The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (Trans. by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson)

February 12, 2013

The Golden Calf is the sequel to Ilf’s and Petrov’s hilariously brilliant first novel, The Twelve Chairs. Ostap Bender, one of the greatest con artists to appear in print, is back from the first novel only slightly worse for the wear. He is as outrageously non-comformist as before and, somehow, Ilf and Petrov find even more ways to skewer not only Soviet society, but civilization and humankind generally. It can only be due to their wild success that Ilf and Petrov managed to stay alive and published at a time and in a place where doing so was not so easy. If their writing was too entertaining for Stalin to kill them, well, need I say more?

In Ostap’s first literary vehicle, the MacGuffin was a set of jewels sewn into one of those eponymous chairs. Here, Ostap sets his sights on the wealth of a secret millionaire: Alexander Koreiko. Being a millionaire in the Soviet Union of the 1930s is a risky business made all the more so when con artist extraordinaire Ostap Bender has caught wind of your stash and wishes to use it to live a life of luxury in South America. The lure of the easy life will take Ostap and his reluctant and ragtag gang on amusing adventures across the Soviet Union. But before that, we must be reintroduced to Ostap and his genius. First, though, a little about pedestrians and automobiles.

[J]ust when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.

It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets – laid out by pedestrians – were taken over by the motorists….

In a big city, pedestrians live like martyrs. They’ve been forced into a kind of traffic ghetto. They are only allowed to cross the streets at the intersections, that is, exactly where the traffic is heaviest – where the thread by which a pedestrian’s life hangs is most easily snapped.

Cars, specifically one christened “The Antelope”, play a central role in The Golden Calfthis riotous romp. But our good friend Ostap is still a mere pedestrian when he walks into this novel and onto the streets of a small Russian town. He saunters into city hall to meet with the city council chairman. His purpose is to extract money and, perhaps, a few privileges from a predictably naive small town bureaucrat. He does this by impersonating Nikolay Schmidt, the son of the famous hero Lieutenant Schmidt, first name of whom neither he nor the chairman can remember. The setup is reminiscent of Gogol’s 1936 play The Government Inspector which was, apparently, inspired by an anecdote told to Gogol by Alexsandr Pushkin who was himself, three years prior to the publication of the play, mistaken by locals as a government inspector. Ilf’s and Petrov’s treatment comes with an original twist which sets in motion the alliance that powers the rest of the story.

To wit, Ostap’s plan is going mildly well, having produced so far “only eight rubles and three meal vouchers to the Former Friend of the Stomach cooperative dinner”, when a similarly enterprising stranger walks in claiming also to be the son of Lieutenant Schmidt.

This is a very delicate situation for the two con artists. At any moment, the long and nasty sword of retribution could glisten in the hands of the unassuming and gullible chairman of the city council. Fate allowed themselves just one short second to devise a strategy to save themselves. Terror flashed in the eyes of Lieutenant Schmidt’s second son.

His imposing figure – clad in a Paraguayan summer shirt, sailor’s bell bottoms, and light-blue canvas shoes – which was sharp and angular just a moment earlier, started to come apart, lost its formidable edges, and no longer commanded any respect at all. An unpleasant smile appeared on the chairman’s face.

Ostap, ever calm in the most tense of situations, saves them both by pretending they are brothers, two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt reunited by chance in the chairman’s office.

The happy encounter was marked by chaotic expressions of endearment and incredibly powerful hugs – hugs so powerful that the face of the second son of the Black Sea revolutionary was pale from pain. Out of sheer joy, his brother Nick had thrashed him badly.

After the two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt make it out of the city council chairman’s office, they see a third man heading inside. The second, thrashed son, whose real name is Shura Balaganov, recognizes the man as his friend, Panikovsky. Panikovsky’s trade is also to go about impersonating Lieutenant Schmidt’s son. Ostap is going to stop him from a sure beating, or worse, but Balaganov stops him, explaining:

”[N]ext time, he’ll know better than to break the pact.”

