Saturday, January 29, 2011

Entry 29: "The Able McLaughlins" by Margaret Wilson (1924)

After a somewhat disappointing foray into the 1990's, I decided I should go back in time and pick up another, what I thought was, pioneer novel. I had so much fun reading The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, and if I'm being honest with myself, I don't think I was entirely ready to leave that world. So I pilfered through the giant box of Pulitzer novels sitting in the corner of my bedroom and scrounged up Chicago-native Margaret Wilson's 1924 winner, The Able McLaughlins.

This was the very last book I bought along this journey this past December, two days before the new year. Somehow, I couldn't find this book anywhere, not even in Chicago, despite Wilson being a Chicagoan. In December, though, my coffee shop had a secret Santa gift exchange and I received a $25 Borders gift card—which I used to purchase this book from the Internet.

Is that cheating...? I don't think so. Not in the state of desperation I was in to finally get my hands on it.

When I finally got it, I read the back of the book and was surprised to find that it didn't actually say anything much of what the book is about. It reads:
Originally published in 1923. Pulitzer Prize novel in 1924. The work is particularly successful in the deftness with which a variety of Scotch characters are drawn. It is a capital story: its characters are wholesome, lovable, well-rounded human beings, and the atmosphere of the whole book breathers of the fresh prairie winds and rugged hardships of the life it portrays. THIS IS THE STORY OF A SCOTCH COMMUNITY IN THE MIDDLE WEST DURING THE 1860'S. It is a story of the McWhees, the McNabs, the McNorkels, the Gillicuddies, the McElhineys, the McDowells, the Whannels, the McTaggerts, the Strutheres, the Stevensons, the McLaughlins and the Sprouts. It is also a story of Scotchmen who left their native land and settled on the incredible prairie; acres from which no frontiersman need ever cut a tree; acres in which a man might plow a furrow of rich black earth a mile long without striking a stump or stone. It is also a love story of Willy and Chirstie, set against the conflict of customs of the old world and the new. It is a triumphant story of love and live and of human frailties.
No, seriously—that's what it says on the back of the book.

The ironic thing here, though, is that in all of that nonsensical rambling, the only things that this book was actually about was that there are Scottish people in the book, and Wully and Chirstie being in love. But I digress.

I was exceptionally pleased with this novel. Note: pleased. I wasn't blown away, I wasn't amazed, I didn't fall in love with it. I was pleased. It's a pleasant little book with some pleasant little characters living pleasant little lives. Nothing to shout about here, nothing to shout at here. I must make mention, however, of how immensely relieved I was that this 1920's Pulitzer-winner wasn't at all another example of American pseudo-Victorianism, like Poole, Bromfield, Wharton, and Tarkington. For the most part, this book had very little to do with societal concern, had absolutely nothing to do with aristocracy, and everything to do with family dynamics and the ties that bind. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to read a 1920's novel that wasn't about stuffy, rich white people griping about the way Old New York is devolving.

Now, despite the fact that I wasn't particularly amazed by this novel, I will say that it did captivate me. Margaret Wilson is a wonderful storyteller and she held my attention throughout the novel. In fact, I read the entirety of it in a mere two or three days—Joshua will tell you he had the same experience. She's terrific at pacing the story—speeding through unimportant details, and pumping the brakes at all the right times—, she has her own voice, and she has such a firm grip on human relational and familial dynamics. And, truly, the characters in this novel run the gambit of human emotions.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Entry 28: "Martin Dressler: the Tale of an American Dreamer" by Steven Millhauser (1997)

Joshua and I were both absolutely mesmerized by the epic, grandiose, and sprawling Travels of Jaimie McPheeters—the tale of a boy and his father's dreams of fortune in the hills of San Francisco that send them on a perilous journey across the country. Even a week after finishing it, I am still reeling from the absolutely perfect ending Taylor provided for the novel; still left inspired by the spirit of hope.

In light of McPheeters, whereas Joshua decided to pursue the theme of Native Americans and finished Laughing Boy, I decided to pursue the theme of the American Dream and read Steven Millhauser's 1997 Pulitzer-winner, Martin Dressler: the Tale of an American Dreamer.

I sincerely wish this book would have left me half as inspired as The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters did.

