-by Larry Woiwode
Inclinations of the Heart
By Christopher Tilghman
It is 1936, and the French liner Normandie is plowing through the North Atlantic toward America. At least one family on its passenger list, the Masons, expatriates of a sort, will never be the same. For the previous dozen years, Edward Mason and his wife, Edith, and their sons, Sebastien and Simon, have lived in England. Edward, trained as an engineer, owns and runs a machine-tool plant in Manchester, but the Depression has nearly wiped him out. For the past few years, the family has lived in a series of increasingly bare or squalid flats, often loaned to them rent-free.
Now Edward is returning the family to an estate he owns in Maryland--as he explains with some irritation to another passenger, the pushy wife of a tire manufacturer from Akron whose husband has been cutting deals with the Germans. What he does not explain is that the estate was bequeathed to him by a dotty aunt, and he has never seen it; the "mansion" on a thousand acres has stood unoccupied during their years in England. Yet Edward has gone even deeper in debt to bring his family across the Atlantic--on a luxury liner, no less--and settle them at this place called ("improbably," as the narrator puts it) The Retreat.
This narrator, as we learn through the effortless unfolding of his story, is the grandson of Edward Mason. His name is Harry, and his tale opens at a time before he was born. Generational effects, he suggests, are that ingrained, settled, and enduring; he "knows that this story, told to him over and over again for reasons that he can barely imagine, is now his to tell his own children, to be taken well or badly, to be believed wholly or in part, like a kiss."
As details accumulate in the first dozen pages of Mason's Retreat, in both broad and subtle strokes, with the assurance of a writer who knows his way, we come to feel we've known the Masons, or their exact counterparts, our whole lives. While Edward walks the decks of the Normandie in early morning light with the robust verve of Teddy Roosevelt, looking forward to a big breakfast, his wife, Edith, remains in the family's three-quarter-scale stateroom, its wood bleached blond, in a frayed terry-cloth bathrobe that is falling open, trying to compose a letter to her parents in Winnetka, Illinois.
Edith is described as dark, with the looks of an Indian, though the hunter-gatherer-settler has passed from her family many generations before, the narrator comments; Edith's father is a furniture mover with bonded warehouses, who lectures Edward on money. Edith would like merely to describe for her parents the high points of the trip but feels they expect explanations for the family's return to America. She runs her hand over an exposed thigh.
Finally she pushes away from the desk to check on her sons, sleeping in the neighboring stateroom. Sebastien, the oldest at 14, is capable of moving silently; his father has punished him for eavesdropping, but it does not seem to make him change. From the time he could walk, Sebastien has prowled; when he is motionless, he lurks. As their dwellings became more and more modest over the past few years in England, he suffered cruelly from the lack of privacy; he has always needed more space than most children, and other children, especially, have a way of making him feel crowded.
In these few sentences, the latent tragedy--and I do mean tragedy--at the heart of the Mason family is exposed.
Sebastien, as Edith has feared, is out prowling the ship, and she gently brings her less complex (perhaps even simple, she thinks) son Simon into the world of the waking. He is the father of the book's masterful narrator, Harry.
A few pages later, Edith tries to imagine the family is "going to a better life," as a reward to her:
For being, at base, loyal to her husband, as difficult as that has been; for trying to understand his pain over the past several years and for forgiving two dalliances--two that she knows of--with office girls, and the one affair that was really not forgivable, the one that in many ways had killed her joy, just the way the Depression had killed his.
Once in Baltimore, the Masons' finances are revealed in their awfulness; crowded with their belongings into a hotel room taken on promise of later payment, Edward is down to the coins in his pocket. He has borrowed from Edith's father, we learn, to finance the trip back to America. Edward arranges with the tenant farmer at the Retreat, McCready, to meet the family at a ferry they must take to the East Shore. But before they leave, Edward, with his practiced geniality, meets a Mr. Hazelton, who claims to be related. A comic encounter with McCready, a kind of redneck, occurs at the ferry dock, and McCready drives the Masons in his musty Ford to the ancestral manor.
Though the reader suspects by now the place will be a shambles, it's worse: An animal--not a mouse or a rat, but something large, like a fox or a dog--had died long ago in the center of the hall, leaving only the black stain of its dried juices and a moldy skeleton. In the dining room, there was a table for twenty-four that was covered by a confused jumble of plaster and lath, rodent nests and locust cocoons, all of it given forth from a rotten, water-damaged ceiling.