Ostap Bender, with his superior con man skills, will of course discover the secrets of the pact, an agreement among the many impersonators of Lieutenant Schmidt’s offspring and the offspring of various other heros. And Ostap will turn this knowledge of the pact, as he seems to turn everything, to his pecuniary benefit. He wants it known, however, that the Lieutenant Schmidt scheme was not a career for him, as it apparently is for Balaganov and similarly pitiable members of the pact. Rather, for Ostap, the swindle is merely a morning’s amusement:

”What happened this morning was not even a phase, it was nothing, a pure accident, an artist’s whim. A gentleman in search of pocket money. It’s not in my nature to fish for such a miserable rate of return. And what kind of trade is that, for God’s sake! Son of Lieutenant Schmidt! Well, maybe another year, maybe two, and they’ll simply start beating you up.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” asked Balganov, alarmed. “How am I supposed to win my daily bread?”

“You have to think,” said Ostap sternly. “I, for one, live off ideas. I don’t beg for a lousy ruble from the city hall. My horizons are broader. I see that you love money selflessly. Tell me, what amount appeals to you?”

“Five thousand,” answered Balaganov quickly.

“Per month?”

“Per year.”

“In that case, I have nothing to talk about. I need five hundred thousand. A lump sum preferably, not in installments.”

The five hundred thousand is to get away from Russia, to the good life in Rio de Janeiro. Rio, as Ostap understands it, is populated by “[a] million and a half people, all of them wearing white pants, without exception.” He wants to make it there because, as he says, he has “developed very serious differences with the Soviet regime.”

”The regime wants to build socialism, and I don’t. I find it boring.”

Ilf and Petrov manage to make the Soviet regime anything but boring. They tread what must have been a thin line, but do so with bravura:

”I used to pay a cop standing on the corner of Kreshchatik and Proreznaya five rubles a month, and nobody bothered me. The cop even made sure I was safe. he was a good man! His name was Semen Vasilyevich Nebaba. I ran into him recently – he’s a music critic nowadays. And now? Can you really mess with the police these days? I’ve never seen nastier guys. They’re so principled, such idealists.”

Presumably, one can only get away with such sarcasm in a country where it was, more or less, legally required that you say such things about law officers, “principled…idealists”, in earnest. Ilf and Petrov take full advantage of facts, like the absence of crooked cops in the Soviet system, to both appease and skewer.

Because I can’t resist:

[Ostap to a young man suffering from nightly “strictly Soviet” dreams:] “The principal cause of your dreams is the very existence of the Soviet regime. But I can’t remove it right now. I’m in a hurry. I’m on a sports tour, you see, and my car needs a few small repairs. Would you mind if I put it in your shed?…”

“So you think there’s hope for me?” [the young man] asked, mincing behind his early morning guest.

“Don’t give it another thought,” replied the captain dismissively. “The moment the Soviet regime is gone, you’ll feel better at once. You’ll see!”

But America, where “people…drink straight from the bottle”, comes in for some ribbing too. For instance, Ostap sells two naïve, Prohibition-era tourists from Chicago a recipe for moonshine.

Ilf and Petrov are comic geniuses. If you want something “serious”, and yet incredibly fun, this is the novel for you. The humor is subtle enough to tickle your frontal cortex, but outrageous enough that you ought not drink milk while reading it. And, of course, there is a Nabokov link. In addition to the blurb Nabokov provided (“…wonderfully gifted writers…first-rate fiction…”), Ostap mentions an “exiled king outfit” which put me immediately in mind of Pale Fire.

I cannot rave about Ostap Bender and his novelistic vehicles enough. Just say “antelope” and I am liable to chuckle.

Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell

July 31, 2010

Tony’s Book World has been laboring to keep the Dawn Powell Revival going. His passion and the quotes he provided from Powell’s diary convinced me to try one of her novels. He suggested I start with one of her “New York” novels. I chose Turn, Magic Wheel. The title comes from a beautiful fragment of Theocritus:

Turn, magic wheel,
Bring homeward him I love.

