Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Quaint Stretch of Road

The last stretch of road into my wife’s hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska is the eventful little two-lane State Highway 136 that leads from I-29 north of St. Joseph, Missouri into Beatrice. Beatrice, by the way, was the birthplace of the actor Robert Taylor (though the locals knew him as Spangler Arlington Brugh) and the poet Weldon Kees (whom the locals called Weldie). When I say the locals I mean my mother-in-law, who has lived in Beatrice all her life.
            Turning west from I-29 onto 136, you come almost immediately to a bridge that will take you into Brownville. (If you are coming from St. Louis, this will be the third time you cross the Missouri River.) Often the center of these little towns is worth the out-of-the-way few blocks you must go to reach it, and Brownville is no exception. Technically a village of fewer than 150 souls, Brownville boasts some fine historic buildings on Main Street, and on the river, a floating bed and breakfast. A few miles farther west is Auburn, which always calls to my mind the opening couplet of Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”:
                        Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain,
                        Where health and plenty cheer’d the laboring swain….
Unlike Brownville, Auburn is not a village but a city of 3500. Its first sign is an airport where are there are two intersecting turf runways, the only one of its kind I’ve seen. Auburn’s graveyard is on the highway and called Sheridan Cemetery, but as we leave the city we find its annex: on rolling turf easy to mistake for a golf course a very few headstones are visible, and gates that proclaim this as “Sheridan West.”
            Not much farther, at Spring Creek, you’ll see a working bison farm, with its feed lot and pasture wrapped around a house on the south side of the road. The last time I passed there were dozens of buffalo within a few yards of the highway, a startling sight more common on these plains two hundred years ago. The next creeks form an interesting contrast of names. The first is Brewer’s Branch, calling up for me southern associations of “branch water” that always seems to be linked to alcohol—paired with bourbon or used for brewing. But the next crossing is Yankee Creek.
            Almost immediately we are in Tecumseh, where we do one of those mysterious ninety-degree turns followed by another ninety-degree turn back to course a few blocks later; this is a fairly common occurrence in Midwest driving where roads avoid a parcel of land some farmer resisted giving up to the right of way. And the next town is Beatrice.
            What strikes an observer about the streets of this town is the number of trees throughout the city. They are more numerous than in any other of the towns spread across southeastern Nebraska. Yet the locals will tell you (my mother-in-law again) that before the advent of Dutch Elm Disease that killed almost all of the fine American Elms in Beatrice, there were twice as many trees here. Beatrice boasts the very first homestead, applied for shortly after midnight on the day Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act went into effect. The Homestead National Monument is on the other side of town. To the north is Beatrice’s airport, where you can depart on its runway 36 and fly straight without a course change the thirty-three nautical miles onto runway 36  at Lincoln. I know; I’ve done it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Beautiful People Going Nowhere

The 1920s and 30s saw a spate of books on both sides of the Atlantic about Bright Young Things partying as if the world would never end. Scott Fitzgerald started it with The Beautiful and Damned (1922), continued with The Great Gatsby (1925), and wrote his best book about this phenomenon in Tender Is the Night (1934). These books have in common beautiful, but essentially idle and purposeless, people and those who look at them with awe; in The Beautiful and Damned the beauty is the jazz-age girl Gloria Gilbert, who always looks “as though she were continually picking out presents for herself from an inexhaustible counter.” Anthony Patch, who is also a spoiled young person, marries her, and they proceed rapidly from the beautiful to the damned. The Great Gatsby is perhaps the best illustration of Fitzgerald’s conviction that the lives of the idle rich and their imitators are empty and banal, while those who look at them with awe are fated for disillusionment. Nick Carroway, the narrator, is the awed onlooker here, fascinated by Jay Gatsby and Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan and Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker. What Nick discovers is that Gatsby is a fake who changes his name from James Gatz, tries to deny his father and his North Dakota roots, associates with mobsters and makes his money illegally, and is convinced his money will attract his old love Daisy Buchanan. Nick learns these damning things about Gatsby and Daisy’s selfish, unfeeling cruelty nearly together at the book’s climax. Fitzgerald thought Tender Is the Night was his best book (I agree), and it makes several lists of best 100 novels, including the Modern Library’s, the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s, and NPR’s, but almost always behind The Great Gatsby. It is divided into three sections. In the first, 18-year-old movie star Rosemary Hoyt, spending a few days with her mother on the Riviera, becomes infatuated with the beautiful people Dick and Nicole Diver. Rosemary is the star of Daddy’s Girl, an ironic title as it relates to her (her father is dead) and Nicole, whom we learn later is suffering from a mental illness probably brought on by her father’s sexual abuse. The second section is a flashback to Dick Diver’s education as a psychiatric physician, his work at the Zurich clinic where Nicole Warner is a patient, and his marriage to her. The last section is the account of Dick’s decline, through alcoholism and what he perceives as the enervating control of Nicole’s money, personified in the book by the character of her sister “Baby” Warner. Disillusionment is the result for Rosemary and eventually for Nicole as well.
