Masters of Art

John Sutherland

  • Loon Lake by E.L. Doctorow
    Macmillan, 258 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 333 30641 4
  • Alice fell by Emma Tennant
    Cape, 124 pp, £5.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 224 01872 8
  • The Covenant by James Michener
    Secker, 873 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 27966 5
  • Ancesteral Vices by Tom Sharpe
    Secker, 231 pp, £6.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 45809 8

The jacket informs us that Loon Lake is ‘a novel by E.L. Doctorow Author of RAGTIME’. Ragtime must have been a hard act to follow. In its day (1975), it was the most highly paid-for novel ever. Doctorow had well over two million dollars in subsidiary-rights advances and a whole generation of readers were introduced by it to the meaning of the word ‘hype’. The receipts are still not all in (for instance, the long-postponed film is yet to come). But the ‘watershed publishing event’ – as Bantam Books hailed it – was a flop. Doctorow could have been forgiven for retiring into prosperous obscurity.

Doctorow’s writing personality has four discernible elements to it, not always easily in harmony with each other and not all of which automatically identify him as a supremely valuable literary property. First there is Doctorow the historical novelist. He specialises in densely-detailed reconstructions of the American past. His own favourite among his novels, Welcome to Hard Times, recreates Western frontier life. The Book of Daniel is largely concerned with the 1940s. Ragtime, as the title suggests, is set at the turn of the century. Secondly, he is a novelist of ostentatiously displayed social conscience. The Book of Daniel is a sympathetic account of the Rosenberg martyrs (or spies, as a more commonly received idea has it). Ragtime concentrated its attack on the Morgan, Ford, Frick band of capitalist robber barons. Thirdly, there is the populist. Doctorow has yearned to enlarge the constituency of novel-readership. He desires, as he once put it with a condescension that has been thrown back in his face ever since, to have his work read by garage hands. For some of his career (a phase no longer commemorated by Macmillan’s blurbist, I notice) he worked for Hollywood. The gulf which has opened in the 20th century between the millions-strong audience for serious movies and the thousands-strong public for serious fiction clearly tantalises him. Finally, Doctorow is the professor of creative writing. (His current appointment is at Princeton – something the blurbist does dwell on.) His last two works particularly have the overwritten quality that one associates with the Master of Fine Art dissertation novel.

Loon Lake shows all four Doctorow facets. The bulk of the narrative takes place in 1936. The hero is Joe of Paterson, also known as Joseph Korzeniowski (the choice of Conrad’s Polish name evidently has some tricksy significance). An 18-year-old hobo victim of the Great Depression, Joe first takes up work in a freak show – partly for ideological reasons: ‘I had to acclimate myself to the worst there was.’ An exotic private train passes him. It strikes him as a vision of the best there is and he trails it to Loon Lake, in the Adirondacks. Like the Pyramid Club in Ragtime, Loon Lake is a haven of super-rich exclusiveness. Its 30,000 acres are the domain of F.W. Bennett, owner of the conglomerate Bennett Autobody works. Among Bennett’s entourage are an aviatrix third wife, a sodden poet Warren Penfield, an ‘industrial consultant’ Thomas Crapo (alias ‘Tommy the Emperor’) and Crapo’s girl, Clara. Joe is taken on as a servant, only to elope after a few months with Clara. On the run, he gets a job in a Bennett factory. There is a strike; the strike is broken; so are some of Joe’s bones. Clara is snatched back by her gangster. Joe’s subsequent career is rendered in print-out jargon: he is adopted into the Bennett family, goes to exclusive Williams College, distinguishes himself in the OSS during the war, rises to Deputy Assistant Director of the CIA, falls heir to the Bennett industrial empire and ends up ‘Master of Loon Lake’.

Thus abstracted, Loon Lake can be seen to make the same grand assertion as Ragtime: the tentacles of capitalism extend everywhere. Where they do not kill (and there are some gruesome scenes of industrial violence) they buy out. The poet Penfield, who once asserted his independence by semaphoring Wordsworth on the battlefield, ends a kept man whose sterile chef d’oeuvre is Loon lake, published by the Grebe Press: ‘Loon Lake NY 1939. No reviews’. Joe and Penfield, master and laureate of Loon Lake, are as possessed and exploited by the Bennett class as were their humbly labouring parents. So much for the New Deal.

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