25 October 2011

Disturbing Books for Troubled Times

Portrait of the author as the star of an adaptation
of another author’s book:
Laurence Olivier as Hurstwood in Carrie (1952)

Ordinarily, I’d be among the first to recommend reading as an excellent pursuit in tough economic times. Few activities are less expensive or more sympathetic to the un- or under-employed who are struggling to make ends meet and uncertain of future prospects. In the pages of good books one may find countless examples of uplift and inspiration in the biographies, even (or especially) the fictional ones, of those who have faced greater challenges than ours, who have risen above greater privation and suffering, then triumphed and endured.

On the other hand, I didn’t quite bargain for my current predicament. The books I’ve been reading are downright terrifying, and it’s all because I had the fool notion of giving a second chance to a couple of novels I’d dismissed years ago: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

Son of the Confederacy: Ignatius J. Reilly.
A detail from the cover design of a recent edition.

Both novels are considered American classics by now, which in Dreiser’s case means that very few people read the book who aren’t required to do so in school; and in Toole’s case, that I am very old, since his novel was published posthumously when I was in high school. Both novels feature central characters in dire economic straits, though they’re not entirely aware of this fact. And here it is that I begin to see myself, a little too clearly, in the pages.

We first see George Hurstwood, the male protagonist of Sister Carrie, in the lap of comfort: he’s the manager of what Dreiser calls a “resort,” an upscale bar that entails a fancy restaurant and evidently some other facilities, as well. He dresses well, hobnobs with celebrities, and earns a respectable income, making investments on the side (in his wife’s name), and inspiring in his children a noxious double-dose of upward mobility and entitlement.

In happier times? Jennifer Jones as Carrie Meeber, with Olivier.
David O. Selznick can’t have enjoyed this movie.

Then he meets Carrie Meeber. By the end of the book, he’s out of work, and so guilty over his previous lapse (stealing a lot of money in order to run away with Carrie) that he can barely bring himself to go on job interviews. A single rejection is enough to discourage him for days — or worse. Much, much worse.

As a middle-aged man who spent two years seeking any sort of employment in the self-same city of Manhattan, having just struck up with a much younger lover, I identified only too well with Hurstwood: the way he pounds the proverbial pavement, the way he idles in hotel lobbies and bars, the way he sits around his apartment and reads the paper while sweet young Carrie looks on. Nobody ever wrote this stuff better than Dreiser did, and yeah, I know because I’ve done all that.*

Down-and-out: Olivier as Hurstwood
The film’s producers surely hoped to capitalize on the success of A Place in the Sun (1951), an adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy — the very novel that turned me off of Dreiser. Would I have been more tolerant if I’d seen either movie when I was in high school?

Finding a little job and having completed Sister Carrie, I turned to Confederacy of Dunces, a comic (thus far) potpourri set in New Orleans, circa 1960, and populated by aggressively eccentric characters. When I first tried the book, not long after it came out, I found the whole business rather labored and not worth my time — but mellower now in middle age than in high school, I’m more open to the book’s loopy charms.

This makes me only more vulnerable. Toole’s protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, a pompous, pampered intellectual mama’s boy, devoting years to the writing of a book that will never be published. He closely resembles Victor Buono’s character in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but here he takes the spotlight. And when money runs short, Ignatius doesn’t latch onto a former child star — he condescends to go out and get an office job. Not unlike the one I’ve got.

Lacking the green cap with the ear flaps
yet brimming with the requisite theology and geometry:
Victor Buono in Baby Jane.

With his many (and useless) “improvements” to the workplace, with his sophisticated filing system (throwing everything into the trash), with his mistakes and misinterpretations and malentendus, and above all with his constant belief in his own superiority to his surroundings, Ignatius reminds me a little too much of myself. On the job but never on the ball, on my high horse but on the down-and-out. (Or near enough.)

The resemblance isn’t absolute, of course. Ignatius, after all, isn’t merely arrogant, vain, self-centered, and snobbish. He’s a monumental narcissist — and therein lies much of the novel’s outrageous appeal.

Why, Ignatius even sees himself in the books he reads! What a ludicrous monster he is.

Excited by the recommendation of Walker Percy, who rescued Toole’s manuscript from oblivion, I bought a copy of the paperback.
It’s lingered on my shelf for decades.
Further proof that one should never throw out anything, least of all a book.

*PERSONAL NOTE: Sorry, Kara. Sorry, Elise.

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