Last Update 12/18/09

Midcentury by John Dos Passos, Houghton Mifflin, 1961   

For this late novel in his career, Dos Passos returned to the format of the USA trilogy, the narrative interspersed with stream of consciousness background material, biographies of prominent people, news stories, and other odds and ends.  The actual narrative opens with a man returning from World War II and having difficulty adjusting to peacetime. This later alternates with a disabled soldier in a veteransí home and other characters, again mimicking the pattern of his more successful work.  The novel as a whole is a portrait of American society in the decade following the end of World War II, critical of various issues such as the treatment of veterans once their service was no longer required. Although the elements of my favorite Dos Passos elements are here, they donít seem to hold together as well and I found myself growing increasingly impatient toward the end.  I think the problem is that rather than continue to grow, Dos Passos began to increasingly look back.  He never escaped his perception of capitalism as a struggle between two irreconcilable forces and he was equally unwilling to let his writing change to reflect altered times. 12/18/09

The Great Days by John Dos Passos, 1958  

One of the authorís more conventional novels, The Great Days takes place in the years immediately following World War II, a period who would examine in more detail a few years later in Midcentury. The story is told from the point of view of Roland Lancaster, largely in flashbacks to his time in the US and in Havana, Iwo Jima and Nuremberg.  There are the usual arguments about the role of capitalism in society Ė Dos Passos was anti-capitalist until late in his life when he suddenly became anti-socialist. Thereís an interesting section in which the protagonist meets H.G. Wells, but much of the book is low key and comparatively dull.  Although Lancaster spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, he does perk up at the end, suggesting that even when weíre at our worst, our better nature can still reassert itself.  A passably interesting novel but not one of his better efforts. 11/23/09

Most Likely to Succeed by John Dos Passos, 1954  

Continuing my re-reading of John Dos Passos. This is another of the authorís lesser known novels, and another story of ambitious people whose lust for money or power or both leads to unhappiness for themselves and those around them.  A brilliant but flawed young man decides to make a career, confident that the world is his for the taking and less willing to accept that other people have priorities that donít necessarily coincide with his own.  He gets involved with an equally brilliant woman and the chemistry between them is the high point of the book.  Thereís some satisfaction in seeing unrealistic dreams brought back to reality, but this really doesnít have the vigor of Dos Passosí better novels and rarely rises above the mediocre. 11/12/09

Chosen Country by John Dos Passos, 1951  

Dos Passos wrote quasi-family sagas of which this is one spanning the period from the Civil War to the Great Depression.  The family we follow initially consists of a married American entrepreneur, his mistress, and their illegitimate son.  The father is a slightly larger than life figure whom his son fears and hates by the time heís a young man, particularly because of his domineering and sometimes insensitive personality. Although most of the authorís usual tricks are here, the novel really doesnít congeal into a single story and while there were bits and pieces that I really liked, I was disappointed overall. None of the characters was particularly interesting and some of them lacked the level of depth I was accustomed to in his work.  It probably didnít help that I didnít like many of the people in it, although the same is true of several of his other novels which I did like. 10/29/09

The Grand Design by John Dos Passos, 1949  

This is the third novel to feature a member of the Spotswood family, making up what is often referred to as the District of Columbia trilogy, although thereís not much of any relationship among them.  The authorís old concerns Ė the chasm between the small time farmer and worker and the politicians and business magnates who exploit them Ė is here again, but muted this time.  The novel deals primarily with the New Deal and the effects of World War II, and is revealed through our observations of a group of men and women who work for the government in Washington.  Self interest trumps justice on more than one occasion, and the conflicts among the various characters provide most of the tension, what there is of it.  For the most part, this is a slow moving, sometimes tedious novel and definitely not among his better works.  His disdain for communism and fascism alike is evident but not his criticisms lack bite.  10/15/09

One Manís Initiation 1917 by John Dos Passos, 1920  

Dos Passos began his writing career with this very short autobiographical novel about his experiences in France during World War I.  Early editions had variant texts because the publisher edited out some of the more controversial elements.  As with his later work, Dos Passos is skeptical of government and law and capitalists.  In scenes reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front he observes that the German and American soldiers had more in common than soldiers and their fellow countrymen.  Many of the elements of this one were treated much more competently in Three Soldiers, one of his best works, but there are good bits in this as well.  I particularly liked the scene in which a French soldier is stripping a German corpse, taking the money he finds, and speculating that the German took it from another dead body.  He then condemns such activity as beneath contempt, conveniently forgetting that he is doing exactly that.  The closing chapters get a bit didactic as the various characters argue about the nature of war and society, but theyíre fairly brief. 10/7/09

