The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE FOURTEENTH CHRONICLE:
Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos
Gambit. $12.50
The Thirteenth Chronicle was the novel Dos Passos had been working on at the time of his death; it will be published next year. The Fourteenth is this exciting and forthright collection of his correspondence. his journal, and his verse, so admirably edited by Townsend Ludington. “Dos,”who was two years my senior. I first met in Robert Hillyer s rooms. I was struck bv his dark-eyed intensity, he seemed aflame to right the world and, as this book shows, he was ceaselessly pleading, berating, and cajoling his intimates to attack the shortcomings of America. He loved this country as he loved the Europe of his youth, and the fervor, aspiration, and descriptive power of his letters constitute, thanks to the clarifying transitions of Mr. Ludington, the uninhibited autobiography of one of our most innovative novelists.
John Dos Passos was the illegitimate son of John Randolph Dos Passos, a successful corporation lawyer of Portuguese lineage, whose wife was a mental case from whom no divorce was possible. Not until her death in 1910 could “The Commodore.”as his father was called, marry John’s mother. Lucy Madison of Maryland. As a consequence, much of his boyhood was spent in Europe in hotels where his parents could live without censure, and his knowledge of this country was confined to his father’s farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and to his lonely years at Choate. where his nearsightedness and his lack of athletic ability—"I once caught a fly in the outfield"—made him the school butt. Harvard, from which he graduated in 1916, was a stimulating change; there he formed lifelong friendships with E. E. Cummings, Robert Hillyer. Dudley Poore, and Stewart Mitchell, and was a constant contributor to and senior editor of the Harvard Monthly.
After his parents’ death he went to France as an ambulance driver in 1917, with a spasmodic income and an instinctive loathing of the carnage. His five days at Verdun that summer, says his editor, shattered the romantic asceticism that remained from Harvard, heightened his belief in the individual, and deepened his hatred of cant and officialdom. Instead of signing on for the duration with the American Army, Dos preferred to drive as a volunteer for the American Red Cross in Italy. He was no longer under fire and although his letters with their fierce denunciation of the war would eventually cause him trouble, for several months he had moderate work and ample time to read, to experiment with his writing, and—always a great walker—to carry on his thirsty exploration of Italy.
His letters to the quartet I have mentioned are bursting with his delight with the Renaissance and his love for the beauty of Positano, Florence, and Pompeii, while to a younger man, Rumsey Marvin, who had aspirations to write, he sent a series of exhortations closely defining the literary discipline he was trying to impose upon himself. War for Dos Passos was both a tempering of the spirit and an unshackling education: “I have more hopes of the U.S.A.,”he writes after reinlisting in the Medical Corps, “since I’ve been in their damned army than I ever had before.”
He stayed on in Europe a year after the Armistice, struggling to place his first book. One Man’s Initiation. with an English publisher. He paid part of the cost; the printer would not set it until he had deleted many expletives, and the total sale was sixty-three copies. Then back to New York, to revise his much sturdier war novel, Three Soldiers, which made his reputation, and to begin his mature discovery of America. Perhaps from his father, “who had the best brain I have ever known,”he acquired his distrust of Big Business. Protest was strong in him but he was not a Communist; his trip to the Soviet Union in 1928 left him disillusioned.
One follows the course of his development intimately in letters to Hemingway, through whom Dos Passos met his witty wife Katy; in letters to friends like Hillyer and Jack Lawson; and in arguments with Edmund Wilson. To the latter he explains why the Stalinist C.P. “seems doomed to fail and to bring down with it all the humanitarian tendencies I personally believe in.” It maddened him to see talent wasted, and in a splendid epistle which begins with sympathy for Scott Fitzgerald’s health in September, 1936, he breaks out: “I’ve been wanting to see you. naturally, to argue about your Esquire articles— Christ man how do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff? . . . We’re living in one of the damnedest tragic moments in history-if you want to go to pieces I think its absolutely o.k. but I think you ought to write a first rate novel about it (and you probably will) instead of spilling it in little pieces.”
In a later letter to Joseph Blotner. William Faulkner’s biographer, he describes the ceremony at which he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fiction by the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Salvador de Madariaga made a long-winded address, after which Faulkner abandoned what he had been planning to say and simply shoved the gold medal into Dos’s hand, saying, “Nobody ever deserved it more or had to wait for it longer.”The letter ends with this answer to the biographer’s question: “The business about indebtedness I don’t go for. I read Pylon with great pleasure about the time it came out, but I swear I don’t think Faulkner was indebted to my work in any way. At certain times styles and methods are in the air, as contagious as the common cold. In that way we are all indebted to each other.”It is rare that we see a man’s creative life evaluated in his own words and with such generosity of spirit.