As the Masons explore the house and it yields its contents--"pictures rising three-high on the walls, every horizontal surface awash in pieces of art, items of interest, objects of brass and stone," along with piles of silver in pantries--it begins to assume the life of a separate character, as a central setting should. As does the Chesapeake Bay area, wonderfully depicted.
There are black servants and workmen who go with the Retreat, and once the Masons arrive, as a buffer against ghosts (as it is interpreted), two women take over the house for Edith. Edward examines McCready's books, finding them wonderfully in order, and realizes that the Retreat's farm, largely a dairy operation, can support the family. He can maybe even pay back his father-in-law before he sets his lawyers on him, as he has threatened.
Simon's relationship with Edward deepens, and in an excess of emotion, Edward says to his young son, indicating the Retreat, "All of this is yours, Simon"--then realizes that this should be addressed to Sebastien, the oldest.
Sebastien meanwhile is flourishing. He loves the open spaces, the farm work, the sunlight and sea air. He falls in love with Robert, a black man who is McCready's most valuable worker--or if not love, the unwavering admiration a boy of 14 develops for a resourceful man of physical accomplishment.
As Edith muses, "The people and the farm itself seemed to have accepted Sebastien as a native son, just as this household seemed to have made room for her and Simon. But there was no place waiting for [Edward], just an owner's prerogative, more respected the less it was used." It is unfortunate, but perhaps expected, that Edward is determined to use it more. He wants to reinstate, after his suspect aunt, a registered herd of cattle, though both Robert and McCready warn him they won't be profitable in the present economy; World War II is rumbling into place. Each historical detail is artfully placed in the filling jigsaw puzzle of the story, now firmly outlined.
The registered herd is not successful, as might also be expected, and Edward takes the failure nearly as a personal affront. In the interim, a beautiful yacht appears at the neglected dock of the Retreat, piloted by the "relative" Edward met in Baltimore, Hazelton. With him is his son Thomas, thirtyish, who confides privately to Edith, "My father is hopeless. He isn't a Mason, Edith, not even by the tiniest drop of blood. My father is a Jew. His parents were born in Poland."
Together, only moments after they've met, they conspire not to reveal Hazelton's impersonation to Edward, for the pleasure the elderly Hazelton derives from it. The Masons invite the Hazeltons to dinner, and Edith feverishly dresses as she did when she had hope, then looks out her bedroom window where
she could see the mast of the boat, and then a line of movement through the cattails, and then the guests emerged, magical visitors from the sea. It was suddenly many years ago in Edith's mind, perhaps many decades, perhaps an earlier era, and she was hiding in this protected vantage point like the daughter of the house, spying down for a look at the young man whose black tie was now being set straight by his father, and perhaps he was the girl's only love since childhood.
The die is cast; Edith and Tom, after prying at one another to remove further barriers, enter into an adulterous relationship. They are abetted in this by Edward's increasing absences. He not only travels to Baltimore, to sell some of the best pieces of silver from the pantries, but eventually sails again to England. History has vindicated him. His machine-tool plant is valuable to the war effort. He has already foolishly worked himself into a corner with McCready, encouraging him to buy the tractor the tenant has always wanted, for instance, and in a moment of utter thoughtlessness and disregard for the rest of the family, he allows McCready to buy all the land of the Retreat.
This brings death to the family, both metaphorical and literal, although Edith's affair and Edward's continuing dalliances, only hinted at, have begun the decay. And with the impending death, and then the death itself, the note of tragedy resounds though the whole of Mason's Retreat--not the casually arranged catharsis of melodrama, but hard-won, and deepened by Tilghman's undistanced emotional commitment.
I say hard-won because the prose has a frangibilty or brittleness at points, constructed with such scrupulous concern it seems nailed to the page, as though it better not dare move, and so conveys at times a sense of datedness. Rather than pouncing on some egregious examples (those moments when a novelist simply gives out), I will point to previous quotes I largely admire: Edward has punished Sebastien for eavesdropping, we read, "but it does not seem to make him change," a phrase that seems leaned on too hard, when "it doesn't seem to change him" would do as well and is more relaxed and direct; the jumble on the table being "given forth" seems an archaism; and "perhaps an earlier era" in the last quote seems to betray a need to drive home one nail too many.
Decades ago, when John Updike was an ambitious young writer, he said about the carefully fashioned prose of Saul Bellow that it was a style that gathered lint. Dandy lint, he added. But lint nonetheless. Indeed, Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March feel heavily breathed over here in the present, as Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King do not. As Bellow advanced in his work, he seemed to settle with confidence into the art of being a narrator, not a stylist--when it would seem that style, to judge by the prose, was the impetus behind his early writing.