Number One by John Dos Passos, 1943  

One of the minor characters from Adventures of a Young Man is a major one in this story of an ambitious, unscrupulous politician who cheats on his wife, lies to his constituents, manipulates his colleagues, uses his power to improve his own financial situation, and generally makes life miserable for everyone around him as he pursues his quest for power.  The candidate is Chuck Crawford and the recurring character is his secretary/manager, Tyler Spotswood, brother of the hero of the earlier book, who dislikes Crawford, is in love with the candidateís wife, and is addicted to alcohol. Eventually Spotswood gets fed up and leaves the campaign but not soon enough to prevent his own personal ruin when some of the scandals emerge and he becomes a scapegoat. The authorís less than optimistic opinion of the political process is obvious and laid on pretty thickly.  Well written, but I got very tired of and irritated by the characters halfway through the book and found the second half less entertaining. 9/28/09

Adventures of a Young Man by John Dos Passos, 1939  

This was one of Dos Passosí minor novels, a three part retelling of the life of a young man growing up between the two world wars.  His interest in the socialist movement and the class structure in America is evident again, as is his view that most people compromise their principles sooner or later.  Glenn Spotswood is the son of a college professor who lost his job because he opposed the American entry into World War I.  Our sympathy for the father dissipates quickly, however, when he unjustly castigates his son for acting dishonorably in a situation in which he acted properly and on principle even when it was unnecessary and hurt only himself.  In fact, the story is a bit repetitive of incidents from the USA trilogy and I found myself anticipating the outcome of several episodes well ahead of time.  It also reflects the authorís disenchantment with communist Russia, a change of attitude that led to his break with Ernest Hemingway, who continued to sympathize with the Soviets for a good deal longer. The college aged communists would have struck me as a comic exaggeration except that Iíve met people who acted exactly that way.  Nor does he sympathize with the authorities, whom he characterizes as brutal, repressive, and unmindful of the law.  The first two sections are quite good but the third becomes preachy and monotonous after a while.  Not one of his classics, but with some strong writing in the first half. 9/18/09

The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason, 1902  

Iíve seen the older film version of this novel but never read it, and the opening chapters reminded me very much of Beau Geste by P.C. Wren.  Harry Feversham is the son of a long line of soldiers in the British army who fears that he is a coward.  When a combination of circumstances causes him to remain behind when his unit is shipped to Egypt, three friends send him white feathers, symbols of his cowardice, and his fiancť adds a fourth.  Frankly, theyíre not friends Iíd value and Iíd tell the disappointed lady to go jump off a cliff, but Harry decides to prove them wrong.  Feversham is strangely absent from the first half of the book, most of which we see through the eyes of his friend Durrance, who doesnít know where he is, though we know he is responsible for the recovery of documents from dangerous territory.  Durrance himself goes blind after an accident in the desert.  Although there is a long adventurous passage near the end when Feversham rescues one of the threesome from an Arab prison, most of the story is told from the point of view of Durrance, who guesses the truth and refuses to marry the woman so that she can be reunited with Feversham.  My opinion of her grew worse not better when she was delighted to hear that one of the three was dead, and frankly I think she came out of things much better than she deserved.  Much of this, no doubt, is because of our changing attitudes about personal bravery and the trappings rather than the substance of honor. 9/13/09

The Big Money by John Dos Passos, 1937 

The third and final volume in the USA trilogy is the longest and most bitter of the three.  It continues to follow a number of characters in a post war America where the quest for money and success transcends almost everything else, distorting if not ruining lives.  Included is a short and particularly negative biography of Henry Ford, who was clearly not the nicest guy in the world.  The main character is Charley Anderson, a returned pilot who isnít really sure what he wants to do with his life, but is determined to make a break from his domineering brother. Other characters include a frustrated social worker who discovers that people who have money donít want to know the truth about people who do not, a publicity agent whose success leads to a different kind of failure, and several others.  Ultimately each of the characters is destroyed by his or her ambitions, although they donít always recognize their own destruction.   One of the classic American novels  The authorís sympathies with the working class and his disbelief in communist influence in America, incidentally, is at odds with his support of Joe McCarthy twenty years later. 8/25/09