The main chronicler of the Bright Young Things on the other side of the Atlantic was Evelyn Waugh, whose satires of the fast and feckless include his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), where he introduces the character of Margot Metroland, a popular London society party-giver whose money comes from brothels in South America and who essentially ruins the life of the book’s hero. Vile Bodies (1930) expands the cast of characters and includes Mrs. Melrose Ape the evangelist and her winged chorus--among them Chastity, Creative Endeavor, and Divine Discontent; Father Rothschild, the Jesuit who seems to be running England, deciding whether Outrage or Brown will be Prime Minister this week; and Margot Metroland is again a player. A lesbian character Waugh introduces (“Poor Lady Chasm,” people keep saying of her mother), eventually dies after a traumatic incident in which she takes over an auto race without knowing how to drive. Adam Fenwick-Symes, one of Waugh’s gormless young men, and Nina Blount, daughter of an eccentric nobleman, keep getting engaged and unengaged as Adam’s fortunes rapidly change. His hapless and feckless adventures include a period as Mr. Chatterbox, during which he makes up stories about the doings of London’s Bright Young Things, and his chance encounters with a drunk major who owes Adam thirty-five thousand pounds after he put Adam’s thousand on a long shot at Ascot. The major and Adam end up together in a ravaged, war-torn landscape as the novel ends.
The strangest and probably the last of these books about doomed partygoers of the era just before and after the 1929 crash is titled, aptly, Party Going (1939), by Henry Green, a highly respected though not widely known author with a distinctive style. In this book, Max, a rich young man who these days would be diagnosed with AADD, tortured by the beautiful and also rich Amabel and torturing Julia Wray and possibly Angela Crevy in his turn, arranges and pays for tickets for his friends for a three-week house party in the south of France. But fog closes down on London and none of the trains runs. The party assembles at the station, and after the station fills with thousands of would-be travelers, the party moves into the station hotel, which soon afterwards closes its metal gates to keep out the huge crowd.
            The accompaniment to the cruel and mindless doings of the young things in the party is the story of Miss Fellowes, aunt of one of them, who has some kind of neurotic attack in the bar of the station and is carried into one of the rooms Max has rented at the hotel to accommodate his party. She is followed by a mysterious man who speaks in varied class accents (like our author, in his various books; is he the prole Henry Green or the toff Henry Yorke—his real name?), and also by two aged nannies of party members—the two women just happen to be in the station when Miss Fellowes is taken ill—and they follow into the hotel. The threatened death of Miss Fellowes and the presence of all three old ladies, like Fates, are things the young people can’t avoid any more than they can wish away the fog.
It is difficult to avoid comparing the novel to Sartre’s play No Exit, which it predates, though at the end of the novel the trains begin running again. Clear influences of Woolf show up in the way Green jumps from the middle of one conversation to one in another room. But though Green is often compared to Woolf, George Meredith’s mannerist style might be a more apt comparison. Green gives us pages of dialogue and exhibits a willful refusal to interpret; when he does summarize or comment, he’s liable to do so with metaphors that are abstract and even surreal. Yet we want to see what happens to his partygoers with their trivial concerns and self-absorption. They imagine they will live forever. Green suggests, however, that their way of life is “going”—the title has a parallel double sense to that of Philip Larkin’s poem title “Church Going.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

What's the Matter with Kids Today?