I think I sense what Tilghman hopes to do--suggest or hint at the stateliness of another time. (This is certainly clear in the speech of most of the characters, especially Edward Mason, although the speech of none of the family approaches 1930s British idiom, even though the Masons have lived there for a dozen years; both Sebastien and Simon were born and raised there before the family's return to America.) When stretches of narrative attempt to match the cadences of perhaps an earlier era, however, the writer runs the risk of mannerism. The work of James Gould Cozzens, greatly admired in its time (and especially his most popular novel, By Love Possessed ), now bears that stamp. Cozzens's stately unfolding sentences give off a whiff of mothballs at most turns; the crafted texture of his work that won it so many awards (and it often indeed contains true acuity of insight into character) can seem merely fussy. Prose that is self-conscious of its contours dates at least as fast as the human body, not to mention the fashions we hide it under. We all are, to a certain degree, the children of our time.
Tilghman generally treads the dangerous tightrope he has stretched for himself with extraordinary grace. So when one finds oneself wanting to remonstrate with him in this way (as I do), as one might with Dos Passos or Faulkner about their quirks and locutions, a reminder is in order: Mason's Retreat is only Tilghman's second book; his first was In a Father's Place (1990), a short-story collection many cuts above most. This is his first novel. And with that reminder the magnitude of his accomplishment stands clear.
None of Mason's Retreat contains any of the self-congratulatory languor (if not verbal clangor) that limits the work of otherwise excellent writers who seem to be afraid that you will not notice how excellent they are. They'll go nameless.
Prose that goes at reality head-on, as in Tolstoy, or entangles itself so much with reality that it appears to enwrap it or still it within another dimension, as in Updike, is the prose a storyteller should pursue. Novels must be as closely written as short stories, sentence by sentence, and they pursue the same accuracy. But the glory of a novel is that it can break into airborne sections that feel wholly governed by the narrative's pace, and take their accuracy from pawing toward that speed. Tilghman seems to understand and to aim for this and does achieve it during Sebastien's sail across Chesapeake Bay to hide from his parents.
And it is exactly here that the sonorous note of true tragedy, as exemplified by the Greeks or, even better, Shakespeare, begins to mount through Mason's Retreat. That tragedy always arrives through locomotion, with a speed that can blur, like a collapsing wave, should be apparent when we think of the reckless way in which Shakespeare poured words through a king on his way down--that gabby storyteller whose store of words opened wider as he ran so the right ones rose to each occasion.
Mason's Retreat is true tragedy in the American vein--not as in Fitzgerald, whose central quest is for Eldorado (though that is here), but as in Faulkner and Willa Cather. If Tilghman is measured against near contemporaries who sensed the potential in Salinger's domestic upheavals and took off from there--Roth and Updike, Paley and Munro, for example--he rises to the mark in every instance. His concern, as in Cather, is with characters such as Oedipus or Lear or Othello, who commit insupportable acts against a spouse or a family, transgress against the balances that inhere in the universe--those unalterable armies of the law of God--and so bring about death and the fall of an entire household from grace.
It is a measure of Tilghman's art that he doesn't point a finger, or shake it with a superior moral sense at the offenders. All have sinned, as his novel clearly reveals, all have fallen short of the glory and perfection set before them-all the Mason family and its adherents have, the children as surely as the parents. Yet it is the parents' failure or refusal to contain their children's boundaries that brings about the destruction of life--a final feeling most readers will carry from Mason's Retreat, once they surface from the awful death that takes place.
The title itself suggests the culpability of the parents, and the possessive apostrophe could as well fall after the s. Both parents have retreated in their separate ways from Sebastien and Simon, Edward in the fussy self-importance that undermines his business ventures, Edith in the sensuality she must conceal, especially from her sons.
The clearest and most salutary way to describe this book, perhaps, is that it is a biblical novel. It hews to a standard, the revealed Word of God, even though Edward may quote those very words to mock them. Mason's Retreat evokes the terror and pity that the Greeks set as their standard but that can be found in its full expression only in the Bible, in those narrative passages that begin to edge near to the actual majesty of God or the bloody human sacrifice of his own son. And finally it seethes with the grace that only an insupportable sacrifice has the power to arouse.
Larry Woiwode is the author of many books, including most recently Silent Passengers, a collection of stories, and Acts, a meditation on the Book of Acts.
Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 8