I didn’t realize Paste posted my review of the largely terrible Downton Abbey boardgame, a game for which I had low expectations that it still couldn’t meet.
“Man of integrity, Mrs. Caswell,” Strafford nodded toward Frederick with a deep sigh. “That’s what I admire – integrity. But it does make people hard to get along with.”
I’ve praised Dawn Powell a few times around here, praising her masterwork A Time to Be Born (#21 on the Klaw 100) and just generally arguing that she’s an under-read American author. I seem to have failed to take my own advice, however, having read five of her novels in a twelve-month span from December 2009 to December 2010, then nothing since. She wrote fifteen novels in total, thirteen of which are currently in print thanks to Steerforth Press, mostly satires of the in-crowd in Manhattan in the periods just before and after World War II.
The Locusts Have No King finds Powell aiming her derisive lens at the literary set, both writers and the simpering publishers who see them in terms of dollar signs, during the tumultuous period right after the end of the war. Drawing its title from Proverbs 30 (“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise … the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank”), Locusts is loosely centered around the affair between Frederick Olliver, a struggling writer who refuses to compromise his principles to write something more commercial, and his married lover Lyle Gaynor. Lyle’s successful career as a playwright suddenly hits the skids right as Frederick finds his didactic works picked up by a benefactor who sees commercial potential in them, a shift in fortunes that drives the two of them apart.
Ah, but the burst of energy that upsets the momentarily stable particles at the heart of the book is the perfectly-named Dodo, a sexually rapacious young woman who uses her physical charms to try to sleep her way into higher and higher circles of literary society. She latches on to Frederick, who is guileless enough to fall into her clutches, while his roommate Murray, of uncertain vocation, seems to have more lovers than he can handle and desires to handle none of them save his controlling ex-wife Gerda. Dodo becomes the willing pawn of several of these women as they too seek to entrap more powerful men, mostly for reasons of career advancement rather than sheer gold-digging (Powell had no problems satirizing women, but never puts them down as a class in that stereotyped way), while she herself tries to ingratiate herself into the circle of the Beckleys, the folks with the money to fund or prop up the writers’ various projects.
While Powell’s incisive wit may have been more precise than ever in Locusts, given her three decades (by that point) in the publishing and dramatic fields, the novel also feels more insular than her other works because the archetypes she lampoons are not easily recognized by those of us on the outside. There is certainly humor in her dialogues, including nearly every time Dodo opens her mouth but also the fatuous ramblings of the publishers who push Olliver’s work without understanding it in the least, but characters who satirize unfamiliar targets can feel flimsy rather than funny. Other than the Beckleys – and I wondered if the name’s similarity to the word “feckless,” which described them well, was a coincidence – none of the characters clicked for me as parodies of people or types I knew. Even the witless publisher Tyson Bricker seems a bit harmless as satires go; if he’s funding Olliver for the wrong reasons, at least he’s funding something worthwhile, right?
Frederick and Lyle return to center stage as the novel starts to wind toward its conclusion, after first Lyle keeps Frederick at arm’s length and then realizes by doing so she’s left him vulnerable to the likes of Dodo. Yet Powell ensures that their slow dance back toward each other’s arms is unsatisfying to the reader, capturing both the fragility of the success Frederick is suddenly enjoying and the rise in anxiety over the nuclear age. The novel ends at the time of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, an event she incorporates into a closing scene that provides the ambiguous closing note a novel of this tenor deserves.
Next up: I’m about three books behind in reviews, but right now I’ve just started Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.