Monday, February 1, 2010

Cancel All Our Vows

When New York Times mystery critic Anthony Boucher famously referred to John D MacDonald as "the John O'Hara of the crime suspense story" in 1956, he was writing about the author's then-new novel April Evil. The prepositional section of his full sentence is not usually included in most quotations, which states "When [JDM] is at his best, his economy, his ear for speech, and his observation of all levels of a community at their interplay..." That characterization is certainly true of MacDonald's work in any category, yet the comparison to O'Hara has the most resonance when talking about what are usually referred to as his "morality novels," the first of which was Cancel All Our Vows.

Published in June 1953, the novel was JDM's first mainstream effort, a straight-up story of a couple of suburbanites, without murder, or crime or thought-controlling aliens. It was his first non-science fiction novel to be published in hardcover (Appelton-Century-Crofts) and was supported by an advertising campaign in the New York Times and other newspapers. The novel was widely reviewed, yet never made a best seller list and enjoyed only a single printing. It was his second book to be prefaced with an epigraph (a Michael Drayton sonnet which inspired the title) and was the first to contain a dedication, appropriately enough to his wife Dorothy.

The story takes place within the span of a single week, beginning in relative tranquility and ending with the world turned upside down. Fletcher and Jane Wyant have been married for 15 years and live in a nice new modern home in the city of Minidoka, a stand-in for any mid-size town in the Northeast (probably Utica). Fletch and Jane are former high school sweethearts with two nearly-teenaged kids. They have never dated or been with anyone else, although during the war Fletch strayed occasionally, a secret he has never revealed. Both are big, tall, athletic types who exude confidence and seem to all the outside world to be a perfect couple. Fletcher is an up-and-coming executive at the local big industry, Forman Furnace Corporation, and Jane does what most women of her class did in 1953, she stays at home and keeps house.

But something is going on within the soul of Fletcher. After work on a hot Friday, he sits in his bedroom reading the newspaper and looks out of the window. He gazes wistfully at a red barn, high on a hill and far away:

"And, as he was looking, it happened again to him. It was something that had started with the first warm days of spring. All colors seemed brighter, and with his heightened perception, there also came a deep, almost frightening sadness. It was a sadness that made him conscious of the slow beat of his heart, and the roar of blood in his ears. And it was a sadness that made him search for identity, made him try to re-establish himself in his frame of reference in time and space..."

But Fletch has little time for contemplation. He and Jane are dining at the country club that night, guests of Ellis and Laura Corban. Fletch has just hired Ellis as his assistant and managed to obtain for them membership in the club, so this is the Corbans' way of saying "thank you." Jane helped Laura locate a house when they moved to Minidoka, and Jane doesn't much like Laura. Fletch, while respecting Ellis' ability at work, feels pretty much the same way toward him, and senses an opportunistic ruthlessness in Ellis that puts him on guard. But something clicks that evening between Fletch and Ellis' wife. Laura is a slim, oddly attractive woman, the physical opposite of Jane. She makes no pretense at wanting to be there and inserts sarcastic comments into the conversation at every opportunity, much to the chagrin of her husband. He makes excuses for her later to Jane: "... she is odd in a lot of ways. Reads a lot. Likes to be alone. Gets a lot of weird ideas. And she doesn't mind saying them right out..." Later in the evening Fletch and Laura are alone together, where she taunts him suggestively and he brutally kisses her.

If there is a villain in this story it is Laura Corban. She is portrayed as a wanton, almost soulless person, someone so dead inside that she needs to destroy others in order to feel any sort of life within her. Her backstory is told with MacDonald's usual precision and economy, creating character through events. She grew up in a motherless family, one of two children of a feckless and unreliable father, one who held many different jobs in many different parts of the country, and who would pull up stakes and leave whenever the feeling hit him. The father is now long dead, as is her brother and her fiancée, both casualties of the recent war. Her marriage to Ellis, by whom she has produce two children (and who we never meet), is as empty as the rest of her. After that kiss her need to feel something in her life will now focus on Fletch.