1919 by John Dos Passos, 1932  

Volume two of the USA trilogy follows the adventures of five young Americans, although quite a large chunk of this one takes place in France.  A deserter from the Navy pursues a career in the merchant marine.  A journalist gets disillusioned while covering the war in Europe.  A young businesswoman has contradictory desires about her future and falls in and out of love Ė or what she thinks is love Ė on several occasions.  A spoiled young woman from Texas refuses to take anything seriously and a man who might be a conscientious objector drives an ambulance to stay out of the army. The author raises more overtly sexual themes than in the first book, including several references to gay sex and continues his theme that the US was on the brink of a doomed revolution by disgruntled labor elements, sparked by the repressive tactics of business and the government.  Although this novel is quite long, it moves surprisingly quickly and is nearly as good as the first title in the series. 8/19/09

The Fire Ship by Peter Tonkin, Leisure, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6222-2  

This is the second in the Richard Mariner series, originally published in 1990, which is a kind of cross between Ian Fleming and James Bond.  Mariner is a commercial sea captain who gets involved with a variety of international criminals and political activists during the course of his long career Ė more than a dozen novels.  Mariner works within a family owner sea going tanker company so he has a personal interest when one of the firmís biggest ships is seized by terrorists in the Indian Ocean.  Itís all a fairly predictable but surprisingly prescient plot to turn over control of the waterways to the Iranian navy, though a bit behind the times technologically and politically.  Mariner is a two fisted hero type who also uses his brains, but the emphasis is on physical action in this one just as it was in the first in the series.  I found the ending a bit disjointed this time, but maybe the third in the series explains things more fully. 8/9/09 

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, Del Rey, 2007, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-345-50174-5 

Iím not quite sure why this is a Del Rey book since itís not SF or fantasy.  In fact, it reminded me of some of the better Robert E. Howard historical adventures, with a hint of Fritz Leiber.  The story follows the adventures of two conmen in or about the year 950 who get involved with a young woman Ė whom they initially believe to be a young boy Ė who wishes to unseat the man who killed her father and stole his throne.  They have a series of encounters before ultimately succeeding, and there are several deeply drawn supporting characters as well.  The prose in this one is marvelous and I read the entire book in virtually one sitting.  For some reason Iíve missed most of this authorís other novels, a deficiency I will be correcting in the near future. 8/5/09

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos, 1930 

This is the first volume of the USA trilogy, an ambitious attempt to provide a panoramic view of American life by following the life stories of several different characters.  The novel is most famous in SF circles because of its influence on, most notably, John Brunnerís Stand on Zanzibar.  Straight prose is interspersed with passages called the ďCamera EyeĒ, which is stream of consciousness fragments from various scenes outside the main stories, and ďNewsreelsĒ which mix newspaper headlines, song lyrics, and other bits and pieces designed to provide snatches of information about the background in politics.  Most of the stories are directly related to the conflict between labor and capital (or management) with characters from both sides.  Although Dos Passos clearly sided with those people who were exploited by the disparity in wealth, he is not entirely critical of management and indeed one of the major protagonists tries to found a business based on the peaceful reconciliation of differences between the two sides.  I remembered it as being an excellent novel from having read it forty odd years ago, and I found it just as gripping this time.  7/27/09

Yankee Privateer by Andre Norton, World, 1955 

I believe this is the only Andre Norton novel I hadnít read, and it has taken me a long time to track a copy down at a reasonable price.  It was published as a young adult book but its protagonist is fully matured, a young man who is shanghaied aboard an American privateer during the Revolutionary War.  Although his new captain objects to the practice, he is forced to remain on the ship until it reaches a port, and then circumstances prevent his departure.  Serving as a marine sharpshooter, he is still aboard when the ship is taken by a British warship, after which he and the captain effect a daring escape from a British prison before returning to sea for more adventures.  Not outstanding of its type but a very solid adventure story from what I still find to be Norton's most productive and entertaining period, the 1950s.  7/18/09

