MERE INDECENCY FAILS TO PORTRAY THE TRUTH
Arlie Gelston: by Roger L. Sergel, B. W. Huebsch, Inc., New York. 1923. $2.00.
Mr. Sergel takes for his opening theme the problem of the unmarried mother. To cut the issue clear he starts his principal character at the age of nineteen in the provincial Iowan town in which her lower middle class family has lived. With all the exaggerated sensationalism of a reporter on a yellow journal covering a four alarm fire, the author devotes nearly half of his novel to her experience with maternity beginning with a petting party and ending with a wedding.
If his readers miss a single throb in all the gamut of suffering which Mr. Sergel catalogues, it is only because their revolted stomachs bid them turn over the groaning pages to the more common unhappinesses that lie beyond. In particular he dwells on the mental anguish which Arlie Gelston, the heroine, goes through while she is endeavoring to conceal her misfortune from family and townsfolk. No detail is too gruesome for him; he fairly revels in the vivisection of her soul.
But the saddest part of the business appears when it is considered from a literary point of view. We concede that an author may be allowed to delve into the realms of indecency as far as is necessary to portray the whole truth of his picture. But Mr. Sergel harps on this theme and its attendant circumstances for 176 pages--and does not reach the truth even then. His glut of torment is avowedly only to set the stage and fix the characters in their primary position, but even with this achieved he tells but half the story.
Indeed throughout the book Mr. Sergel suffers from the racial diseases of all the modern realists. He is determined to hear no good, see no good, speak no good. He recognizes no sense of happiness, no joy of living, save of an artificial and transient sort. Even his love between men and women never rises above the flesh. He measures the sensations of the lower middle class on the scale of his own--as he would have us believe--hyper-sensitive palate and nostril. In his eyes they know no beauty whatsoever, and no pleasure but that which he takes pains to depict as of the grossest sort. Inasmuch as he cannot see life as they see it, he is as inadequate to depict their world as is a blind man to describe the glories of a rainbow.
When once the author has married his unmarried mother, the novel becomes a story instead of a stage set, but with no change of heart on the part of the writer. The couple live together long enough to give Mr. Sergel a chance to expose the 'young married" life of an lowa town, and then a convenient automobile accident polishes off the husband. This felicitous circumstance enables Mr. Sergel to try his hand at existence in the metropolis of Des Moines, the only advantage of which for the reader is that he can obtain all the thrills of a story about the Great City without the every-other-page references to Broadway and 42d Street.
The action dribbles along without very much happening except Arlie's marriage to an ingenious paradox--a moving picture exhibitor who can't make money. Arlie, of course, becomes very wise to the ways of the world, and "developes" as fast as the most hopeful novelist could ask. She runs away form her second husband and, in a fit of abstraction, nearly settles down to a third Not from moral motives--that would be too Victorian--but merely for her own selfish happiness, she at length decides to return to home and her legal mate. Thus the book ends in a commonplace as a sop to the censorious.
The novel exhibits all the earmarks of modern realistic school: the conversation is a compendium of all possible atrocities on the English language, the women are fouler-mouthed than the men, and of course there is not an attractive character from cover to cover The only note in the book is the monotone on the morhid, while as a substitute for rational analysis of the mind, Mr. Sergel, in typical post-impressionistic torpor, prefers the less exacting formula of adjectives . . . and . . . dots.