Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greeentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it. There were many reasons, none of them logical, but all of them compelling. For one thing the house had a kind of evil genius for displaying proof of their weaknesses and wiping out all traces of their strengths.

Even a thrown vase that dented the plaster leaves a repair that looks like a question-mark. They are discontented and don’t know why.

I don’t know what’s the matter with us, Betsy said one night. “Your job is plenty good enough. We’ve got three nice kids, and lots of people would be glad to have a house like this. We shouldn’t be so discontented all the time.”

The novel (pub. 1955) begins with a particular everyman scenario that happens in 1953. but could be anytime. Tom is 33 and Betsy a little younger and they have been married for 12 years. To us that would seem a precipitous rush into adulthood. Tom is on about 7,000$ a year and as the sole earner in the house is beginning to realise that his job at a philanthropic institute will not be sufficient to cover their needs in the future as the children grow more expensive. At lunch he hears from a friend that there was an opening in the United Broadcasting Corporation which could pay from eight to ten thousand. It’s in public relations.
The next morning, Tom put on his best suit, a freshly cleaned and pressed grey flannel. He applies for the job and gets it and finds himself working closely with Ralph Hopkins the C.E.O. and workaholic extraordinaire. The closeness of the observation of this individual, his mannerisms and rationalisation of a fanatic devotion to all work and no play makes one think that Wilson had someone in mind. All through the book there is a quiet understated wit that is very effective.

Running parallel to the office story is the darker one of his war experience in Italy and the Phillipines during the tail end of the war. As a paratrooper captain dropped behind enemy lines he has had to kill with a knife a young German soldier to take his coat. The weather is freezing and the boy is an enemy but still though he’s not haunted by this in a P.T.S.D. way, its one of those events that continues to depress. The contrast of that and the grey flannel army is a consistent irony.

The two streams of his life run together when he recognises a lift attendant as a comrade in Italy and he hears news of the girl that he left behind him there. Has anyone every written about ‘Coincidence and enhanced Karma in the Novel’? We accept it because the idea of cosmic balance and the chance to relive things, and this time get them right, is a wish that life rarely fulfils.

This is an excellent novel and the film version with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones stays close to the book and is also very good. I saw it before I read the book and Peck and Jones are just right. There is a recent re-publication but it was such a best seller that there must be tons of them out there. I got mine in a hardback reprint society edition for 5€. Highly recommended.

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