2009: 24. An American Tragedy

“Dusk - of a summer night.

And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants - such wall as in time may linger as mere fable.”

An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser

I suggested this book for my book club, on the thought that a classic might be fun (we’d enjoyed East of Eden  and Appointment in Samarra), and because I liked Sister Carrie, (and because I knew this was also on the Modern Library Top 100 novels list), I thought it would be a good choice for us.  And then I bought it, and noticed that it was 800 pages long.  And 800 pages of small text.  So I am pretty nervous about showing up at the next book club meeting even if it was was an honest mistake!!

I have somewhat mixed emotions about the book, in that I can enumerate all these flaws that it has, but when I think of it, I think of it as a pretty good book.  And I certainly read it quickly - even when I was bemoaning certain parts (not to repeat my jokes, but my facebook status was once “Theodore Dreiser/ought to write nicer”, as Dorothy Parker once said).  

So first, the cons.  Mostly, the writing.  The man has a heavy hand with a pen, and the story didn’t need to be 800 pages, no way, no how.  And the dialogue is just terrible - nails on a chalkboard terrible.  About 90% consists of the phrases “Oh Gosh” or “Oh Gee.”  Not good.  And another con, which is of course, not one bit Dreiser’s fault, is that the Signet Classic edition (which might be the only edition currently in print) has an introduction which gives away every single detail of the plot.  How annoying is that??

But the pros are this - even though the book was so long and the writing not so great, it was hypnotic.  And it seemed to real to me as Sister Carrie was, in that it was absolutely believable that the characters would act the way they did.  Now, Dreiser based his story on a real a life murder,* but still, he managed to create absolutely vivid characters who acted like real (maddening and often stupid) people.  Especially his murderer protagonist, Chester - whose path to murder is totally understandable, and who you manage to have some measure of sympathy for, while still thinking he is an absolutely selfish, cold-blooded moron.  I also appreciated the point of the novel.  Dreiser wanted to capture an ur-American crime, and I think he succeeded, with Chester’s striving for the American dream, and turning to murder to protect what he sees as his chance.  And the whole thing, though it is too long, unfolds almost hypnotically, like life itself, so that its very length makes it seem more realistic.  Oh, I think I quite liked this book, despite its clunky flaws.  I hope other people in book club managed to get through it, because I have a lot to say about it!

*Oh, did I mention that it is a story of a young man who murders his pregnant girlfriend? That is a page turner even today - viz Scott Peterson - let alone in the 1920’s (when the book was written) or the 1900’s (when the story was set)


Date/Place Completed:  3/29/09; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Book Club, Modern Library Top 100, Book Resolutions

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017