Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Upton Sinclair, Mountain City (1930)

Hmm. This novel concerns one Jed Rusher, who grows up an impoverished farm-boy, with an unbreakable determination to get rich come hell or high water so he doesn't have to be at the mercy of economic fluctuations. It's a perfectly believable motivation, and goes a good way towards explaining this country's general amorality: when you have a system that's designed to fuck over the great majority of its subjects (or "citizens," if you laughingly prefer), you strip away the ethical frameworks not just of the plutocrats, but everyone else too.

It's an interesting novel because it's the first I've read from Sinclair with an unsympathetic protagonist. Here's how Jed starts his fortune: he's able to go to college because of his sister's ironclad determination, and while there he wrangles his way into a job as attendant to a fabulously wealthy speculator who had become an invalid. His granddaughter, Lulu Belle, comes in to visit him; she's fourteen years old, but she's been kept utterly sheltered her entire life, so she has no idea about anything. She's very upset because her parents have taken away her dolls, on the basis that she's outgrown such childish things. If only I could have a real baby, like my cousin, she says to Jed, nobody could take it away from me. How do people get babies? This flusters the hell out of Jed, who mumbles his apologies and leaves, but upon reflection, it occurs to him, hey, I know! If I were to tell her where babies come from, and then impregnate her, they'd have to let her marry me, and I'd be part of this super-rich family! And he's all prepared to go through with this brilliant scheme, until he learns that he has been preƫmpted by a boy from her own social group, leaving him to say oh, well, if you DO get pregnant, be sure to tell me and I'll help you.

Mirabile dictu, this comes to pass, and she writes him a letter telling him, and he puts his new scheme in motion: he blusters his way into her family's house, making her mother let him see her by threatening to tell the papers, and getting her to drop the idea of getting a discreet abortion for her daughter with appallingly insincere expressions of moral outrage that would do today's anti-woman brigade proud; then, when he sees Lulu Belle, he does the classic psychopath thing of isolating her by emphasizing how everyone's against her but him, and gets her to agree to run off and secretly marry him, having ascertained that the worst that can happen if it's revealed that they lied about her age is a small fine.

And then indeed in short order everyone does accept him. So yay Jed! But while the money he marries into helps, he makes his real fortune via oil prospecting, and the scenes of him inspecting fields and bribing officials might as well have been copied straight from Sinclair's earlier Oil! (1927).

From this, you might think that the novel would be luridly fascinating, but it's really not. The awful business with his child-bride is the clear highlight. After that, he just settles in to being a kind of generically corrupt oil tycoon. Naturally, the idea of being rich just so he doesn't have to live a hard life quickly goes by the wayside, as he throws himself full-time into stock manipulation and the like. As with Oil! it would be hard to call this an advocacy novel, exactly, like Sinclair's earlier works; it really just shows all this corruption in action and lets you draw your own conclusions.

All this goes on for a LONG time; looking back, it's sort of hard to see how this was possibly enough to sustain a three-hundred-twenty-page novel (and densely-packed pages, too--it would probably be closer to five hundred in a contemporary edition). There's a whole lot of nothing here. Towards the end, Jed gets an anonymous tip-off that his wife is cheating on him, and one is briefly seized with the hope that the book's going to suddenly turn into Othello, which would just be gloriously loopy. But no such luck; she just confesses her indiscretions and they separate rather amicably, after which he keeps doing his thing. It's an obvious analogue for capitalism, which doesn't really have climaxes, but just keeps on keeping on. Not a particularly satisfying conclusion, though. Maybe if it had been written by the other Sinclair, Lewis, it might have worked better.

I'm trying to read a whole bunch of Upton Sinclair because it pleases me to do so, but this isn't a great book. The aforementioned Oil! is far better. The closest thing to a sympathetic character is Lulu Belle's grandfather, who holds socialist ideals while cynically profiting from the system to rub it in people's faces what bullshit it all is, but that's about it, and Jed just isn't much of a character at all--again, maybe in a representative way, but that doesn't make for great fiction. He has occasional very brief intimations of some sort of social conscience, but it goes without saying that those are quashed quickly enough. I was driven largely by curiosity about where the hell all this was leading. Nowhere in particular, it turns out.

But to end on a positive note, one thing I do like is Sinclair's fastidious insistence on putting quotation marks around any turn of phrase that strikes him as suspiciously colloquial; eg, "all that would be more or less dangerous, but even bolder things had been 'gotten away with' by able lawyers with rich clients 'in a jam.'" Maybe I'll try to start incorporating that into my own writing.


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