Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Million Miles From Main Street

Dodsworth, a 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis made my dreadful DNF list for 2009. I didn't abandon it intentionally; I merely checked out too many books in that first flush of excitement over finally having a library again. After the first couple of chapters life and other books took over. Before I knew it, a month was up and Dodsworth was due for return. Damn.

Fast-forward one year and I've finally got the book read and enjoyed it tremendously. I'm smiting my forehead a bit. How did I ever abandon this terrific novel? Dodsworth is vying with Elmer Gantry for the top spot on my "Sinclair Lewis favorites" list. To my surprise, I'm falling in lit-love all over again with Sinclair Lewis.

But how much of a surprise is it? I've been wild about Harry (Lewis' first name) since Dr. Larry Shanahan assigned Main Street in his American Novel class many years ago. Believe it or not, I've only just now puzzled out the wherefore of my devotion: I'm firmly convinced that I love him because he's like..well, if Mark Twain and Edith Wharton had gotten together and made a baby it would have been Sinclair Lewis. (Come to think of it, Samuel Clemens and Lewis were both redheads.)

OK, on to the novel: After 20 years of marriage, respected automobile industrialist Sam Dodsworth (Sam? Named after Clemens, perhaps?) succumbs to his beautiful and spoiled wife Fran's pleadings for a long-term trip to Europe. At first the quintessentially American Sam feels gauche and out of place. Fran doesn't do anything to lesson this feeling with her catty comments about his shortcomings and her incessant flirting with European playboys. Gradually, Sam comes to understand that he's experiencing Europe on a deeper, more intellectual level than Fran with her snooty superficial knowledge and her transparent, grasping desire to shake off her Midwestern background and become some sort of titled aristocrat, no matter how tenuous the connection. Sam's ability to perceive things clearly and thoughtfully clashes again and again with the shallow Fran's increasing monomania which is driven in part by her fear of getting older.

Lewis not only explores the breakdown of Sam's and Fran's relationship, he examines every type of expatriate that Sam meets during his travels. Being an expat myself, these types were all immediately recognizable from the newly-arrived who are deliriously happy to find corn fritters in a city like Paris to the jovial types who like to razz the natives in the time-honored tradition of Innocents Abroad to the other end of the spectrum -- those who would like to pretend altogether that they're not even citizens of their native country and enjoy criticizing it harshly. Often, one will see expats going through several of these stages if they're abroad long enough.

Lewis is every bit as good as Edith Wharton when portraying all varieties of expats, but like Mark Twain, he sometimes gets carried away and likes to hyuk it up too much. Also, some of his characters like to make speeches. I was relieved when a journalist acquaintance of Sam's, Ross Ireland disappeared from the novel after a long, tiresome monologue about his reverse culture shock after returning to New York after living in Europe for several years. Another minor complaint: Sam Dodsworth is an intelligent man, certainly "not a Babbitt" like his fellow townsperson of that name, but he's a little too well-read for a businessman from Zenith. Although I enjoyed all of those delectable literature references, it was a little annoying to see Sinclair Lewis peeking through so conspicuously.

Sam's marvelous character and growth is so often overshadowed by his conflict with Fran. He shows an incredible capacity for swallowing the bullshit she serves up to him in humongous portions. Happily, he eventually wakes up and smells it. The waking is slow, but Sam Dodsworth's solid, fair-minded Everyman has the reader rooting for him all the way.

Fran Dodsworth, for all her idiotic villainy, is captivating. I kept reading eagerly to see how she could possibly outdo herself. Of all the characters, she's the most modern, but not in a good way. She'd fit in so well on some of the triter reality shows on television -- something like Paris Hilton's BBF. Clear-eyed, straight talking Edith Cortright, the American widow of an English diplomat in whom Sam finds a kindred spirit seems to be modelled slightly after journalist Dorothy Thompson, Lewis' second wife and to whom Dodsworth is dedicated.

Lewis isn't really the zinger type, so I was pleased and truly tickled when he has Sam (who's starting to get wise to Fran's supposed level of sophistication) thinking this smartassed barb:

"...Fran had an unsurpassed show-window display but not much on the shelves inside."

The following quote is Lewis rather than Dodsworth musing, and it feels like a perfect merging of Twain and Wharton:

"Most of those afflicted with the habit of traveling merely lie about its pleasures and profits. They do not travel to see anything, but to get away from themselves, which they never do...they travel to escape thinking...just as they might play solitaire, work crossword puzzles, look at the cinema or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity."

The ending of Dodsworth is quite satisfying. I really shouldn't spoil anything, but I love the way Sam Dodsworth grows a pair at the eleventh hour and I love the irony of the two main characters ending up where the other envisioned being all along. Speaking of the ending, I don't do this with other authors, but for some reason, I always look to see which character Lewis gives the last word.

Looking at Lewis' canon, I'm disappointed with myself for not having read more. I've read and enjoyed Main Street, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Ann Vickers and now Dodsworth. All are worthy of a reread. I want to keep the love going by cracking open my new copy of It Can't Happen Here. I'm also pretty sure that I can find a copy of Babbitt easily. I hardly ever see his later novels like Kingsblood Royal or Cass Timberlane, but I want to read them as well.

Finally, Dodsworth was filmed in 1936 with Walter Huston in the title role, Ruth Chatterton as Fran and Mary Astor as Edith Cortright. I've read that it's a good adaptation. I'm hoping to track it down soon.


Susan said...

How do you do this? How do you make me want to read a writer I've never had any interest in? and make the book sound fascinating and like something I'd get as an ex-pat (for a while anyway!) also??

I love the new look of your blog, love your bookshelf picture......your shelves are tidier than mine!!

Bybee said...

I have to confess that I cleaned up the shelves a bit before my son took the photo.