Posted: Jul 24, 2001 12:00 AM
It was quite a come-on. The book section was featuring John Irving's comic look at dismemberment, "The Fourth Hand." Hmm, let's see about this. A TV news reader, according to the reviewer, gets his hand bitten off by a circus lion. That's straightforward at least. But then it turns out that "a lovely young wife in Green Bay declares that she wants to donate her husband's left hand to [the victim] -- after the husband dies, of course. (She also wants to become pregnant by the man who'll wear the hand.) A middle-aged anorexic transplant surgeon in Cambridge, Mass., wants to do the operation. (Since his young housekeeper has fallen in love with and seduced him, he's happier than his Boston surgery team ever could imagine.)" Then "the lion guy sets out on his pilgrimage to get a new hand." And the writer guy, this Irving, of Hotel New Hampshire fame, is alleged -- the case is unproved -- to be one of today's most important fictional craftsmen? The only reason I broach this topic is that I read the review hours after re-reading a very different kind of book -- a serious piece of American fiction. Serious fiction seems no longer to clutter American bookstores, and when it appears (cf. Anne Tyler), plots and characters can get weird. The link with ordinary human concerns can seem thin indeed. It may be that "ordinary human concerns" have changed wondrously in the past 40 years. Or it may not be. The point is that you don't often hear about novelists essaying them: telling us (in the author's view) who we are, how we got that way, and what -- if anything -- we might do about it. The good serious novel, if you'll forgive the well-worn trope, is a mirror, showing us ourselves. So with the novel I finished the other night. You're unlikely to have heard of it. It was published in 1933; the author faded from fashion in the '50s. I read it 40 years ago, in Dr. John Grier Varner's "American Novel Since 1920" course at the University of Texas, liked it then, and got to wondering recently how I would like it now. A lot was the answer. James Gould Cozzens' "The Last Adam" was the first in an unlinked series of novels Cozzens wrote about America's professional classes. It centers on a village doctor in Connecticut during a moment of crisis. We are not exactly who we were in 1933, it goes without saying. The castor-oil medical methods of that day would clog modern courtrooms with malpractice suits; the telephone system that figures in the plot would stupefy a Palm Pilot devotee. Still, there are clearly recognizable characters; clearly recognizable actions and reactions; clearly recognizable motives. "The Last Adam" is not some kind of pantywaist "Tory" novel. It was raunchy for 1933, and the aristocrats come off weakly by comparison with the rugged, rightly named Dr. George Bull (played, improbably, by Will Rogers in John Ford's film of the book). The center of the plot is a typhoid epidemic. We encounter bravery, malice, suffering, loss, arrogance, resignation, endurance. You could call all of these "lasting human characteristics." You are free, gentle reader, as ever, to fling the telephone directory at me for dissing a favorite bizarre plot or grotesque character in today's fiction. Maybe there's no resemblance between the human condition, c. 1933, and that same condition, c. 2001. All I've got to say is, if that's the case, modern fiction shows it. Nor would I ram Cozzens down unwilling throats. The most I would likely submit in regard to "The Last Adam" is that I liked it as well in 2001 as in 1961, and that Cozzens, who turned into one of his era's finest novelists, spoke to me of real people in real circumstances -- a comparative novelty in Novel-land today. It was no bad thing, being reminded that people once wrote that way with skill and insight. I hope, gentle reader, that I'm wrong about the Irvings and such like. Maybe, 40 years from now, Americans will read hungrily of that severed hand. Maybe also there is joy is in knowing one won't be around when that happens!