Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, each time it was a different story. If you know Starkfield Massachusetts, you know the post-office.If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked who he was.

The opening of Ethan Frome draws the reader in immediately, who is Ethan Frome? Nobody seems to know yet everybody ‘knows’ him and as a reader you to already want to know about this mysterious character. The narrator seems determined to find out so lets keep reading, further down the first page he is described as “but the ruin of a man” with “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain”, what on earth had happened to him? After the opening preface in which the anonymous narrator gets to know a little more about Ethan Frome whilst employing him to drive a sleigh each day to and from the railway station as it is winter and the snow is feet deep. He is about to enter Ethan’s home after finally being defeated by the snow one evening trying to get back to town when suddenly the preface ends and the first chapter leaps back in time. The book drops the narrator and continues in the present tense but this is clearly the present for Ethan of almost two and a half decades ago.

Back then the Frome farm is in a bad way, very little money coming in and what there is being spent on remedies for his ‘ill’ wife. I put the word ill in quotes because it’s fairly clear that a lot of what is wrong with Zeena is psychosomatic although she probably does have some underlying illness but not a severe as she believes. The other occupant of the farmhouse is Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, whom they took in a year ago when her parents died and is supposedly helping around the house although she isn’t very practical. Over the seven years since their marriage Zeena has become more and more sour tempered and nagging and the arrival of Mattie into their household had initially given Ethan some relief from her constant complaints. Over the intervening months however his feelings for her had changed to something far more and it transpires that Mattie’s feelings for Ethan had also grown but it is obvious that Zeena had noticed this and resolves to send Mattie away which leads to the tragedy which is foreshadowed several times during the book. The development of the entirely platonic romantic relationship between Ethan and Mattie in the shadow of the terrible atmosphere at the farm is beautifully written, neither character will admit to their feelings for the other with its implications for Ethan and Zeena’s marriage which frankly had fallen apart years ago and they were only still together due to the impossibility of doing anything else given the dire financial position of the farm.

The final chapter returns to the narrator and what he finds in the Frome household when he enters and all I’m going to say about that is that it isn’t what I expected from the start of the book.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition from November 1938, the book was first published in 1911 nine years before Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for easily her best known work ‘The Age of Innocence” but by 1911 she had already published three full length novels, three shorter novellas, a couple of books of poetry, six volumes of short stories and even four non-fiction books, Wharton was clearly an experienced writer and this shows in her confident use of language and entirely believable dialogue in Ethan Frome. The book is now out of copyright and can be read or downloaded as an ebook from Project Gutenburg at this link.

My Life and Hard Times – James Thurber

Originally published in 1933, this is the first Penguin Books edition from July 1948 and the introduction printed inside the front cover made me want to read it.

James Thurber is America’s greatest genius of humour and is as much a phenomenon as the Grand Canyon; indeed, they might both be said to have a nightmare and fantastic unreality about them. Yet both are undeniably acts of nature, which delight as well as amaze. This volume – the first of his to appear in Penguins – contains some of his maddest stories, such as The Night the Bed Fell and The Day the Dam Broke, which will be the best of introductions to non-Thurber readers and a renewed delight to confirmed Thurberites.

With a build up like that how could I resist? Well I wish I had. All I can say is that in the intervening eighty seven years since the book was first published and seventy two years since that glowing introduction the humour has apparently evaporated. It felt very like reading old copies of Punch magazine where you find yourself wondering how anyone ever found any of this remotely funny. The tales are tedious in the extreme, I even tried reading them aloud in case they sounded better that way; they didn’t. Fortunately the book was only 135 pages long or it may have made it to my fairly short list of books I failed to finish.

Am I missing something? Maybe a confirmed Thurberite could comment and explain why his writing should be compared to the Grand Canyon. As far as I can see the only similarity is that both consist of a massive hole, one in the ground and the other in the four hours I spent reading and then writing about this humourless rubbish. I can sort of see what he is trying to do, the family situations that he writes about could be the basis of a theatrical farce but a large part of such a performance is the visuals and Thurber for the most part failed to enable me to envisage the scenes and when I did see in my minds eye the household running around in confusion I simply didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.

There is also what can only be described as casual racism, especially in the section entitled ‘A Sequence of Servants’ where non-white characters are reduced to ridiculous stereotypes with ‘comedy accents’ all spelt out phonetically. It was a deeply uncomfortable read at times especially in this age of the Black Lives Matter campaigns and coming from an American author who was lauded in his time it simply emphasised the ingrained prejudices in an unsettling manner.

I really cannot recommend this book to anyone.

Valley of Hunted Men – Paul Evan Lehman

There is an entire genre of fiction that I have never read any example from and that is the American Western. Well I’ve recently bought a copy of Valley of Hunted Men so time to find out if I should have explored the category years ago…

20200121 Valley of the Hunted Men

First impressions were mixed, right from the first page we have a train robbery, six men holding up the express causing death and destruction before riding out of town with $20,000 in gold coins, a classic trope of the genre. So yes I was intrigued where this was going but I was already caught up in the issues of the language used in the novel, the slang and unusual spelling would be familiar with regular readers of this style but I found it off putting whilst recognising that it was a necessary part of the writing structure. One word in particular struck me as anomalous, which was the constant reference to the stolen loot as specie. Now I know this is the correct word for gold (and sometimes silver) coins rather than paper currency but I’d only ever come across the term in books written or set in Victorian London so it seemed odd to it was being used here, in fact I found it so jarring that it kept pushing me off the narrative and every few pages I’d put the book down and not pick it up again for a couple of days, I just couldn’t get into the story.