The story behind the book is interesting. It seems that Powell was part of the “in” writing clique, evidenced by the praise lavished on her writing by Hemingway. Her access and familiarity with that world provides the setting for this novel about a writer writing about the ex-wife of a famous writer. The first character we meet is Dennis Orphen, a writer whose new book is about to be released. His new book is a thinly veiled satire of the relationship between a Hemingway-like writer (Andrew Callingham) and Callingham’s first wife (Effie Callingham née Thorne). So, Powell authors a book which is a thinly veiled retelling of the life of a real writer’s ex-wife whose main character authors a book which is a thinly veiled retelling of the life of a real writer’s ex-wife. Hall of mirrors, effect. Wicked.

Having recently read Cloud Atlas and City of Glass, I was slightly disappointed that the title of Orphen’s novel wasn’t Turn, Magic Wheel and that Dennis Orphen wasn’t instead named Dawn Powell. The circle would have been complete. Anyway, the backstory created a bit of distraction for me.

Nevermind how the book could have been written, how was it written? Well, as Tony promised. It was written well.

Dennis Orphen is an author who mines the lives of his friends, acquaintances, and strangers he observes. The narrator tells us that Dennis Orphen’s defining feature is his curiosity, “the motivating vice of his career, the whole horrid reason for his writing.” Dennis has warned himself that, some day, he will have to “pay for this barter in souls”. The reader is so far unaware that Dennis has written about his best friend and in an unflattering light, so the reader can think that maybe he will not have to pay. But he has written a book about his friend and it does portray her in an unflattering light. Of course there will be a reckoning.

Powell was obviously intimate with New York City literary- and high-society life. She skewers it well.

Dennis looked over the Mirror, a stale one as it was only today’s. He read Barclay Beekman’s sprightly report of the six hundred dollars raised for the Free Milk Fund by Mrs. Ten Bruck’s brilliant Firebird Pageant and Ball at the Waldorf. It seems the costumes alone cost over fifty thousand dollars, but the rich spare no expense when it’s to help the little babies of the slums.

Aside from the parties and pretensions of the rich, Powell captures personal relationships perfectly.

Mrs. Callingham (Effie) is in the throes of formerly requited, but long since unrequited, love. Her ex-husband Andrew long ago ran off with a younger, prettier woman, but Effie holds out hope that he will return to her and, thus, keeps his last name.

There was even something a little brave, a little galant, about fighting selfishly for your love. It did show a fiery metal that was more appealing to a man than the martyr spirit. But if you didn’t have that fire, if decency was stronger in you than passion, if the beloved’s happiness was to you the object of love . . . One did what one could, Effie thought. One did what was in one to do, and then waited. Waited for what? Her mind turned the pages of Dennis’s book . . . “waiting always for him to come back” – “the hunter will return, he will see the wise gentle wife she has become in his long absence.”

Betrayed by Andrew Callingham, she is now betrayed by Dennis, her closest friend and confidante. She had tried to hold on to her status as Andrew’s wife by continuing to annouce herself to the world as “Mrs. Callingham”. And the wealthy set obliged. She had entrée, in part, because she had the connection to Andrew. That set will read Dennis’s forthcoming book though, they will realize that it is about her, and they will laugh at her. Not to her face, of course, but it will sting the same. The entire façade of her long-distance marriage crumbles around her.

This crumbling is the crisis of the novel and the crisis in the relationship between Dennis and Effie. Their relationship is complex, tightknit, and platonic. Dennis has a girlfriend who is married, Corinne. Dennis finds little in Corinne besides her looks and her frequent availability for rendezvous. There is no depth to their relationship which is how Dennis likes it. He writes and he hangs out with Effie. In fact, he was her pillar. He was the one person in the world with whom she let down her guard. And now he has ruined that.