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, 1925   

This is probably the authorís best known novel, which looks at contemporary urban life through the eyes of a large number of characters including a hypochondriac housewife, an illegal immigrant from France, a wealthy and opinionated businessman, an amibitious lawyer, a fatherless child, and many others.  The story is told in very short chunks, switching viewpoints every few pages, including a number of group scenes that verge on the chaotic, just like the real world.  We follow each of the characters through several years of their lives.  The obvious message weíre supposed to come away with is that New York City is a vast machine, full of energy, but that it chews up the lives of its inhabitants and makes them unhappy and dissatisfied.  The tragic elements were spoiled for me by the fact that almost all of the characters are so flawed that I found it difficult to sympathize with them.  Most seemed to get what they deserve.  Possibly this was the authorís view as well.   Itís a frequently fascinating book Ė and the prose began to show the typical Dos Passos techniques Ė but not necessarily a pleasant one to read. 7/11/09

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, Doubleday, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-385-52494-0  

My first novel was supposed to have been called The Gargoyle rather than Blood Beast, so when I saw this in Borders, I had to buy it.  Itís a brilliant first novel whose protagonist and narrator is an ex-porn star who was horribly mutilated in an automobile accident and fire and is going through long and painful treatment at a burn ward.  There he meets another patient at the hospital, a mysterious woman who carves gargoyles, has tattoos all over her body, and is probably schizophrenic.  She also believes that the two of them were lovers in former lives, that voices tell her what to do, and that their destiny is to be together.  Although he plans to commit suicide at the first opportunity, he becomes fascinated with her.  It also appears that she knows things about him that she should not know unless her mania is not mania at all. A third of the way through and I was wondering if this would turn out to be a fantasy but itís ambiguous at best.  Eventually he is released into her care and she slowly brings back his desire to live despite his growing dependence on painkillers.  Paradoxically, she is the one who ultimately takes her own life.  This is a fascinating book written intelligently and with genuine wit and feeling.  Very much recommended. 7/4/09

Streets of Night by John Dos Passos, 1923 

Although Dos Passos wrote a number of excellent novels, this isnít one of them.  Basically itís the story of a romantic triangle, two young men and a woman, all of them just ďfriendsĒ at first, although itís obvious that wonít last.  One of the men is earthy, not particularly intellectual, and lives for the moment.  The other is thoughtful, cultured, and repressed, in part by a clinging mother.  The young woman is a professional musician who canít quite decide what she wants from life.  Their characters are established quickly in the opening chapters, but the author repeats situations and almost conversations to make sure we didnít miss anything, which means the pace slows down very quickly indeed.  After various interactions, the earthy man commits suicide. Despite this, the other two remain ineffectual and donít end up together.  Not much going for this one. 6/23/09

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, 1921 

I first read Dos Passos in college back in the late 1960s, and worked my way through a half dozen of his novels.  I might have quit sooner if Iíd known at the time that Dos Passos was a staunch supporter of Joe McCarthy, though I donít remember encountering anything paranoid or jingoistic at the time.  This title was, I think, the first I read, the story of three young American soldiers caught up in World War I.  The first is Daniel Fuselli, who has an unrealistic, glorified vision of warfare, expecting it to be more of a lark than an ordeal, wondering how quickly he can be promoted, swallowing the anti-German propaganda obediently.  He is impatient to get to the front, frustrated by what he sees as tedious, unfair, and dilatory army procedures.   Eventually he feels like a ďsheep in a flockĒ and ďlost in a vast machineĒ.  The soldiers have a ďsense of importanceĒ until they realize they are nowhere near the front.  The novel is partly autobiographical since Dos Passos himself served as an ambulance driver in France and Fuselli is with the medical core.  He was only 25 years old when he wrote this, his second novel, and its anti-war, anti-military establishment attitude is obvious.  The other two soldiers see more active duty, but they are clearly not prepared for the reality of war.  One commits a murder and is later promoted; the other maintains his integrity and is imprisoned for desertion.  I thought this went on for too long, and the ending certainly isnít uplifting, but the anti-military, anti-government tone here is a sharp contrast to his later work. 5/18/09

