Friday, May 23, 2014

An American Tragedy

Where to even begin in speaking about this book? I loved it so much.
This is the problem. Where to begin.
Well? How about page one, where the family of Clyde Griffiths are pounding the street yet again, seeking converts to their version of evangelical Christianity. They are street preachers. Clyde is twelve at the time -- and much less than the conversion of the masses, he's not even really interested in the conversion of himself! His dreams take place in a world far removed from that of his parents. He wants to be somebody -- get away from all this. Soon Clyde lands a job as a soda jerk in a pharmacy, and this leads to becoming a bus-boy in the most prestigious hotel in Kansas City. A formative event that gives him a glimpse of glamor. The very things he craves. Girls. Fun. Excitement. Social advancement.
And we've still got more than 700 pages to go!
Oh, Clyde. Oh, Clyde -- the crazy-ass decisions you are about to make!
Fast forward to several years later, Clyde is working at another hotel in Chicago, and stumbles upon a chance to lift himself from poverty and obscurity -- to wealth, pleasure, and hitherto impossible romantic success.
Of course he grabs at this brass ring, but in order to gain these ends he must utterly abandon the pieties of his fundamentalist upbringing and consider sacrificing his first real love, the only girl who has ever shown him true affection. All of society conspires to persuade him that his goals are admirable, perhaps even sacred -- but ultimately, Clyde, way out of his depth, resorts to criminal means in order to attain all that he wants.
How far down the rabbit hole can one man fall?
The answer is -- this far. As far as Clyde does. There is no farther.
This book has all the potential to supplant my former favorite book of all time, and that one was written by Leo Tolstoy! So really, it is every bit as grand. Truly a gem -- I can honestly say I was riveted at every moment of An American Tragedy.
It was published in 1925, a year before my own father was born -- and so many times I thought to myself -- This book has been in existence my entire life and I only discovered it now?

Dreiser manages to parenthetically return in the end to a current update of Clyde's family -- now on the streets of San Francisco -- still preaching the wonder-working power of a God who seemed, in Clyde's case at least, to leave all legal consequences to the jury-decided results of human choice.  
What a terrific book. It was searing, moving, and most importantly to me, entirely believable. 

828 pages of prose-perfect verisimilitude.
If anyone out there is still wondering what you can get me for my birthday this December [start saving up now] -- you cannot go wrong with ordering this $3,500.00 signed two volume first edition set!


1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I've not read this one but your review of it makes me want to. That it might supplant Ann K as your top book, that says a lot!