Dennis runs into trouble with his own romantic relationship, Andrew has left his second wife (Marian) who arrives in New York deathly ill, and Effie has a crisis of identity. The crisis sends her reeling towards a Miss Haversham-like fate, even as she consoles Marian whose primary concern is winning back Andrew rather than impending death.

Powell brings it all off with wit and a clever dissection of relationships both romantic and otherwise.

The rift between Dennis and Effie threatens not only Effie’s world, but Dennis’ happiness.

These last few days without the protective hedge of Effie Thorne’s all-sufficient friendship – a friendship that had been worn by both as an armor against the rest of the world and against all other contact, without this buffer Dennis had felt himself drawn, sucked into bondage to Corinne, he glimpsed aghast the unamusing sinister face of scandalous, unreasoning, ruinous, self-destroying Love, and this must not be.

Powell, it seems, was not particularly sentimental about romantic love. She writes elsewhere in the book, this time conveying Effie’s thoughts:

She caught his hand and held her lips to it desperately, but even while she held it this moment was gone; there is no present in love, only past and future, so that kissing him she was far away lonely for him.

Perhaps this is why critics must have called her a cynic. She portrayed romantic love as it often does live and die. She did not write fairy tales where Mr. Darcy finds the perfect Mrs., or even the passionate chase of a Heathcliffe or a Gatsby. She wrote of more ordinary loves, which, while less spectacular, can be so much more painful. Effie waiting, rather than fighting, is an agonizing character. The reader wants her to let go, give up this idea of Callingham. The man is a cad, a serial-womanizer. Everything we know about life and about Callingham tells us that he is not the type of man to return.

I am re-reading The Lights of Earth and find it curiously parallels Turn, Magic Wheel. Berriault must have been familiar with Powell. I would not be surprised if she decided to retell the story from a spurned mistress’s perspective. Whatever the case, Berriault and Powell have kindred styles, similarly beautiful ways of describing the excrutiating arc of doomed relationships. The comparison is high praise for Powell, as Berriault is one of my favorite writers.

Thank you, Tony, for introducing me to Dawn Powell. This is a writer to whom I can return with confidence. And I will.

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

August 10, 2009

I came to this book on the recommendation of Kevin From Canada. William Maxwell had not been on my radar until reading Kevin’s review and a review of The Chateau over at The Asylum.

TheyCameLikeSwallowsThe story revolves around the Morison family: Elizabeth (mother), James (father), thirteen year-old Robert, and eight year-old Peter (Bunny). Numerous other characters play a prominent role in the novel and the lives of the family, including particularly the boys’ aunt Irene, the cook/maid Sophie, and the boys’ Aunt Clara and Uncle Wilfred Paisley.

The rather short book (174 pages in my copy) is divided into three roughly equal sections each of which, though told in the third-person, is narrated from the perspective of a different family member. The first belongs to Bunny.

Bunny is a precocious child, though not very robust. At eight, Bunny plays with dolls, tries not to go outdoors, and cries easily and often. One morning he is watching the rain, hoping that it will last and he will not have to go outside. When he asks his mother if she thinks it will continue, she tells him, “Rain before seven –“, leaving unspoken the “clear by eleven” conclusion. It is nearly too much for Bunny and then he hears his mother say to herself that he is almost a grown man and should not need to come to her “again and again to be reassured.”

Another time, he promised; another time he would try and not give in to weakness. If only she would not be severe with him now. He could not bear to have her that way. Not this morning. . . . Feeling altogether sorry for himself, he began to imagine what it would be like if she were not there. If his mother were not there to protect him from whatever was unpleasant — from the weather and from Robert and from his father — what would he do? Whatever would become of him in a world where there was neither warmth nor comfort nor love?

Bunny is very much his mother’s child.

