FINDING an intense power in a style that is peculiarly his own, Gordon Friesen, a new writer, has unfolded a novel of importance in Flamethrowers. It is a story of the burgeoning middle west, its good earth, the people who have come from afar to find heaven in its wheatfields . . . and the inevitable disillusionment that the uneducated mystic must find in America.
Employing a symbolism that is perhaps too ambitious, Friesen reads into the life of Peter Franzman the existence not only of all Americans but of all mankind, the intense development of the egocentric idealist struggling mightily to grow his splendid wings only to discover that life is a prison, a prison with walls of glass against which all wings must batter. And there is no consolation even in the discovery of the real beauty of history, namely, that mankind's courage is just this ability to keep battering, battering futilely and eternally hopelessly.
As a peasant child who comes to Kansas the son of an ignorant,, tremendously and mysticly religious, and highly ambitious farmer, Peter Franzman appears as a stock character in American fiction. But he is by no means allowed to remain so. Through three hundred horrible pages Peter turns from the world into himself, tortured by the struggle that is even going on against him, even in the heart of his mother. One feels that Friesen is needlessly cruel in portraying the complete absence of pity, in showing a life without sympathy. For Peter Franzman has no understanding from nature, no, nor from one living soul. Tantalizingly an understanding between Peter and his mother, Peter and a child sweetheart, Peter and the Mennonite patriarch is lead up to, then remorselessly refused, leaving a bitter taste of unreality. Every living being is a flamethrower, a rifle, spurting flame into the souls of all those around him. The war is incidental, a puny manifestation of the searing of souls that is mankind's occupation. But it serves to crystalize the solitariness that is to be the life of Peter Franzman and serves as the hinge on which Friesen swings the development of his protagonist.
At college Peter finds one understand- ing soul, offering the author the opportunity in passages of rare and striking beauty to relieve the tension he has developed. The unfolding of Peter Franzman's quarrel with the world is convincingly done, the scenes of passion compelling and beautiful. Here the author's technique becomes suddenly apparent in one paragraph. Peter's life is like a series of vividly coloured bits of film in his own mind. His memory is the filter through which every new emotion is perceived. Friesen's book is a series of magnificently complete little pictures, strung together on the thread of a man's life, unified by the filter which is unobtrusively transposed on the running film.
Friesen's style is fresh and vigorous. There is a sardonic humour that is not laboured or sought after. Even the note of hope that creeps into the end in the form of a dream conversation is mildly contemptuous. It is the writing of a man who has seen life, men, women, and the world they live in with keen perception and deep feeling. One would probably miss the mark by very little in calling Flamethrowers an autobiography. Friesen sees the world differently. The winds speak to the characters, a trick that is far less obtrusive in Friesen than in Joyce; Peter's dreams are portrayed with such reality that they can scarcely be distinguished from his waking existence; thought conversations that never take place, strange interludes that are quite as believable as any O'Neill ever conceived; there is a complete and utter surrender on the part of the author to the emotions he portrays, and the result is an amazing, complete, and very powerful book