Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Elmer Gantry": Audiobook Review

After finishing this, I learned it won a 2009 audiobook award. Certainly, Anthony Heald's masterful performance swings and swirls you into the first couple of decades of the last century vividly and adroitly. While the Burt Lancaster film portrayal of Elmer Gantry remains the most recognized version of Sinclair Lewis' novel, Heald makes the protagonist--and what's tougher yet--everyone else in this sprawling and somewhat untidy if lively story--vivid.

It's a pity Amazon does not easily differentiate between formats for classic books. The audiobook version makes this a success as a dramatic entertainment. Many have reviewed the book and its contents and characters have been analyzed. What I'd add for this brief entry is how Heald can dramatize the nuances of a vexed, complicated, conflicted figure the author sets up for more than easy satire or tiresome denunciation. It's a five-star performance for closer to a four-star book.

I've been on a Sinclair Lewis kick lately. I reviewed the past year the audiobooks of "It Can't Happen Here," "Babbitt," and "Main Street," the Library of America's volume of his earlier novels (including "Babbitt"), and the biographies by Richard Lingeman and Mark Schorer. So, I came to this anticipating Lewis' typically diligent research into the religious industry--gathered after many interviews with active clergy, hanging out with them so as to understand their trade secrets and war stories, and to genuinely try to get a feel for Midwestern 1920's bible schools, tent revivals, rural churches, and urban complexes, all with competing clerical demands.

Those who have read "Babbitt" may note George F. makes a cameo appearance, for eventually Gantry comes to stake his career on the same Zenith. The backstory of Babbitt's own Sunday School marketing expands in this novel that followed, and it adds to the pleasure of immersing yourself in the slang and registers of everyday American speech around a century ago. One of the best moments comes as Heald articulates in a variety of accents and attitudes the letters written to the preacher by his congregants, as he tries to start over as a Methodist pastor in the humble hamlet of Banjo Springs.

Heald summons up the Aimee Semple McPherson-like figure of Sharon Falconer, the meek ministrations of Elmer's wife and the bolder connivances of his mistress. Lewis with female characters takes on quite a challenge, and Heald's up to it in his own pitch and tone. For Frank Shallard, his old classmate and scrupulous voice of reason who haunts Elmer as his guilty or ethical conscience, Lewis had difficulty with this counterbalance to the domineering and ambitious Gantry. Still, despite the plot's melodrama--Lewis claimed he wrote the final fifty pages in a drunken binge--the reading of this by the talented Heald draws you in and holds on despite the novel's unevenness.  (Amazon US 4-28-13)

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