Bunny’s is not the only world that revolves around Elizabeth Morison. Though we are first introduced to Robert (with one artificial leg) as Bunny’s tormenter and Robert’s own section begins with a game of football, Robert too is connected more with his mother than his father. Robert and his father have an awkward relationship:

His father’s comments embarrassed him. I’m glad you told me, son. But now the best thing is to foget that as quick as you can. If you want to grow up to be decent and self-respecting, you haven’t time for any foul-minded talk like that. . . . Or, out of a clear sky his father would say Remember now, it doesn’t make any difference what kind of trouble you run into; your father will always be right here. . . . Something that Robert knew perfectly well. And that somehow there was no need for saying.

The entire family revolves around Elizabeth Morison; she is what makes the family work.

Maxwell captures the family dynamics wonderfully. The relationships between each of the family members are rendered pitch perfect. This novel is about the family, how it works, and whether it can adapt in the face of change.

A number of events and decisions are looming that threaten the current dynamics. Elizabeth is pregnant with a third child which will usher in changes for both Robert, who will have to change rooms, and Bunny, his mother’s “angel child.” The beautiful and charming Aunt Irene, best friend to Elizabeth and favorite of Robert and Bunny, is considering whether to return to Uncle Boyd Hiller who lives across the country. Sophie seems likely to follow Karl, the hired hand, back to Germany if he goes. And, most menacingly, the Spanish influenza epidemic is raging.

Maxwell manages all these elements deftly. He builds and releases tension in each of the storylines, illuminating sometimes overshadowed aspects of family life. Ultimately, the family does suffer tragedy. Even to the end, it is not entirely clear how the family will reshape itself, if it survives as a family at all. We are only shown how the family copes in the immediate aftermath and begins to settle into a new reality.

Maxwell is an outstanding writer. His prose is efficient and well-suited to his subject. The structure of the book is particularly effective in addressing the themes on which Maxwell focuses. The shifting perspectives give the reader a fuller picture of the family and events than could otherwise be achieved. Maxwell’s technique is flawless and his talent enviable.

I am pleased to have been introduced to Maxwell.

The U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos

July 22, 2009

“[M]ostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” So says John Dos Passos in the prologue to his outstanding U.S.A., a trilogy which spans the first several decades of the 20th century. Dos Passos, talking about the country, fairly summarized his own astounding work of art.

Few literary works manage to be as distinctively original as U.S.A.. I would suggest that this alone warrants picking up the first volume of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, and giving it a try.TheUSATrilogy If you need more encouragement, you should know that it has received copious praise from authors as diversely talented as Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, and E.L. Doctorow, to name but a few. Further, the trilogy utilized innovative techniques, had an original structure, was ambitious in scope, and brought depth to its subject. Add that it is an entertaining read with well-written prose. What I am saying, is that U.S.A. made it into the canon for a reason.

Now, The Second Pass suggests that Dos Passos’ U.S.A. be “Fired from the Canon.” In support of this heresy, they raise only the specter of Newsreel V from The 42nd Parallel, the first book in the trilogy. Okay, not only. There are some pejoratives leading up to the selective quotation, but, really, the only evidence they supply is Newsreel V. The problem with this criticism is that the Newsreels (a) make up a very small portion of the total, (b) are not meant to “draw in” the reader to a particular narrative, rather the static is the point of these short bits, (c) are actually incoherent out of context, (d) only have the intended effect when interspersed among the more conventional narrative pieces, (e) work better skimmed than misguidedly read for content, and (f) can be skipped entirely if the reader hates them so much that the reader otherwise will not read this fine trilogy.

I took the assault a little personally, maybe.

Had an attack on the equally experimental “Camera Eye” sections of the book been launched, a similar defense could have been raised. The Camera Eye sections consist of stream of consciousness prose in the first person:

…and everything was very kind and grave and very sorry and frigates and the blue Mediterranean and islands and when I was dead I began to cry and I was afraid the other boys would see I had tears in my eyes…I was so sorry I never remembered whether they brought me home or buried me at sea but anyway I was wrapped in Old Glory.

