Monday, May 26, 2008

John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer": Book Review
I figured since I reviewed "Three Soldiers" today and the two biographies yesterday, that I'd rescue my March 2006 review from Amazon so it could keep company with its Dos Passos fellows in a row. And, one more webpage to offset the inevitable searches for that annoying vocal quartet popular (not with me) a quarter-century ago with the same title.

Yes, a five-star book compared to most of them, but compared to "USA," this novel's a warm-up, between three and four stars, rounded up for innovation if not poise. In the start of each chapter you get marvelous, miniature modernist riffs, reminding me of saxophones, Carl Sandburg, Whitman, and Joyce (he loves those runoncompounds too); these anticipate the "Camera Eye" vignettes that would enrich "USA"'s own prose concoctions. Jimmy Derf (some surname) and Ellen Oglethorpe emerge at the end as the two main characters; others come and go much like life itself--the central figure is not one human but a cast of millions. As an urban reporter here, Dos Passos excels at capturing the snatches of dialogue, smells of the bums, grit of the air (it's rare that nature itself is shown as less than threatening, when it's evident at all), and shouts and noise that, then as now, relentlessly hums and pounds along Manhattan's streets. It's naturalism combined with realism.

Since "USA" for all its flaws is one of my favorite novels, I wanted to compare "MT." The pace is very quick: I read this in three sittings, one per main section. What still seems innovative eight decades later is Dos Passos' ability to skip forward within a dialogue to show how the minutes pass even as the characters are speaking--you hear enough to understand that moment, but the next line may be a half hour later into the situation or scene or action. This "jump-cut" characteristic becomes a bit maddening at times, as it does in cinema, but technically it's fun to watch! This adds to the filmic parallels that flow through "MT," which keeps the clips coming much as a well-edited docudrama might pull off.

After 9/11, some readers of the opening pages of "Moby Dick" noticed headlines of "war in Afghanistan" and the like that seemed to presage the current turmoil, 150 years before. Towards the end of "MT," my eye lingered as I re-read this paragraph: from a failed con-man talking to a slick lawyer: "I happen to know from a secret and reliable source that there is a subversive plot among undesirable elements in this country...Good God think of the Wall Street bomb outrage...I must say that the attitude of the press has been gratifying in one fact we're approaching a national unity undreamed of before the war." (part 3. ch. 1)

Dos Passos rarely lets his characters stand still and think things through. They try, but there's always someone bursting through the door, or buttonholing them on the street, or the danger, in one dramatic case, of daydreaming leading to disaster. He captures the frenetic speed demanded by NYC, and 20c city life, in this chronicle of a couple of handfuls of characters drawn to the bright lights, and the indifference of the city towards their ambitions and schemes. It's not uplifting or casual reading, but for an immersion into the sensations that ran through and past those who grew up from about 1900-1925, this novel, while uneven, captures what it must have been like for the latest generation who thought they were the first to invent novelty, encounter licentiousness, or concoct flim-flam and skulk around in deceit and skulduggery. Homosexuality, racism, injustice, bootlegging, protest, complacency, war-fever, and rags-to-riches and back down: all these color and vivify the portrayals of the few who stand for millions more in Manhattan.

The slang may have changed since then, and the buildings have grown higher, but the people, even though they are more types than rounded (with the exception of about half-a-dozen who endure through most of the novel)--they are the kinds of figures you can still encounter today on any crowded street.

(Cover image: I love this Vintage Library reprint's illustration.)

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