To an Early Grave.
by Wallace Markfield.
Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $4.50.
Like a number of recent examples of the urban-picaresque mode, To an Early Grave seems less a novel than a theatrical performance. The reader, alone with the book, feels himself solicited into the role of spectator, feels almost called upon to applaud following some especially striking piece of theatrical virtuosity.
As a performer in this vein—which is related to that of the standup comedians—Wallace Markfield is extremely well-qualified. He has a gift for mimicry bordering on voodoo and an uncanny ear—not only for the obvious accents and the coarser effects, but for the most subtle nuances of the species of urban paranoia that can be overheard being expressed at any Rikers counter; he seems to know, by some process of mimetic extension, precisely the state of fragmentation that such people's minds can reach. Apart from this, he possesses something like total recall for those artifacts of the 30's and 40's—the radio programs, the movies, the confections, the games, the sidewalk chants—which are fast becoming a kind of instant comic iconography. If merely to invoke the mention of a melorol these days is sufficient unto itself as a comic strategem, Mr. Markfield appears to have available the entire inventory of long-defunct candy stores, as well as a vast range of related references, and to be able to marshal them at will in an almost endless variety of combinations. A good deal of the comic effect of To an Early Grave depends on mining this particular area, which is still novel enough—in print, at least—to provide a genuine shock of recognition. It would be interesting, in fact, to speculate on why it is funny to see the word “jujube” or “malomar” in print and not funny to see, say, “catfish” or “molasses cookie.” There seems to be something thrilling and faintly scandalous about exposing to public view the data of that Bronx or Brooklyn childhood that some of us share in the manner of a guilty secret.
Unfortunately, however, in deploying this comic device—as with so much else in the book—Mr. Markfield labors under a constitutional predilection to overdo matters. Partly, no doubt, the exigencies of the genre itself are responsible—the pressure to leave 'em laughing, the strain of the spotlight, the persistent goading on of the performer by the audience to outdo himself—and not necessarily in the area of his more subtle talents (“Give us the pretzel lady again! . . .”). Whether in response to these or other urgencies, Mr Markfield is consistently willing to enlist his most brilliant gifts in the most questionable service—sacrificing really good jokes to foolish ones by placing them all on an equal footing. As a result, the novel constantly careens between two poles, which could be designated, respectively, the best and the worst of Wallace Markfield. At his best (in passages like the letter from Leslie Braverman to his wife, Morroe Rieff's reverie by a graveside, the eulogy of the rabbi), he gets precision into every detail, and he uses mimicry in the service not of showing-off but of delineating character. At his worst, he descends to the level of a scabrous dialect comedian, evoking in the reader an unsettling sense of déja vu. Where, the reader wonders, has he come across that particular kind of mock-heroics before, that special brand of conjugal incantation (“Squeeze me juice.” “A person without compassion is not a juice-squeezer. . . .”), that way of using Yiddish that makes you want to run for the hills? It takes a while to locate those rhythms at their proper source—the world of Arthur Kober, Leo Rosten, and allied practitioners.
It is, one imagines, the Kober tonalities that made an immediate succès de scandale of To an Early Grave. The idea of the avant-garde New York (Jewish) literary world as made up of characters out of Thunder Over the Bronx (“. . . because I raised you from a middlebrow”) is hard to resist; and it is hard not to laugh as the guardians of the sacred flame of English prose shlepp, shlump, and kvetch their way through the pages of this novel, inverting their sentence structure, making a hash of their syntax, frequently departing the precincts of language altogether in favor of a more primal utterance (whoosh, gaah, choopie bar choopie). Yet if it is hard to stop laughing at first, it gets easier after a while. As anyone knows who has ever emerged white and shaken from a Terry Toon, an impulse darker than simple high spirits has revealed itself to be at work when the cat has been slammed against the stovepipe for the fifth time around. So, too, as this novel gets madder and madder, as the jokes go on for longer and longer, as the parody gets more and more out of hand, agreeing to sacrifice even that minimum of verisimilitude necessary for its own satiric purposes, one begins to sense a fearful urgency beneath the antic energy, something akin to the zeal of the avenger.
