Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Gay & Melancholy Sound

A Gay & Melancholy Sound / Merle Miller; intro by Nancy Pearl.
AmazonEncore, 2011, c1961.
583 p.

This is the first book in the Book Lust Rediscoveries series, selected and introduced by celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl. I bought myself a copy because I am very interested in the whole idea of a series of "Rediscovered" novels that one (admittedly influential) librarian can bring from out-of-print to accessible again.

With this series, she is reanimating some of her favourite novels which were published "between 1960-2000". I'm not sure why the limitation, but there doesn't seem to be a problem finding titles so far! Each one starts with an introductory essay about the book, and about why she selected it for the series. This first book of the project, described as her favourite book, is a huge one... a lengthy tale of one man's life. About this title, she says:

Miller’s novel never feels dated or awkward: there’s no strong whiff of the long-dead past emanating from its pages. Indeed, there’s enough snark, emotional pain, and irony to satisfy even the most demanding twenty-first-century reader.
(read the entire introduction here)

This is the life story of Joshua Bland, a precocious child who now feels, as an adult, that he lives up to his name. His early promise has led to nothing but self-loathing and alienation from his life experience. He has had exciting, dangerous, entertaining, intriguing experiences -- but has not been able to feel any connection or  emotional satisfaction from them. He is a character who is hard to love; in fact, he can't even love himself. But notwithstanding his behaviour, I was caught up in his story very quickly, wanting to learn all the details of who he was and why he'd turned out this way.

Being a novel from mid-century, of course the mother comes in for a lot of blame. Joshua's mother drives his quiet, kind father away with her pretensions and demands, and his stepfather is a flashy, demanding man who   rests all his hope of fame and fortune on the young Joshua's head. He forces Joshua to take part in a nationwide trivia competition, in which Joshua's nerves overtake him and he fails miserably. This failure shapes him. His mother and stepfather are ashamed and embarrassed, and seem to care more about their status than his feelings about it. The whole small town he lives in had prepared a celebration which of course now fizzles out, and Joshua's abject failure to bring any notice to them turns him from a favoured child to a pariah of sorts.

This key event is referred to by the adult Bland a few different times, and clearly sets the stage for his self-loathing. But as he grows up and continues to stumble through life, we see that his inability to accept himself is causing him great difficulty. His marriages are rocky despite his initial belief in the relationship; he can't behave kindly or normally, and in one case behaves so reprehensibly that I was disgusted and infuriated.

The book's conceit is that Joshua is recording his story, trying not to make excuses for himself, in the hours before he makes a final decision about the value of his life. At some points he is very much justifying himself, but even then he undercuts our pity by presenting himself in the worst possible light. He judges himself harshly and is snarky and cruel both as a defense and in the belief that he is ultimately unlovable anyhow.

I don't want to write a review as long as the book, so I'll simply say that this very miserable character is somehow written with sympathy -- in one way reading this feels like watching a train wreck, but one in which you feel sorry for the inevitable crash you see coming. He is a nasty man, but not really, not underneath; there is that kernel of good, of hope and optimism, that he refuses to accept, or to reveal only to be crushed again. It's said that cynicism is disappointed idealism, and perhaps that's one  part of Bland's character. His cynicism is overwhelming, washing him out to sea without any kind of life preserver to hold to. He's driven away anyone who might have helped him, and feels a perverse satisfaction in 'proving' his anticipated isolation. He's a sad man, brilliantly written. Although this a long tale, I felt that the energy of the story carried a reader quickly through all 584 pages, all the way to the sad, disintegrating conclusion. I found it a powerful read, a moving story of emotional damage and self-sabotage, interspersed with wit, cleverness and longing.


  1. This book sounds complicated, truthful, and intelligent. Excellent, incisive review.

  2. This sounds interesting to me because I recently read (halfway, didn't quite finish) a book about prodigy and "gifted" children who are often pushed too hard to perform- and then what happens to the rest of their lives.

  3. I've just sent for my first Nancy Pearl book (she's not that well known in the UK) and so I can't wait to see what she recommends. This reminds me of a book we read in our reading group some years ago about a child who is pushed to the point of breaking, 'Gifted' by Nikita Lalwani. That, however, has a modern day setting and is placed within our UK immigrant population.

  4. Suko - oh, thanks!

    Jeane - I'm not sure if it is solely because he was a gifted child or because of other extenuating factors that he turned out to be such a nasty person but it was still a powerful read

    Alex - I have a copy of "Gifted" somewhere around the house - I should read it to see how she dealt with the topic!


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