“Henny daily revealed the hypocrisy of Sam, and Sam found it his painful duty to say that Henny was a born liar. Each of them struggled to keep the children, not to deliver them into the hands of the enemy: but the children were not taking it in at all. Their real feelings were made up of the sensations received in the respective singsongs and treasure hunts.” (p. 33)
The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.
The Elevator Pitch: For me, living at the Pollit house would be akin to hell on earth. Sam and Henrietta “Henny” Pollit must rank among the worst couples of all time. They live in Washington D.C. where Sam works in some sort of governmental capacity while Henny attempts to look after his ever-increasing brood of children. She acts like a shrewish harridan, while Sam is a baby-talking buffoon. I hate this book.
What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: Nothing at all. I am kind of jealous of those days now.
Thoughts: As I mentioned in my last post, this book is a real motherfucker. It is long, overwritten, and filled with characters I can’t even begin to identify with. The eponymous “Man”, Sam Pollit, is among the most annoying characters it has ever been my misfortune to read about. He shifts wildly between Roosevelt-era Socialist dreamer, to baby-talking manchild, to condescending educated douchebag, almost every other sentence. I get that we’re not supposed to like him as readers, but this is a bit much.
He also brings back another one of my pet peeves, the overuse of accents in fiction. Whereas in something like Call It Sleep, The Berlin Stories or some of the Boston parts of Infinite Jest, accents are used to demonstrate the differences between people, be they immigrants, tourists or members of the underworld, Sam Pollit busts out accents all the time, just because he’s a dick. He pretends that he’s a stereotypical old Jewish guy, or a “cornpone” Southern guy, or someone from Singapore, just to get cheap laughs out of his kids, who essentially worship the ground he walks on. That’s literally the only reason. I’m sure Stead knew that this would happen, that I would hate her main character, so bravo, Stead! You made me hate a guy by making him unbearable to read about. You deserve some sort of award. And so does Sam Pollit, who is able to impress children with “funny” voices. What a champ, you guys.
His wife Henny is probably the closest thing to someone we can empathise with, as her husband has essentially driven her crazy with his wacky antics. The children in the book are so far pretty unbelievable characters. Louie, Sam’s daughter from his previous wife, is prone to reciting bits of poetry and theology, which would be okay if she wasn’t something like 12 years old. How is she able to remember all this stuff? Could it be that she’s only a mouthpiece for the author to attempt to class up her story with? Much like Scarlett’s son in Gone With the Wind, the younger children are written as if Stead had never seen a real human child talk. It reminds me of nothing more than the “Superbaby” stories that would crop up in Action Comics in the ’50s and ’60s. Here he is packing up a super-bindle:
So yeah, so far I don’t really like this book very much. I’m hoping it ends in Grand Guignol-style with a huge bloodbath. To close up today, here’s Henny discussing which is the best way to kill yourself, which is not a great thing to put in a book that seriously makes you consider it:
“There are so many ways to kill yourself, they’re just old-fashioned with their permanganate: do you think I’d take permanganate? I wouldn’t want to burn my insides out and live to tell the tale as well; idiots! It’s simple. I’d drown myself. Why not put your head in a gas oven? They say it doesn’t smell so bad.” (p. 164, this goes on for a long time).