The Peripatetic Reviewer

The Inland Island, by Josephine W. Johnson (Simon and Schuster, $5.00)
A Set of Variations, by Frank O’Connor (Knopf, $6.95)
Road to Ruin, by A. O. Mowbray (Lappincott, $5.95)
The Love Object, by Edna O’Brien (Knopf, $4.95)
To one who has been long in city pent, /’Tis very sweet to look into the fair/ And open lace of heaven,—” So begins one of the earliest sonnets by young John Keats, “written, as his brother George tells us, “in the Fields, June 1816.” (Napoleon on Saint Helena and England at last at peace.) The impulse that stirred the twenty-year-old poet will be stirred in any leader of The Inland Island by Josephine W. Johnson, an awakening hook for the quiet mind and insurgent spirit. Naturalist, novelist, and housewife, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her lyrical Now in November, Miss Johnson directs the mind’s eye to the beauty and significance of the ordinary things that arc transpiring on her home acres, in the woods, the thickets, the pond, the upland slopes of her Ohio farm, thrones the cycle of the seasons. This is the America we see but too seldom appreciate.
It seems amazing that she has such minute access to stones, day, and insects, wild flowers, birds, and the animals she cultivates as neighbors, but there is the knowledge of twenty-five years compressed into a single calendar with the aid of her allies, her husband and children. It is a warring world she watches, a struggle for survival with little armistice, in which her sympathies are often on the losing side, as when she watches the young opossum casing their yard for scraps in the false thaw of January: “He tried to climb the pipe of the bird feeder, embracing the slick cold pipe with his little arms, hunching upward like an inchworm, only to slide backward and bump down. Later the harsh March chill closes clown like “some ghastly gothic joke that’s played each year.” Then comes the armistice of April: she records the lady beetles, feasting and multiplying on the aphids (“the possible birth of one billion aphids is drowned in a little bug less than six millimeters long”), and there is Chaucer in her imagery—“this fresh April world, the smell of broken mint, the violets moving in the morning breeze, the trilling sounds of wrens before the day has brought their spirits down.” In May comes the marriage ritual of the squirrels, the dazzle of the migrants descending on the bird feeder, and after dusk, from the woods “a terrible bird-screaming sound that went on and on in the most awful despair. I could not see anything. I could only place the sound as being front a crow—a young crow caught by an owl and carried across the stream. There was a horrible gulching sound, and the streaming stopped.”
There was one extraordinary summer—the animal summer, the children tailed it, when after dark they set up a red light outside ("the cones and rods of animals’ eyes cannot detect red light”) , and along the eerie path came first the raccoons, then the opossums, then the graceful gray foxes to feed out of the bowls in turn. Throughout, her reverie is punctuated now by a brusque encounter with Old Tom, who comes to scythe the cocklebur, now by her running fight with the tent caterpillars, or by her poem to September while she YS searching for deer; then as accusingly as Thoreau she breaks off to inveigh against the torment in Vietnam: “Our wars in which we use the bodies of burned children to ward oft our childish nightmares of a Communist world. Our war for democracy in which we blind, burn, starve, and cripple children so that they may vote at twenty-one.”
These alternating moods of self-examination are what gives the book its extra strength.
Although Frank O’Connor lived much of his mature life in America, his art remained in Ireland. He is one of the finest short-story writers of this century, and almost without exception the best of his tales were set in Cork or Dublin and the villages thereby. A Set of Variations is a posthumous volume, a rich assortment of twenty-seven stories which have been edited by his widow, Harriet O’Donovan; and in her introduction she explains her diffidence, not in making her selection of the pieces, which, as she rightly says, “are pure O’Connor,” but in attempting their arrangement. It was, she tells us, her husband’s aim to give a book ol stories “a feeling of being a unity rather than a grab bag of miscellany. He believed that stories, if arranged in an ‘ideal ambiance,’ could strengthen and illuminate each oilier.”O’Connor revised his stories endlessly, and when he had enough for a new book, he would sort them out in order-and then rewrite each one so that it would enhance the next.
In the bony structure of his stories he much preferred the long view. Not for him a short series of related episodes with a surprise ending; O’Connor respected the unity of place, but the unity of time he stretched to the limit. It was as it in each story he was skipping a flat stone across a small pond: with each skip years elapse, and when finally the stone sinks, the reader knows all: the people so deftly brought to life will go right on living, but their fate will not change.
In one of the best of the new stories in the collection, a story entitled “ The Vmericau Wife.”Elsie Colieary comes to visit her cousins in Cork, and one sees how pushing she is in these few words: “She stood out at the Collearys’ cpiiet little parties, with her high waist and wide skirts, taking the men out to sit on the stairs while she argued with them about religion and politics. Women having occasion to go upstairs thought this very forward, but some of the men found it a pleasant relief. Besides, like all Americans, she was probably a millionaire, and the most unworldly of men can get a kick out of Hitting with a real millionaire.” Elsie sets her cap for Tom Barry, who has a small job at the courthouse and a widowed ; mother and two sisters to look after, and though the odds are against it, she marries him. But Cork cannot contain her: twice she returns to New York, and the third time, when she takes the two boys, the stone sinks and one knows she will never return. The tragedy, of course, is in what happens to Tom.