The tropes just kept coming though, a wounded mystery man falls off his horse at the feet of the pretty daughter of the man running the valley so she takes him home and nurses him back to health where he gives his name as Kirk Dane but refuses to say anything about how he came to be there. But the pretty daughter falls in love with him anyway. There are outlaws in them thar hills surrounding the ranch, and talking of the ranch there’s a grumpy old roustabout with a heart of gold to almost complete the set and then the biggest stereotype of them all rides into the mix…

“Stranger” muttered Butch to his companion, “Ain’t he a dude though

The man was of medium build with smooth olive skin, dark expressive eyes and perfectly moulded lips shaded by a small waxed black moustache. He was attired in a black frock coat, a white silk shirt and a stetson which must have cost fifty dollars at the least. Under the table Kirk had a glimpse of dark trousers and handmade boots of black Spanish leather.

And then finally I got it, I remembered the Spaghetti Westerns I had seen as a child. The wounded cowboy lounging on the porch smoking as he recuperates, the ultra smart man in black, we have Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef all that was needed was a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and I was back almost fifty years. I could at last picture what I was reading and the second half was read in one sitting after fighting for two weeks with the first. It’s quite clear that Kirk is after the men who did the train robbery but why? Who else is on the same quest? Which of the various possibilities is the lawman on a mission, Kirk is too obvious and when about fifty pages in some of the outlaws decide he is the marshal after them it’s quite clear that he isn’t going to be. There were lots of characters to keep track of, although that does get easier as the book progresses as they start getting killed off. Of course it has a happy ending, well apart from those that don’t make it to the end anyway, I guess that is normal for the genre.

In the end I quite enjoyed the book but the first half was a real struggle until I finally managed to settle down with the plot flow. Will I read another Western? Probably not, it took me over fifty years to get round to reading this one and if that’s my rate of getting to them then I may not get there. Lehman appears to have been a successful writer in the genre with plenty of books to his name but no I don’t have the need to read another.

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

20191112 Cannery Row

From the Penguin ‘Drop Caps’ series that I covered last year in a general review of all twenty six books, and I’m amazed that I had never read it before, the quote at the top is the opening line and immediately draws the reader in. What little Steinbeck I have read in the past I have thoroughly enjoyed, he really was a master wordsmith able to conjure totally believable characters with just a few sentences or even a handful of words and what characters he has populating Cannery Row and it was his “keen social perception” that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. There is a plot to the narrative but it is definitely secondary to the characterisations deployed. You really get to know marine biologist Doc and his lab/home, Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse and Grill (a rather grandly titled abandoned storage shed), Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag Restaurant (in reality a bordello), Lee Chong and his shop which seems to stock everything, albeit totally randomly, and the general human detritus living in whatever shelter they can find along the Row.

The people are poor but making the best of their situation, the time is the 1930’s during the Great Depression and times are hard. The main employers are the sardine canneries that give the area its name although the work depended on the arrival of the boats loaded with fish which also gives the area its distinctive odour. None of the characters are actually in employment at the canneries though, apart from when they need some money which they cannot get some other way. Lee Chong, Dora and Doc all have legitimate businesses in their own right. Lee’s grocery presumably would make money if his customers actually had any, what it mainly makes is debts which do mainly get paid off when he refuses to extend any more credit to somebody unless they actually part with some money to cover the backlog. Doc is the main character of the book, he owns Western Biological Laboratory, and if anyone in the US wanted a specimen of pretty well any sort of animal Doc would get it for them, eventually anyway. Dora as stated above owns the bordello and probably makes more money than any of the other characters but has to hand over large parts of it in ‘charity’ just to ensure that the authorities keep looking the other way. She is genuinely kind hearted though and looks after her staff who can’t work much due to age or infirmity, one breaks her leg during the book and there is no suggestion that because she can’t work she would lose her room or meals each day.

Mack and the boys at the flophouse, which they con Lee Chong out of at the start of the book, don’t work unless they have to, they have developed over the years a sense of contentment about their lives where they can get what little they need to survive somehow, even if it actually belongs to somebody else at the time. What they will do is get creatures for Doc at a fixed price that everybody knows because that’s more of an adventure than ‘working’ for a living. Despite their low grade criminality you can’t help but like them, they are more victims of their schemes than pretty well any one else and they are genuinely remorseful when things go badly wrong.

Even the bit parts are masterful, I particularly enjoyed the regular appearances of the old Chinaman as he wandered down to the sea and back each day; and like a minor character in a West End farce he always failed to interact with any of the major players whilst just walking through the narrative adding nothing to the plot apart from a comic interlude and a sense of wonder. Just what is it he is doing and why? It’s never explained.

The book revolves around Doc, his need for specimens and his love of classical music, his books and a quiet life. The plot, such as it is, involves Mack and the boys wanting to do ‘something nice for Doc’. They decide on a party so then need to raise some money to finance it, how they get the ‘money’ and the form it takes is really funny and the disaster of the party leads to real poignancy as the various characters reflect on how it went so horribly wrong and what to do to try to make it right. The book is brilliant and difficult to put down when you have started you just need to know more about the population of Cannery Row and apparently there is a sequel so I have to get a copy of that.