Thursday, February 23, 2012
Book #51 - An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser)
When you pick up a book called "An American Tragedy" you know pretty much know right away that it's gonna be a downer. And yep, no amount of whiskey could keep this book from totally harshing my mellow. You know from the start that it's going to end badly, and believe me this one does not disappoint. Towards the end it just gets grimmer and grimmer. Don't get me wrong...that's not all bad, and Dreiser does it well, but it's probably not a good book to read if you're feeling kinda low and looking for something to lift your spirits.
This is a huge book, divided into three sections, with each one ending in a death. In Book I we meet Clyde Griffiths, a young boy in Kansas City whose parents are street preachers. Clyde accompanies them on their preaching missions, and he hates it. When he's a teenager, as soon as he's old enough, he gets a job as a bellboy in a fancy downtown hotel, both so he can get away from the street preaching and his parents, but also because he's sick of his parents' poverty and he wants money. And the job totally opens his eyes..his fellow bellboys introduce him to the joyful world of nice clothes, booze, fine dining, and loose women (both dates and prostitutes). He starts dressing like a dandy and living the high life...well, as high as one can on a bellboy's salary in Kansas City. And the more money he makes, the more he wants, because then he can buy things for Hortense, the woman he lusts after. Hortense is hot, and she knows it, and she keeps stringing poor Clyde along, hinting she'll sleep with him if he just buys her one more thing. Finally it's a gorgeous coat she sees in a store window...she has to have it and Clyde desperately saves his money so he can buy it for her and maybe, just maybe, get laid. But then fate, or rather idiocy, intervenes. One of Clyde's bellboy pals "borrows" a fancy car from a rich man (unbeknownst to the owner) and convinces Clyde and their fellow bellboy buddies to grab some babes and head out to the country for a day. So they do so, but they stay out a bit too late, and then have to drive like crazy to get back to the hotel in time for their bellboy shift. The driver is reckless, and in his hurry he hits and kills a little girl in a downtown intersection. He doesn't stop, and drives away frantically, with Clyde and friends freaking out in the passenger seats, and finally the driver wrecks the car and the boys and girls all flee separately, at least those who are uninjured enough to do so. Because of this Clyde leaves town to escape the long arm of the law, and Book I ends. And this is Clyde's first mistake...he's not guilt of anything but fleeing, and if he'd just waited for the cops he would have been fine, since he wasn't driving, nor was he the one who "borrowed" the car. But poor Clyde is not the sharpest tool in the shed.
When Book II opens, Clyde has moved on to Chicago, where again he has found work as a bellboy. But as fate would have it, at this hotel he runs into a guest who turns out to be his rich uncle, Samuel Griffiths from Lycurgus, New York. Here I have to pause for a rambling aside...Dreiser gets my kudos for naming his fictional upstate New York town "Lycergus". This is a Greek name, and there are a couple of people named Lycergus in classical Greek history...one from Athens and one from Sparta. My point is that anyone familiar with upstate New York knows that many of the towns there are named for places or people from classical history...Rome, Utica, Troy, Ithaca...so I tip my hat to Dreiser for noticing this. I dunno, maybe that's a small irrelevant point but what the fuck, it's my goddamn blog and I can make any stupid observation that I damn well please. Hmm, OK, better stop and have a sip of whiskey here to get me back on track. Ahhhh...Blanton's Single Barrel, an excellent bourbon and because of the distinctive shape of its bottle known as the Holy Hand Grenade of bourbon. But I digress. Yet again. Dammit. Sorry, this bourbon is really great.
Where was I? Oh yeah, so Clyde meets his rich uncle and asks him for a job in the uncle's shirt collar factory in Lycergus. The uncle is impressed by Clyde's forthrightness, and also by the fact that he looks like his own son. Plus the uncle feels that Clyde's father got a raw deal when their parents died and he was cut out of the will. So the uncle tells Clyde to come to Lycergus and he'll give him a job. Clyde then makes his way to Lycergus and his uncle gives him a menial job in his factory. The uncle would like to treat Clyde better but his son Gilbert, Clyde's cousin, is very jealous of Clyde and does what he can to thwart him. So Clyde goes to work and is forgotten for awhile. But then his uncle remembers him, and feels bad that he's treating shabbily someone who, despite his being born in poverty, is after all still a family member. So he gives Clyde a raise and a promotion and has him supervising one of the groups of women in the factory who are involved in making collars. The only catch is that Clyde is told that management is strictly forbidden to get involved with any of the women working in the factory. Uh huh, you can see where this one's going. Soon Clyde finds himself attracted to a beautiful young woman who has come from the country to work in his group. He strikes up a conversation, they start meeting in secret, and soon enough Clyde has talked her into "going all the way". The woman comes from an even poorer family than Clyde's (her father was a poor farmer) but she's sweet and innocent and very loving. They both seem very much in love. Yay, love! But of course, they must keep their love secret from everyone, because Clyde risks his job should people find out.