SAINT JACK
by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, $5.95
The hero of this merciless, funny, and sardonic book is a Bostonian away from home. Jack Flowers had the bad luck to get mixed up with a beatnik group while he was studying on the G.I. Bill and, having skipped bail, then had the apparently good luck to land on his feet in Singapore in the late 1950s. Jack is hefty, red-faced, and genial, and a salesman without scruple. His Chinese boss. Big Hing, is a ship’s chandler who has perceived the advantage of having a white man solicit orders from the incoming ships. He pays the American just enough to provide him with a toehold in Singapore, and he exacts no commission when Jack on his own begins to service the ships with “meat runs.” ferrying a boatload of prostitutes along with the other supplies.
Playing both ends against the middle. Jack spends his evenings guiding nervous tourists from the cruise ships to the more accessible brothels. His reputation spreads to Hong Kong and back to the States, for to his pimping he brings a certain class and protectiveness which his customers appreciate. Friends of friends ask for his favor and for the first year or two his success is such that he dreams of marrying a tall, young Chinese girl and of creating a stylish whorehouse, “a large house with stained-glass windows”; an orchestra of South Indians playing violins; “silk cushions on the divans, gin drinks and sweet sherbets. ‘Jack’s place,’ they’d call it.” True, no club in Singapore will elect him to membership and Mr. Sim. the Chinese operator, warns him that the secret society might clean him out if he sets up shop. But. hell, he was only doing what came naturally and it all seemed so inoffensive.
Jack is unprepared for the lightning when it strikes, and when he emerges from captivity with the obscene tattoos that will mark him for life, he is scarred more deeply than he realizes. For subsistence he resumes his work as a ship’s chandler and for solace he returns to the Bandung, that sleazy hotel with its bar flies and British remittance men, relics of the past. He is the only Yank among them and the tough consolation thev give him is a joy to read. Such pimping as he dares to do is tentative, and facing a seemingly indefinite sentence in this sordid place. Jack clings to his dreams. one of which comes close to reality when the United States Army makes Singapore a leave area and puts Jack in charge of one of its guesthouses, “Dunroamin.” for the veterans from Vietnam.
I hope I have said enough to suggest that this is a highly professional. often amusing, withering account of prostitution in the once glamorous East. Jack’s relations with his girls, his servants, and his bosses are delineated naturally and never with fleshy detail. Beneath the surface humor one is aware of the author’s scorn for this disheveled, corrupt memento of colonialism.
THE ONION FIELD
by Joseph Wambaugh
Delacorte. $8.95
In The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, Joseph Wambaugh wrote with considerable skill the story of policemen who were not pigs. This book is a very different matter: it is the true story, based on carefully accumulated evidence, of the capture of two police officers by armed killers on the night of March 9, 1963, and of the torturous aftermath. In a manner reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the author moves slowly in establishing the identity of the four men involved. Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, the officers on patrol, were inexperienced and unwary when they stopped a suspicious-looking car. and in short order they found themselves disarmed and captive. The thugs are carefully differentiated. Gregory Powell, the white, is thoroughly mad but bright; Jimmy Smith, the black, is an ignorant. evasive punk who brings his intelligence into play only when his back is to the wall. The officers try to reason their way out of the kidnapping and in a sudden surge of madness Powell kills Campbell; in the dark, desperate struggle Karl, the second officer, escapes.
Wambaugh’s indictment is leveled first at the Police Department for its lack of any serious preliminary training to cope with kidnappers and for its brutal reproof of the surviving officer with no consideration whatever for the deep shock he had suffered. His second and equally serious indictment is of the California courts for the inordinate delay, for the repetition and obfuscation—devised by the defense and all perfectly legal—which kept the case in suspension for six years, long after Karl Hettinger had cracked from the strain. The killers were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment, an execution of justice which in England would have been arrived at in less than a year. The reading is necessarily slow and dense, because of the legal confusion about what actually happened. Some of the court proceedings would be comic were it not for the slow-burning exasperation of the author. Wambaugh does it all deadpan. He is coldly intent in defending a fellow officer who was killed and a friend who was driven mad.
A MEMORY AND OTHER STORIES
by Mary Lavin
Houghton Mifflin. $5.95
As I look back it seems to me that some of the very best short stories in my career have come from Ireland. The ghost story survives and stories of the commonplace, of love too long deferred, of the domineering father who won’t let go, of the rivalry which so quickly overheats the Irish emotions—these ageless themes in the hands of authors as capable as Sean O’Faolain and Mary Lavin have a haunting, searching pity in them that stirs me.
The new volume of Miss Lavin’s is notable for three exceptional stories: “Tomb of an Ancestor,” which opens the book and in which the rivalry of the children, as they vie in the ancient cemetery, mirrors that of their elders whose tomb they are uncovering; “A Memory.” which, except for its ending, is a closely observed picture of two academic minds fencing for love; and the finest of the lot. “Asigh.” one of Miss Lavin’s very best for its feeling of the green country, of love at first sight, and of the jealous and dominating widower-father who scars the lives of both his daughter and his son. It is her special skill to begin with a single clue and a single episode and working now in the past, and now in the present, to embrace the whole of life. Hers is the art of a real storyteller, with the time and space to spin out the tale and a feeling for dialogue that has the ring of truth.