To an Early Grave is a farce about a funeral—or, more precisely, about a journey to and from a funeral. Making the trip are four of the friends and disciples of Leslie Braverman, teacher and critic, who has died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty. They include Barnet Weiner, who writes for the quarterlies, is in analysis, and has a girlfriend named Myra Mandelbaum with oily hair; Holly Levine, who also writes for the quarterlies, and is apparently fixated both upon his mother and upon the Volkswagen which conveys the mourners toward their destination; and Felix Ottensteen, Zionist, Yiddishist, staff member of Yetzt, who is referred to throughout as der Alte—creating unseemly echoes of Bonn every time he makes a move. (Is it entirely accidental that those who use Yiddish for comic purposes—be they salesmen, nightclub entertainers, or novelists—are invariably a trifle off?) The fourth member of the party is Morroe Rieff, who works as a fund-raiser for Jewish causes and is the only one in the group not engaged in the life of letters. A defector from literary bohemia, he lives in an apartment on the West Side, whose “marble-topped coffee table,” a mark of shame before his literary colleagues, is to become later, in the resolution of the novel, his badge of glory.
Via a series of deadly comic snapshots of their secret Sunday morning lives, these characters are not so much revealed to the reader as “discovered” to him in the Elizabethan sense (behind the arras, and usually up to no good). Not that it really matters what they happen to be doing: the quality of Mr. Markfield's gaze is such that anything it encompasses takes on the color of a scandal. Felix Ottensteen, drawing on his orthopedic shoes, Hollis Levine composing an essay, Leslie Braverman dying young—all seem to have been caught in flagrante delicto, no less than Barnet Weiner, who is in fact so caught with Myra Mandelbaum.
Carrying this less than beautiful complement of mourners, the Volkswagen sets out on that wild journey across Wallace Markfield's Brooklyn which comprises the exterior framework of the novel. During the trip Mr. Markfield's choicest effects are reserved for Weiner and Levine, a comedy team à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who while away the time by alternating questionable reminiscences of Leslie Braverman with a running contest for supremacy in pop culture expertise. But Mr. Markfield's indictment spreads in ever-widening circles. By the time the car has reached the funeral home, Leslie Braverman himself has been implicated, and the circumstances surrounding his burial serve as the occasion for extending Mr. Markfield's parodic zeal and anger to the entire literary community assembled there. (“We must first determine whether we want a memoir or critique,” says Levine, taking the arm of the editor of Second Thoughts, from whom he is trying to get an assignment to do a piece on Leslie. The body has not yet been lowered into its grave.)
Morroe Rieff is the only character who escapes the Markfield wrath. He has been distinct from the beginning, first as an outsider who is to some extent the victim of the Braverman-Levine-Weiner circle, and later as the protagonist—the only character Mr. Markfield allows to possess an inner logic, consciousness, and motives. During the journey he has kept silent, but beneath his silence he has been engaged in a kind of protest against what he has been forced to witness. Unlike the others, who are presumed heartless and content to be so, he at least is in search of the responses of the heart. And in the end, he alone is vouchsafed the release of a catharsis—weeping finally for Leslie, as (in line with the general spirit of things) he rubs insect repellent on his prostrate wife.
Yet the plea for feeling Mr. Markfield expresses through his protagonist sounds rather less than fully convincing. It is he, after all, who has written this book—worthy of Weiner and Levine at their most savage. Nor is it some alleged literary community that is done in by Mr. Markfield's wrath, as so many reviewers have assumed; it is the novel itself that finally pays the price. To an Early Grave contains some brilliant set-pieces and certain memorable moments, but on the whole it turns out to be misshapen, lopsided, and wildly inconsistent in quality. Save for Morroe, moreover, there are no characters; the others are barely distinguishable one from another, their features erased by the acid of Mr. Markfield's contempt. Thus, as in one of those novelty postcards that are sold at amusement parks, Morroe is condemned to make his way alone through the pages of the book, poking his head through a painted landscape with painted figures.
The pity is that Wallace Markfield, when he wishes, can write—and without the slightest trace of an accent.