The themes we have long associated with Ireland are all here: the bleeding away ol a young man’s bright hope, the late marriage, or the love never satisfied, the solace and comfort of those who take to the enclosed order, the spirit which animates a great doctor in a poverty-stricken clinic, the clinging demands ol the elderly, the liberation and the bane ol liquor. It is part of O’Connor’s genius that be presents these situations not with derision but with sympathy, as an allair of the heart in conflict with itself; and it is another part of his genius that his people walk into out imagination with that same unpretentious homeliness of the Irish Players. These are deceptively simple folk, and in telling of them, Mr. O’Connor parks insight into a very lew words as, lot instanee, “an old dorlot tailed Pat Duane, a small, round, red-laced man with an oldfashioned hoket collar and a wonderful soupy bedside manner.”It is the naturalness with which they live and love, and, so many of them, fail, that makes us care for them.
The forces supporting the highway engineers form the second most powerful lobby in the nation. Their philosophy, .summed up in the words of an opponent, Richard Stoddart of Cleveland, presupposes “that everybody is going to be able to drive anywhere they want to in 1990.” Detroit, the tire companies, and the oil and asphalt interests are the allies, and their strongest proponent is John C. Kluczynski, congressman from Illinois, chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads in the Public Works Committee, and one of the most ruthless drivers in Washington. His slogan is simple, “We want mote roads,” by which of course he means more unrestricted freeways. The tyranny of the automobile dictatorship and what it has already cost the country form the substance of a well-documented tirade. Road to Ruin, by A.Q. Mowbray.
No community is immune. In every metropolis the freeways have intensified the problem of downtown parking. Philadelphia, which for more than a decade has been clearing up the old city, estimates that by 1970 it will need more than 6,000 additional spaces in the downtown core as compared with 3,000 in 1960. Victor Gruen, studying the auto-erosion in Rochester, New York, wrote, “When photographed from the air, the core area of Rochester appeared like a sea of asphalt and automobile tin tools, from which rose, in island-like fashion, some structures holding out against the surf of slowly hut incessantly moving waves of automotive traffic.” (It is estimated that 80 percent of the airborne garbage comes from the exhausts of automobiles.) Milwaukee after a bitter fight lost Juneau Park and Lagoon to a six-lane freeway; Interstate 95 mutilates what was once a beautiful park along Brandywine creek in Wilmington; and Tarrytown has been losing its fight to protect, the historic: eastern shoreline against the Hudson River Expressway, Even in our national capital, freeways have been rammed through despite the opposition of the mayor of Washington and the resentment of the displaced citizens. Our National Parks are increasingly invaded, and those who cry out in opposition are automatically branded as “the hysterical minority.” The automobile is taking over man and nature, and to the auto infatuated czars, this is the way it should he.
Cleveland is one of the few areas that, seem to be holding their own, and Cleveland is titer only city in the United States which has built a new rail transport from the core to the airport. The revival of the rapid transit is certainly one way to curb the automobile contamination. And in London they are studying others, such as charging tolls to the cars entering the congested city. Our conns are getting into the fight. In 1968 a New York businessman who had built a retreat in the Adirondacks sued the state when his domain was invaded by a six-lane highway. Judge Kenneth Keating, formerly of the Senate, awarded him $37,000 and in his judgment deplored the damage wrought by highway construction “to the quiet beauty of many once remote and inaccessible areas, as well as the intrusion of the seemingly endless lines of asphalt and concrete. . . Whether the Secretary of Transportation and the aroused citizenry can slow down this rampage is the question.
The Love Object by Edna O’Brien is a sequence of eight stories, five of which appeared in the New Yorker, and all of which have as an overriding theme the obsession which drives people toward what they crave. What they want is momentary, and in most cases, disastrous.
The first story is laid in London and the last in an ostentatious multimillionaire establishment—it could be a Greek island or Monte Carlo; both are about the enslavement to sex, and in each the woman is the victim. The first, the title story, is the more poignant; the infatuation of Martha, the narrator, and the progression of her affair in sensual, sophisticated detail from desire to despair, are skillfully portrayed. Of the stories in more humble circumstances, my vote goes to “Irish Revel,”in which the efforts of an attractive colleen to escape the drudgery of a mountain farm for at least one night of high jinks are clashed with ironic and photographic realism. Miss O’Brien has the tendency to crowd her canvas and at times to condescend to her characters, but in “Irish Revel” every episode rings true, and together they add up to a laughable denouement.