1977, Random House
I found this book in a cozy used bookstore café in Annapolis, Maryland, during a visit with my lovely friend Jessica.
Main character Jed Tewskbury is a writer from humble roots who finds fame but fails to escape his solitude and "join the human race". He tries to connect through sexual relationships, some of which bring him a certain feeling of closeness, but at the end of the novel he is still seeking some sort of connection with an ex-wife. The closest he gets to becoming what he calls "human" is through the birth of his son, who he tenderly and lovingly cares for, making his lack of ability to carry on long-term relationships even more heartbreaking.
"…I would tiptoe down just to have a peek…the curve of cheek with its muted shadings of pink…the long black eyelashes against the pink, the exquisite articulation of a hand curved on blue flannel…" Then Jed would ask himself if his own father, who died in embarrassing circumstances when Jed was young, had ever looked down at him in the same loving way while he was sleeping. But this question hurts and he tries to avoid it. "I could rarely abide the question. Most often I simply crept from the room. Once, I freely confess, when I did not creep from the room, but stood there with the question throbbing the blood-veins in my temples, I finally approached the expensive antique crib and leaned to kiss the upturned, rose-down cheek and let the tears just come." p 189
This novel kept me turning pages and hoping it wouldn’t end, due to the author’s expert use of language to express his sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, other times humorous but always truth-seeking ideas.
As a result, I didn’t take many notes, too engrossed to get the pencil or post-it notes, however, at a couple points I did manage to find a few nearby tiny pieces of paper to rip up and stick in at a couple of appreciated moments in the text.
Natural history of love affairs in 4 stages:
1. carpe diem (seize the day-or night), denial of Time
2. contemptu mundi (contempt for the world), denial of Space
3. return of the world
4. conflict between lovers (due to return of the world)
This "theory" is explained in greater detail in the novel (p. 175) but in the meantime you can use your own experience and imagination to think about it!
Love's strange ways
Jed’s mother says about her second husband : I don’t know ner care what he looks like to nobody else in the world, but just he comes in the door and I see in big gold letters printed all over him one big word like one of them neon advertisements. It just say GOODNESS – like fer coffee or something. And it is the last thing he knows, him feeling so bad sometimes fer all his stumbling and falling. Just born to goodness and never knowed it. But me, I seen it right away. Now aint that funny ? p. 203
With her second husband, maybe Jed’s mother has found that human connection eluding her son, Jed. But she nonetheless ask him to bury her ashes next to Jed’s father who treated her horribly, but was her first love.
A couple of negative aspects for me
Penn Warren, a Southern writer who supported segregation until changing his mind later in life, provides a classic example of what Toni Morrison calls "seeing the black person as the other" (seeing them only in relation to whites). The few black characters include some servants, a black man the main female character Roxelle dates proudly while making stereotypical large-penis jokes, some servants, and the "nigger girls" young Jed pays for sex ("they don’t mind," says his mother). I found references to these girls offensive and upsetting, and although we understand that the writer is showing a mindset, somehow he doesn’t seem to feel that bad about it, at least not enough to give the girls a say. The sole black character who is portrayed as respectable and human is an expert horse trainer. At any rate, it made my blood boil just a bit and even consider cutting short my read, but I kept on and don’t regret it. I encourage you to do some research on Robert Penn Warren and his views if you read this book.
Negative aspect 2 is the later meeting between Roxelle and Jed, which doesn’t seem real, a feeling which hovers throughout the end of the novel.
The solitude of the characters may explain this feeling.
I'd like to read Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce: A Poem, also by Penn Warren, a prolific writer whose achievements are outside the scope of this post. The epic poem includes some quotes such as one I heard once in history class when I was around 13 and could never forget:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed... It is cold and we have no blankets. Our little children are freezing to death. I want time to look for my children and see how many of them I may find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.