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Book Review : Irritating Symbolism Fills Tale Set in the Depression

January 09, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Pride by William Wharton (Knopf: $16.95)

The time is 1938, getting on to the end of the Great Depression. The place is urban New Jersey, first in a crowded set of drab, falling-down row houses and then the working-class beach resort of Wildwood.

The characters include a gallant, struggling family of four: Dickie Kettleson, 10, his younger sister Laurel and their mom and dad. We see most of the novel through Dickie's eyes, who, especially at the beginning, is glum about his future: "I know I'm never going to be a man like my father; I don't care enough about things."

Actually, Dickie may be right. His father is a paragon of virtue. When, several years before, he lost his job at Major Electric (notice the initials spell ME), he got years behind in the rent, but caught up and even got a year ahead by fixing tenement porches with his son. He scours through dumps for discarded items--from toasters to the family car--which he picked up for $5--and puts them in apple-pie order. He is never in a bad mood, is still in love with his wife and has plenty of time for his kids. Even when he's called back to ME, a nasty dangerous place that has painted-over windows so that the workers essentially are caged, he doesn't complain, even when--because of his union connections--management goons begin beating him up and threatening to kidnap his children. Dickie's dad decides he might want to take a beach vacation at Wildwood, on the Jersey shore, to sort things out. . . .

Opposed to this family, we see another social group, a good deal more unusual in its makeup. Cap Modig is older than Dickie's dad--40 when the story starts. He's gifted beyond reason (at least he was ) so that his Midwestern farm parents stood in awe of his looks and accomplishments. But because of poverty, and getting gassed in World War I, he was fit only for a career as a dashing race driver, and after a crash, he was fit for very little. (Indeed, Cap is literary first cousin to Lemuel Pitkin, Nathanael West's anti-hero in "A Cool Million," a human demonstration of the American Dream in reverse.)

So, Cap is bald and crippled by the time he meets Sally, a flibbertigibbet telephone operator. You know their marriage doesn't have much of a chance, especially since Cap has bought a starving lion cub in a bar, whom he loves a good deal more than Sally.

A Torrid Affair

Time and circumstances bring this family to Wildwood, where they perform with a lowlife hoodlum named Jimmy in a Wall of Death act with Tuffy the lion riding sedately in a motorcycle sidecar, while Jimmy and Sally have a torrid, ill-mannered affair.

Now is the time to mention that Dickie, the 10-year-old, has picked up a wild kitten and named her Cannibal. The family sets about taming this wild animal by the power of love; the author brings out his symbols and begins his number.

We're reminded that some lions live in a pride. That a pride is a "defended territory." In a superfluous introduction, Wharton writes, "Let us now begin, as Dickie Kettleson tells us about his pride, his territory." But Dickie's dad takes powerful pride in his work. And Dickie's mom remarks to her son, "Your father is a lion in some ways. Always remember that, no matter what happens," but only after Dickie has said to her about his father, "You know he smells like a lion when you wrestle with him. He smells like the lions smell in the zoo."

And Dickie, who goes to Catholic school and has been taught pride is a deadly sin, remarks to his dad that, "Gee! I like the idea of a family being a pride. Let's call our family a pride. I'd be proud of our pride and I bet it wouldn't be a sin at all," but only after Dickie's father has opined, "There is all kinds of pride, Dickie. There's real pride, like being proud of good work, like when we do a good job building a porch. There's false pride like when you think you're better than somebody else for no good reason; that's the sin one. Then there's the lion's pride, his family." But the connection between sins and pride sticks in Dickie's mind as he frets over "Which one of the capital sins is mistake?"

Dickie has good reason to fret. He has managed, out alone on the boardwalk, to unfasten Tuffy's cage and a lion is loose in Wildwood.

The best parts of "Pride" are in the very beginning, when Wharton almost persuades the reader that he has re-created the world of the respectable working class in the Depression. We are reminded of the ice man and the bread man and ". . . the man who sharpens knives and scissors and the man who scrapes horseradish from big horseradish roots." It all sounds authentic until a "hamburger and beans" meal made in the Kettleson's seashore rooming house turns into hot dogs 50 pages later.

The truth is, Wharton is so taken up with his ideas of family and bonding and, finally, his supremely irritating word-and-symbol games that he has cats acting as tame as puppy dogs and human beings acting like badly programmed robots, and one could say a few words about the pride of this particular novelist, and how "Pride" might be a big mistake, but that would be getting in my licks, so I won't.

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