BY WILLIAM ItARKKTI
WILLIAM FAULKNER’S gifts as a comic writer have not received proper notice. The experts on the vast saga of Yoknapatawpha have fixed our attention almost exclusively on the more somber image of Faulkner as the tragic novelist of the conquered South and its doomed families. Yet there are touches of humor and extraordinary comic episodes scattered throughout nearly all his writings, even in the most tragic and violent of the novels. True, this humor is often purely grotesque, and usually it is blended with the desperate pathos of an individual’s struggle against fate. In the tense context of some of his novels the comic episodes could have been missed; and even if they were noticed, the reader was not relaxed enough to laugh.
There will be no missing the humor in THE REIVERS (Random House, $4.95), a boisterous and enchanting comedy from start to finish. Never has Mr. Faulkner been in a more mellow and genial mood, and never has he seemed to have so much fun in the sheer spinning of a yarn. The comedy here is no longer grotesque, or blended with tragicomic alloy; it is the broad and earthy comedy of folk humor. Mr. Faulkner’s amazing ear for folk speech can wring every last drop of humor out of the sly turns of phrase of Negroes and whites alike. With The Reivers he secures his place among the really superior folk humorists in the American tradition.
The title is derived from the archaic verb “reive” (reave): to take away by stealth or force; plunder. (The word is still heard in Scotland, and may even now be current among the old Scotch-Irish immigrants in Mr. Faulkner’s part of the country.) The thieves in this case are as improbable and delightful a trio as you can find in the world of books: Boon Hogganbeck, physically a giant but mentally a child of nature; Ned, a shrewd and philosophical Negro; and the elevenyear-old Lucius Priest, who now, years later, is recounting the tale to his grandchildren. The year is 1905, and one of the first automobiles to appear in Jefferson, Mississippi, is a Winton Flyer owned by Lucius’ grandfather. Boon, the backwoodsman, falls in love with the machine, learns to drive it, and serves the Priest family as chauffeur. When the elders go away for a few days, Boon and Lucius steal the car and head for Memphis. A short way out they discover Ned as a stowaway hiding under a tarpaulin on the floor in the back of the car.
In 1905 the roads in northern Mississippi were no smooth modern highways. The efforts of the trio to get the car through mudhole, swamp, and ditch are a frantically comic labor of Hercules. But get through they do, for Boon is on his way to see his light-of-love, Corrie, in Miss Reba’s brothel in Memphis. Readers of Sanctuary will remember Miss Reba’s house as the scene of some of the most horrendous doings in all of Faulkner. But now all is changed and proper; everyone is on her best behavior lest the young Lucius be submitted to any bad influences. The ladies of joy have hearts of gold and the manners of duchesses; and Mr. Faulkner’s comedy, by now in high stride, makes all this believable.
Disaster threatens when the stolen automobile disappears. Ned has traded it for a horse, reasoning that by racing the horse he can make enough money to buy back the car. If you cannot quite follow his devious logic, never mind; neither can anyone in the book. Instead, they forget all about the car as they get caught up in the exciting prospect of a horse race.
In the race itself Mr. Faulkner’s humor reaches a crescendo and becomes pure carnival. In the midst of pandemonium Grandfather Priest suddenly reappears, and the three culprits, wiser but not much sadder, are led back home. In this new Faulknerian world even the doom of retribution has become mellow. Boon marries Corrie and names the first child Lucius Priest Hogganbeck: Ned has made a secret coup by betting on the other horse: Lucius has had his first experience of the great world. Grandfather Priest tots up what the whole escapade has cost him: exactly four hundred and ninety-six dollars. Most readers will feel that it has been worth every cent,
“WEIGHT OF THE CITY”
In New York’s subway system the A-train hurtles down the west side of Manhattan, passing through Harlem and Greenwich Village on its way to Brooklyn. For many the Atrain, more than a mechanical means of locomotion, is a state of the soul. The A-train transports the Negroes who come down into the Village; it is also the train taken by whites to visit Harlem. Its route defines an axis of tension that runs through the heart of the metropolis.
The A-train. as a symbol, encompasses the lives and destinies of most of the characters in JAMES BALDWIN’S ANOTHER COUNTRY (Dial, $5.95), a powerful and disturbing novel by one of the most talented of our younger writers. The hero, a young Negro musician named Rufus Scott, commits suicide before the first third of the book is over, yet remains alive through the shadow he casts over all the other people during the rest of the story. He has had an affair with a white girl, Leona, and both are destroyed by it: she passes into a sanatorium, he into suicide. Love between black and white seems impossible. Mr. Baldwin’s materials are stark, relentless, unpleasant; but the writing has at times a Faulknerian surge of power and violence, and Rufus Scott conies alive as an abstract embodiment of revolt that calls to mind Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August.
