Sandmouth by Ronald Frame (Knopf: $19.95; 476 pages)
The place is Sandmouth, in the south of England. The time is the 1950s when, according to the accompanying publicity material, Britain was emerging from wartime austerity into a new affluence. The mood of everybody who lives in Sandmouth is pretty bad.
Ronald Frame takes one day in the life of Sandmouth--the feast of St. George slaying that Dragon of his--and runs a good portion of the population through this one day. The theme, at first glance, maybe, is the inexorable effect of the past upon the present and the future.
Looking at the Past
A fairly standard passage on this comes when a colonial widow muses on a retarded girl in the town: "She would try telling that too to the girl, to help her to understand that really she was the aggregate of all the things the past wouldn't allow her to exorcise from her mind: and that she was to be pitied, even more than the girl was, because the past will never, absolutely never forget." Besides St. George, the "past" is also rung in by means of the head of an ancient goddess which still remains safely underground, out of reach of the archeologists, and Roman roads that intersect all around Sandmouth.
Another concern of the author is the stranglehold that the class system still had on this corner of England--and by extension on the rest of that island. The ladies who work in the Sandmouth dairy know a social station of every human being in the town and treat their customers accordingly. Just a trip to the local beauty parlor or department store is enough as your life is worth, socially speaking, and all the new money in the world can't budge your standing in the community if that money is made from "trade." Nonetheless, everyone in Sandmouth engages ceaselessly in social climbing, even though they get next to no results.
Characters? Well, there are so many characters here--since Frame aims to portray a whole town going through a day--that just to list them would take up this entire review. The main characters would seem to be Mr. and Mrs. Symington-Berry, who run a private boys' school, except that he used to be a salesman and has faked his degree. There is a major left over from World War I who is a public hero, but who loves to spank little girls between the ages of 10 and 16 when he's out of the public eye.
There are Mr. and Mrs. Howard Trevis--she spends her life doing laundry, he works in the bank and thinks lustful thoughts about young boys. There is Norman Pargiter, a sleazy businessman who carries on a sleazy affair with a respectable matron of the town, in the back seat of his car, parked by the 13th hole of the local golf course. And there is Meredith Vane, a middle-aged novelist who carries on an equally sleazy affair with a young girl who comes down from London on the train, and also there are dozens of lonely widows going through the change of life. And also, a retarded girl named Tilly Moscombe, the retarded girl with a face like a cracked plate.
Sandmouth really has a strange life pattern. In the morning, boredom and social climbing seem to be the order of the day. But as soon as the shadows begin to link them, Nanny Filbert--who let the last child she took care of drown--feeds the child she takes care of now a near lethal dose of gas, so that she can spend the rest of the afternoon drinking and having sex. Norman Pargiter and his well-born mistress drive out to that 13th hole so they can have sex. A visiting actor flirts with Howard Trevis at the bank, so that later on in the evening they can have sex. If the others don't get to have sex, they talk about it (mainly the degradation of it all) or they think about it--at length.
Crimes and Mishaps
And if sex is out for this particular afternoon there are enough sundry other crimes and mishaps to keep them all busy: A widow turns to shoplifting, a private detective chases a mysterious lady in a fur coat all over the premises, and a fortune-hunting, long-lost relative of the local, dying aristocrat creeps in to an upper story of the aristocrat's house and falls partway through the ceiling where she is probably, presently, still stuck. And the head mistress of the boys' school sits down in a plate of leftovers. By the end, of course, one character is murdered. All in a day's work at Sandmouth.
After all this, why isn't this book funnier, wittier, or at the very very least, more profound? One answer lies in the area of craft. The author lets his characters jabber on and on, again, about their despicable sexual proclivities. Scene after scene turns out simply embarrassing--not because of the sex, but because people don't talk like that. A set of black Americans asking for enormous condoms in the local pharmacy is particularly grating and dumb-- embarrassing is the operative word here. The lesbian novelist, for instance, knows all about Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, but still thinks she'd like to write stream of "conciseness" someday. . . .
The truth is, Ronald Frame, for reasons unknown, appears to detest his characters and this town so much that he can't resist heaping insults and cheap shots on all of it even if this practice tears the fabric of his fictional reality. Why he would want to do that is for him to figure out.