BY WILLIAM BARRETT
With each novel, STEPHEN BIRMINGHAM carves a surer place for himself among the more accomplished of our younger writers. THOSE HARPER WOMEN (McGrawHill, $5.95) is his fourth and most subtle and ambitious novel to date. Once again his subject has to do with society and social rank, money, and the intricate play of family and personal relationships among the rich and wellborn, as he traces the varying fortunes of the Harper clan through four generations.
Old Meredith Harper made his fortune in sugar on the island of St. Thomas around the turn of the century. It was a brutal period, and the planters did not always use the most genteel means to get what they wanted from the natives; but Meredith was more than a match for any of them in ruthlessness. His domineering will drove the first of the Harper women, his wife, Dolly, to drink; and he despotically arranged the marriage of his daughter, Edith. Old Meredith and his money are the long shadows that tower over all the Harper women.
We first see Edith as a perky old lady of seventy-four, still very much herself, locally famous on the island as a “character.” It is Edith’s memory, as it ranges over the past, that holds together all the threads of the story. Mr. Birmingham moves continuously and deftly back and forth from past to present, and the whole effect is of a thick album of family photographs that have suddenly and vividly come to life. Edith is joined by her granddaughter, Leona, who at twenty-seven has gone through three marriages and three divorces and has come back to the island to find herself or to see if there is anything in her to find. The Harper money hasn’t done her much good either; all her life it has been a cushioning that has left her spoiled and erratic.
The final irony is that the money, which has ruled their lives, vanishes. Harold, Edith’s younger brother, who is in charge of the family’s finances in New York, has been speculating on the market, and he is forced to flee the country. The collapse of the fortune rounds out the saga of the Harper women — or perhaps not, since Leona is on her way to New York to start life afresh.
Mr. Birmingham handles his women characters so superbly that his men, with the exception of old Meredith, seem by comparison rather flat. Perhaps, since this is the story of the Harper women, they must overshadow the others. Still, it might have heightened their story if the men in their lives had had a complexity and depth to match their own.
HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD
Sometimes the farther we travel the closer we get to home. JOHN KNOWLES, the very gifted author of that fine novel A Separate Peace, had begun to have perplexed feelings about his native United States and decided he needed to get away from it to see it more clearly. He had already lived for a while in Europe, but this time be needed to enter a milieu vastly different — the Arab world of the Near East. DOUBLE VISION (Macmillan, $4.95) is a sensitive and perceptive account, gracefully written, of what he discovered on his travels.
Passing through England, he admired the civilized British respect for institutions and law. But this admiration was marred by a frightening little encounter with British prudery, that less positive side of the national character against which D. H. Lawrence had inveighed. Undressed to his shorts, he lay down for an afternoon nap in his hotel room, perceived he had not drawn the blinds, and got up to do so. Some minutes later his nap was interrupted by a knock on the door, and two plainclothesmen began to grill him. The charge, he learned presently, was indecent exposure, and the complaint had been made by a woman across the street. The thought of that woman with her disturbed imagination, glued to her window for just such a momentary sight, made him pack in haste for the desert, where at least the air would be clean.
The Arabs are more at peace with their instincts, though they lack the British capacity for stable institutions and law. The Near East he found “a paralyzed battlefield, ” where the feverish effort at modernization is in conflict with the immemorial Arab feeling that time has stood still since the days of their great empire. One reason why Israel is so disliked by the Arabs is that its presence is a goad that prods the Arabs into the twentieth century.
Back home, Mr. Knowles found that the face of America wore a new look. Here was a country that as a whole was engaged in saying yes to the future as no other society he had seen. Yet with all its achievements, American life seemed to have no deep regard for the individual; and despite our much vaunted togetherness, Mr. Knowles found everywhere a secret and pervasive loneliness. These discoveries are neither revolutionary nor new, but Mr. Knowles perceives them with a freshness of detail that is convincing.
