Archive for the ‘My Writing’ Category

All Fall Down

This review originally appeared on A Penguin a Week.

 

Penguin no. 1742: All Fall Down
by James Leo Herlihy

Cover design uses still from the MGM movie ‘All Fall Down’.

“Tomorrow I’m going on a health binge, get some filter cigarettes and start doing push-ups every night. Maybe I’ll do some right now, to make myself sleepy. Because I’ve got about forty-seven big knots in my chest, and they hurt.”
 
When I pick up an old Penguin I’m hoping for a surprise – something off-beat, long neglected, out of left field, a lost gem. ‘All Fall Down’ delivered. 

It’s the first novel from the Detroit writer who went on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’ five years later in 1965, James Leo Herlihy. It’s a coming of age story in the heritage of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a decade in its wake. It follows the growth of Clint Williams from an isolated, uncommunicative 14 year old to an emerging adult with the capacity to care and love. 

A fair proportion of the story is told through Clint’s diary – it’s like an external hard drive he relies on to compulsively capture memories and documentation from his chaotic family life. He steals his mother’s private letters (outgoing and incoming) to copy into this notebook which he keeps tucked in his trousers, right against his flesh. It’s the one place he controls and to which he can bring some degree of order.

Clint’s hero, his older brother Berry-berry, is absent for much of the story, on his low-life travels around the USA, much of the time just one step ahead of the law. Yet his being has immense gravitational pull on the family. The disparity between what mother, father and little brother hope for from Berry-berry and the real man (in as much as he is grown up) is the source of the all-round disillusionment which engulfs the family.

When the Williams move to a new house across the city in Cleveland, Ohio, the cracks open up. Berry-berry takes off before he’s even spent a night in his new room. The father, a former left-wing activist, spends his time in the basement doing puzzles. The mother immerses herself in domesticity on the ground floor, while Clint eavesdrops from the laundry chute upstairs and records the exchanges in the diary which he “made use of … with an unconscious ease similar to that of walking or feeding oneself”.

Clint, in an attempt to come to the aid of the older brother he idolises, goes on a road trip across the country to the Florida Keys. He loses his innocence along the way when he is sheltered by Shirley, a young tart with a heart, whose inner beauty and profound loss influence Clint for life.

The person who catalyses the final destruction of both the dysfunctional family and their illusions is the unmarried daughter of one of the mother, Annabel’s, friends. Echo O’Brien is a dynamic young woman, very attached to her perfectly preserved 1929 Dodge touring car. Tall and slender, she could, in a parallel universe, have been in the pages of  ‘The Great Gatsby’. Think ‘Gatsby’ and Tennessee Williams for the kind of tension Echo brings into the Williams household as she becomes the object of both Clint’s innocent, tender love and Berry-berry’s careless lust, the latter returned to his home city and the proximity of his family, but living on the edge of town with a dark secret.

Watching Berry-berry live a lie and talk up his hollow, self-centred life, gradually grinds away at Clint’s hopes and illusions. Like Holden Caulfield’s obsession with ‘phoneyness’, Clinton Williams can’t take the lies: “I just stayed there at the table and thought about what big liars we all are”. Berry-berry tells his biggest, most unforgivable lie at the climax of the novel and it is this which finally severs his bond with his once adoring brother. Berry-berry ultimately cares only for himself and loves no-one, not even himself. Clint though has a great capacity and desire to care and cherish. His growth into adulthood is complete with the realisation that “[in] the difference in the love offerings people make to one another, lay the reason for all the pain in the world.”

First published in the U.S.A. 1960. Published in Great Britain by Faber & Faber 1961. Published in Penguin Books 1962.

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