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Harcourt, 2002  

Since Iím fascinated with the Victorian era, I was drawn to this very long novel set in the London of Dickens and others.  The author introduces us through the eyes of a prostitute in one of the major slums, but he frequently talks directly to the reader, which I found a bit odd in a novel that appears to be striving for stark realism.  I also frankly almost stopped reading this about thirty pages along because itís written in present tense, an affectation I find annoying, distracting, and pretentious.  It also tends to push the reader out of the story.    As a consequence I ended up reading this in relatively small snatches over a ten day period, interspersed with other things.  The first hundred pages primarily serve to introduce Sugar, a prostitute, and William, a spoiled, conceited young wastrel who refuses to learn the family business. They become the centerpiece of the story as he tries to monopolize her time and she conceals her contempt for her sexual enslavement.  Throw in Williamís insane wife, his stressed out brother caught between the lay and clerical worlds, and a host of fascinating minor characters and you have an extraordinary novel Ė though thereís not a whole lot of plot.  I enjoyed this immensely but it would have been even better if not for the quirky writing devices. 5/1/09

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi, Pantheon, 2009, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-375-71475-7 

This is a black and white graphic ďnovelĒ drawn in a very simple, clear style that made me think of reproductions of woodcuts.  The premise is that the authorís uncle, a musician, renounces the world after his prized instrument is damaged.  We then see a series of vignettes drawn from the manís past and his childrensí futures, as well as present encounters, which combine to show why he has decided that it is time to stop living and move on to other things.  This is unlike any other graphic work Iíve encountered, tackling very sophisticated themes in an unusual way.  For me itís pretty much an entertaining curiosity, but I can see why fans of this form might find this even more impressive. 4/21/09

Coffin Ship by Peter Tonkin, Leisure, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6221-5 

Tonkin has occasionally been compared to one of my favorites, Hammond Innes, so when Leisure reprinted the first in his long running Richard Mariner series, I decided it was time to try him out.  An apparent accident leaves the captain of a supertanker dead, so Mariner is hired to take his place for the voyage from the Persian Gulf to North America.  What he doesnít know is that there is a bomb on board, as well as a crew member whose job is to make sure the ship never arrives. Thereís a rocky relationship with his first mate, mysterious goings on, some violence, and a happy resolution.  In the most general way, the novel does resemble Hammond Innes, but not in the details.  Innes spent much more time on character development, and his novels proceed at a deliberate, relentless pace where this one jumps right into the action and keeps it up throughout.  Thatís not always a good thing, because sometimes you need a break in the action to recharge your reading batteries for the next rush.  Iíll read another if it comes my way, but I probably wonít go looking for them. 3/23/09

The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike by Philip K. Dick, Tor, 2009, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2306-4 

This is one of Philip Dickís mainstream novels that I donít believe Iíve previously read.  Itís the story of a small, rural California town, primarily about Leo Runcible, a moderately successful realtor with ambitions to be even more so. Runcible is technically a ďliberalĒ but he objects when a neighbor entertains a black friend and that leads to an ongoing and escaling feud.  When Runcible finds what appears to be a Neanderthal skull in the area, he thinks this will raise local property values Ė and therefore his commission Ė but it is actually a hoax perpetrated by his enemy.  Around and about this central plot is assembled a cast of mean spirited, hypocritical, and occasionally openly nasty individuals, none of whom we are meant to like.  Some of the attitudes and events in this one are rather dated; the novel was written in 1960 or thereabouts.  There are flashes of the same dark wit that shows up in a lot of Dickís SF. I liked this as well or better than his other contemporary fiction. 3/5/09

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Four Seasons, 1967

I first read part of this in Evergreen Review back in the 1960s, when I was just discovering non-traditional prose forms, and Brautigan became one of my favorites until his death.  This is the first time I've re-read this one.  The book consists of a series of very short vignettes, part of the reminiscences of the narrator ranging from childhood to maturity, and jumping around in time.  One of the recurring themes is the passage of rivers, or things like rivers, and how they reflect the passage of individuals through their lives. The title is also used to designate other things - a building, even a person - and there is a sense of surrealism even though for the most part the book is objectively descriptive. Brautigan includes references to John Dillinger, carnivorous plants, and other exotic items.  Obviously there is no traditional narrative, but the book imparts a sense of motion and purpose despite its often chaotic arrangement.  This is technically his first novel, although it was the second published, and it remains his most famous.  It also held up remarkably well for me.  I had expected to be disappointed because my experience with experimental fiction is so much wider now, but it was just as entertaining as I remembered.  1/1/09

 

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