I first read the novel when I was in college and it seemed to be a cool book as the author, tired of his ‘arrangement’ of life, seems to genuinely love a women with an independent mind. He paid a stiff price to come to terms with it but ends up being happy with his new life.
It reminded me in shades of William Saroyan’s work at the time of the Great Depression and also of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.
The narrative focuses on the middle-aged successful advertising executive, Eddie Anderson who is truly living the American dream – a successful career that has made him financially secure and given him a model wife and a talented daughter attending college. And he has had to work hard to get it all – aided by intelligence and application the second generation immigrant from Greece knows his ropes of the cynical corporate world and clambers his way up to find success. Indeed his parents can truly applaud him for working the System and showing the inherent zeal of the immigrant for whom America is a ticket to a ‘good’ life.
And then he falls for a smart young lady, Gwen, who can see through the ‘farcical’ life that he leads. She is the very anti-thesis of a blonde bimbette. She fascinates him and he subconsciously begins to hate the hypocrisy and false values that represent the ‘arrangement’ he made early in life as he is set about achieving his dreams. Talk about the Freudian slip – Eddie ensures that his affair with Gwen is discovered by his wife (Florence) and daughter. Florence too had been part of the arrangement as she practiced, ‘What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over’.
But he doesn’t quite go the distance – the price of giving it up all seems rather exorbitant. So he muddles along and tries to keep a hold of his current lifestyle.
The interregnum serves the purpose of a band-aid that provides a superficial relief while the deep wound is never really cured. It is a hilarious description of a period when the couple is again regarded to be an inspiration for others and even Eddie seems to fall for the story. It doesn’t last for long and he then suffers from a midlife crisis and crashes his car, symptomatic of his streak of self-destruction.
The narrative post this is rather stretched and dramatic and it culminates with him landing up in a mental hospital. The story has been depressing for a while now but it perks up right at the end when Eddie makes peace with himself and starts afresh in life with Gwen and a colourful life of a liquor dealer cum story writer. It is a rather long read by current standards as it runs well over 500 pages but Kazan pulls off a winner in grabbing your attention.
The single person narrative and the idiosyncratic portrayal of Eddie’s life wins over the reader who may not approve of his antics but nonetheless has a sneaking sympathy for him. Well one cannot put the feeling in better terms than quoting Somerset Maugham,“It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogether dislike anyone who makes me laugh.” And one is finally left with a lingering and possibly irksome thought – what are the arrangements that one has made in ones personal and professional life? Now that calls for another post for sure.