The four novels of Vance Bourjaily have not received much attention, partly, I think, because they have not been properly understood. The first of them, The End of My Life (1947), was discussed very favorably by John Aldridge in his book After the Lost Generation; and though he saw in it “occasional callowness and crudity,” Aldridge wrote that “no book since This Side of Paradise has caught so well the flavor of youth in war time, and no book since A Farewell to Arms has contained so complete a record of the loss of that youth in war.” In commenting on the main character’s change from “the confident cynicism of his prewar attitude to the self-destructive horror induced . . . by . . . war,” Aldridge isolated a theme that has remained central to all of Bourjaily’s novels: each of them (while revealing increased control) has continued to relate the war’s “self-destructive” effect to larger contexts. Now, in Confessions of a Spent Youth1—Bourjaily’s best book, I think—he has written a long, complex novel, naturalistic yet quietly lyrical, in which the experiences of one young man from 1939 to 1946 comprehend features of American life which have been decisive for the past twenty years.
There are, at the outset, two general points to be made about Bourjaily’s work. The first refers to its preoccupation with a concern which also serves to distinguish most current American fiction from the fiction of the fifteen or so years that followed World War I. In various degrees, all of these earlier novels were infused by the sense that the American dream, whatever it was, had been lost. Whether lost because of a group’s willful malice, or by natural death, or by some mysterious and intangible process, and causing in turn sorrow or bitterness or cynicism or compassions—whatever the reason or the response—the novels that came out of the First World War all testified that the dream was gone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald took this loss as the subject of much of his work, and The Great Gatsby contains its most eloquent description:
I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh green breast of the new world. . . . For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And this same specter—of a lost American dream—looms throughout the novels of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries, Dos Passos and Faulkner, Hemingway and Wolfe.
But the ambience of today’s fiction comes from a loss which belongs to individuals, not to a nation: the loss of the ability to feel. Saul Bellow’s Eugene Henderson plunges into Africa in the hope of finding something to satisfy an inner voice that cries I want, I want, I want; Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man,” after putting his faith in one con-man after another, plummets into a manhole for a first chance to glean his own commitments; Norman Mailer’s Sergius O’Shaugnessy returns from Korea to look for a good time “two hundred miles from the capital of the cinema,” hoping to regain “the strength to try again.” Each of these men, emotionally drained or filled with a kind of hysterical energy, is sustained mainly by the knowledge of his own emptiness and the one chafing desire that still abides—to feel again, honestly and with confidence. None of these novels—Henderson, Invisible Man, or The Deer Park—are similar in tone or content; and I only want to indicate here a basic theme around which they all focus, and which is even clearer in Bourjaily’s books, the absence of emotion and emotional certainty.
I think it is more or less clear that the concern with feeling currently encompasses a good deal more than these novels or their readers. The wide fascination of violence, drugs, and sex, for the press as well as the hipster, at least in part would seem to be the fascination of feeling for those who fear its loss. So with the appeal of the Beats (all questions of their virtues, stupidities, program, or literature to one side) which often rests on their apparent ability to say “wow!” and mean it. I would argue too that the growing interest in Reich and away from Freud is another sign of the same concern: crudely put, the change indicates a shift from concepts which untangle feelings to those which help create them. Even the pronouncements concerning the lack of support given by the “silent” generation to social or political causes, what were these statements but tangential recognitions of “feelinglessness,” and comments on a generation whose members are cruelly uncertain of their feelings and sometimes violent in their fluctuations from passivity to desire?
The way that bourjaily has chosen to portray this loss of feeling in his latest novels, The Violated and Confessions of a Spent Youth, points to the second important generalization to be made about his work. Since World War II, most American fiction has gotten at American life indirectly. The “regional” novels, such as those of Wright Morris and Flannery O’Connor, carefully delimit a particular landscape or geographical location, and then treat that setting and its inhabitants as a metaphorical construct of America. Other novels, somewhat like didactic fables, offer characters who are meant to break through to an ideal concept of behavior or belief that is hidden or harshly denied by the circumstances of modern America—Henderson the Rain King is one example, or Mark Harris’s Something About a Soldier, or Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. In a third type of novel, the main character looks for a career, considers or briefly engages in several, and so cuts through certain cross sections of American life which are meant to stand for the whole of it; this is the approach of Augie March, of Invisible Man, and of The Deer Park.
