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Jelly fish washed up on sandy beach

“Directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

Coningsby Dawson’s The Coast of Folly explores a real but rarely discussed individual and social problem: the extent to which individuals are responsible not only for their behavior but for the impression their behavior is likely to give others.

Dawson sets the story when America was reeling from the social upheavals caused by World War I and drowning its disillusionment in bootleg liquor.

All summer, unattached Joyce Gathway’s too-rich-to-work friends have paired her with Larry Fay whose wife has begun divorce proceedings against him. Their relationship has remained open and friendly, but both know it could easily descend into a sexual affair.

When a gossip columnist suggests Joyce will be named as co-respondent in the divorce, she is forced to acknowledge that the appearance of immorality is destructive even among her peers who speak of conventional morality with disdain.  Her grandfather says people like Joyce aren’t deliberately wicked, “merely directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

The novel follows Joy’s attempts to see whether her behavior was wrong and how to repair the damage she’s done. Dawson calls this  “the compulsion of failure.”

Although The Coast of Folly is dated in many ways and the plot overtly contrived, the questions Joyce has to answer are questions all young adults need to answer for themselves.

The Coast of Folly
By Coningsby Dawson
Grossett & Dunlap, 1924
341 pages
1924 bestseller #8
My grade: B+
 

Still photos from the 1925 movie version of the novel here suggest some of the ways the novel appears dated today.

Photo credit: “Jelly Fish” by Liessel

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In The Midlander*, Booth Tarkington creates a set of distinctive characters whose behavior weaves a plot that feels inevitable.

From childhood, the Oliphant brothers are uncongenial. Harlan Oliphant is an aloof aristocrat, respectable and responsible; his younger brother, Dan, is a rumpled democrat, popular and aimless.

Tarkington embeds the Oliphant brothers’ story in the setting of the rise of America’s great manufacturing cities in the two decades before World War I.

Harlan falls for the girl next door; Martha cares only for Dan, who considers her just a good pal.

When Dan chooses a city girl instead of Martha, his grandmother changes her will in favor of Harlan, whom she dislikes, rather than let Dan waste her fortune.

Dan impulsively becomes a real estate developer, planning to make a fortune in 10 years or so when Midland would have grown big enough to reach his Ornaby Addition.

Dan’s wife, Lena, makes no attempt to fit in with his plans. She is bitterly jealous of Martha.

Dan never wavers from his vision, never grows beyond his 20-year-old self as everyone else around him changes in more or less subtle ways.

Despite the novel’s complexity, Tarkington’s lean prose here makes The Midlander both entertaining and rewarding reading.


*Tarkington published the first edition of The Midlander in 1924, wrapping up a set of three novels which he brought out in a single volume under the name Growth in 1927. In Growth, Tarkington changed the name The Midlander to National Avenue. National Avenue appears as the final work in that volume. The other novels in the trilogy are The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and The Turmoil (1915)


The Midlander*
By Booth Tarkington
Pages 591-887 of Growth
1924 bestseller #7
My grade: A-

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Call of the Canyon starts out looking the standard western romance. Then Zane Grey gets caught up in the lives of his characters. Instead of finding romance, the novel’s leading lady finds herself. Pigs

Thunderation.

Carley Burch, 26, a young woman of Jazz Age Manhattan is engaged to Glenn Kilborne. Gassed and shell-shocked in France, Glenn has gone to Arizona recover. The war affected something more than just Glenn’s body.

A year later, Carley pays Glenn a surprise visit, intending to bring him home. She finds him recovered physically, raising hogs, determined never to go back East.

Dangnabbit.

Carley is sure Glenn loves her, but he admires a local girl who returns his admiration. Carley decides to show Glenn she can take western hardships as uncomplainingly as Flo does.

As always, Grey’s scene descriptions are vivid and poetic. Grey does an unusually good job developing Carley’s character. He draws the lecherous Haze Ruff perfectly in a few lines. The other characters are flat.

Let me give you a hunch: If only Grey had learned from Carley’s experience, the novel could have been wonderful. On the verge of letting the novel go to its logical conclusion, Grey jerks back into comfort of familiar formulas.

Now, don’t that take the rag off the bush?

The Call of the Canyon
By Zane Grey
1924 bestselleter # 6
Project Gutenberg ebook #1881
My grade: B-

Photo credit: Pigs by Btenow

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

James Oliver Curwood’s A Gentleman of Courage is the love story of two youngsters who are informally adopted by the residents of a community on an inlet off Lake Superior.
Peter and Mona
The boy, Peter MacRae, is the son of a man wanted for murder. He sends Peter to a friend who owns the lumber mill at Five Fingers before disappearing.