Partisans of the oyster can argue for hours over the respective merits of the Chesapeake, Gulf, or Colchester varieties; but according to ELEANOR CLARK in THE OYSTERS OF LOCMARIAQUER (Pantheon, $4.95), the absolute pearls of the species are those harvested at the tip of Brittany. Miss Clark, who was living in that region with her husband, the novelist Robert Penn Warren, became so fascinated with the oyster industry that she chose it as a focal point for exploring the history and traditions of the region.
While we Americans are in the process of exhausting our best oyster beds, the natives of the Breton peninsula sedulously farm and replenish theirs. With so many natural enemies — crabs, mussels, drill snails, and starfish — it is a wonder the oyster has survived at all. Its most implacable foe, however, has been man himself, ruthlessly cleaning out whole beds without any effort at restoration. Whether Americans are capable of the infinite patience of the Breton cultivators remains to be seen. Their oysters are not only planted in “farms” but are removed to different waters for different seasonings, and they are even subjected to an elaborate process to make sure they will stay clamped during shipment.
Miss Clark has written more than a tribute to the succulent mollusk and its cultivators. Her book rambles casually and engagingly into the legends and ancient literature of the Bretons, evoking the strange past of this magically haunted peninsula.
KEN KESEY’S first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was as large, sprawling, and vital as the Pacific Northwest, where its action was located. In his second novel, SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (Viking, $7.50), the writing has become more tortuous and self-involved.
Old Henry Stamper has established his own lumber empire around the town of Wakonda, Oregon. He has two sons: Hank, chip of the old block, a raw and aggressive frontiersman; and Lee, sensitive and introverted like his mother. The story turns on the struggle between the two brothers, and, particularly, Lee’s desperate efforts to measure up to the prowess of his older brother. Lee has been away for years at Eastern schools, but he comes home at Hank’s summons because the Stamper empire is threatened by the unions, and in time of crisis the whole family must come together. Lee’s deeper reason for returning is that he wishes to find his own roots and extricate himself from big brother’s shadow on their home ground.
Mr. Kesey gives us so much of Lee’s inner monologues that the character begins to be boringly narcissistic and self-indulgent. A mutual attraction grows between Lee and Hank’s wife, Viv, who also has cultural hankerings amid the raw life of a lumbering camp. Lee chooses to gain a victory over his brother by seducing Viv. Hank suspects, and may even know. The two come to blows; but in this brutal fight, Lee, by standing up to his brother, is initiated into the violent Stamper clan. The two shake hands, and when last seen, are riding the logs together, against the dangers of flood and weather, downstream to market.
Though the story has many improbabilities and cliches, Mr. Kesey is able to invest it with a throbbing and convulsive life. Since he now resides in California, he appears to have been infected with some of the formless inflation of the beatnik school around San Francisco; but his talent seems strong enough to survive such temporary aberrations.
JACK GELBER’S play, The Connection, was a great success on the offBroadway stage and even attained acclaim abroad. Though tedious, and containing many spots of awkward overwriting, it nevertheless showed the marks of a genuine and original talent. That talent is much surer of itself now in Mr. Gelber’s first novel, ON ICE (Macmillan, $4.95).
Manny Fells, like everybody else in this story, is on ice — that is, playing it cool while waiting for Godot or the likely break that will change things. In the meantime he has to pay the rent, and after cooking up a bogus resume, he lands a job as a camera salesman at a large suburban discount house. He has really been hired to spy on his fellow employees to find out who has been robbing the till. This job is typical of Manny and his life; he is always betwixt and between: on the edge of society and on the fringe of Bohemia. Working as a fink, Manny is brought into contact with AI and Fred, two correspondence-school gumshoes from the agency that has hired him, and the antics of this pair provide some very low-keyed but effective comedy that is quite the best part of the book.