These sections provide a more intimate psychological look at some aspects of America without subjecting readers to an entire stream-of-consciousness book. (Not that I would have any problem with that.)42ndParallel I think the sections work. They help set the mood and, as I said, reach elements of the American psyche that cannot be illuminated via the third person narrative that makes up the vast bulk of the novel.

Basically, I think The Second Pass misunderstood the purpose and proper approach to the very short digressions (Newsreels and Camera Eyes) from the primary narrative.

The Second Pass does not attack, either explicitly or implicitly, the biographical sketches of real people that also break up the primary narrative. This is because the biographical sketches are masterpieces in miniature. Take this excerpt from the section “The Campers at Kitty Hawk” in The Big Money:

The folks claimed it was the bishop’s bringing home a helicopter, a fiftycent mechanical toy made of two fans worked by elastic bands that was supposed to hover in the air, that had got his two youngest boys hipped on the subject of flight so that they stayed home instead of marrying the way the other boys did, and puttered all day about the house picking up a living with jobprinting, bicyclerepair work, sitting up late nights reading books on aerodynamics.

Still they were sincere churchmembers, their bicycle business was prosperous, a man could rely on their word. They were popular in Dayton.

Dos Passos drops these excellent details at a point in the narrative where flight is particularly relevant. The sketches work to enhance the narrative with historical context, while providing short breaks of delicious nonfiction tidbits to be savored.1919 The execution is simply outstanding. As a quick primer on some major (and some minor) public figures of the early 20th century, U.S.A. is worth the price.

The best part of U.S.A. makes up its bulk: the more traditional narrative. I say “more traditional” because the narrative has a unique feel. Partly, this is because U.S.A. is not plot-driven. The trilogy is also not character-driven, at least in any conventional sense. Each section of the narrative is labeled after a particular character; each narrative section utilizes the omniscient third-person. Those looking for plot may be frustrated by the abrupt end to some characters or the fact that others seem sure to return, only they do not. Obviously, the same feature will frustrate those who become too focused on a character who does not subsequently return to the narrative. But no single individual is the subject.

The plot of U.S.A. is history, the central character is the United States of America. It is an American trilogy of the breadth and depth of a Tolstoy novel. While Dos Passos is earnestly concerned with the plight of ordinary individuals, this is not an examination of an everyman at a particular moment in American history as in Bellow’s Sieze the Day nor the examination of the American Dream through a single protagonist as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dos Passos’ subject is America writ large, particularly the gritty American experience. To this end, Dos Passos requires multiple “protagonists” who rise and fall in importance relative to the story of America that he is telling. The supporting cast Dos Passos utilizes includes the train-hopping, wannabe newspaperman Fainy McCreary, the upwardly-mobile public relations guru J. Ward Moorehouse, his administrative assistant Janey Williams, the artist and later interior decorator Eveline Hutchins, the mechanic Charley Anderson, journalist and labor-activist Mary French, aspiring actress/entertainer Margo Dowling, sailor Joe Williams, and many others. These supporting characters are all interesting and well drawn.

Dos Passos can pull readers into a scene beautifully, this from The 42nd Parallel:

After a while the boys stripped to their bathingsuits that they wore under their clothes. It made Janey’s throat tremble to watch Alec’s back and the bulging muscles of his arm as he paddled, made her feel happy and scared. She sat there in her white dimity dress, trailing her hand in the weedy browngreen water…The cream soda got warm and they drank it that way and kidded each other back and forth and Alec caught a crab and covered Janey’s dress with greenslimy splashes and Janey didn’t care a bit and they called Joe skipper and he loosened up and said he was going to join the navy and Alec said he’d be a civil engineer and build a motorboat and take them all cruising and Janey was happy because they included her when they talked just like she was a boy too.

Or this from the second novel, 1919, where two characters from the first are sitting at a small café in Europe just after Eveline has asked an intimate question of J.W.