However, I am now wondering if that was, after all, Millhauser's point...

I really struggled all the way through this novel. Even though it was only 300 pages, it took me the better part of a week to trudge through it. It wasn't that the story wasn't interesting—it was; it wasn't that Millhauser isn't a great writer—he is; it wasn't even that it was difficult reading—it wasn't. I have only two complaints about the novel, but these two details nearly entirely ruined the entire novel for me: 1) it was under-written, and 2) the main character was, for the most part, one-dimensional.

Now, before I get into unpacking these complaints, I feel like I should probably explain the basic premise of the novel a little bit: Martin Dressler, the titled character, starts off the novel as a teenager working as an assistant in his German immigrant father's cigar shop in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. By the end of the novel, Dressler becomes a successful entrepreneur and businessman by working hard and staying dedicated to his dreams and belief that anything can be better, grander, more magnificent. He works his way up in the business world by becoming a bellboy at a New York hotel; then running his own cigar shop in the hotel's lobby; then becoming a supervisor; then a managerial assistant; then a manager; then opening his own chain of local restaurants; then building and owning a hotel; then building and owning a bigger, better hotel. At the novel's end, his illusory dreams of grandeur finally overshadow him and, when his third hotel—a hotel that was built to match the magnificence of the entire world—goes belly-up, he is left penniless and alone.

A classic rags to riches to rags tale.

Now, all of this should have provided for an incredibly interesting and entertaining story; however, to address my first complaint, Millhauser vastly under-wrote the story. The majority of the novel is written so matter-of-factly, that my summary provided above could almost get me sued for plagiarism. Of course, this is an exaggeration of the matter at hand, but I really don't believe it's too much of an exaggeration. While I have to praise Millhauser for his meticulous attention to detail and very elaborate imagery, particularly when describing Dressler's businesses and the landscape of Old New York, I also have to fault him for not providing a lot of, what I feel is, vital information for the reader.

For one thing, Millhauser doesn't tell the reader much about the daily goings on of Martin Dressler nor of the businesses he owns. There are wide gaps in time in a matter of a few sentences that are nothing short of jarring—gaps wide enough to drive buses through, to abuse an old cliche. Here, for example, is how Chapter 15 begins: "On the first of September Martin and Walter Dundee took over the lease of a restaurant on Columbus Avenue near the corner of Eighty-fourth Street, between a greengrocer's shop and a bakery. By mid-October the new lunchroom was ready for business." Seriously? Almost a full two months of business planning, building, decorating, and characters' personal growth passes in a matter of two sentences. I didn't even paraphrase—I directly quoted from this novel a month and a half's worth of activity and I didn't even need to block-quote it. In disbelief, I read this excerpt aloud to my coworker, Kelly, who wrinkled her nose and retorted, "But, a lot can happen in two months!" I nodded in agreement and replied, "But not in two sentences. Apparently."

Three quarters of the novel is written this way too. In one portion, a full two years passes without mention from the author. In fact, if memory serves correctly, Millhauser may have even wrote, "Two years later..." or something to that effect. However, Millhauser will ramble on and on for (sometimes) pages about things as frivolous as the decorations or architecture of one of Dressler's many businesses with little to no mention of Dressler himself.

And now I'm going to segues to my next complaint.

Martin Dressler is almost entirely one-dimensional. In only 300 pages, this novel covers almost 25 years of Martin Dressler's life. In Ulysses, it took James Joyce about three times that to write about one day! And during this time, Millhauser puts Dressler into some life-altering situations; like becoming a successful businessman, a husband, a playboy, an adulterer, and, arguably, a widower. However, in this novel's 28 chapters, only two make any mention at all of Dressler's psychological or emotional condition. And even in those two chapters, Dressler's character is only developed for a grand total of about ten pages. For the rest of the novel, Dressler is written as, for all intents and purposes, a robot—just an emotionless, thoughtless machine that builds and builds and builds and builds.

Millhauser does a far better job of detailing the personalities of buildings than he does that of his eponymous protagonist!

However, now that I have finished the novel and let the conclusion settle in for a couple hours, I am beginning to believe this was intentional on Millhauser's part.

