Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Holden Caulfield Goes to Yale

One way I try to get around my procrastination is to read books that cross my path unexpectedly.  The piles of books around the apartment don't get any shorter, but at least I'm reading some fairly substantial things and I explore some byways I might otherwise have missed.

The other day I happened on a paperback copy of A Paragon by John Knowles, published by Bantam Books in 1972.  Knowles is a reasonably renowned American writer I always feel I should read more.  He's like Harper Lee in being known for just one book, A Separate Peace, originally published in 1959, which like To Kill a Mockingbird (published just a year later) quickly became assigned reading in schools and colleges everywhere.  It was also made into a movie, but without the success of the film of Mockingbird.  Unlike Lee, Knowles continued writing and publishing until his death in 2001, but while his succeeding books were respectfully reviewed none of them really stuck, either with teachers or the reading public.  None of the others seem to be in print today.

I read A Separate Peace as an adult, which may have been a mistake.  It made no impression on me.  It's the story, based on Knowles's experience as a prep school student, of a friendship between two boys, one of those conflicted boarding-school bromances that may or may not have an erotic element.  One reason I read it, in fact, was that I'd been hearing about its homoeroticism, as well as its general greatness.  Gore Vidal, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy at the same time as Knowles and later became friends with him (although or because one of the characters was based on him), admired the book.  The only reason I'd consider rereading it would be to see how it looks to me now, given what I now think about homoeroticism and the confusion (and frequently, obfuscation) surrounding it.

But I also feel obscurely guilty for not having read more by Knowles, given his reputation.  So when I saw The Paragon in the Free Books section at the public library bookshop, I thought, Why not? and picked it up.

It turned out to be mildly interesting, unevenly written, quite heterosexual, and often confusing.  Since it was originally published in 1971, I expected it to take place at least in the 1960s, and it was possible most of the time to read it as if it were set in that era.  But from time to time there were references to events like the Korean War, and later to Senator Joseph McCarthy, that indicated it was set in the Fifties, and finally, toward the end, Knowles had his protagonist tear "yesterday's page off the calendar, revealing today's page, Tuesday, November 21, 1953" (page 178).  Okay, that settled that!  I suppose the cover painting threw me too -- the young man's haircut is very Sixties.  I should know better.

Maybe I've gotten ahead of myself.  The protagonist, Louis Colfax, returns to Yale after an abortive eight-month stint in the Marine Corps.  He comes from a formerly well-to-do New England family that has fallen on hard times, producing more than its share of eccentrics and dysfunctional types.  He's very good-looking, Knowles tells us repeatedly, but has many inner conflicts.  Before he joined the Marines he had a long affair with Charlotte Mills, a young English co-ed who aspires to be an actress, which, we learn, didn't work out.  The novel is about his struggle to come to terms with his family, Yale, his various neuroses, and the breakup of his relationship with Charlotte.  What makes it interesting along the way is the variety of people he knows and meets, from an Afro-Brazilian graduate student who's his best friend, to the obnoxiously snobbish old-money roommate he's assigned, to the roommate's Greek ex-stepmother.  All are somewhat stereotyped but Knowles manages to give them some life, and some of the set-pieces along the way are entertaining.

As I get older I find I'm less interested in tales of troubled youth.  I loved The Catcher in the Rye in junior high, for example, but over time I came to agree with Sutherland in Andrew Holleran's Dancer from The Dance, who "turned frosty at the slightest sign of complaint, self-pity or sentimentality ... '[I]f Helen Keller could get through life, we surely can.'"  Luckily, Knowles narrates The Paragon in the third person, for when Louis must explain himself at any length he falls into Holden Caulfield's manner, with plenty of "If you want to know the truth" and "If you really want to know" tacked on to his sentences.  If Knowles had used the first person, Louis would have been too obviously a Holden knockoff.

I give Knowles credit, though: he gives Louis / Holden a remarkably generous but still credible happy ending.  And though Louis tries for awhile to cast Charlotte that way, Knowles makes it clear that she's not the Bitch Goddess who tried to emasculate him (a common trope in masculist literature of this period) but a sensible young woman who genuinely loved him; it was Louis who failed her.  My copy of The Paragon is going to return to the Free Books section, now that I've read it, but if you happen to find a copy yourself, it might be worth your time.