Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cass Timberlane

1945, original Random House edition
Sinclair Lewis
Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives
Original price unknown, purchase price $4.95
OK condition hardcover

While Tik-Tok of Oz (1914) managed a reference to WW I, this is the first of my books to mention WW II.  Not only does the copyright page say, "THIS IS A WARTIME BOOK.  The text is complete and unabridged but every effort has been made to comply with the Government's request to conserve essential materials," but the novel is set 1941 to '45.  However, the story takes place on the homefront and is more about the Battle of the Sexes.  Indeed, with the central story of Cass Timberlane's second marriage, and "An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives" interspersed throughout the book, it presents the bleakest collection of marriages until perhaps The Women's Room (1977).

At this point, Lewis was 60 and his second marriage had broken up.  If I remember correctly, he was dating a much younger woman, so it's not too surprising that he matches up 41-year-old Cass with 24-year-old Jinny.  And yet, it's the old Dodsworth conflict, not all that different from the Main Street conflict: solid but sensitive man deals with clever, flirtatious wife.  (Lewis, as he did in Babbitt, has characters mock Main Street and Sinclair Lewis, here mixed up with Upton Sinclair.)  In this novel, the wife has an affair and returns, partly because she knows Cass will take care of her, and she's suffering from diabetes.  It's supposed to be a relatively happy ending, with Jinny (and Cass) sadder but wiser, but you know she's going to fall for some other heel within a year.

One of the things I liked about the novel was the list of modern synonyms for "cad" and "bounder."  Although Lewis's references to jazz as a new thing feel incredibly dated (after all, Babbitt had jazz in '22), it is interesting to see his continued interest in evolving language.  In this book and the other '45 book I own, for the first time "making love" means sex, not just wooing, although for many of the characters there's nothing loving about it.

And it is hard to read of spouses making each other miserable in so many ways.  Some are driven to suicide, while others live out their lives of misery.  Some belittle their spouses, while others worship them too much.  One man is in love with his 15-year-old daughter, another with his "Sweetheart" mother, although he gets a burly male lover after her death.  There's not much wife- or husband-beating, since most of the abuse is psychological.  There are a few happy couples, but it's implied that they're an endangered species.

Actually, "implied" is the wrong word to use for this book.  Everything is very heavy-handed, particularly the connection of Cleo the cat and Isis the figurine to Jinny and her fragile love for Cass.  And yet, I liked Cleo and I liked Mrs. Higbee the cook and I liked the houses that Cass and Jinny live in, old and modern.  It's a strange story in that I liked the trappings of it, including Grand Republic (a gentler Zenith), but didn't really care for most of the inhabitants.  I will say that it is nice to have Lewis show genuine emotion after the dryness of It Can't Happen Here.

Yes, there's a decade between the two novels.  He published three novels in the interval, but given these two C+ book-ends, I've never been strongly tempted to read them.

No comments:

Post a Comment