My friend Jason Duesing sent me a link to an insightful essay by Kathryn Schulz, “Why I despise The Great Gatsby,” where she points out Fitzgerald’s lack of humor in Gatsby, lack of empathy for his characters, and lack of real moral power. It’s a great essay, and it reminded me of a crisp scene in Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome. A little context, then the scene in question:
The main character of Enger’s novel, Monte Becket, is a writer whose first novel (Martin Bligh) has achieved unexpected success, and now Monte is helping an old and never-caught bandit make his way to the woman he left, to whom he wants to apologize.
They get separated when Monte gets apprehended by an off-duty detective, Royal Davies, who invites him to spend the night in his home so he can take him to the station for questioning next day. At the Davies home Monte meets the wife of the detective, and we get this fine passage:
As for Mrs. Davies, she kept me under the reptile eye while listening to her husband’s presentation of contemporary Chicago, of his sister’s health, and of the bothersome train ride home. He was a bright observer, and I soon saw he had to be, for Mrs. Davies asked him a chain of incisive questions which built one upon the other until she had in her mind a satisfactory portrait of her husband’s absence. You’d think it might abrade, to be probed that way by your spouse, but Royal Davies seemed to shine and grow younger under her spotlight, and he leaned toward her, his language and whole manner becoming honed and precise.
She then turned to me and said, ‘Very well, Mr. Author, it is your turn.’
‘I am at your service, Mrs. Davies.’
‘You are a man of letters,’ said she. ‘Tell me, what do you think of Boyd Singleton Ample?’ [whose name will later be abbreviated ‘B. S. Ample’!]
I said, ‘I think he is very good, yes, a very important writer.’
There are any number of reasons to tell this sort of lie. As a well-treated guest, I didn’t wish to seem critical of her taste. Worse, I didn’t wish to appear jealous–every one of Mr. Ample’s books sold much more briskly than Martin Bligh had.
‘Go on,’ she said, nodding.
‘Well, his insights on human miseries are salient,’ I ventured. It didn’t seem like a weak limb to climb out on–it was a common opinion among people who were serious about Literature and the phase it was in, whether of ascent or decline, and What It All Meant for Society. In his most recent novel he had sallied out with a number of momentous ideas, namely that war is difficult, and that poverty is difficult too; in fact, that much of human experience is marked by difficulty. I don’t remember who is at fault.
‘Horse puckey,’ said Mrs. Davies, an excellent glint in her gaze.
‘He is boresome. Humorless as a mole. Tell me, are you familiar with The Pestilence of Man?’
‘Yes. Yes, I am.’ I was mortified, because in my politic reply I’d set myself to defend a novel I hadn’t even finished. I tried! But it’s a long book.
‘And did you laugh much, reading it?’ she asked.
‘I’m afraid not, Mrs. Davies.’
‘Call me Celia, please. Did you get much good from it?’ she persisted.
‘Why, I think so–Celia.’
‘And what particular good would that be?’ said my rigorous hostess.
‘Well, a broader understanding of human darkness, I suppose,’ I said, seizing a trite phrase from a review I’d seen somewhere. Oh, I was on thin and melting ice now!
Celia Davies said, ‘At this minute many people are reading books by that man; I will tell you how to identify them. They own a furtive brow, men and women alike; they bend their slight shoulders, they tug their lips and fret. Mr. Becket, do you find yourself improved for your new understanding of human darkness?’
I adjusted my own shoulders. I had a new admiration for Royal Davies, that he could be a match for her. ‘Few things have managed to improve me, Celia,’ I admitted, ‘although a day or two of your company might.’
Then she laughed, which was the youngest thing about her; Royal took her hand with an expression of delight, and I was released from that table.
I’m thankful for books like So Brave, Young, and Handsome, books that show the beauty of marriage and the courage to laugh at dour high-mindedness, books that are funny and that make for the improvement of those who read them.