White Shoe and Weak Will
THE SECOND HAPPIEST DAY, John Phillips; Harpers, 409 pp.; $3.75.
John Phillips, the author of this book about white shoe boys and where they go, is a much-compared man. Critics have linked him to Hemingway as the portrayer of a Lost Generation, to Fitzgerald as a spokesman for gilded Ivy League youth, and to his father, J. P. Marquand as a chronicler of Eastern society.
The comparisons are inevitable and just. In this book about Harvard men, vintage '45, there are traces of his father's measured prose, the briskness of Hemingway, and the flamboyance of some Fitzgerald. In style and content, the hero's speech at his engagement party, rating his happiness second only to his joy on the day he scored two touchdowns against Middle sex, is almost a parody of Marquand Sr.'s Bojo Brown.
The voice of Fitzgerald's careless young people who "smashed things and creatures and then retreated back into their money" echo through the book. "I wonder if we were ever as funny as we thought," one of Phillip's more stable characters wonders. "We always thought we were so damn smart."
This disillusionment with bright sayings, glittering friends, and irridescent surroundings is the theme of Phillip's first novel. The book's tragic hero, George "Gopher" Marsh, is rich, athletic, well-born, handsome, and intelligent. He has everything, in fact, except a sense of purpose. The narrator is his friend Gus Taylor who, like Nick Carraway in "Gatsby" and Bill King in "Pulham," wanders through an aristocratic group without actually being part of it. His slight detachment from the over-ripe world of his friends provides Gus with both a pinnacle from which to view their fevered, aimless partying, and, ultimately, an escapehatch leading to his own salvation.
Gus and Gopher go through prep school together and enter Harvard in 1941. "In the catch-all of a great university," Gus writes, "a tiny side-pocket exists, atrophied, isolated, inexplicable as the appendix in the digestive tract . . . Like the appendix, it gave nothing to and took nothing from the undergraduate body, yet it was never ruptured and could not be removed by surgery . . . For want of a name some called it 'the St. Grottlesex Crowd."
Gus and Gopher enjoyed life in an appendix. For three chapters they stumbled from party to punch, from dance to debut. Pearl Harbor disrupted things; it made the parties wilder and more frequent. And then they all went into the army, all the bright young men. When they came back, some, like Gopher Marsh, had high resolves which vanished quickly, in an alcoholic solvent. Most returned happily to entertain the same old friends and same old ideas. A few, like Gus Taylor, escaped to reality.
The book is written slickly, but without distinction. Its main character is often a parody of a real man; certainly it would be hard to find, even among the most benighted club men and athletes, a man who so considers his wedding "the second happiest day." But for all its true situations and stock characters, the book will be quick, enjoyable reading for all Harvard men. And for a good many of them it may be an apt and dramatic warning.