It is in this sense that Bourjaily’s first two novels were also “symbolic.” The main character in The End of My Life, a volunteer in the Ambulance Corps in Africa, is made to stand for an entire generation. As he gradually comes to lose all his feeling for other people, and thus all his desire for life, he represents in extreme, as Aldridge noted, the effects of the war. The Hound of Earth, Bourjaily’s second novel, takes place in a department store during the ten or so days before Christmas. Its main character is an American physicist who, hearing of the blast at Hiroshima, instantly realizes that this is the end result of the secret project on which he even then is contributing some relatively minor work. In a paroxysm of guilt and shame, he deserts his family and wanders from city to city and job to job, always avoiding connection, hunted by the FBI, until, at the store, after a series of complicated developments during the Christmas rush, he finally overcomes his horror of action, and allows himself to feel again.
But Bourjaily’s last two books have made every attempt to eschew these metaphorical devices, and for this reason they stand apart from most American fiction. The four main characters of The Violated, three men and a woman all born after the First World War, represent no particular minority, neither Jews nor intellectuals; and as they grow up and live through the war’s ensuing prosperity, the depression, the Second World War, and the curious peace which follows, the novel always urges that the problems and opportunities the characters face are in no sense out of the ordinary. Now, in Confessions of a Spent Youth, although Bourjaily has returned to the material of The End of My Life, he continues to approach it as he did the material of The Violated, naturalistically, as if it had meaning only because of its complete usualness. “I was only average . . .” the main character of Confessions of a Spent Youth says, “give or take some variety in the times my luck was good, yours bad,” vice versa. With this average man as hero, the novel explores America.
Confessions of a Spent Youth is U. S. D. Quincy’s first-person story of his life from 1939 to 1946. He is seventeen when the novel begins and twenty-four when it ends; and he has three particulars to tell about: “Sex, friendship, the war which became my world—these were the things on which, in the seven years, my life and effort focused, and in about that order of importance, though at times the first two were reversed.” His story begins when he has completed high school; a series of revelations follows—concerning his first girl, his first love, almost two years of college (fraternity life and drinking), almost five combatless years of war (first as a volunteer in the Ambulance Corps, then as a draftee in the army), and finally, all his friends and friendships during these various times; it ends shortly after the war with Quincy’s recognition that he had “better open up some possibilities for [himself], find a direction, make a commitment.” Accepting the ways of the world around him and the life it most readily offered, Quincy, like each of his friends, receives as return on his spent youth only enough wisdom to realize his lack of direction and of commitment, and only enough courage to try to find both.
The characters, events, and ideas in Confessions of a Spent Youth are held together by a tone of detached yet committed inquiry and by a conversational style that moves easily from quiet humor to unobtrusive lyricism. “I do not mean to be mock-eighteenth century or mock-Germanic, or mock-anything,” Quincy says about midway through his long, loosely-structured narrative, “—only direct and truthful—when I say I thank you for your attention this far, and that I hope I can continue to engage it as you read on.” Though the book’s dialogue is awkward at times, and some of its characters are drawn too broadly, these faults are only minor distractions; for Confessions is not meant to be a series of stunning moments that rush together in overpowering brilliance. Its aim and achievement lie in a story that is consistently interesting, sometimes comic, and always intelligent. I intend only praise—no slight to anyone—when I say that Confessions comes on like a friend rather than a man possessed.
As background for many of Quincy’s “confessions,” providing a sort of counterpoint, are some newer additions to American folklore. Quincy explains, for example, that the prevision of his first sexual encounter was stimulated by those realistic American novels whose scenes of sexual initiation “took a form so stereotyped as to be almost mythic.” And Quincy can, in fact, report that “not Eugene Gant, nor Ima Fool, not Ivan Tonowhi nor Nick Adams nor even Studs himself ever had it so sordid, so perfectly sordid.” But quite unlike these others, Quincy does not feel shame or disappointment with his “myth made flesh.” “Inwardly,” he recalls, “I am strutting, revelling, romping, ready to go again, and I am neglecting to feel the guilt, the melancholy, the sense of loss.” (In retrospect, he does have “the mimimum grace” to recognize that a loss was suffered. But during the encounter—“I am seventeen and the loss is not my own.”)
The chapter on Quincy’s college life is called “Quincy at Yale.” But Quincy promptly notes: “I did not, by the way, go to Yale . . . so my title for this confession is traditional and, I hope, evocative.” No part of the college myth is relevant—“Whiffenpoofs, blue sweaters, briar pipes, and Albie Booth”—college was none of these.