In my last year of high school, The Lord of the Flies (1954), The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and A Separate Peace (1959) were still recent books that had not yet made their way onto the syllabus of high school English courses, but my friends and I had read them. We liked them because they confirmed our view of ourselves as complicated and even dangerous creatures whose real nature grownups didn’t understand. In Salinger’s book it was the rants against the phoniness of many in older generations that we identified with, and we found the complexities of Holden Caulfield, the narrator, rang true. We identified with much of his confusion and frustration while feeling that we had managed to hold it together better than he. With The Lord of the Flies, it was Golding’s particularly bleak view of how civilization can go that appealed, in the breakdown of the boys’ attempt to organize themselves and attract a rescue as well as the irony of the ending, as the grownups tsk-tsked about the disappointing “show” the boys had made, while their own show smoked in ruins in the background. A Separate Peace had a subtler appeal, with its sympathetic, introspective, intelligent narrator and his secret responsibility for the maiming of his more outgoing, adventurous friend Finny. Part of the book’s appeal to a seventeen-year-old, I believe, was its acknowledgment of the possibility of both danger and profound guilt in the world of the young—features that older people ended to deny or belittle.
            Only recently I have read a couple of books that have the same kind of insights into kids’ worlds. I remembered vaguely that when Lord of the Flies was being talked about in the fifties, some reviewer had commented that Richard Hughes had done all this before, in a book called A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). Well, not exactly, but the children in this book do make their pirate captors look like milquetoasts. Yet at the same time as they are able to look without blinking at wonders and horrors, the kids can show the influence of the most hidebound respectability. The seven children here belong to two families and range in age from about five to eleven or twelve. After a hurricane destroys their house in Jamaica (the children in one family seem more disturbed at the loss of their cat than the destruction of their house and the death of their black servant), the parents decide to send all the children to England. Their ship is boarded by pirates, and somehow the children end up on the pirate ship while the plundered vessel slips away. During the ensuing weeks, one of the children dies in an accident and another one, ten-year-old Emily, stabs to death a Dutch merchant captain who is trussed up in the cabin where she, in a paranoid delirium after a head injury, imagines he is going to get free and attack her. The pirates think another child is responsible. Emily has bad dreams about the captain’s death, but keeps her role in it a secret. On secrets and children, Hughes later notes that “Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realise that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances are nil.” Eventually the children return to England when the pirate captain puts them on board a passing steamer, and the pirates, captured by a military ship, are also taken to England and put on trial.
            The lawyer prosecuting the pirates finds interviewing the children heavy going. They don’t seem to have noticed any plundering or killing, and they are more shocked that the pirate captain used the word “drawers” to them (they were sliding down his deck when he was heeled under sail, and he told them to stop. “Who will mend your drawers or buy you new ones when you’ve worn these out?” he asks). Hughes thus get double duty from this satiric observation about bourgeois values, because now the parents are shocked in their turn, wondering and imagining what further might be implied by this reference to drawers. The lawyer has no hope of bringing any death—either the child’s or the Dutch captain’s—home to the pirates, but he coaches Emily carefully in the testimony she’s willing to give. But when defending counsel thinks the lack of questions about the deaths may be impeding his getting his clients off the murder charge, he asks Emily directly about the Dutch captain, and she breaks down into sobs and descriptions of his bloody body. The pirates hang.
            Another disturbing but perceptive book concerning children is less well-known than any of the previous ones: Gabriel Fielding’s In the Time of Greenbloom (1956). Fielding’s protagonist, John Blaydon, meets the love of his life, Victoria, at thirteen, saves her from drowning that same night, but is unable to save her some months later from a vicious murderer. Blaydon succumbs to an affectless depression from which he is partly aroused when he meets Horab Greenbloom. Greenbloom, who has lost a leg, is a rich college friend of Blaydon’s older brother and is in a constant search for personal pleasure and a satisfactory philosophy—first his passion is Wittgenstein; later it is Sartre. Greenbloom is able to see some things about Blaydon’s suffering no one else can and tells him “you are fortunate…because you have known what it was you have always wanted without having taken any direct part in its destruction.”
Blaydon struggles in various schools and with a crammer to prepare for medical studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Fielding is at his best depicting the torture the young feel when adults are being unfair to them; he captures the powerlessness that comes from lack of authority and inability to articulate the way one is being wronged. As he awaits the result of his latest exam, Blaydon is ready to commit suicide when he runs into Greenbloom again, and Greenbloom tells him that while he might have done away with himself shortly after Victoria’s murder, now he has a reason for living just because he is so unhappy. “You have suffered…by a supreme attachment that detachment which it is the object of all developed men to achieve,” says Greenbloom, who predicts that Blaydon will become a writer. By another lake Blaydon meets an Irish girl who reminds him of Victoria, and he begins to see the possibility of a future.