Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Innocent by Madison Jones

As I was reading The Inncocent, I must say I was utterly gripped by it. Madison Jones is an author I confess I’d never even heard of until I came across a reference recently and decided to check him out, and as I was reading this I was asking myself ‘why isn’t this guy better known?’

However, in the three or four days since I finished it my opinion of it has lowered considerably. For sure, this is a terrificly well written novel, and the author’s grip of narrative is impressive indeed. Even although much of the plot is hackneyed, to say the least, it keeps you reading on. That’s very fine writing indeed.

But, in the end, the novel just doesn’t succeed. The total is considerably less than the sum of its parts. Those things which are especially good about it – and there are a few of those – do not, finally, mitigate the problems which obtain.

The novel confronts standard preoccupations of the south in the pre- and immediately post-war years (it was written in 1957 but is set in 1935), that of progress in a world that is becoming modern and, in so doing, is embracing evil. In that, it is classically Faulknerian. We have the progressive preacher, Garner, who talks of a new age and progressive communities and the triumph of the human spirit over the ‘thou shalt nots’ of the old religion; and squared against him we have Duncan, the educated young man who left his backwoods home to go to Chicago and get an education and find a vocation (as a journalist – a chronicler of progress) – only to return home “forever” and re-join the old, agrarian life. The novel is his story, charting his fall, and in so doing it follows a strict, Calvinist, typically southern fundamentalist approach. This is a man who is doomed to failure, and who can only succeed – that is, to gain redemption and achieve grace – by taking that failure to its logical conclusion and accepting the consequences thereof.

Although there is much to admire here, the novel fails on two counts. Firstly, while the characterisations of the mains are excellent, those of the supporting cast are considerably weaker. This is especially significant in this novel, and an especial flaw, because these characters, in particular, are the ones who should be giving the story its moral centre. These are bad men, men who hark back to the old, dark ways of the south, and they should resonate with evil. Instead, Patterk the horse owner is a cliché and a caricature, while Jordan is simply the archetypal, sneering bad guy. He should almost be wearing a black hat and bearing a scar across his cheek to indicate his malevolent nature because his treatment in the novel is so unsubtle he has “baddie” emblazoned across his every action.

Secondly, and more importantly, the story’s central struggle, personified by the clash between Garner and Duncan, and representing that eternal American clash between tradition and progress, and, more importantly, between the Calvinist, guilt-soaked quest for redemption and a newer, more human-facing religion, is never fully realised. It promises something deep. The first exchange between these two characters simmers with repressed anger and suggests that, along the way, a great battle will be waged by them. But, somehow, it never quite unfolds. Garner is wheeled in occasionally, but the author’s heart is clearly not with him. He never becomes a rounded individual and we are left, intentionally, one supposes, to think him something of a fraud. In fact, he is the only person in the novel who offers any sustained and reasoned vision of progress and a more wholesome future, but that does not serve the author’s intentions, and so, in turn, the author ill-serves his character. Madison Jones, it seems, was trapped in this faux-Faulknerian southern world where the past was good and the future is bad and where progress is something to be demurred because it only ever offers further routes to damnation.

This is a fine piece of novel writing but it is not a fine novel. One might say it is very much of its time, but that may perhaps be too charitable. I suspect, although it may not have been apparent at the time because proximity to events tends to make them opaque, that when this novel was published it was already an anachronism.

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