Saturday, April 26, 2014

by Wallace Stegner
Only an elite novelist could succeed in what Wallace Stegner accomplishes with “Recapitulation.” A sequel to “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” this novel is more contemplative than it is event-based and episodic. The reader spends perhaps as much time dwelling in the mind of the protagonist Bruce Mason as he does witnessing the experiences of the teenage boy that Mason remembers himself being during his formative years. “Recapitulation” is about recollection of the past and coming to terms with repressed anger, humiliation, guilt, and loss. It is about closing the door to those destructive emotions caused by undesirable living circumstances and hostile parenting.

Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City forty-five years after the death of his father, Harry Mason, in 1932. It was in this important Mormon city that Bruce lived most of his teenage life. We learn that during his productive adult years he had worked for the State Department as a diplomat in the Middle East. He had once been an ambassador. The pretext for his return is to make arrangements for and attend the burial of his aunt -- Harry Mason’s aged, senile sister. He has no emotional attachment to her; he has hardly known her. He knows that his presence isn’t necessary. He could easily dictate the arrangements from afar. He has come back for other reasons not characteristic of his nature and not entirely understood.

His State Department colleagues viewed Mason as a man “indifferent to where he had been, interested only in where he was going.” He was famous for carrying with him a little black book “in which he jotted down appointments, reminders, obligations, shopping lists, which, as soon as each item was taken care of, he inked out so blackly that they could not be read.” Not until close to the end of the novel does the reader recognize that Mason has returned to Salt Lake City to ink out the hurtful recollections of his youth and the emotions that they had generated.

Walking the streets of the city, recognizing familiar sights, Mason imagines himself walking double. “Inside him … went a thin brown youth, volatile, impulsive, never at rest, not so much a person as a possibility, … subject to enthusiasm and elation and exuberance and occasional great black moods, stubborn, capable of scheming but often astonished by consequences, a boy vulnerable to wonder, awe, worship, devotion, hatred, guilt, vanity, shame, ambition, dreams, treachery; a boy avid for acceptance and distinction …” He would see himself later in the novel as having been “the quintessentially decultured American, born artless and without history into a world of opportunity” needing to “acquire in a single lifetime the intellectual sophistication and the cultural confidence that luckier ones absorb through their pores from earliest childhood, and unluckier ones never even miss.”

The root cause of his deprived childhood was his father. “The Big Rocky Candy Mountain” chronicles Harry Mason’s incessant quest to achieve self-gratification, within and outside the law. Ever restless, he has moved his family from various locations in the United States and Canada to pursue brighter opportunities when a normal family man would have settled for what he had modestly achieved. Harry is a hard man certain in his judgment, critical if not contemptuous of conflicting viewpoints. The family had come to Salt Lake City hoping to leave behind “the many failures, the self-deceptions, the schemes that never paid off, the jobs that never worked out, the hopeful starts that had always ended in excuses or flight.” Initially, Harry runs a speak-easy in his home. The family is forced to live isolated lives. “It was as if they lived not merely at the edge of the park but outside the boundaries of all human warmth, all love and companionship and neighborliness, all light and noise and activity, all law.” Later, Harry becomes a bootlegger. This requires that he take long trips to acquire his merchandise as well as trips within the city area to make deliveries to customers. The family continues to live outside the law and the community.

Bruce’s mother is Bruce’s lifeline during his early teenage years in Salt Lake City. “She had been brought up in a stiff Lutheran family, and without being at all religious, she had a yearning belief in honesty, law, fairness, respectability, and the need for self-respect. … She was a humble, decent woman … All it ever took to remind Bruce of how abused he was, was to catch sight of her face when she didn’t know anyone was looking.”

At school Bruce is a scrawny outcast. He seeks approval from his teachers by being excessively diligent. Fearful of the effects that his peers’ disapproval of him are having on Bruce, his mother forces him to join a tennis club, hoping that he might find some path toward social acceptance. Bruce is fortunate to meet at the club Joe Mulder, the star player of the high school tennis team. Joe takes Bruce under his wing, teaches him the game, and introduces him to his family. “Joe rescued his summer and perhaps his life. He taught Bruce not only tennis but confidence, and not only confidence but friendship.” Thereafter, Bruce spends most of his out-of-school time at the Mulder house. Joe’s father hires him to work at his nursery. Bruce discovers that his father is jealous. “Harry Mason resented the fact that his guarded laughterless, irritable house should be abandoned in favor on one rotten with respectability.”

Because of Joe Mulder, Bruce ventures into the hazardous realm of establishing relationships with girls. His great love becomes Nola Gordon, from whom he learns bittersweet lessons of life. She helps him feel, reflect, and grow. It is recollections of Nola and long-standing emotions about her that the adult Bruce additionally wishes to reconcile.

A master of subjective narration, Wallace Stegner is also a superb scene writer. He narrates characters’ tensions extremely well. One such scene has Bruce bringing Nola home to meet his mother, who is recovering from breast cancer surgery. Bruce and Nola had been at a high school prom party. Bruce had been feeling guilty that he had left his mother alone, his father having driven to California to restock his quantity of illicit liquor. The meeting between Nola and Bruce’s mother goes well, everybody is happy, but then they hear the sound of a car entering the garage. Harry Mason has returned.

Hoping to put his father on his best behavior, Bruce intercepts Harry outside the house. He tells him that they have a guest, his date. Harry criticizes Bruce for having left his mother alone. He enters the room pretending he does not know that Nola is present. “Bruce watches him go in and bend over and kiss the woman in the bed – and that is surely showing off … Except when he is showing off or clowning, he makes no such standard gesture of affection.” Bruce’s mother introduces him to Nola. “Bruce knows exactly how she is looking at his father, her eyes curious and interested … At once he feels compared and judged. Beside his father’s size and weight and shirt-sleeve dishevelment he feels like the overdressed figure on a wedding cake. … The old helpless feeling of inferiority oppresses him.” Harry gives a lengthy account of how his car had rolled over on a storm-damaged road. It evokes amazement and sympathy. Bruce announces that he and Nola need to go back to the party. “I have to be there to help close it up. I’m on the committee.” Harry answers with “an incredulous laugh. ‘If you’re on the committee.’” Nola interprets the response as kidding. Outside the house Bruce and Nola talk.

“… You and your father don’t get along.”

“Was it that obvious?”

“You won’t let him joke you.”

“His jokes aren’t jokes.”

Wallace Stegner reflects upon the subtleties of human existence. His insights resonate. Do we not look back upon our lives to reexamine the satisfactions and mistakes of our past? It is part of human nature to sum up, hopefully to cherish, not ink out, what we have experienced.