Thursday, February 12, 2009

John Dos Passos' "Adventures of a Young Man": Book Review

This Lion Books pulp 1955 cover aside, this is not exactly a novel of "corrupt and bitter passions" of the libido, but rather of the liberal-- a boy from a middle-class background who wants to be one of the glorified proletariat, so as to further awareness in himself and the noble masses of the imperative to overthrow "the contradictions of capitalism." I was halfway through this story when the Depression rumbled in, reading about its coming the same day that our contemporary "stimulus bill" was passed to avert what nobody now wants to call another crash. Later, a Communist ideologue warns of fascism: "The state became in actual fact the executive committee of the ruling class," and I admit I wonder despite the party in power now if this has not happened after all, seventy years after the class wars of the 1930s. This made the novel's arc more relevant than I'd expected.

Since I liked Dos Passos' famed trilogy "U.S.A." and "Manhattan Transfer" (the latter reviewed by me on Amazon and here as well as "Three Soldiers" about WWI), and since I read last year both Virginia Spencer Carr and Townsend Ludington's massive biographies (I reviewed them too), I wanted to find out more about this fictional tale. Dos Passos retreats from his newsreel style into a conventional narrative. It moves rapidly, through "The Parental Bent" largely showing Glenn Spotswood's childhood and his try at agitprop while a counselor at a summer camp, to "Schooling and Youthful Errors," to "The Moment of Truth."

Trouble is there's nearly no mention of his schooling to get a sense of his formal education; Dos Passos wants instead to show Glenn learning life's lessons as a laborer in the Midwest and hanging out with Wobblies, then mixing with the Marxists of Greenwich Village, and finally organizing Mexican pecan shellers in East Texas. Dos Passos often captures the vernacular well, and continues his knack for the natural detail: "Outside the dim barn the sunlight fell dazzling like a blow on the back of the neck." (77)

Still, there's a detachment permeating Glenn's bildungsroman. He's an idealist, but when he takes up with the I.W.W. or the Reds it's with barely a ripple of explanation why. Dos Passos may hint that our allegiances come along with our chance conversations and our unpredictable acquaintances. You get more quick sketches of people than nuanced portraits. A few women come and go, Wheatly the Appalachian firebrand and Marice the flighty limousine liberal managing to stand out somewhat; the ladies here tend to be as predatory as the men. Episodic if epic, the chapters tend to rush into events and then settle into long debates before Glenn has to dash away again. Perhaps this reflects Glenn's own lack of insight, but there's a gap between the consciousness- raising and lack of character development that leaves this story of his adventures floating rather than racing.

This vacuum may be intentionally constructed. Dos Passos does write this straight after his disillusionment with Marxist dogmatism and its manipulation by Moscow as he had witnessed in Spain. The struggle between the Stalinists and the socialists and anarchists draws Glenn in as it had Dos Passos, and this concludes the book powerfully, recalling moments such as Sartre's later anti-fascist story "The Wall." The third section and the novel's second half, when Glenn organizes coal miners in Appalachia, and then fights against Communist doctrinaires here and in Spain, moves more energetically and ends dramatically.

Glenn encounters one leader: "Our function is to educate the American workingclass in revolutionary Marxism. We are not interested in the fates of individuals." (241) Glenn finds that the Party manipulates those it allows to be framed and jailed, if they happen to be in a union or to represent a cause that contradicts whatever "democratic centralism" the Soviet-loving servants dictate. Contrast this with Glenn: "parties and politics are built on hate." (267-68)

Glenn's pacifist dad (who lost his job at Columbia during WWI for his views) tells him, "there's a certain self-indulgence to extremism, which I am coming more and more to distrust." (130) A bit later, a local leftist lawyer reflects about a Mexican labor organizer: "called himself an anarchist, but he talked like an oldfashioned Jeffersonian democrat; funny how your attitude towards a man's political opinions depended on whether they had a nicesounding name or not." (150-1) It's not a novel of ideas, but neither does it immerse you into enough "passion."

Glenn comes of age but you do not identify totally with his inner turmoil; you watch it pass. This may in retrospect fit the disillusioned tone of the entire book; Glenn cares too much for people in all his awkward moral righteousness. You never get a firm grip on where he stands; he speaks to the masses but the speeches are never conveyed by the narrator. Before he volunteers to serve in Spain, he confides: "If you say the same words too often, you get so you don't believe them." (291)

This excerpt below shows the novel's style at its best. "Adventures" mixes a few tangy observations of Dos Passos' earlier mode with a calmer perspective that would characterize his later prose. You witness the characters as they come and go, but you sense the author's manipulation of them, as if he moves the camera eye past them. The system grinds folks down: this is doomed populism. This feature dominates Dos Passos' manner, and whether you find it illustrative or enervating depends on your predilection.

"He felt full of life. Noting with amused distant interest, as if out of somebody else's eyes, the streets, the dark storewindows, the faces of men slumped outside of flophouses, the drunk flopped like a dropped bananapeel on the sidewalk, the lively glare of uptown streets where young men and women were coming out of movies, buying papers at streetcorners, crowding into jazznoisy supperplaces past doormen in fancy uniforms opening the taxicab doors, looking carefully into drugstores and the big plateglass windows where the latest models of cars were on show, lit by trick lighting that glinted richly on chromium fittings, he walked on uptown with a richly swinging stride." (127; 1938 Harcourt first ed.)

This novel would be followed by "Number One" (1943) and "The Grand Design" (1949) to comprise what in 1952 was published as the "District of Columbia" trilogy, with Glenn's brother Tyler and the Spotswood family as major characters.

(Posted to Amazon today.)

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