Oh, but then shit starts to happen. Clyde's uncle is unsure how to deal with Clyde, since he's family but he's not a member of high society like the Lycergus Griffiths are. But he invites Clyde to dinner one night and there Clyde meets the young, rich, gorgeous socialite Sondra Finchley. Sondra starts asking Clyde to attend society events with her and her friends, mostly to get back at Gilbert who she's pissed off at. But slowly and surely Sondra starts liking Clyde more and more...despite his lower class upbringing Clyde is friendly and well-spoken and earnest, and handsome as well. In fact, folks mention how much he looks like Gilbert, but better looking, a fact which has to piss off Gilbert even more. Clyde quickly becomes totally infatuated with Sondra...not just because she's beautiful, but because she's rich as well. Clyde is enthralled by high society and wealth and money...in fact he's been enthralled and excited by money and what it can buy since the early chapters of the book...so naturally he's overcome by this opportunity to love and be loved by Sondra, and hopefully marry her.
But what about Roberta, you ask? Yep, there's the rub. Clyde quickly starts to forget about Roberta, and spends less and less time with her, much to her bewilderment. But less time doesn't mean no time, and they are still "doing it" (as the kids say today), and yep, Roberta gets pregnant. Dammit, I hate it when that happens! Clyde and Roberta freak out, and when the drugs they get from a pharmacist don't end the pregnancy, and when they can't find a doctor to perform an abortion (this was pre-Roe vs. Wade, after all) they are out of options. Roberta gets sad and angry and demands that Clyde marry her, telling him they can get divorced after the baby is born but that she wants the child to be legitimate. If he refuses to marry her, she says she'll tell everyone that Clyde is the father and cause a huge scandal. Clyde is terrified and angry, because the marriage or scandal will of course end his chances of living happily ever after in a wealth-filled future with Sondra. He has absolutely no desire to marry Roberta...he only wants Sondra now. But what can he do?
Whiskey time again...ahhhh, love this Blanton's.
Anyway, as Clyde is tortured by all this he chances upon an article in the newspaper about a young couple who drowned in a boating accident, and he then gets a brilliant idea...he can kill Roberta!! WOOO, brilliant...problem solved!!! He will take her out in a boat, make her fall overboard, and she will drown (she cannot swim). He'll make it look like he drowned too, and then he'll sneak back to town and all will be right again. Since no one knows of their involvement, and since he will make sure no one knows it's him on the boat with her, he will not be suspected. What an awesome plan!
Clyde decides to go for it...he tells Roberta they are going on a trip and that he'll marry her afterwards, and he takes her to a remote lake resort in the Adirondacks. He gets her out in a boat and then...and then...Dammit, he has a failure of nerve, and he realizes he can't do it. ARGH, so close!! But as he's looking down in the boat and beating himself up for being so weak-willed, Roberta sees he's upset (for reasons she obviously doesn't know) and stands up in the boat to come towards him to comfort him. He is angry at his own weakness, and angry at her for forcing him to marry her, and he unconsciously lashes out at her with a camera he is holding. She is hit in the face, she falls overboard, and she drowns. He could have saved her, but he just watches her as she drowns and then swims ashore. He thus ends up carrying through with his plan, even if by an accident, sort of. And so Book II ends.
But despite all his planning, his plan actually sucked. There were all sorts of angles he never thought through, because he's not all that smart, and within about a day the authorities realize this wasn't an accident and that Clyde Griffiths was the man in the boat who killed Roberta. Bummer. When the police catch up with Clyde a few days later, he's at another lake with Sondra and her society friends. That's the last he ever sees of them.
The rest of the novel is both rather dull and yet exciting at the same time. There is a very extended account of Clyde's trial, much of which rehashes the previous plot points. But it's also interesting to see these events through the point of view of the prosecution and the defense. Clyde of course never remotely has a chance...the jury hates him, especially after the prosecutor reads them Roberta's very poignant letters to Clyde. The prosecution even fakes some evidence just to seal Clyde's fate. Clyde is found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. And after an extended stay on death row, and despite much effort by his mother and a sympathetic preacher and his attorneys, he is finally executed, and thus Book III ends with yet another death. Heavy stuff. This last part of the novel, the descriptions of Clyde's agonizing stay on death row, and the portrayal of his mother (who turns out to be a surprisingly strong character, by the way), are very poignant and gripping. Memo to us all from Dreiser: avoid death row whenever possible.
So what's the point of all this? Dresier's story is based fairly closely on a real life crime...but why did he choose this material for such a huge novel? I think the key lies in the book's title. This is not just a tragedy, but an American one. And why is that? Because Clyde's motivation for all this is money...the urge to have money, the urge to have material things...nice clothes, nice cars, beautiful women. The urge to get ahead, to be a Horatio Alger story. But to get that position in high society, to get those riches, to move from lower class to upper class, he gets into a position where he's forced to kill someone. Her death means less to him than the dream of being with Sondra, the beautiful rich girl. Poor Clyde is driven to kill by the American dream. Someone with more wits, or a stronger sense of morality, may have been able to figure a way out of all this and achieve some happiness, but poor Clyde is too weak and naive and inexperienced to solve the problems he faces, and it ends up resulting in Roberta's death and his own execution. America tempts him, he takes the bait as best he can, and then America sends him to the electric chair. Oops. God Bless America.