasn’t noticed the other ninety-nine per cent of my writings.” “There are a great many bad actions which people are very anxious to perform efficiently. I think one might say that the human race has survived owing to inefficiency, but inefficiency is now diminishing and therefore the human race is threatened with extinction.”
Now, of course, these opinions are lifted out of context and are far from representing the whole book, but they do, 1 think, represent its general character, which is a magnificent projection into ideal realms of what used to be known in this country as cracker-barrel philosophy. At times Lord Russell contradicts himself, or seems to; the filmed interview undoubtedly imposed its own limitations. At times Mr. Wyatt asks a sensible question when a silly one might have been more rewarding — that matter of stealing spoons, for instance. But on the whole, Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind is like a walk in a sleet storm. It prickles a bit, but how it stirs up the blood !
A PAST THAT NEVER EXISTED
WRIGHT MORRIS’ CEREMONY IN LONE TREE (Atheneum, $4.00) is another complaint that this country is going to hell in a hack, a novel mixing outrage at current foolishness, nostalgia for the good old days of the frontier, and the tart suggestion that those good old days never really existed anyway.
Lone Tree is somewhere east of Ogallala, the ghost of a town that never amounted to anything when it lived. The railroad still runs by it and the hotel is still standing, and on his ninetieth birthday old Mr. Scanlon, who owns the place and lived alone in it until his daughters dragged him off to soap and civilization, is brought back to celebrate the occasion. Old Scanlon, to hear him tell it, was born in a covered wagon, fought at the Alamo, rode for the pony express, and outshot Wyatt Earp. This is a lot of malarkey and his whole tribe knows it, but since they are as quiet a group of eccentrics as can be found at large, they rather enjoy the fiction of grandpa’s gaudy past.
They don’t enjoy much in the present. The beautiful Scanlon daughter, married to a man who has spent his life making money for her, is now the doting grandmother of an exceptionally nasty small boy. The undistinguished daughter married oil wells by accident; she has a witless husband and a pedigreed boxer. The homely one married Bud Momeyer, mailman, inventor, archer, and uncle of a gentle youth who has just distinguished himself by running down several classmates in an earnest attempt at murder by hot rod.
Mr. Scanlon represents a past that never existed; his daughters and their husbands live in a present that makes no sense to any of them; and the grandchildren have escaped into anarchic worlds of their own. On the edges of the family hover a writer of pulp Westerns who is looking for material but never gets a word out of old Scanlon and a malcontent friend who has picked up, in a Nevada motel, the phrase that runs like a refrain through the whole book:
WAKE BEFORE BOMB.
Mr. Morris never makes quite clear who is going to wake these people or what good it would do if they did wake, but he gets some fine effects with the empty landscape, with long scenes of disjointed family chatter, and with the contrast between the rather stupid surface presented by his characters and the odd, sometimes quite subtle ideas that lurk below it.
CLANCY SIGAL, author of WEEKEND IN DIN LOCK (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00), is described by his publishers as an American, and his book indicates that he has considerable knowledge of mining and labor unions in this country. Dinlock is an imaginary coal-mining town in Yorkshire, created by Mr. Sigal as background to what he saw during a one-man investigation of the lives of Yorkshire miners.
Despite Mr. Sigal’s sympathetic efforts, his miners seem to me a dreary lot, a dreadful example of what comes of too many generations’ devoting their pride and intelligence to making the best of a bad situation. Ingrown, arrogant, deliberately ignorant of everything outside mining, at once envious and contemptuous of anyone who escapes to an easier life, with no amusements but Saturday night drinking and a steady round of adulteries, the Dinlockers are much the sort of selfsatisfied provincials who, when found on a higher economic level, are unhesitatingly denounced by all observers. They have on their side the excuse of hard, terribly hard, and very dangerous work, for which they are certainly underpaid, because no wages could really compensate for the working conditions Mr. Sigal describes down in the mine, it is not a bad mine, incidentally; he reports no particular complaints about it from the men. and the detection of gas is made the occasion for a little fast political knifework by the union politicians.
The book omits any analysis of the practical financial position of the miners. One never discovers how much the weekend sprees cost or whether the people could afford less hideous furniture if they left Dinlock to look for it or what they pay for the fish, chips, and jam on which they seem to subsist. Mr. Sigal’s most interesting acquaintance, a part-time painter of considerable ability, virtually lives on pills to pep him up, pills to make him sleep, and pills to stop his headaches. Whether these are paid for by the health service or the addict is never revealed.
Mr. Sigal is as thorough on manners, morals, ideas, and union maneuvers as he is vague on money. His own trip into the mine is almost unbearably vivid, the normal discomforts of the place complicated by his guide’s childish taste for hazing the tenderfoot. Mr. Sigal maintains with great success the rather difficult role of reader’s surrogate, more than a reporter yet slightly less than a participant in the world that he describes, which emerges solidly, unobscured by the author’s presence yet enlivened by his insights.
THE TRUTH ABOUT TOM WOLFE
In her introduction to THOMAS WOLFE: A BIOGRAPHY (Doubleday, $5.95), ELIZABETH NOWELL, the author, tells how Maxwell Perkins once remarked to her: “if there ever was a writer who didn’t need a biographer, that writer is Thomas Wolfe.” Miss Nowell was Wolfe’s agent, and at the time she agreed with his editor, but she has since reconsidered the matter. Her biography of Wolfe probably contains more direct quotation from its subject than any similar work in history.
Tom Wolfe’s novels were based, unmistakably and to the fury of his family, on his own experiences. Miss Nowell’s method is to give Wolfe’s account as far as possible and , balance it with information from less subjective sources. There were times when Wolfe invented things that never happened, as he had every right to do. and times when he confected wild distortions of things that had actually taken place. Since he was a touchy fellow, prone to take offense at any hint that the universe did not revolve around the works of Thomas Wolfe, Miss Nowell has quite a few imaginary plots to disentangle and a number of Wolfe’s enemies to unmask as harmless and even kindly persons.
Miss Nowell’s final picture of Wolfe is, however, little different from that supplied, sometimes inadvertently, lay Wolfe himself. He is a little less put upon, somewhat more trying to his friends, and subject at times to a strange compulsion to get m his own way. Miss Nowell’s description of his departure from Scribner’s, where Perkins had become in effect his substitute father, reveals that he went about finding another publisher with a naivete and ignorance of the methods of the business absolutely inexcusable in a man who had published two books and was at the moment proposing to write another based on, of all things, a publishing house.
As a correction of the excesses in Wolfe’s own record, Miss Nowell’s book is valuable, and she does one thing that Wolfe was necessarily unable to do for himself. She describes his death feelingly and well.
THE PERENNIAL WESTERN EPIC
At least once a year, somebody undertakes to write a serious epic of the American West. It is never an epic and seldom serious, but it usually winds up in the movies, and HARRY BROWN’S THE STARS IN THEIR COURSES (Knopf, $4.50) ought to look as well there as any of these exercises. It contains plenty of horses and shootings, a barbecue, a comic trail boss, a woman-crazy youth, a Mexican beauty, and one of those appealingly doomed scalawags whose bad reputation is due to skill with firearms plus a natural genius for doing the wrong thing rather than to a mere vulgar thirst for blood.
There is, surprisingly, a prostitute with a heart of pure unalloyed gold. A disappearing river brings ali these troops into battle, but how I cannot explain, for Mr. Brown didn’t persuade me to believe a word of it. Perhaps the script writers, when they get around to it, can clear up the whole thing.