Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Around Cape Horn at Seventeen

Last week I read quite a good book.  In fact I think Ruth Moore's The Walk Down Main Street (William Morrow, 1960) is one of the best books I've read this year.

I found out about The Walk Down Main Street from a mention in one of May Sarton's late journals.  Sarton also lived in Maine for many years, but she apparently didn't know Moore or her work until she picked up this one near the end of her life.  Sarton said she "had not been so taken by a novel in ages."  By the time I finally got around to the book, I'd completely forgotten why Sarton's description had appealed to me.  It is, she said,
about the wreckage in a small town when the basketball team in the local high school wins a local championship and goes on to a bigger test, how the boys become arrogant and obsessed, and the men take to betting on the game and become more and more involved, a corrupting process.
This accurately describes the occasion of the novel, but doesn't really do it justice.  Certainly the novel's criticism of basketball hysteria has a lot to do with why I enjoyed it -- it fit in my comfort zone -- but it has more going on than that.  While Moore is unsparing about Boy Culture, it's not only "the men": the women in the town are also gaga over the team's success.  They're pushed to the sidelines, but they give what support their role allows them.  There are exceptions in both camps, of course: the science teacher, for example, who is more concerned with getting his students into college for academic reasons than because of success in sports; and the chief protagonist, a widow whose son has become the star of the team when he runs a hot streak in one game, along with a knee injury that the local doctor (another booster) treats with novocaine so that the boy can continue to play while aggravating the tissue damage.  It's also not the basketball fever that is responsible for the corruption, arrogance, and betting; rather it's an outlet for them.  Moore shows that they've always been present in the community.

The widow I mentioned, Susie Hoodless, married a sweet but rather feckless Coast Guardsman from Arkansas, who drowned in a pointless accident at sea.   The town, and her father Martin in particular, has never really forgiven her for marrying a "foreigner."  (Ironically, Martin himself had married a real foreigner, a Swedish woman.)  Racism is pervasive among the townspeople: the science teacher, also a "foreigner," is Jewish, and there's a lot of eagerness to classify all "foreigners" as black, either by blood or by mystic essence.  There's an extended flashback about Susie's honeymoon with her husband Brant, when they traveled to Arkansas so she could meet his family.
[Brant's father] said nothing at all.  He stood there, looking at Brant; his hands on the rifle might have been carved out of wood.

Brant said, "I got married.  This here's my wife."

The old man didn't move his head, but the slits of his eyes flicked a little, flicked over Susie, flicked back to Brant.

"Whar she come from?" he said.

"She come from where my Base is," Brant said.

"What to hell kind of foreign country is that to come from?" said Brant's father.  "She white?"

Susie couldn't help it.  It was so exactly like Martin Hoodless, here she and Brant had crossed practically the whole United States to listen to the exact same thing.  Susie laughed.

She said, choking, "When Brant and I got married, Mr. McIntosh, my father said, 'Where's Arkansas?  Who ever heard tell of it?  What to hell kind of foreign country is that to come from?'"

The old man didn't even look at her; he was looking at Brant, and Brant's face was wooden.

"You ma'ied a Yankee," the old man said [90-91].
On the trip back to Maine, Susie realizes that the immiserating poverty that at first shocked her in Arkansas is also present at home, though its familiarity there had kept her from noticing it before.  I noticed that small-town Maine is not importantly different from the small-town Indiana where I was growing up when The Walk Down Main Street was published.

Susan's father Martin is another holdout from the basketball fever, but for different reasons.  He wants to keep his family, including his basketball-playing grandson Carlisle, at home and under his control.  (We're told that all his daughters save Susie married and moved far away from him as soon as they could.)   There's an amusing exchange between Martin and one of the town fathers, who objects to Martin's saying that Carlisle can work his way through college:
"What's the sense of that?  Why put a young kid that far behind the eight-ball?  You work him too hard, you'll warp his whole future.  Why, a young kid, he ain't ready for too much rugged stuff, Mart."

"Hell's pink-whiskered, blistered bells!"  Martin said.  "Carlisle's great-grandfather took a vessel around Cape Horn when he was seventeen."

"Different time, Mart, different times.  Nowadays, thank God, a kid don't have to get out and hustle.  I wouldn't want my boy to have to work the way I did, the way his grandfather did.  It don't make sense.  What I want for him is the best there is, and in this world, Mart, thanks to you and me, there's some pretty good things.  By gum and by gosh, my kid wouldn't take a ship around Cape Horn.  Be damned if I'd let him!"

"Well, another thing," Martin said.  "Your kid couldn't."

A slight flush came into the pale skin over Jed's temples, but he went smoothly on [261].
Moore knows all the cliches of reactionary bullshit, but she plays around with them for her own purposes.  On the next page Martin reflects:
If there was any reason, he thought, for an educated man to talk like a hick, it was just to show you that he was on your side, he was a hick, too.  On jury duty, which Martin had had a good many times, he had run into the same thing, and it had always annoyed him.  The lawyers, addressing the jury, at times would drop so far into countrified speech that the jury themselves had difficulty in understanding them.  Jed was an educated man, a college man.  Why in hell didn't he talk like one? [262]
If he did, Martin would despise him for that, of course.

Moore subtly but clearly depicts school and town politics, and treats all of her large cast of characters with empathy if not sympathy.  The town "eccentrics" provide some comedy, as usual in regional fiction, but they also have some complexity and surprises in store.

To add an extra fillip of pleasure, though I didn't learn this until after I'd finished the book: Moore's longtime companion from 1940 until the latter's death in 1981 was Eleanor Mayo, also a novelist.  Were they lesbians?  I have no idea, but clearly they weren't heterosexuals as we think of them today.  I just got hold of another of Moore's novels, Speak to the Winds, published in 1956, and will probably track down the rest of them.