On the Shelf
Two stories in this issue of The Advocate are unusually well-written. Neither is of a type that rewards a casual scanning; but both show a perceptiveness and technical skill that deserves attentive reading.
"The Age of Michael," by James Chace, is an excellent characterization of a family once rulers of a New England mill town. As the mills move south and the aristocratic tradition built on them crumbles, a generation in transition is coarsened and corrupted. The writing is mainly descriptive, switching skillfully between the points of view of nine-year-old Michael and of his aunt Mandy, who acts as a matriarch and alone recalls the aristocratic values of the past. Although the piece is avowedly part of a longer work, the scene through Michael's ingenuous eyes has a unity of mood and detail.
The writer shows great maturity of style in such technical matters as transition and selection of detail. However, he has taken such pains to avoid breaking the mood that there is no change of pace whatever. Chace might have given the story more motion by a dynamic use of dialogue, instead of burying the spoken conversation in description and stream of consciousness. The phrasing is near-perfect. There is hardly a bad sentence in the piece, except, perhaps, the first one ("In the spring of that year time hung over the city in a grey fog"), which is pretentious enough to keep some readers from looking further.
"To the South" by Milenko Blanc shows equally polished craftsmanship, though again the structure is tenuous. A traveller, middle-aged at 32, stops in New Orleans, where he finds himself undefineably drawn to a night-club dancer. His gradual realization of her perversity is roughly the point of the story; but it is so subtly prepared that some many miss it entirely. The effect derives from expert restraint and ambiguity, qualities that are apparent especially after a second reading.
Both stories have their limitations; they offer perceptive characterization and expert use of words but, among other things, little activity. Both preserve a tone of detachment, the one of youth, the other of experience. Into this mood feelings no stronger than nostalgia, anxiety, or boredom can intrude. Those looking for more potent emotions may well be disappointed.
The final story, by Lou Begley, offers no subleties of style but considerably more action than the others. A feeble-minded boy runs from invading troops and is killed by them. The narrative is not in the first person, but takes the point of view of the boy; thereby a simple incident acquires meaning and pathos.
The remaining contributions are less noteworthy. Lyon Phelps' poem on a bar-fly conveys a few impressions, but is hindered by a choppy use of words. George Kelly contributes an interesting review of Conrad; also a long poem, which is not very successful in welding concrete images to abstract introspection. In another review, John Wansbrough tries and fails to say something interesting about Santayana's philosophy in a space too brief for definition of terms.
It is worth mentioning that in appearance the latest issue of the Advocate is one of the best in a long time, with new thick paper, a good cover, and interesting lay-out.