April 2006

Michael Antman


All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner

A fresh look at some unfairly neglected books of the past century that may not survive much longer in this one.

Think of the new books that arrive in the bookstore or online every week as a wave crashing onto the sand. Next week, there will be another wave, and after that another, ad infinitum. It’s relentless, in a more or less reassuring way -- avid readers who complain that too many books are being published nowadays should imagine themselves in, say, the Soviet Union circa 1956 -- but it is nonetheless true that no one can possibly watch all the waves as they arrive, nor keep track, among all the broken shells, bits of beach glass, seaweed and assorted other detritus, of the few and fragile treasures they deposit on the shore: It takes a lot of head-down hunting along the margins to dig up the rare bits that sparkle.

After awhile, it’s easier for many readers just to focus on the obvious blockbusters, either the classics or the major recent releases from the “name” authors with the rock-solid reputations. But the problem is that, even if one excludes the trashier genres and focuses only on the “literary,” it isn’t always worth the effort to wade into the deeper waters after these officially sanctioned monoliths, which themselves are susceptible to being worn away over time. In the case of the classics, a fair number of them are chiefly of sociological or historical interest, or notorious now because they were at some distant point in time denounced from the pulpit as pornographic or because they broke new stylistic ground that probably should have remained unbroken.  

Somewhere between the books with the big reputations and sales, and the flotsam that fills bookshelves one week only to float away the next, are wonderful, half-buried beauties that far too few readers even know exist. In this column, I plan to take a purely personal look at some of the better but lesser-known books of the twentieth century that are in danger of being buried under the sands of time for reasons unconnected to their excellence. I specify “purely personal” because I, for one, have had my fill of those superficial and officious “Best Of” lists, most of which merely crib from previous “Best Of” lists, or those volumes that tell you which books and CDs you must read or listen to before you die. I prefer a less systematic, more ad hoc, and more idiosyncratic, approach.  And I plan to focus solely on books of the twentieth century because it’s too soon in the twenty-first to say that any recently published book has yet been unfairly overlooked (though a few have probably already been unjustly overpraised).

The first book on my list is Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things, one of those novels that, from the standpoint of the official arbiters of culture, has very little to recommend it except for its near perfection.This attribute, unfortunately, has proven to be utterly irrelevant to its literary reputation, which is hardly extant. (Stegner himself I believe to be one of the great American novelists on the basis of his epic autobiographical novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain alone, and he certainly didn’t lack for awards, having received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among many other prizes, though you would search in vain for his name in many popular compilations of the Best Books or Best Authors of the Twentieth Century.)

All the Little Live Things, which was published in 1967, is told in the first person by a retired literary agent, but this novel is the farthest thing from an inside-the-industry exposé. Indeed, the agent, Joe Allston, has retired with his wife to an Edenic California sanctuary to escape not only the publishing industry but also memories of the death of their only son. Here, the cranky and curmudgeonly Allston imagines, at least at first, that he can find peace, but is beset almost immediately by the horrors of mortality and the natural world. The horrors of the natural world? In our nature-worshiping age, the phrase seems almost obscene; and yet, from the opening pages, when Allston rages against the gophers and moles, the borers and beetles, the pests and parasites, that undermine everything he plants and that serve as foreshadowing for the far-worse depradations that occur later in the novel, we discover that “all the little live things” has a terrible meaning, more terrible (precisely because it reflects reality) than you’d find in any over-the-top horror novel.

As Allston says at the novel’s beginning (which is really its end, because it is told in retrospect): “I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of being flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness and the consciounsess of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grown darker and bitterer.”

And yet, because he is human, Joe Allston is susceptible to hope. His and his wife’s idyll is interrupted by an interloper, an irritating but mostly harmless hippie named Peck who’s a sort of proto-trustafarian living off of, and resentful of, his Daddy’s wealth, and, separately, by a gentle young woman named Marian who believes that all living creatures, not excluding ticks and germs, have an equal right to live and who is herself being consumed by a ravening cancer even as she and her husband await the birth of their new baby. Peck, a druggy, unwashed ignoramus who squats on Allston’s land, and Marian, who is both very wise and very innocent, represent some of the worst and the best of the '60s, and they unwittingly stir up Allston’s settled seclusion until the three of them, and a few others, accidentallly come together to create one of the most emotionally shattering conclusions of any work of fiction I’ve ever read.

I’ ve called this novel nearly perfect. From my perspective, books that deserve this designation exhibit a seamless confluence of character and motivation, physical setting, point of view or philosophy, and literary style. Here, the rural California landscape is almost expressionistic, serving as a visual emblem of the struggle that is playing out between Allston’s Manichean view of the world, with its skepticism about the perfectibility of human nature or its ability to come to terms with the ineluctability of evil, and his wife’s and neighbors’ more forgiving and loving, though perhaps also more naïve, approach.

Yet, even Allston, and certainly his hippieish acquaintances, came to this part of California for its beauty, and Stegner’s eye for beauty and novelty is extraordinary, even when he’s focused on the seemingly trivial and ugly -- on, literally, “what the cat dragged in”:

Our Siamese cat, called Catarrh for the congested rumble of his purr, has a habit of bringing us little gifts, which he composes on the door mat with an imagination that transcends his homely materials. One morning there will be the long grooved yellow upper teeth of a gopher, a sort of disembodied Bugs Bunny smile, gleaming up at me when I open the door. Once there was the simple plume of a gray squirrel, quite effective; once the front half of a cottontail rabbit, a failure; once a pair of little paws with their naked palms upturned as if attached to an invisible cosmic shrug. Many times there have been compositions of feathers, especially in March when the cedar waxwings swept in on their way north and have a blast on fermented pyracantha berries.

I’ve told you little about the plot of All the Little Live Things because it isn’t a very complicated story and it ends unhappily (I’m not giving away much by telling you this) and because the plot, and the characters, and the setting, are bound up so inextricably in the writing that even a very brief, and seemingly quite inconsequential, excerpt such as the one above tells you much about what you might want to know about this book.

It is, in brief, a story of Innocence vs. Experience, in which Experience, in a bloody and ugly form, is the Winner and Still Champion. One of the novelist’s two primary obligations, in my opinion, is to avoid easy answers. That means not only telling the truth about the human condition and its place in the natural world, but also eschewing the kind of wishful thinking, whether expressed through traditional religion or New Agey spiritualism or medicinal consolations, that obfuscates hard truths. This, Stegner, and to a lesser extent his character Joe Allston, do.  

The other obligation -- too often overlooked, in my opinion -- is, in craft and imagery and resourcefulness of language and figure of speech, to be genuinely enjoyable to read.

If you find Stegner’s kind of writing vivid and specific and memorable as I do -- that “disembodied Bugs Bunny smile”! those “palms upturned as if attached to an invisible cosmic shrug”! -- this novel is for you, because it expresses in microcosm Stegner’s view of the world, which doesn’t necessarily accept the regency of evil -- this is a gloomy book, but not a hopeless one -- but does understand, and beautifully illustrate in its every aspect, the intextricability of ugliness and natural beauty, of decay and birth, and of evil and acceptance.

All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
ISBN 0140154418
345 Pages