By contrast, the moments of real tenderness take place in France in the relationship of two young white men: Eric, an American, and Yves, a Frenchman. Though their love is unnatural by normal standards, it nevertheless has more compassion and humanity than any of the heterosexual affairs, where love is usually abstract sex and turns to hatred. Perhaps Mr. Baldwin’s imagination can be relaxed only when it is abroad and away from the racial tensions in an American metropolis. At the end Yves arrives in New York to rejoin Eric; the time is summer, and the hot tense atmosphere of the city begins to crowd in. One wonders whether this couple will be able to preserve the humanity of their relationship amid the driving pace of the New World.
Despite its great power and verve, the novel drags when it deals with the white characters in Greenwich Village. These people are blank and boring, and their talk — “Man, like I say, this is really how it is!” — is interminable and tedious. Mr. Baldwin himself is bored by them and uses them only as fillers. He is interested in Rufus and ins revolt, and in Eric — searching, quizzical, self-divided but thoroughly human — and with these his writing comes alive. But more impressive than any individual character is the sense of the enormous and heavy pressure of the city itself, whose buildings seem ready to topple upon all the people walking in the streets below.
LET GO, LET LIVE
PHILIP ROTH’S first collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, showed a remarkable gift of sharp and incisive characterization. One’s only cavil was that sometimes the stories seemed to make their points too neatly, and one wondered whether his fine talent might not end by becoming too tight and stereotyped. Happily, in his second book and first novel, LETTING GO (Random House, $5.95), Mr. Roth has not fallen into this trap. He has really let himself go; the sharply observant qualities of his first book have been expanded and enriched; he has become more probing, tentative, complex.
The novel is mainly a searching and compassionate study of a troubled young couple against the disjointed background of life in a large urban university. Paul and Libby Herz begin their life together in adversity; he is Jewish, she Catholic, and her family breaks all ties with her when they hear of the marriage. Paul is not disowned, but for him, too, the marriage means a rupture with his religious past and his former friends in Brooklyn. Besides this curse of the mixed marriage, the young couple have to struggle against the grinding poverty that is usually indicted on the lower echelons of the academic world. The family friend and benefactor is a young colleague, Gabe Wallach. who in most matters is a counterpoint to Paul. Gabe is rich, unburdened except by his own self-absorption, detached; Paul, the melancholy and rabbinical Jew, has a penchant for getting bogged down in troubles. Yet at the end it is Paul and Libby who have won through to some human solidity, while Gabe more than ever drifts along the margins of life.
Gabe begins as that classic figure from the novelist’s stock-in-trade, the detached spectator within the novel whose mind is a mirror in which the action is reflected. But Mr. Roth gets carried away with the observer, and he gives us in Gabe Wallach a remarkable study in ambiguity. Gabe oscillates between detachment and the frantic effort to involve himself in the lives of others — an effort that sometimes seems to spring not so much from goodwill as from the desire to develop his own character.
If there is any fault with this novel, it is that Mr. Roth is too lavish with his gifts. His talent for swift and concise characterization is such that he tends to bring minor characters unnecessarily into the foreground of the action. The result is that the book becomes too diffuse. In a few remarkable pages near the beginning he has given us Paul and Libby to the life; we know the kind of history they will have, and we hardly need the remorseless accumulation of detail with which Mr. Roth follows their fortunes. Complex as their personalities are, their life together is too threadbare and starveling to carry the weight of a saga.
WHAT PRICE RESPECTABILITY?
frying to explain why Milton in Paradise Lost made Lucifer more interesting than God, William Blake observed: “The poet is of the Devil’s party,” With suitable qualifications of rank and context, die remark seems perfectly appropriate to JOHN O’HARA. The first few pages of THE BIG LAUGH (Random House, S4.95) proceed in that sententious and heavy vein that has made some of his recent novels about respectable middleclass life so dull. But the dullness quickly disappears when the author goes to work on his hero, as lowdown and soulless a heel as our old Pal Joey. The result is a pleasant revival of the real O’Hara: sharp, brutal, nasty — but at least not a bore.
Though he is of good family, Hubert Ward has marked himself out as a delinquent since boyhood. Showing a decided aversion for any kind of more mundane work, he becomes stagestruck and blackmails a producer into giving him a part on Broadway. Hubert makes good and in no time at all becomes a star in Hollywood.
But the heel meets his downfall when he encounters true love in the person of a well-bred young widow, Nina Stephens. He marries Nina and goes respectable. Since he is a movie star, Hubert cannot leave it at ordinary respectability: it must become his public legend. Unfortunately, as he builds his respectable mask, he becomes boring; and Nina, who feels herself cruelly deceived because she thought she was marrying a heel, leaves him. Her action seems entirely credible, for as Hubert gets more respectable, Mr. O’Hara begins to get dull. In the meantime, however, he has a field day raking up old memories of Hollywood in the early 1930s, an atmosphere rank with backstairs conspiracy and fornication.