In the final few pages, Martin Dressler suddenly comes to life. This revival comes only after his grandest scheme, The Grand Cosmo Hotel, is panned by critics and proves itself to be a commercial and financial disaster. I found it interesting that after Dressler's "American dream" withered and dies, Millhauser suddenly brought Dressler to life. Dressler suddenly became a human being with thoughts and emotions—incredibly complex thoughts and emotions too. I was all too relieved to finally see that come about, albeit 287 pages tardy. But that revival was a perfect ending to the novel. I have to give Millhauser credit for that, at least.

But the fact that Dressler suddenly put on flesh after becoming a failure only spits in the face of the American dream. And I believe that was what Millhauser was driving toward throughout the course of the novel.

Everything—business, media, professional sports, society at large, and even history textbooks—preaches that the so-called "American dream" brings happiness and contentment. All Americans are born and live their entire lives with the words "Life, love, and the pursuit of happiness" thrown at them from every imaginable outlet. We are taught believe that with a lot of hard work and dedication, anybody can achieve their personal "American dreams." And so we live our lives much like Martin Dressler: robots slaving away for our entire lives so we can have the house, the 2.5 kids, the dog, the white picket fence, the Prius in the driveway, the abundance of money in the savings account. Rather than human beings with thoughts and emotions and feelings, we metamorphose into worker bees, using all of resources for the betterment of our personal hives.

But what happens when our dreams die? What happens when our illusions of grandeur vanish?

In the case of Martin Dressler, it brings contentment:
Martin got up and brushed off the seat of his pants with his hat. He put his hat on his head and started back toward the path. For when you woke from a long dream, into the new morning, then try as you might you couldn't not hear, beyond your door, the sounds of the new day, the drawer opening in your father's bureau, the bang of a pot, you couldn't not see, through your trembling lashes, the stripe of light on the bedroom wall. Boys shouted in the park, on a sunny tree-root he saw a cigar band, red and gold. One of these days he might find something to do in a cigar store, after all he still knew his tobacco, you never forgot a thing like that. But not just yet. Boats moved on the river, somewhere a car horn sounded, on the path a piece of broken glass glowed in a patch of sun as if at any second it would burst into flame. Everything stood out sharply: the red stem of a green leaf, horse clops and the distant clatter of a pneumatic drill, a smell of riverwater and asphalt. Martin felt hungry: chops and beer in a little he remembered on Columbus Avenue. But not yet. For the time being he would just walk along, keeping a little out of the way of things, admiring the view. It was a warm day. He was in no hurry.
I think the message we are to take from this novel is that the American dream pales in comparison to the dream and the beauty of simply enjoying our lives. Why waste our lives as robots, working and working and working our ways to some mythical state of euphoria where our lives are completely perfect and shiny and "as they should be" when we could make the most of our lives now, no matter what Fortuna (to borrow a phrase from another Pulitzer) throws our way?

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Entry 27: "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters" by Robert Lewis Taylor (1958)

Joshua and I had an idea a little while ago: in 2011, why don't we pick little challenges for each other—in an effort to prod each other into reading our ways through this Pulitzer Project more fervently? We could pick a book and challenge each other to be the first one to read it in its entirety the quickest; or we could see who could read the most novels in one month, et the like.

For our first challenge, our January challenge, we decided to see who would be the first one to read their way through Robert Lewis Taylor's 1958 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.

Both of our editions are well over 450 pages (mine being 478 and his being a little over 600), we both have been working more hours during the week as of late, and we both figured this novel would be a bit of a burden to get through (with regards to subject matter, mostly—neither of us had much interested in pioneer novels and we were both sort of dreading the prospect of reading this particular novel).

And to tell the truth, we were right—this novel was a bit burdensome to get through. That is, until we actually started reading it. It took both of us 18 days to finish it, but once we really delved into it, and were both mesmerized by it, neither of us could hardly put it down. Personally, it took me 14 days to read through the first 78 pages, and four to plow through the next 400.

In the end, though I won the challenge by about an hour and a half, both of us came away from this experience with a new favorite novel. Much like Josephine Johnson's Now In November, I wasn't expecting much from this book (as aforementioned, I was actually sort of dreading it); but Taylor surprised me and offered up a diamond in the rough.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, the genuine article in the midst of fool's gold.

