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
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.
“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.
Margaret Ayer Barnes, who published the haunting Years of Grace to popular and critical acclaim in 1930, pleased her public again in 1934 with Within This Present.
Both novels follow a character from the cusp of womanhood through midlife, allowing readers to live through a slice of history from a domestic perspective.
The woman in Within This Present is Sally Sewall, a girl from a wealthy, close-knit Chicago banking family. At 19, she marries Alan MacLeod before he goes off to the Western Front.
Alan sees only five days of fighting. He comes home feeling cheated of the opportunity to do something that matters.
When Sally says she’s pregnant, Alan says perhaps being a father is what matters. Alan goes to work in the Sewall family’s bank.
Ten years later, Alan becomes involved with a woman in their set. He and Sally are living apart in 1929 when the bank fails. The family crisis predictably brings them back together.
Although Within This Present is an entertaining and enlightening novel, Barnes lets Granny Sewall talk from beginning to end about how young people need challenges to show what they’re made of. Sadly, even dear, sweet Granny’s sermons grow dull with repetition.
Within This Present
By Margaret Ayer Barnes
Houghton Mifflin, 1933
1934 bestseller #5
Sermons and Soda Water is a three-volume set of novellas that John O’Hara wrote while working on a big novel.
Each story is told by a writer from Gibbsville, Pa. (O’Hara’s hometown) who has gone on to bigger places, bigger things. In middle age, each of the writers looks back with a combination of nostalgia and remorse to his youth in the years between Prohibition and Pearl Harbor.
The first novella, The Girl on the Baggage Truck, explores the difference between the kinds of things that matter to people and the facts that appear in their obituaries.
The second, Imagine Kissing Pete, is about a girl who marries on the rebound and discovers the wimp has a totally unexpected savage sexuality.
The third, We’re Friends Again, is a tale about a two loveless marriages, one of which is accompanied by a enduring affair.
O’Hara’s characters live for booze, sex, gossip, and what generally passes in their set as a good time. The writer-narrators blame the shallowness of their group on Prohibition, as if the individuals bear no responsibility for their actions.
O’Hara’s keen observation and ear for dialogue make the characters live, but nothing can make them attractive.
Fortunately, you won’t remember any of them long.
Sermons and Soda Water
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
Vol 1. The Girl on the Baggage Truck
Vol 2 Imagine Kissling Pete
Vol 3 We’re Friends Again