The Will, by Harvey Swados
The Real World
by Harvey Swados.
World. 343 pp. $4.95.
No one, reading Harvey Swados's latest novel, is likely to cry out, “Wild, man!” Sick wisdom, strange-loving burlesque, comic nihilism, hellerish fantasy, high-spirited nausea, so'thern jokes, olde-Yiddish vaudeville—these elements of recent fiction, taken in some quarters to be the last word in literary rebellion, are not to be found in The Will. Swados is an unfashionable writer, committed to the tradition of realism, in which it is assumed, as George Eliot remarks in Felix Holt, that, “There is no private life that has not been determined by a larger public life,” and in which the novelist, by providing a faithful rendering of the social world, can also arrive at the elements of moral valuation.
Making his own way, Swados has slowly nurtured his talent. Originally it was not perhaps a very large talent: he did not begin with the verbal resources of a Bellow or the comic inventiveness of a Malamud. Yet his career has been an exemplary one. He is a writer free of public postures, indifferent to literary fads, and totally devoted to the perfection of his craft. He began with a strong first novel, Out Went the Candle, then failed at some experiments in shorter forms, and now has published a book which confirms the true bearings of his talent.
Swados is one of the few serious writers to have retained through the past two decades a steady interest in and affection for his fellow human beings, a responsiveness to the ordinary life experienced by millions of American people. This has nothing to do with populist or middlebrow sentimentalism; against such failures of taste Swados's background of hard-headed anti-Stalinist radicalism is a strong inoculation. If anything, his prose often has an undertone of acrid impatience: he may find the common life absorbing, but he is also exasperated by its sluggishness. He knows that “the waste of spirit” afflicts not least of all those millions who have never heard the phrase.
Nor does Swados conform to the views of those critics who have recently been explaining that the shapelessness of contemporary life makes it inaccessible to the novelist, and that the horror of modern history is so extreme it renders irrelevant the criticism of the writer. He has not paid much attention, for example, to a recent essay by Irving Howe which demonstrates that most American novelists have to approach their society on a tangent, or through metaphors of outrage, or by focusing on extreme and marginal groups where drama, and not merely anomie, can still be found. Swados seems nevertheless to have survived.
Traditional realism, to be sure, brings with it—especially at a time when the commonly shared sense of what our society is and does tends to be fuzzy—the risks of banal enumeration, passive recording, dispirited portraiture. But in The Will Swados has managed to show that if only the novelist is serious and humane enough, if only he is entirely committed to the terms of his enterprise, he can create versions of human existence that are binding and persuasive. Just as in Swados's journalism—he is one of the best labor reporters in the country—there is a fine gift for reaching to the human ache behind the “social problem,” so in his better fiction he manages to affirm and validate the life out there, the experience which accumulates in perplexing and promiscuous abundance, even if intellectuals choose to ignore or dismiss it.
Set in a harsh northeastern city, perhaps Buffalo or Cleveland, The Will presents a Jewish family which has neither the moral heroism nor the eccentric charm most Jewish families display in American fiction, if not American life. Swados knows this kind of milieu intimately: he has some first-rate pages on the grubbiness of a neighborhood sinking into a slum and the congealed waste of human resources such a place represents. The theme of his novel is the burdensome weight of the past, the way sons carry on their backs the obsessions and failures of their fathers, the heritage of misshapen spirit moving from generation to generation. His plot concerns the struggle of three brothers—Mel, Ralph, and Raymond Land—over the terms of a will left by their father. This struggle opens up in cross-section the past of their experience and allows Swados to bring in, with notable force, the confusions and miserliness of the older generation of Lands, now made tangible through a decaying house full of long-collected and long-neglected junk. And also, through some rental property.
Knowing real places can help a writer create real people: for despite current literary fashions, the two are connected, and their presence makes at least some kinds of novels interesting. Because Swados evokes so vividly the aura of a middle-sized industrial city, he can also locate his three young men not merely in the context of an emotionally impoverished family, but also in a social place, a world, which has partly formed and shaped them. The three brothers, while representing possible responses to that world, are thoroughly individualized figures. Perhaps the most vivid is the oldest brother, Mel, a hoodlum-rebel at war with the family's conceit and shabby respectability. In the middle stands Ralph, cultivated and ambitious, struggling for a modest success in the New York world of commercial culture, but now back home and inordinately eager for a legacy which may help him avoid those spirit-breaking burdens he associates with lack of money. Ray, the third brother, is a sort of Buffalo Alyosha, living as a recluse, doing rigorous body exercises, and communicating with the outside through short-wave radio.
As long as at least two of the three brothers are at stage-front, the novel moves with urgency, for we are caught up in a struggle of wills involving both the intimate aspects of family life and some measure of worldly power and public style. Ralph, though a figure whom both Swados and his readers must upon first consideration find the least attractive, is drawn with the greatest complexity. He could easily become a stock semi-villain, the bright young man who grasps; and there is no question but that some of his desires and anxieties are distasteful. One advantage, however, the novelist gains from retaining a hold upon common life is that he has no choice but to believe in the reality of other minds, minds quite unlike his own; and thereby he can recognize that in their seeming distance they are yet close, in their seeming inhumanity they yet share a portion of humanity. Ralph's desire to gain the legacy while keeping intact his own sense of moral worth is the kind of feeling we all know, and through a slow gritty immersion in his experience we come to see him, perhaps more than the pure Raymond or the violent Mel, as an irritating brother under the skin.
Swados drives his story very hard. He hoards every possibility of suspense; he wants his picture to be as hard-focused as he can make it. To a notable extent he succeeds: the book has pace, momentum, tension. There are also faults, all of them annoying because they do not seem intrinsic to his work but follow from a failure, I think, fully to grasp what his true gift is. He lusts a little after the bloodless ghosts of allegory: a mistake for a writer like himself, who ought to go on the assumption that if his picture is strong and his characters true, the meaning will take care of itself. He forces his plot somewhat ruthlessly, forgetting that in realistic fiction the norm of probability is necessarily stricter than in other kinds. He bears down too heavily in local passages: grinding and gritting, writing the hell out of scenes, as if he lacked the full conviction that the three brothers, brought to life, should be allowed to move in their autonomous rhythm, without the interference of “strong prose.” He provides a pontifical raisonneur, whose tiresomeness he fails to perceive. And he has contrived a poor ending, in which the Internal Revenue Service takes over the traditional role of deus ex machina.
None of these faults, except the last one, is major; and more important, all are avoidable. The critic's business is not to prescribe or advise, yet one is greatly tempted to say: If only Harvey Swados will have the courage to be what he is, if only he will remain true to his own talent and not adulterate it with the ambitions and fashions of others, he can become an important social novelist, one who may help restore the link between the novel and the world.