All the Little Live Things, Stegner, Part 2

One way to rush through a book review is to give away the ending. In Joe Allston’s final narrative:

I could not forgive any of them for the fact that Julie’s spite child would be born and that Marian’s love child had been born a blob of blue flesh that moved a little, and bleated weakly, and died.

And we knew that Marian herself was dying of cancer, from the middle of the book, almost as soon as we fell in love with her vibrant and keenly perceptive sense of life. Author Stegner had at least the decency to warn us it was coming, and this is a grace lacking in most modern authors. Marian hung on to life until her pregnancy with the child she and her husband John had hoped for could come to full term, which died unhappily at birth, and Marian died screaming in agony after that.

Joe and Ruth befriended Marian and John from the first day they met them. Marian was everything positive in life that Ruth’s ever-complaining Joe was not, but Joe was the one, of the two of them, who was drawn most strongly to Marian. Opposites attract. Joe despised and hated Jim Peck, the bearded hippie squatter who spoiled the set ways of the hilltop with his pretentious 60’s anarchist freethinking. Marian found him intriguing and the kids on the hill all liked him, of course. Joe looked down on the LoPrestis and made fun of them; Marian cultivated their friendship and dealt with them in the terms the lived and understood.

In terms of plot and character development, Marian the animated lover of life – the book’s title belongs to Marian – upstaged Joe the critic and narrator. She shone with the blue white radiance of a star burning fuel too fast.

I felt betrayed when Stegner contrived to have Marian’s old cancer flare back up when it had been thought to be in remission. Stegner knew the symptoms too well. For anyone who had watched a loved one go through this, Stegner left early and unmistakable warning signs. I do not feel I am giving too much away.

The novel is made entirely whole by Stegner’s brilliant presentation of Marian’s personality and character. We often found ourselves wishing Joe would stow his introspective philosophizing and fretting so we could get to the next visit with Marian and John. I recommend the novel for this reason (the visits to a world intensely alive) if no other – and there are others.

As noted earlier, Stegner was an eminent naturalist and western writer. He had a remarkable flair for capturing the essence of the western experience through the eyes of a perceptive and sensitive observer. A typical passage:

ONE KIND OF midsummer day here starts gray, with a cool sweat of dew on the leaves, a smell of wetted oat grass, dark wetness in the angles of fences and on the patio screeds. The sky is obscured by the unmoving unmottled ceiling of high fog that will burn away about ten. Once it does, the rest of the day will be warm and even until the evening chill comes on.

Much of the character development in Stegner’s fiction may strike one as oddly one-dimensional. We meet Joe Allston again in The Spectator Bird (1976), much the man we already see?in him here, in All The Little Living Things (1967). Joe has lost a son to a surfing accident, a senseless tragedy that will not diminish with time. As Ruth tries to help him claw his way out of the hurt and self-recriminations, we see that Joe will not let go, and resists being drawn into those things we suspect he once loved and in which we can only guess he once found real joy. Joe is the principal, the first-person narrator, in a book that also includes people who are not afraid to live life fully. This accounts for some uncomfortable moments, long spells of private rumination and fulmination that compare well to a phone call with too many of those long, awkward, silent spells. These, however, always transition mercifully to real and lively dialog as Joe comes out of his dark moments.

Joe is probably a Stegner alter ego, a stand-in for those whose internal life can be enormously larger and more perceptive than any public accounting could possibly reveal. I find Joe’s private observations interesting, if often negative, and often comforting in its depth and overall sense of being on target. I’m afraid I know the type.

This contrast between dialog and introspection is quite obviously intentional, and skilfully done even if it does instil a certain impatience with Joe. The flatness of the characterizations of Joe and Ruth contrast vividly with the full, rich development of Marian’s persona, and perhaps there is a moral lesson here also; as we noted, it is Marian who carries the book.

Contrast this with the compellingly realistic dialog and character development in The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), and in the superbly incomparable Angle of Repose (1971). There can be no question that Stegner is a master writer who knew exactly what he was doing in presenting Joe as an essentially static entity, capable only of brief bursts of genuine expression and interactive behavior.

Despite all this, it’s clear why Ruth sticks with him. For all his faults and eccentricities, Joe has depth. He lives very much in a self-built castle of ideas, but can relate these to others when pushed. In the final analysis, he tries to do the right thing, and he is a likeable person. Even though many readers may find aspects of the novel troubling, it is worth the read to get through these moments to the essence, as taught so well, though sadly so briefly, by Marian.

836 total views, 1 views today