Monday, April 30, 2012

Master of Ceremonies

Katharine Brush’s last published novel, The Boy From Maine, debuted in 1942. Phil Stong, writing in The Saturday Review, called the novel “a heroic effort to take the gay, brittle, and slightly desperate survivors of the last war [World War I] and bring them up to date.” Beatrice Sherman of The New York Times thought the book contained “quick and realistic sketches of the social upheavals of the last twenty-five years, all laid on by a competent brush” (Did you catch that last pun?)

I just re-read the book, and I think it’s Kay’s best. It has more of the depth that the critics found lacking in Don’t Ever Leave Me, a sentiment that Miss Sherman shared. It’s a pity that Kay didn’t live longer to write more.

Above: The first edition dust jacket in dire need of some good art direction. Disembodied heads; and no music note ever looked like that. The result of War-time economies?

The Boy is one Hobey Hadley, a bumpkin born Hobart Higgins, on an Island off the coast of Maine at the turn of the last century. After fleeing the poverty and utter bleakness of the island, and surviving a requisite patriotic stint in the US Navy (he lies about his age to get in), Hobey lands in New York, and decides to stay, at the urging of benefactress (Fairy Godmother is really more like it) Ruby, who runs a smart cabaret, and whom Hobey meets right off the boat, even before the salt spray on his uniform has had a chance to evaporate. Our Boy eventually works his way up the ladder of show business, first as MC and erstwhile crooner at Ruby’s, then as a radio announcer, and, finally, at the ripe old age of 40, Hobey leaves the spotlight and becomes a successful radio executive.

Broadway Gave The Boy From Maine Everything But the Girl He Loved

1945 reprint
And all the while he yearns for his childhood love, Rosalie, whose family used to summer on Hobeys Island. While Rosalie is genuinely fond of Hobey, both know there can never be anything between them. Or, rather, Hobey knows it; it would never occur to Rosalie that such an idea could even exist. Rosalie is rich and glamorous (she’s a Katharine Brush heroine, afterall), and Hobey is a hick.  A lovable hick, but a hick nonetheless.

But Fate, if it won’t let them be together, will at least not allow them to be kept entirely apart. Rosalie and her second husband (was the fatal wound that killed Rosalie’s first really a gun-cleaning accident?), the faded (though still extravagantly handsome) football star Bailey Harker, move in and out of New York over the years, and neo-sophisticate extraordinaire Hobey, at the center of her circle of intimates, basks in the warm glow of his radiant Rosalie.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

Of course theres never a doubt that Our Boy is going to get his girl. The only question is how long it will take, the only suspense what obstacle will need to be overcome next.

At Last: after 7+ years work, 
a rather bemused looking
Kay (from the jacket)
And that brings me to an observation about The Boy From Maines structure. Though Kay began the book around the time Dont Ever Leave Me was finished (1935), work on the novel stopped sometime before 1940, when Kay suffered some serious writers block. Kay apparently became unstuck in 1941, when You Go Your Way was completed. Kay often said that Boy stalled at page 220, and, interestingly enough, a perceivable change in the tone and the pacing of the novel occurs right about that spot, when Hobey returns to the island to visit his estranged family. Once Hobey leaves the island for the second time and returns to New York, Kay wraps everything up with a swift neatness that is not in keeping with the first part of the novel, and which all seems just a little too convenient. Frank Stockton could have been writing about The Boy From Maine when he complained that the ending of Young Man of Manhattan reminds one of the hasty cutting of knots with which some of Dickens's plots are brought to a close.

I dont know if I would have noticed this shift had I not known anything about the novels compositional history, but its unmistakably there.

Anyway, the book is pure soap opera, sentimental, sometimes silly, sometimes melodramatic; so I naturally ate it up.

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