Jane is not blind to the connection between her husband and Laura, and on Saturday when she takes the kids to a lake in the mountains for the day, she drinks too much and is willingly seduced by a college kid. At the last moment she realizes what is happening and tries to resist but it is too late. Mortified and shamed, she doesn't tell Fletch and hopes to forever keep it a secret. The next day the Wyants have a backyard party, one of those 1950's suburban blowouts, where everyone drinks too much and passes are made at other men's wives. Laura Corbin shows up in the flimsiest of garments and elicits the lust of every man there, as well as the disdain of every woman. The drinking goes on way too long, words are exchanged and suddenly it is revealed that one of the guests witnessed Jane's lakeside tryst and announces it for all to hear, including Fletcher.

Double standards being what they are, Fletch is sick at heart and immediately contemplates divorce. He moves out of the bedroom and lets his imagination eat away at him. He also decides to get to know Laura Corban better.

The plot described here possibly sounds trite and overused, and perhaps it is -- or was -- even in 1953, but MacDonald uses this framework to explore some fascinating characters and their behaviors. The people he has created are real and compelling, and he gets inside the heads of the main triangle (Ellis is more of a secondary character) with a deftness that allow us into their respective worlds. Fletcher's mid-life uncertainty and subsequent pain and jealousy, Jane's shame and need for security, and Laura's quest for anything that will make her feel alive all are given their own extensive portions of the novel. The world they live in, the post-war suburbia of America, is familiar to anyone who grew up in that environment. The hard-drinking and the subsequent blinding hangovers are repeated again and again, almost as if the characters were unaware that one was the cause of the other. The petty jealousies, the personal agendas, the cutting remarks, the self doubt and permanent restlessness of this society are painted with the careful detail of one who was a member himself.

It is ultimately the insecurity of these people that is their undoing, a realization made too late, but one that focuses them on what they really find important in life. At thirty-six, Fletcher is still a child at heart, at times petulant, moody and immature. Jane is much the same, and it is her own attempt at vindictiveness that leads to her infidelity. Once everything has been done and everything is out in the open, the real decisions have to be made.

The entire week-long tale of Cancel All Our Vows takes place during a tremendous heat wave, one that occasionally gets blamed for the actions of the characters and one that is perhaps too conveniently and symbolically ended at the climax of the novel. Still, it allows MacDonald to put together a few of his most atmospheric and pictorial paragraphs describing the effects of the weather on Minidoak:

"The city stewed like a pot over an open fire. The overworked police began to have the feeling that some vast lid was about to blow off. There was a thread of fear in them, and even the milder members of the force used quick brutality as the solution to most problems... An intern carefully counted twenty-three stab wounds in a stocky Italian body and marveled that the man had lived long enough to die as they were wheeling him into the emergency operating room. Somebody found a starving dog under the Town Street bridge. A person unknown had carefully sewed its festering mouth shut with heavy cord. Three young girls of decent family were picked up naked in a sedan parked on a downtown street. It was discovered that all three were full of heroin, and that two of the three were diseased. A pulpy bloated body was fished out of the river by four small boys. An elderly man was nabbed in the park for indecent exposure and on the way to headquarters he managed to dive out of the open window of the prowl car to die under the wheels of a city bus. A hysterical girl was found wandering on the highway near lover's lane. They found the body of her escort ten feet from the parked car. The four men who had raped her had hit the young man a bit too hard.

"The heat was like the string of a bass fiddle, a string which had been plucked and now vibrated in a tone just below the ability of the human ear to hear it. A man in a small dirty apartment near the river. There was a boy scout hatchet near his feet. Those who had heard the screams had called the police. They broke the door down and the youngest cop was sick in the hall. The man sat there, studying first his palms, and then the backs of his hands, over and over, as though there were something there he would understand if he looked long enough and thought hard enough. A small boy toddled into a doorway, fingers in his mouth, and stared mildly at his teen-age sitter and her boy friend on the dark couch. The boyfriend cursed. The sitter snatched up the boy so violently that he howled with fright and pain. She thrust him back into his crib. If he kept crying, the boy would go. If she didn't come back soon, the boy would go. She held the pillow down tightly with both hands for a long time and then went back to the living room, heard herself say faintly, 'He went to sleep,' as she slipped back into the boy's rough impatient arms."

That is beautiful, poetic stuff.