Eveline sat looking at him [J.W.] with her lips a little apart, her cheeks blazing. ‘Maybe it’s taken the war to teach us how to live,’ he said. ‘We’ve been too much interested in money and material things, it’s taken the French to show us how to live. Where back home in the States could you find a beautiful atmosphere like this?’ J.W. waved his arm to include in a sweeping gesture the sea, the tables crowded with women dressed in bright colors and men in their best uniforms, the bright glint of blue light on glasses and cutlery. The waiter mistook his gesture and slyly substituted a full bottle for the empty bottle in the champagnepail.

Often, Dos Passos will pull back, summarizing larger segments of time, popping in only the details that matter to his larger point as in this scene encompassing nearly two years from The Big Money:

Their first child was born in December. It was a boy. They named him Wheatley. When Gladys came back from the hospital instead of coming back to the apartment she went into the new house out at Grosse Pointe that still smelt of paint and raw plaster. What with the hospital expenses and the furniture bills and Christmas, Charley had to borrow twenty thousand from the bank. He spent more time than ever talking over the phone to Nat Benton’s [his broker’s] office in New York. Gladys bought a lot of new clothes and kept tiffany glass bowls full of freesias and narcissus all over the house. Even on the dressingtable in her bathroom she always had flowers. Mrs. Wheatley said she got her love of flowers from her grandmother Randolph, because the Wheatleys had never been able to tell one flower from another. When the next child turned out to be a girl, Gladys said, as she lay in the hospital, her face looking drawn and yellow against the white pillows, beside the great bunch of glittering white orchids Charley had ordered from the florist at five dollars a bloom, she wished she could name her Orchid. They ended by naming her Marguerite after Gladys’s grandmother Randolph.

Dos Passos manages in this paragraph to efficiently say so much about the relationships between Gladys, Charley, and Mrs. Wheatley. The paragraph starts in a disinterested, almost clinical, third person. By the fourth sentence, the third person narration has warmed, Gladys could be relating these events to a friend: “the new house….still smelt of paint…Charley had to borrow twenty thousand…He spent more time than ever talking over the phone…” Dos Passos nicely shifts from finances to the flowers. You can hear Mrs. Wheatley going on about her daughter inheriting grandmother Randolph’s affinity for flowers. But there is a small jab with a slight shift, if only for a moment, to Charley’s viewpoint. Charley sees his wife with “her face looking drawn and yellow against the white pillows” and, instead of seeing the aesthetics of the situation, he sees her surrounded by five dollar blooms.

At any rate, Dos Passos is an excellent writer of standard prose, whatever you think of the experimental “Newsreel” or “Camera Eye” breaks. The narrative portions are very engaging and enjoyable. Only if you require a tidy, conventional plot, could you be disappointed in that aspect of the book. TheBigMoneyEven so, Dos Passos creates enough urgency to keep the reader eager to turn the page. For many, if not all, of the characters, their sections, if pulled out and stitched together, would form a nice novella (for some only a short story). In some ways, the trilogy is like a series of linked short stories and novellas. The difference is that some stories begin before others have ended. Often, a character with his or her own section will show up in the section of another, sometimes with a large role, other times only making a brief appearance. In some ways, it is as if Dos Passos is holding America up to a light and slowly turning it back and forth, letting the light shine on one facet, then another, then the first again.

I would say that I have a hard time imagining there are people who do not enjoy this trilogy, but I do not have to imagine them. They exist. They include The Second Pass. The criticisms The Second Pass has are the same, limited criticisms I have heard and read elsewhere. Apparently, some readers are very turned off by the short experimental sections. As I said before, if you find that you are one of those readers, skim those sections or skip them entirely. While those sections are an important part of the overall aesthetic effect, it is better to cut them off than damn the entire work.

I am a Dos Passos booster. I admit it. Next time you see U.S.A. or The 42nd Parallel (the first book of the trilogy) on a shelf, pick it up and skip through the first Newsreel and the first Camera Eye. Start with Mac. Read a couple pages of his story. You will not regret it.

[Updated some formatting issues at 4:50pm, 7-22-09.]