The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters is the story of a boy's (and his father's) journey from Missouri to San Francisco in 1849 to seek their treasures during the California Gold Rush. Their journey, particularly Jaimie's, is wrought with pains, heartaches, toils, and hardships at every turn. It was honestly as though Taylor hated his protagonists—the amount of muck and mire they have to wade through just to get to California is almost unbearable, even for the reader! Another appropriate title for this novel could have very well been The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters: A Tale of Murphy's Law. For this poor boy, anything that could possibly go wrong, did go wrong.

Here are just a few examples: he falls off a boat and nearly drowns in the Mississippi River, he is found and taken in by a couple farmers only to be turned into a slave, he escapes them only to be abducted by two highwaymen, he escapes them and reunites with his father only to get lost in a prairie and nearly killed by a tornado, he attempts to find his way back to camp only to wander into Pawnee territory, they hold him hostage and torture him, he escapes them only to be once again captured by them, he escapes them again only to have more run-ins with the two highwaymen, their wagon train is attacked three or four times by both Indians and Mormons (bizarrely enough), he accidentally almost kills his own father, they end up in California and strike it rich only to be conned out of all their money, his father relapses and turns to alcoholism, they end up penniless and homeless, begging in the streets of San Francisco... I could go on and on. The Universe conspired against this poor kid at almost every single turn.

And, as the reader, I cannot tell you how unbearably frustrating it was to get through it all. At one point, while I was on my lunch break at work, I even slammed the book shut and let out an exasperated "UGH!" In fact, I can tell you exactly when it was—Jaimie had just escaped the Pawnees with an Indian girl he had befriended, only to be duped by her and, once again, captured by the Pawnees. I wanted so badly for this kid to catch a lucky break and Taylor was just not supplying it.

However, after 465 or pages of these sorts of goings on, Taylor turned in one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring conclusions to a novel I have ever had the good pleasure to read. I am not ashamed to tell you this—I cried a little. I was so captured and enthralled by the hope and the glory and the sheer beauty of this novel's ending.

I have to give credit where credit is due—Robert Lewis Taylor is a magnificent writer.

The thing about this sort of novel is that the conclusion is the most tender, fragile element of it. A lesser writer could have severely botched it up and offered either a trite and cliche "happily ever after" ending, or an equally trite and cliche tragic ending. Taylor, on the other hand, managed to combine an equal amount of hope and tragedy to create an altogether perfect ending. Upon reading it, I immediately recognized that this novel couldn't have ended so perfectly in any other way.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Entry 26: "A Summons to Memphis" by Peter Taylor (1987)

I am thirty novels into this Pulitzer Project and one theme that has arisen, and is winding its way through most of these novels so far, is  one of familial relationships and reconciliations, and the idea of going home. I'm starting to notice this theme as kind of a staple of Pulitzer-winning novels, such as in The Shipping News, The Keepers of the House, Now In November, The Good Earth, The Optimist's Daughter, A Death In the Family, American Pastoral, and Ironweed, just to name a few.

It seems to me that homecomings are a part of the stitching in the American quilt, as it were. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the great American institution that is High School. The high school football homecoming game and accompanying dance are just about as Americana as warm apple pie on Thanksgiving Day. Students and alumni gather together to cheer on their alma mater and later dance the night away, crowning the homecoming king and queen. There are even parades to celebrate; the king and queen sitting atop a giant float, waving to the gathering crowds as the parade winds its way down Main Street in Small Town, Anywhere. And let us not forget high school reunions, where ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years later, alumni will get together once again to catch up on each others' lives and reminisce about "the old days."

High school reunions, holiday gatherings, family reunions—yes, "homecoming" is a thread that ties Americans together.

This could be a reason the Pulitzer committee is so eager to award novels that expound on the theme. This was certainly the case in 1987, when Peter Taylor won for his novel, A Summons to Memphis.

