Monday, May 30, 2011

Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt is not a great book because of its satire of hypocritical bourgeois values and mindless civic boosterism. If you think that it is, you're WRONG! You FAIL the course! No, that stuff's all perfectly effectively done and sometimes funny, but what what really puts it a step above is the portrait of the title character himself. George F. Babbitt is entirely inculcated in this culture, but he has occasional moments of, if not quite self-awareness, then the sense that there's something wrong with his life and the world around him. In his relationship with his best friend, Paul Reisling, you can see a certain humanity shining through, even if the whole thing is couched in inanities, and his inchoate sort of rebellion is inspiring even in its incoherence. What I'm saying is, he's one of the great characters of American literature.

Elmer Gantry…not so much. He has no depths. He is a thoroughly despicable character from start to finish; casually using, discarding, and destroying anyone who gets in his way on the path to evangelical wealth and power. To the extent that I enjoyed the book, it was mostly because I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: it seemed inevitable that, at some point, something was gonna happen to put Gantry's worldview in jeopardy or to force some sort of re-evaluation of something--but no dice. There are very occasional, tiny intimations that something along these lines could take place, but they never go anywhere at all. It seems like something's definitely going to happen when he falls in with Sharon Falconer, a charismatic, somewhat insane revivalist preacher. But then, after recording their exploits for a while, Lewis basically hits the reset button on the whole thing, and you wonder: what was the point of all that? The only conflict in the novel consists in the character encountering occasional setbacks in his road to glory. There's no internal conflict. Calling Gantry a "character" at all seems to be pushing it a bit. One sort of gets the impression that Lewis was afraid that if he went for nuance, readers might somehow miss the unmissable message, and said message was so important to him that he could take no chance of that happening.

For what it's worth, Lewis clearly isn't a big fan of religion in general, but it's really just religious hypocrisy he's after (though this hypocrisy, for him, is pretty much omni-present); there are a few sincerely religious figures in the novel presented sympathetically, and the occasional professional-atheist types who show up aren't too likable either.

Lewis definitely makes his point, I'll give him that, albeit with sledgehammer subtlety, and as a full-scale assault on organized religion, the novel was no doubt more shocking in its time than it is today. But while I'm broadly sympathetic to the message, it isn't exactly a complicated message, and I'm not sure how much value there is in having Lewis shout it in your ear over and over for five-hundred-odd pages.


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