Signs of Life
AMONG THE CONSIDERABLE afflictions of the serious novel these days are fear of banality and a horror of sentiment. However skillfully they are written, there is often not enough at stake in contemporary novels to keep the mind and heart alive. Two of the most encouraging exceptions this year were John Leonard's Black Conceit and John Gardner's Nickel Mountain. The two books are also in a sense contrapuntal. In one, reality destroys illusion. In the other, illusion is accepted as a means of protecting love.
Novelist Leonard, 34, is the kind of man who can write the history of Western civilization on the head of a pun, with a little room to spare. That quality has helped make him one of the best popular critics going, as well as the editor of the New York Times Book Review section, but takes some getting used to in Leonard's fiction. In Black Conceit, for example, Leonard offers three different major characters: New Englander Kenneth Mackenzie Coffin, a young Wasp of means, qualms and wavering commitment to the New Left; Coffin's brilliant wife Marcy, a nice enough Texas girl caught in the coils of biology and history, who is not unfairly described as "a graduate student of herself;" and Rinsler, a cynical organizer for The Movement. A reader soon finds, though, that all three tend to talk (and think) like a John Leonard review. Here is Rinsler inwardly fulminating at "Melville's bourgeois psychodrama ... Ahab as entrepreneur cum zealot ... Babbitt redux; whale oil poured on troubled waters." Groans Marcy enduring the pain of delivery of her baby: "If this is nature, give me artifice."
Intellectual Fix. No one should be too much put off. The book's quip-filled tirades, like Shaw's prefaces, provide a splendid intellectual fix on the drama. Coffin temporarily leaves his wife and children, as well as Rinsler's movement, which proves as unscrupulous as any Establishment organ. He then tries to practice one-on-one enlightenment as straw boss to a crew of black migrant apple pickers on his ancestral New Hampshire estate. The results are hilarious but depressing.
In brief compass the author manages to bring off a remarkable range of scenes and situations, from academic Cambridge to the black underbelly of Roxbury (where Ken teaches awhile) to an orgy involving the apple pickers, a family Civil War sword and a death by drowning. Under the black comic claptrap in Black Conceit is a deeply felt, uncompromising book about an idealist's disappointment that human nature does not prove perfectible, that human decency, liberally applied, cannot suspend the law of the jungle. "We go on making choices, after the original helplessness," Coffin reflects, "and ultimately it becomes our fault."
Carapace of Irony. John Leonard is a product of Harvard and Berkeley, not to mention apple picking and the New Left. Except for fleeting moments between Coffin and his wife and some sweet, quick glances at their children (the five-year-old boy will not wrestle with his mother: "he suspected her of lack of conviction"), Leonard confronts the world in a carapace of irony. John Gardner, 39, grew up as a farm boy in upstate New York. He is now a professor of English in Illinois, a student of many myths and epics in many tongues, and often an intricate creator of fabulist fictions (Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues) in which the surfaces of Middle American life or Anglo-Saxon saga are touched with a mixture of heroic magic and human feeling.
Gardner is unfashionably willing to run more risk of sentimentality than Leonard. Never more so than in Nickel Mountain, a curiously youthful novel about people with Oreo cookies and dogs named Prince. The hero, Henry Soames, is the fat owner of a truck-route diner deep in the forests of the Catskills.
Gardner's narrative would do for a soap opera. A nice girl named Callie who helps in Henry's diner gets pregnant by a rich man's son, who then skips town. Soames marries her out of kindness. They go through the agony of childbirth. As the boy grows up, their domestic peace is variously threatened in small ways, among them a long summer's drought and the arrival of a religious fanatic who gives the child nightmares by talking about the devil. The child's real father skulks back and they forgive him. Gardner's people are not self-conscious about saying such a thing as "Life goes on" and "Life's a funny thing," bringing to these poor old phrases a sense of wonder at the mysterious or accidental turnings of human affairs.
Like Sherwood Anderson, John Gardner is willing to sound boring and simple-minded in an attempt to reinvest such lines and the characters who say them with a kind of truthfulness and passion. Inevitably, though, he is driven into the minds of his characters and must allow himself a certain novelistic license in complexity—especially as regards the repetitive broodings of Henry Soames and the measure of wisdom that he gradually acquires. There is a moment when Soames rushes at the religious fanatic to protect his son, and the man falls backward and dies. Everyone assures Soames that it was sheer chance, which indeed it was. But he is full of guilt and horror. The reason, he eventually grasps, is that guilt and horror offer the only way to protect human dignity from the dreadfulness of chance.
As Soames' love for his family grows, so does his vulnerability to the threat of chance. A farmer friend remarks: "You say to yourself you'll move heaven and earth to protect the kid you love, or the woman, or whoever it happens to be, but the minute you say it you're forgetting something."
"What's that?" Soames asks. "You can't," is the answer.
"It's what drives you to God," says Soames, with a little laugh.
John Gardner's book is sometimes overwritten and repetitive. But it shines with talent and, as Randell Jarrell once put it, "with an affection that cannot help itself for an innocence that cannot help itself."