Sunday, October 25, 2009

All the Little Live Things, by Wallace Stegner

I have only a few minutes to revive a practice I kind of like which is to put in a word about the book that will shortly be under discussion at tonight's book group. Still let's give it a go.

Wallace Stegner published this book in 1967, and the story of Joe and Ruth Allston, in supposed retreat in what is presumably the Santa Cruz Mountains is a perfect picture of that historical moment, and of that geographical locality. Reminiscent of Andre Dubus II's The House of Sand and Fog, though strictly speaking, chronologically the reverse is true, as a portrait of a small cast of characters engaged in a conflict of types in a very individuated setting, it left me very nostalgic for an era close to me in time but which I was too late to participate in. As in Dubus' book, the conflict between different types of people escalates to logical if possibly greater than life conclusions.

Stegner taught a prestigious writing program at Stanford until shortly before he died, and his son Page taught at my own UC Santa Cruz; and his wife has had some success as a novelist in her own right. It is tempting to search for autobiographical elements, but the book is none the worse if you don't have any of these more personal connections.

To be continued...

...I'd hoped to post the group's responses a little earlier than this, while they were still fresh in my memory, but time has gotten away from me. I'm happy to report that this was the rare book that all our members seemed to enjoy, and probably for roughly the same reasons. The craftsmanship of the novel is very evident without calling attention to itself, and this appealed particularly for whom technical skill is one of the primary considerations. Stegner's gift for rendering setting and making it part of the plot itself was probably the thing we most appreciated as a group, and that is largely because we live in the area just south of where Stegner places it, and its natural elements are second nature to us. In other words, it made us savor our place in time and geography.

We are all old enough to have lived during the sixties, and some to have actually participated in that turbulent era. The fact is that the sixties are very much still alive in Santa Cruz, where we live, and the conflict between the hardened older man and the naive but somewhat arrogant younger one who worms his way into the narrator's life is something we face as a community as much as individually. Many Jim Pecks of our own day have made the downtown streets of Santa Cruz their home, and pose a similar problem for the upstanding citizenry as Jim Peck did for Joe Allston. Collectively, we find them an affront and yet no one quite has the heart or the good enough excuse to kick them off the land, which was Allston's dilemma as well. If I sometimes sense that one 'incident' would be all it would take to send them all packing, this also parallels the novel.

I tried out the point that none of us would probably like the saintly Marian much if we actually had to live with her, but the group didn't really buy that. I'm not sure I buy it myself. In some ways she is a model of what we should be. But it's interesting to note that she was certainly as naive as Jim Peck was, though all her faults are excused and all of his are excoriated. To me she remains to some extent a person whose philosophy not only won out over her own common sense but bent other people to her will as well, against their own best and probably better judgement.

No, I must stand by my own view of things.I probably wouldn't have liked her.