Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt": Audiobook Review

I've been on a Sinclair Lewis kick the past year. I reviewed the audiobooks of "It Can't Happen Here," and "Main Street," the Library of America's volume of his earlier novels (including "Babbitt"), and the biographies by Richard Lingeman and Mark Schorer. These all helped me understand what the library labels as his "didactic fiction." It may be out of style now, but I enjoyed my return to "Babbitt."

Hearing Wolfram Kandinsky's voice read this for 11 discs, I wondered if I'd get used to the audiobook. He used a grating, abrasive tone for his omniscient narrator, one that while it may suit the acerbic, dry attitude of Lewis, appeared too harsh for George Babbitt. But, over hours, I learned to like it enough, and when he modulated for the whiny Zilla, the put-upon Paul, the shrewd Ida, or the genial and bumptious sidekicks of George at the lodge or while camping, it softened enough.

The discs also allow you to hear Lewis. On the page, he may annoy--much of this novel feels episodic for long stretches, as if character or setting sketches. But if you listen to the slang, the mundane detail, the yearnings of escape Babbitt at 47 still wishes for, more nuance comes across. "Victim of benevolence" is a great way to sum up being trapped in a social setting by an over-solicitous interlocutor, while "an old-maid and chow-dog flat" pins down Babbitt's disdain for Tanis--his sometime suitor--accurately.

Many comment on Lewis' mission here to pin down and stab the Midwestern Middle American 1920s conformist. Yet, after studying Lewis, I appreciate his ear for more nuanced interior monologue as well as go-getter peppy dialogue that marks how we sounded a century ago. Lewis knew the idealism of the common man, and the difficulty of labor and social reform. Babbitt even dares to attempt some sympathy with strikers and radicals, however awkward and halting, for a while, as the one dissenting voice among his stodgy cronies. When he is ostracized rather than welcomed for this, it's more realistic, if less dramatic as a climactic moment.

I read this in college and raced through it. I doubt if much of it stuck beyond the obvious satire. Now, middle-aged, knowing more about life and defeat and dreams, I can relate more to Babbitt's predicament even if at the end, the obvious about-face that he makes, chastened by his wife's brush with mortality, appears too neat. What also appeals are the glimpses into hucksterism by Sunday School marketing and officious doctoring that will enliven "Arrowsmith" and "Elmer Gantry" to come. (Amazon US 3/1/2013)

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