The Carpenter Years.
by Arthur A. Cohen.
New American Library. 151 pp. $4.50.
Edgar Morrison is director of the YMCA in Langham, Pennsylvania, a WASP among WASPs. When we first meet him he is explaining to Rabbi Kieval, the Conservative Jewish rabbi of Langham, why teenagers from the rabbi’s congregation won’t be allowed to use the Y’s swimming pool. (Why a rabbi should be so eager for his young people to use the swimming pool of a conspicuously Christian organization beats me.) Morrison shows the slightly condescending friendliness of a confident member of the dominant culture confronting a member of a minority. But Edgar Morrison is really Morris Edelman, Jewish accountant from New York who left his wife, Esther, and his small son, Danny, many years ago to find a new identity for himself before arriving at Langham with a conscientiously faked Anglo-Saxon Protestant ancestry. In Langham he eventually bigamously married a new wife, of Scandinavian background, and begot a new son. When his brother finally tracked him down, the brother was easily able to blackmail him into paying for a Mexican divorce for his first wife. That was some years before the story opens. All his problems seem now to have been solved: he is a successful and accepted WASP.
But—need I say?—he has a deep inward unease, which had revealed itself some years before by his wandering off from his family for a few days and refusing to talk about what he had done or why he had done it on his return. Now, news that his original son, Danny, is about to come to Langham to be interviewed for a job in the hospital there sets him off again, and he goes off into the night, loads up with whiskey at a bar, has a row with Walter Edgemore, teetotaler chairman of the Y Board (an improbable character who tells Edgar, “I’ll do anything in the world—I’ll whore and fornicate all I please—but it’s a clear head all the time, a clear head that knows what it’s about, does its work clear and cool. But I won’t ever drink. Never.”), and unsuccessfully seeks unlikely comfort from Edgemore’s shabby mistress in her hotel room. After more night wandering he returns home to find comfort in talking with the teenage son of his second marriage, Steve (a nice boy, and very understanding, who doesn’t, of course, know of his father’s concealed Jewish background but suspects that his father has some legitimate reason for breaking out occasionally).
Danny Edelman, now a young man of twenty-six and eager to find and confront the father he had at one time considered dead, duly arrives at Langham for his interview and attends a party given by the head of the hospital to enable the top people of Langham to look him over. Edgar Morrison and his wife are invited to this party. (Improbably, Rabbi Kieval is also at this party; indeed, for a reason that eludes me it is Kieval who first knows about Danny’s impending arrival at Langham and who, in ignorance of Danny’s identity, first tells his father.) Danny Edelman, the Jewish young man from New York, meets his father, Edgar Morrison, the Langham WASP: only they two know of their relationship. They exchange penetrating glances, and that is all: each recognizes the other’s loneliness and Danny feels deflated. He has had his confrontation and feels now that there is nothing more to do or say. He tells the company that he now doesn’t want the job after all, and drives back to New York after knocking down Walter Edgemore, who had received the announcement of Danny’s change of mind about the job with bullying demands for an explanation. Danny’s car is involved with a truck in the Lincoln Tunnel, and he is found by the police on the Manhattan side of the tunnel “slumped over the wheel, unhurt, laughing.”
As the story unfolds, we are given flashbacks of both Edgar’s and Danny’s early lives, and these involve other characters who are sometimes portrayed in some detail. We learn something of Clip Martin, the Presbyterian minister who, years before when Edgar had come to him for spiritual help, had spoken of “the carpenter years of Jesus,” the years “when He knew utterly who He was and what task He had been appointed to perform and nevertheless went on being unimportant,” as “the only ones for me, for you.” When in his present agony of spirit Edgar telephones Clip in the middle of the night to tell him that his own carpenter years “go on, my years stretch on interminably, but they’re coming to an end,” Clip, who does not recall his words of long ago, is confused. I confess that I am too, and do not understand the significance of the phrase or the reason for its being used as the title of the novel. Among other characters we meet in the flashbacks are Aaron Gutwillig, a Jewish Christian whom Edgar encounters early in his flight from Esther and Danny, preaching the Gospel in a highly individual manner from an egg-crate near Times Square. Edgar (though he is still Morris at this time) spends some days with Gutwillig, who converts him to some sort of Christianity, although Edgar draws the line at formal baptism. I am afraid that I cannot make out Gutwillig at all, or make sense out of his harangues. We also get to know Morris Edgar’s unsympathetic first wife, Esther, in a rather grimly etched picture of his early life with her and his struggles as an unsuccessful New York accountant.
The details in this novel are filled in with skill and care and there is some powerful and occasionally even moving writing. But the author moves uneasily between realism and symbolism. The tone is that of sociological and psychological precision, but the incidents are meant to have symbolic dimensions. As a result, there are two levels of probability at work which, instead of reinforcing each other, tend to destroy or at least weaken each other. The pressures that would make a Polish-Jewish immigrant want to appear as a WASP in an American small town are real pressures, and they result in real conflicts, real timidities, self-deceptions, internal strains. But to have such a person converted to Christianity by a nutty Hebrew Christian before finally landing a job as Presbyterian director of the YMCA in a Pennsylvania town, and to have him in the process commit bigamy and therefore not only expose himself to the criminal law but threaten the whole foundation of his new life—this is not plausible. But who wants that kind of plausibility in a symbolic novel?, it may be asked. Well, I do for one: the tone of the novel demands it. “The dilemma of Edelman-Morrison unforgettably symbolizes the dilemma of religion-hungry Americans in an age when the traditional demands of religion have become a burden few can bear,” the blurb tells us. I cannot accept this. The special kind of conformity which Edelman-Morrison practices is insufficiently motivated, inadequately related to a psychological drive which in turn might be made symbolic of the urge to abandon differentiating traditions and seek conformity in modern American society.
I think this is a most interesting novel, in some ways a skillful novel, at some points a powerful novel, but I do not think that it consistently achieves the symbolic dimension the author clearly aimed at.