DEEP SOUTH, DEEP TROUBLES
ERSKINE CALDWELL, never a writer to let a prominent social cause go begging, has now trained his typewriter upon the problem of segregation in the South. Lest Mr. Caldwell’s many admirers feel alarm that he has sold himself out to serious and solemnly purposeful fiction, they can rest assured that he wears his social indignation lightly in CLOSE TO HOME (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, S3.95) and that though his wrath may be righteous, his manner is still easygoing. His Southern crackers have been tidied up a bit, but his story is spiced with enough randy touches to make us remember the old denizens of Tobacco Road.
Native Hunnicutt, an oafish but likable animal, is no flaming firebrand in the cause of social justice. He gets involved in the Negro problem only after his wife, Maebelle, has found him in the arms of her young Negro maid, Josene. Maebelle herself might have been more lenient if the day before, on their nuptial night, Native had been able to resist the call of the wild and had not gone off all night with the boys to hunt possum. A kindhearted man after he has had enough to cat, Native befriends Josene. There is, predictably, a sadistic police officer who kills a Negro and who, in poetic justice, is found dead in a back alley. Eventually, Josene is paid to go live elsewhere and start a new life; and Native, now that the cold weather has come, sniffs at Maebelle’s door like an old hound who wants to get next to that warm and crackling fire inside.
Anyone who doubts Mr. Caldwell’s high moral purpose here has only to consider this incontrovertible evidence of integrity: he has made all the Negroes in this story fine and honorable people, superior in every way to the whites who rule them.
“COUNT NO MAN HAPPY . . .”
The Declaration of Independence launched us as a nation dedicated, among other things, to the pursuit of happiness. To judge from recent books, the pursuer has not yet caught up with the pursued. We have in fact created a new literary genre of self-diagnosis that takes off from some variant of the query: But what is wrong with us Americans? While some diagnosticians have accused us of being pleasure-driven, over-affluent consumers surfeited with honey, WALTER KERR, in THE DECLINE OF PLEASURE (Simon and Schuster, S5.00), advances the rather fresh thesis that one of our main troubles is that we have lost the simple art of enjoyment. Both diagnoses could be right; to the degree that we lose the capacity for simple pleasure we surround ourselves with mountains of odd commodities.
Mr. Kerr is an altogether engaging essayist and a perceptive and sensible observer of the current scene. He does not write down to us from the cold height of some special discipline. like psychoanalysis or sociology, to tell us what is wrong with us in a purely clinical manner. Rather, he writes as one of us, not the happy few but the unhappy many, who are not desperately, but vaguely discontented, and curious about the sources of our dissatisfaction.
Yet one requirement of this genre seems to be that the author discover some special Revolution, as well as the culprits who perpetrated it, to explain our present malaise. Mr. Kerr comes up with two very surprising culprits, the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who created the heretical philosophy of utilitarianism, according to which a thing is good only if it is useful. Under their influence we have become utilitarian busybodies too frantic to enjoy ourselves.
It is a neat thesis, but the trouble seems to have started earlier than Bentham or Mill; remember a poet Wordsworth who complained, “The world is too much with us. . .”
SAILOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF
There is an old saying that if you have to ask how much a yacht costs, you cannot afford it. LUDWIGBEMELMANS hardly had time to stop and ask the price; the French Riviera, at the height of the season, was so crowded that he had to buy a boat to solve his housing problem. Time and again, he was forced to mutter, “Oh, that damned boat; what it has cost me in anguish, time, money,” but he could not bring himself to get rid of it. BOARD NOAH’S ARK (Viking, $5.00) is a delightful account of his adventures as a sea captain along the French and Italian Rivieras. Illustrated by the author with some of his best drawings and by reproductions in color of fourteen of his paintings, it is visually the most exciting book that Bemelmans has yet done.
Buying a yacht did not seem at first to get Mr. Bemelmans very far offshore. His first captain, a Frenchman, looked very nautical but had no liking for the sea. Whenever Mr. Bemelmans suggested sailing, the captain rolled his eye toward the horizon and saw a storm coming up, no matter how fine the weather looked. Mr. Bemelmans’ cruise remained only a dream.
His next captain and mate, two Italians who arrived looking very shipshape, did get him out to sea, but there the author’s worries became worse. The trim pair went to seed, dunned the owner for money, and smelled continuously of drink. Alone on a small boat with two murderous-looking ruffians, Mr. Bemelmans began to fear for his life.
Finally, he did get a satisfactory crew, two fine and honest young Italians, Toni and Ricco, who had just graduated from the Naval Academy but had never really sailed a boat before. Despite their inexperience, they turned out to be a good crew, and Mr. Bemelmans was able to make his cruise. We would have been denied an exquisite little tale if he had not.
But the text, charming as it is, is really illustrative of the pictures. Anyone who thinks of Mr. Bemelmans as merely a cartoonist will discover from this book that he is in fact a first-rate draftsman and a fine painter. There are, of course, the usual saucy Bemelmans cartoons; but there are also a number of serious drawings that catch the wonderful contours of boats and villages in the fold of a coastline; and the paintings are drenched with that fresh molten color that is the peculiar enchantment of the Mediterranean.