Here is the image I intend: a stripling, sitting in the dark, on the steps of a Gothic library building, at one A.M., drunk and alone, hiccuping as light snow falls on his insentient shoulders from the cold night sky of a New England spring.
But Bourjaily intends these confessions to be more than semi-comic jabs at some assorted fancies of the American dream life. Like Bellow, Ellison, and Mailer, he is describing an American education, and he means Quincy’s narrative to serve as an assessment of that education and of the time and country which gave it.
In most American novels the main character stands alone. He may attach himself to a surrogate father (against whom he will eventually rebel), but he is essentially isolated: at the beginning because society rejects him, at the end because he rejects society (or has set himself to transform it). In Confessions of a Spent Youth, however, Bourjaily is attempting something else (as was Bellow in Adventures of Augie March)—not the single crucial friendship that changes one’s life, but the many friendships of varying intensities and kinds, typically provisional, that a young man ordinarily experiences as he grows older. Quincy explains that at college it was his friend Jeff “who persisted in liking me and even in trying to protect me from the results of my perverse, sophomore expedition towards oblivion.” When Quincy enters the Ambulance Corps and makes “the closest friend I’d ever had,” he thereby finds the “spores” of his mind “shook loose.” Later, the victim of an apparently incurable form of gonorrhea, tormented and despairing, Quincy is again helped by a friend, who almost by chance leads him to recognize “that it is never properly himself to whom a man extends his deepest sympathy.”
Though the friendships end, and the friends are capable of betraying each other, the characters here (unlike Bellow’s) mainly draw their emotional support from friendship, and only friendship gives them a sense of common cause. “At the war’s end,” Quincy says, “there was no home town, no girl, no career, no goal, nor, in any cohesive sense, any family. . . . In a perfectly real way, [my friends] were all I had.” This single possession and comfort implies all those others which a community or a culture might provide—Quincy’s list of negatives suggests some—yet of these the careers of Bourjaily’s characters are all bereft. It is from friendship alone that Quincy gains the strength and the chance to grow.
But what of the comforts of sex, the importance of love? As Quincy relates his adventures and those of his friends, he aims to illustrate a bitter proposition: that the experiences of love and lust in “our twentieth century, in America,” exclude one another. “Where did it come from,” he asks, “that polar incompatibility of sex with deep affection in my schoolboy mind?” The wounding and comic question that ends Quincy’s first love, platonic by his choice, speaks for the influence of America. His girlfriend puts it to him: “‘Can a girl who necks keep a boy’s respect? . . . I’ve been wondering about that.’” It is the voice, Quincy knows, of the American teenager; he knows also that it is the other half of the decision he himself had made for “love.” “I knew then, that this first, best innocence was gone for Joan, and that it was my own clumsy teaching, now taking its delayed effect, which had destroyed it.”
A few of the characters set themselves to achieve a wedding of these emotions, but none achieve it. “If love . . . means the preferring of one object above all others, then I loved Cynthia Ann all right, and what a sad and silly reason for marrying her that would have been.” And the book closes upon Quincy’s difficultly accomplished, but self-achieved release from a relationship sustained solely by the press of his desire: “It was as bad a moment as I’ll ever have.”
To this thicket of unexpressed and congested feeling, and of feelings never named because never experienced, the war brings a proper setting (and one very different from the setting brought by the war which ended America’s innocence).
Why should I, who am without scars, have lived these last fifteen years as if some important bit of myself . . . had its only existence in a memory so old? I think it may be because I did, after all, leave a piece of myself back there in the war—but let me add quickly: anybody did. The piece we left—may I presume for once to speak for others?—was part of our ability to feel.
Such a loss is neither quickly restored nor easily contained. “There seem, and I wish to say this without loaded words, so I shall use doctor’s language—to be certain kinds of emotional stimuli to which I am not capable of responding genuinely, even now; that, if I have a disability, is mine.” And as it is Quincy’s, so it is the disability of his friends, touching all their relationships and reaching out into their society and into the children of that society.
Quincy’s decision to “find a direction, make a commitment” is cast against all the dead weight of his truncated feelings. The ability of Confessions of a Spent Youth to reveal the exertion of self-will (and even willful cruelty) that lies behind this decision is a measure of the book’s success and its significance. So, similarly, is its portrayal of the loss of feeling that gradually occurs in the typical life represented by U.S.D. Quincy. For if, finally, the events of that life are not altogther typical, the loss they led to is.
1 Dial Press, 434 pp., $4.95.