Manny falls out of favor, and the job evaporates; but, armed with another bogus resume and a respectable suit, he gets a job on the house organ of an enormous corporation, and he seems at last to be on his way. In the meantime he has attended, always with a cool eye, any number of beatnik parties that were typical of the mid-1950s, and he has acquired a girl, Louise, though his relationship with her is so casual and noncommittal that it can hardly be called a romance.
Because he does not inflate his material, Mr. Gelber has produced one of the best, if understated, portraits of what the beat generation was really like. Discarding the breast-thumping and orgiastic tones of some of his literary brethren, he seems to be suggesting that the beats, far from being in the grasp of some cosmic truth, were merely very displaced young people marking time while they were keeping an eye out for the main chance.
The political novel in the past has provided some of the major specimens of the genre. Lately we have had quite a spate of them, and that would seem to be all to the good, since politics is one of the most human of activities and its behind-thescenes intricacies can stir up the deepest human conflicts. Unfortunately, the new political novel seems to have already settled into the most rigid of stereotypes.
The prefabricated pattern runs like this: Candidate A, usually a candidate for the presidency, has some guilty secret in his past, and the action turns on whether he will face up to the public revelation of it or quit. Further complication can be added by saddling Candidate B with a guilty past. In THE 480 (McGraw-Hill, $5.00), EUGENE BURDICK has added a secret sin of Candidate A’s wife, which, if revealed, would destroy her publicly. With this brilliant stroke the possibilities of the new political novel become practically unlimited.
Mr. Burdick has coauthored two previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, which maintained a brisk and readable pace, and made their impact because they were topically relevant. A certain brisk efficiency is still to be found in his new book, and there is even a considerable suspense generated as to who is going to get the nomination; but the characters are such pasteboard puppets that we cease to care very much about the serious thesis they are supposed to illustrate.
This thesis is that an “underground” of behavioral scientists, operating with computers, is going to take over American politics. The title of the book derives from the 480 categories of region, religion, race, income, and so forth, into which the pollsters have divided the American electorate. Take a proper sample of each category, feed the data to the computer, and you can come up with the neatly packaged personality who will satisfy the majority and win the presidential election.
Mr. Burdick is so much the journalist at grips wath immediate material that he does not write about some imaginary political race of the future but about the forthcoming Republican convention of 1964. It is unfortunate that the book was on press at the time of the Oregon and California primaries, when the pollsters took a very bad licking. If Mr. Burdick had waited a little longer, he might not have written this novel at all.
Still, he should have some expertise about the computer; after all, he seems to command a fully automated typewriter.
“ALL THOSE DEAD VOICES”
The biographical and autobiographical writings of BEN HECHT have always seemed to me more interesting than his fiction. His novels and stories are clever and deft, with apt turns of phrase and insight; but in dealing with real people, Hecht was on much more solid ground. In LETTERS FROM BOHEMIA (Doubleday, $4.50), a collection of memoirs about some dead friends completed just before his own death, the cleverness has fallen to one side in the most moving book he ever wrote.
The letters from these friends — Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, George Grosz, George Antheil, Gene Fowler, among others — are interesting in themselves, but they are merely the occasions for Hecht’s sensitive reminiscences of each, which are really the heart of the book. The portrait of Anderson is perhaps the most penetrating, and any interpreter of Anderson’s work henceforth will need to consult it. Anderson, Hecht says, is really to be understood as a kind of ballad singer, a man who spoke always as if he were accompanying himself on a guitar, and out of that incantatory voice came the evocative power of his best stories. Hecht learned Mencken’s surprising secret on one visit; the great journalist, who in taking the whole American scene as his province seemed to be in constant contact with all manner of men, was in reality a very lonely person.
The man who was closest to Hecht — Charles MacArthur, with whom he coauthored The Front Page — turns out to be the hardest to recall, for something of himself, which he cannot now bring back, was buried with his dead friend. Here Hecht’s lament becomes most lyrical and poignant, not so much for the dead as for the living, who have been abandoned by their departed friends to an incurable loneliness.