Entering Five Fingers, Peter sees orphan Mona Guyon being molested. Although Aleck Curry is older and stronger than he, Peter rushes to her assistance, winning her everlasting devotion.

Peter is required to prove his courage several more times before the novel ends.

Peter and Mona are planning their wedding when Donald MacRae returns, weak and ill but longing for sight of his son. The police, led by Aleck Curry, are on his trail.

Curwood has difficulty making the children’s behavior fit both their ages and the plot. Either they appear way too old or way too young.

He draws other characters with such broad strokes they appear as caricatures. Fortunately Curwood includes enough action that the underdeveloped characters are not obvious until the book’s end.

The novel is good enough to keep readers turning pages, but not good enough to make them remember what they read a week later.

Peter returns to Five Fingers

Five Fingers greets Peter on his return after the forest fire.

A Gentleman of Courage: A Novel of the Wilderness
By James Oliver Curwood
Illustrations from original paintings by Robert W. Stewart
Cosmopolitan Book Corp., 1924
1924 bestseller #5
My grade: B-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs twines two heart-felt cries of British fiction of the ’20s and ’30s: “Nothing’s been the same since the war,” and “young people today only want to have fun.”

The basic plot is a familiar one. Julian Perryam leaves Oxford without taking his degree just before he can be expelled after a night in which he and friends drank too much and got back after hours. Julian’s friend Audrey Nye, daughter of a vicar, is sent down.

After years of hobnobbing with rich kids who don’t need to work or for whom a career is assured by their parents’ connections, the ex-scholars find themselves having to work for a living — a task for which Oxford has not prepared them — in a of high unemployment.

Julian and Audrey spout the slogans of their peers but secretly are as conventional as their parents. Living at home again, they realize how much their families sacrificed for them.

Gibbs enriches his romance with sprinkling of sarcasm that mature readers will feel the young idealists’ selfcenteredness warrants.

Julian and Audrey rise to the challenge in 1924. Whether they will bring up their children according to their slogans or according to their principles is open to speculation.

The Heirs Apparent
By Phillip Gibbs
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
375 pages
1924 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda GortonAragoni

Jacket of novel The Little French Girl
The Little French Girl is a novel that needs to be peeled, layer by layer, like a sweet onion. Reading it requires alertness and either some French or a good French dictionary.

The story opens with Alix Vervier being met at Victoria Station by Giles Owen. Madame Vervier, presuming on a war-time acquaintance with Giles’ deceased brother, has sent Alix to England to find a suitable marriage partner.

At 15, Alix has childish innocence at odds with her acute perceptivity. She immediately likes Giles and the late Capt. Owen’s fiancée, Topee.

The rest of the noisy, sports crazy Owen family take some getting used to.

The novel follows Alix as she tries to be an obedient French daughter without offending her English hosts who find the idea of a parent arranging a child’s marriage unthinkable.

A summary can’t do this exquisite, lavendar-gray novel justice. Anne Douglas Sedgwick makes Alix’s growth from precocious teen to sensitive adult unfold as naturally as a flower coming into bloom, even though the growth process is painful for Alix, her French family, and her English hosts.

The Little French Girl
By Anne Douglas Sedgwick
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
508 pages
1924 bestseller #3
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Girl lures college man to find alcohol.“When an American sets out to found a college, he hunts first for a hill.”  Thus Percy Marks begins a novel that attempts unsuccessfully to be an indictment of American higher education in the jazz age. Marks writes:

The college is made up of men who worship mediocrity; that is their ideal except in athletics.

In a nutshell, the plot of The Plastic Age is this: A wholesome, American farm boy named Hugh Carver goes to a college founded so men might “find the true light of God and the glory of Jesus in the halls of this most liberal college.”

Hugh loses the faith he entered college with, finds nothing to replace it, and graduates without enough education to even decide on a career.

Hugh does, however, learn to drink, smoke, gamble, and swear.

The novelist seems to equate the educational system represented by Sanford College with Prohibition era drinking and casual approach to sex. That’s a questionable equation.

But however he defines the problem, in order to skewer the system that produced it Marks must make readers care about its victims.

Percy Marks isn’t writer enough do that.

The novel never gets any better than its opening line.

The Plastic Age
by Percy Marks
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
1924 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg EBook #16532
My grade C+

Photo credit: The photo is from the screenplay of Marks’ novel.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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