Cancel All Our Vows is MacDonald's first novel featuring a corporate businessman as the protagonist. He would explore this person again frequently and expertly, and to better affect in later novels such as Contrary Pleasure, The Deceivers and Clemmie. In Cancel All Our Vows Fletcher Wyant is the Treasurer of Forman Furnace and he is MacDonald's typically driven, expert business grad who doesn't realize just how valuable he is to the company. The corporate world is essayed beautifully and with the pen of someone who seemingly had experience there. We see all of the long hours devoted to work, the hard working professionals who strive toward promotion, the frequent backstabbing, but primarily the working together for the greater good of "the company." JDM clearly respects these men, and those writers who would later claim MacDonald thought otherwise should read these few sentences, spoken to Fletch by the head of the company:

"Our critical shortage is in executive talent, Fletch. That's why there are men in this country who, if they put themselves on the market, could demand and get up to half a million a year. And they aren't young men, either. Organized labor is always bleating that no man is worth that much. If it costs that much to replace, the item is worth that much. The market price determines the value. Cut-rate executives mean poor management, dwindling profits, eventual bankruptcy...Now there are more men with these talents then there are men working at it. Know why? Because society rewards our good tough able executive with a ninety-something per cent tax bracket. He's the target for the half-baked witticisms of smart aleck columnists. And when government can't think of what to do next, it sits on our man's chest for a while. So our man decides the hell with it..."

If you've been reading the newspapers lately, those words ring with a lot of familiarity.

Still, Cancel All Our Vows is a character-driven story. The plot isn't really all that much, and what happens resonates only in the narrow world of the protagonists. The characters of Fletch and Laura are beautifully realized, even if Laura sometimes comes off as a nearly supernatural she-demon. Ellis is given some interesting background but is basically a "type." Jane is written rather simplistically early on, and only comes into her own as she is consumed with guilt for what she has done and broods introspectively. Still, it is Fletcher who is the central focus of the author's interest, and it is his ultimate decision that will provide the novel's turning point. Getting to that point involves finally being honest about his own fidelity, his childish need for revenge, and his inability to forgive.

MacDonald was interviewed when the novel was published and clearly defined his goals for the book: "I am trying to deal with middle class standards and moralities, with full recognition of the fact that it is the class to which I belong... the theme of the book is that no matter what the moral code of the particular society in which a person resides, his adjustment to that code will be imperfect, because all codes are averages..." A year later he said, "This is the first of a group of books, rather than a series, which deals with that specific jungle in our backyard -- that conflict between social mores and personal ethics in the American upper middle class. The focus of this novel is those 'critical years' when both men and women feel as lost and misunderstood as they did when they were children."

The contemporaneous reviews of this novel were generally favorable. John C. Neff in the New York Times called it "entertaining," the reviewer for the Oklahoma City Oklahoman said it was " of the most readable contemporary marriage works we have seen in a long time," and Michael Leigh in the Pensacola New Journal gushed, "this is one of the finest and most moving books about contemporary marriage I have read in some time. The author... has done a superlative job and one that should establish him firmly as a novelist of note." Still, there were detractors, such as the reviewer in the Clearwater Sun who said "MacDonald wastes his obvious talent. I hate to see wastage of that sort..." MacDonald's frank dealings with -- if not depictions of -- sex seems to have disturbed more than one reviewer, with a writer in the Houston Post complaining "This is another of those glandular books that assaults sex as if it were going to run out tomorrow and everything had to be said today... It boils down to 277 pages of nothing but tempests in bedrooms (and borrowed barns)..." I wonder what book it was that he read...

Despite the fact that there was only one hardback edition, the paperback version didn't appear until two years later, and as a Signet publication, not Fawcet. It appeared in a couple of versions as a Pyramid paperback in the mid and late sixties before finally showing up as a Fawcet Gold Medal release in 1972, where it went through ten printings.The original hardcover edition is one of the rarest of JDM collectables, the cover featuring a distinctive cubist rendition of that red barn on the hill outside the Wyants' bedroom, drawn by John O'Hara Cosgrave II. And, as you can see, the book has gone through a lot of different cover art in its various paperback incarnations.

No comments:

Post a Comment