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December 27, 2003

TT: Among the Jello molds

Earlier this evening, three generations of family converged on my mother's house in Smalltown, U.S.A., there to eat dessert and talk. We'd just dined together in the banquet room of the Grecian Steak House--the first time my mother's family has ever eaten its collective Christmas dinner in a restaurant, or at any time other than on the night before Christmas. Things went surprisingly well, too, considering that we'd torn up a half-century's worth of family tradition in one fell swoop. Two dozen of us crammed ourselves into the living room, desserts balanced on knees, and discussed in detail all the things that small-town families like to talk about whenever they get together. (More often than not, illness is the number-one topic, closely followed by restaurants.)

I don't know how typically American my mother's family is nowadays, though there was a time not so long ago when we would have seemed far more typical than we do now. My mother was born and raised in the country, though not on a working farm (her father worked in a shoe factory). Most of her family lives within a two-hour drive of Smalltown and its environs. We all work for a living, pursuing a wide variety of blue- and white-collar jobs. One of us is divorced, two childless, the rest ensconced in more or less conventional nuclear families. Only about half of us have college degrees.

I've always been the odd man out. I'm the only member of the extended family who lives in New York City, the only one who is a member of what Joseph Epstein calls the "verbal class," and the only one to have become seriously interested in the arts (though the wife of one of my cousins is an amateur painter whose favorite artist is John Singer Sargent). Everyone is proud of me for having made my way in the world, but only in the most general of senses, and I suspect that no more than three of my relatives, not counting my mother, read my last book.

None of this bothers me. I'm glad to be a self-made man, and I also find it surprisingly useful to have been born into a small-town family. For one thing, the experience of growing up in southeast Missouri made me a cultural realist. (I learned early on that there's no such thing as a really famous writer.) It has also given me an understanding of Red America not shared by many New Yorkers of my acquaintance. I've changed a lot since I left town in 1974, but part of me remains deeply rooted in the place where I grew up. I'm like a walking, talking focus group: I almost always know what will fly in southeast Missouri, and what will flop.

Given all this, I doubt you'll be surprised to hear that I think The Great Gatsby is the great American novel, but I also have a special place in my heart for a much less well-known novel by John P. Marquand called Point of No Return. Published in 1949, it's the story of an ambitious young boy from a small town in Massachusetts who makes his way to Manhattan, there to become the vice president of a small private bank. Point of No Return is no Horatio Alger tale--Charles Gray, the hero, is deeply alienated and riddled with self-doubt--but neither is Marquand cynical about the complex experience he portrays. He describes with great psychological sensitivity the long journey from Clyde, Massachusetts, to the suburbs of New York City, and though Point of No Return isn't a great novel, I've never read any other book, whether fiction or non-fiction, that did a better job of putting the feelings of a man like Charles Gray on paper. My life wasn't much like his, but some of my feelings were, and I always think of him--and of Clyde--whenever I spend an evening with my mother's family.

Posted December 27, 2003 12:37 PM

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