Friday, May 3, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street": Audiobook Review

I enjoyed Brian Emerson's reading of this classic. Although a Goodreads commenter panned this for its lack of nuance or emotion, I wonder if this commenter listened to this all the way through. I did, and after over a month of my commute with this as my companion, I recommend it.

The Widow Bogart gains a wonderfully obnoxious whine. Jim Blosser sounds as boosterish as Babbitt in the making. Miles Bjornstrom finds emotion as he shifts from rabblerouser to family man to tragic figure in the eyes of Gopher Prairie. The setting, too, full of tension, satire, and warmth--for Lewis truly loved as well as hated his hometown inspiration--emerges.

While often Carol Kennicott's struggle is viewed as a social one, as she seeks to reform the town, it's also Will's drama, as he tries to court, win, and keep his wife's loyalty. Whether Lewis meant to make fun of or make a role model of Carol can still spark debate, as it did (see my review of Mark Schorer's massive biography of Lewis) when it debuted and caused a sensation nearly a century ago. Carol's coming-of-age and her maturity, fraught with doubt, find insightful articulation through Emerson's reading of her plight, as well as a host of Scandinavian, Yankee, and German-inflected settlers who contend for Carol's mind and heart in these still-gripping story.

Her marriage tempts her to turn back to the East, the civilized, the citified. Her idealism beckons her to the West, and in the Midwestern prairie of Minnesota, she is caught. Here, Lewis locates a heroine based on his more glamorous first wife, as if she came back to his hometown to marry someone like his own father, a down-home doctor.

Sure, a few sections betray what would become Lewis' typical love of rambling, if well-imitated, commentary from the local folks, combined with an eye for detail to the extreme in documenting at a sociological level his hometown and his nation. I learn from Lewis' on audiobook how those Americans now in the grave or near enough to it once--if they were toddlers then like little Hugh--ate, chatted, dressed, and dreamed. Listen to Emerson's dramatization and you will find compelling characters and a story that will bring you back to the small town as America transformed from its rural roots.

(P.S. I heard this after his more uneven but entertainingly imagined fascist send-up of an America under an aw-shucks dictator from 1936, "It Can't Happen Here," read aloud by Christopher Hunt also for Blackstone Audio, equally well and reviewed by me in August, 2012. This review to Amazon US 10-19-12)

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