Taylor sets up his story in an interesting way—the reader is originally led to believe that the central conflict of the story is that Philip Carver's father is getting married to the dismay of his children, so Philip must travel to Memphis to confront his father. This conflict is set up in the very first chapter: Philip receives two phone calls from his sisters on a Sunday night while at his home in Manhattan, and they beg him to return to Memphis to help sort the situation out. However, that is nearly the last the reader hears of that conflict for the next eight or so chapters. This conflict merely serves as bookends for Taylor's narrative.

And, in Taylor's narrative, the true central conflict emerges. This is not a story about three middle-aged children attempting to convince their senior father out of marriage—it's everything in between that makes up the real story. While contemplating what he should do about his father, Philip spends the next several chapters revealing his family's past to the reader—from their roots in Nashville, to their move to Memphis, to his childhood friends, to his parents' relationship, to his mother's passing, to his father's "stepping out," to his sisters' becoming old spinsters, to his brother's death, to his moving to Manhattan, Carver regales the reader with tales about his life. These tales are meant to inform the reader of his fractured and, oftentimes, fractious relationship with his family—most notably, his father.

The real conflict of this novel is Carver's internal struggle with leaving his past behind for good, or attempting to repair his relationship with his father.

I recently had an internal struggle very similar to Philip Carver's.

Up until this past Christmas Day, I hadn't seen or even spoken to my grandparents in nearly six years. There was a big to-do in my mother's side of the family and split us in half. This feud has been going on ever since between my mother and her parents. Unfortunately, being her son, I was sort of resigned to take her side in the issue (though I felt and still feel that my grandparents were in the wrong).

Regardless, this Christmas I decided to extend the proverbial olive branch and drove over to my grandparents' home. Without even notifying them of my visit. I just showed up. I had been reminiscing a lot lately over my family's former self—the get-togethers and parties we used to have, the all-night music sessions. All of these memories came to a head when I wrote a personal essay about my grandmother's father, "Pa," a couple weeks ago entitled "Guitar Lessons."

So I went to their home, surprising myself that I remembered how to get there so perfectly considering I hadn't been there in almost ten years. Nothing had changed, the house and neighborhood looked exactly the way I remembered it. I sat in my car, in their driveway, for about 20 minutes, chain-smoking American Spirits, and rehearsing lines; figuring out ways to conduct my behavior in every possible scenario I could imagine. As it turned out, all my fretting was for nought.

My cousin, Katherine, greeted me at the door and I walked in, kicked the snow off my shoes and removed my coat and scarf. Made my way into the living room to find my grandparents where I remembered them—in their chairs by the reading lamp against the back wall. They looked up from their books and with an almost befuddled look on both of their faces, they both said, "Andrew. Hi there." I grinned a sheepish grin, suddenly realizing that I was happy to see both of them, and replied, simply, "Hi."

The next couple hours were a blur. It was as if nothing had ever happened between us. It was as if the last six years had been totally normal. My cousins, aunt, grandparents, and I sat around the kitchen table talking and laughing well into the wee hours of the morning. When everyone decided it was time for bed, my grandfather came out of his bedroom with a pair of pajamas and some blankets for me, told me he wanted me to spend the night since the roads were so awful. I obliged. As I was about to lay down on the sofa, he came into the living room and said, "Andrew. Come here." I followed him into the kitchen and he pulled out a chair for me. "Sit down. There," he said, pointing. Again, I obliged. "Are you hungry? I'll make you some dinner." It was two in the morning, but he made a ham sandwich, scooped some potato salad onto a plate and poured a glass of ginger ale for me. I thanked him and he sat down across from me, and talked and talked and talked for almost an hour straight about our family coming to Chicago from Ireland—the Brownes, the O'Dohertys, and the Flavins. He talked about being an eight year old Irish American kid, skipping Sunday Mass and heading to his aunt's house to play cards for two hours instead. He talked about shooting BB guns in his neighbor's backyard. How his uncle was the only person he'd ever known who wore a suit and tie at all times, even while mowing the lawn: "A true gentleman," he said. Then, at 3am, he arose, hugged me and said, "I'm glad you could make it here tonight Andrew. I thought I might never see you again." He began to get a little choked up, excused himself, and while walking to his bedroom said, "Feel free to help yourself to the ginger ale. We have plenty. Goodnight."

And when I fell asleep that night, I fell asleep content. Because I knew that our fences had finally been mended.