2008: 84. U.S.A. (The 42nd Parallel)

“The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking; eyes greedy for warm curve of faces, answering flicker of eyes…”

U.S.A. (The 42nd. Parallel & half of 1919) John Dos Passos

U.S.A. is actually a trilogy of novels, though the Modern Library cheats and counts them as one for their top 100 list. The novels attempt to capture life in America in the first three decades of the 20th century. The novels - The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money - all run along similar lines, often with a modern experimental bent.  There are are four different parts to the books: the Camera Eye, which are a stream of consciousness type blurbs from inside people’s consciousness, Newsreels, which are snippets of news items and popular culture from the time period, a few brief stylized biographies of real historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, or John Reed, and finally, stories of characters whose lives intertwine, appear and disappear through out the book.

I really enjoyed the book at first - appreciated what it was doing with its experimentation, and tolerated the more out there parts (for example, I never got one thing out of a Camera Eye section) in order to enjoy the stories of the the characters.  I read The 42nd Parallel  pretty quickly and enjoyed it reasonably well.  But I got bogged down in 1919,  and could not bring myself to finish it or Big Money (all three books were in one volume), and after renewing it twice from the library, admitted defeat. I absolutely understand why U.S.A. is on the Modern Library list and even why it’s an important book, but I got what Dos Passos was doing after 527 pages, and didn’t need to read all 1240 to figure out his point.  Particularly because it is such a Communist book. I am no red baiter, but the fact is that American socialism isn’t really that appealing in 2008, and I couldn’t face slogging through the rest of the ideology just to get the good story bits.   In the end, this is the kind of book that tries to be the “Great American novel” but when I consider it, with all its ostentatious trickery with something like The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn it seems more gimmicky than great.


Date/Place Completed: 7/4/08; Maine

Categories: Fiction, Partial Book Failure, Modern Library, Book Resolution

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017