Sinclair Lewis Got It Exactly Right

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The poignant thing about his compulsiveness, his voluminous notes for each character and each locale, is that while he was forever on the lookout, rehearsing his stuff, America imperially evolved beyond the old provincialism and passed him by. Intensity was not enough to keep him going. What happened after the twenties is not that his gift for satire was unemployable but that the attachment to his material, always behind his satire, became uncertain. His one point of view, mimicry with gentle contempt directed at American provincialism and commercialism from the superior stance of “the capable,” did not allow for any great subtlety of inquiry into the realities. What Lewis had and keeps alive in a book like Babbitt is his love of detail, of classification, the anatomy of the social structure—the daily life of the home, the street, the office, the business lunch, the happy hour, the summer vacation—all the grinding of the domestic wheels. More than forty years ago, disappointed with Lewis but fascinated by his knowledge of routine, the compulsions of every day, I wrote in On Native Grounds that “it is impossible to look back at Lewis himself without seeing how deeply he has always depended on the common life he satirized.… There is indeed more significant terror of a kind in Lewis’s novels that in a writer like Faulkner or the hard-boiled novelists, for it is the terror immanent in the commonplace, the terror that arises out of the repressions, the meannesses, the hard jokes of the world Lewis had soaked into his pores.”

Where today can one find the commonplace truths of American life rendered with so much verve as Lewis once did? Who among our novelists now gives us back our own lives so that we feel the identification with ourselves? The obvious parallel, which would not have been obvious a few years ago, is with John Updike. Updike used to laugh at literary critics forever bringing “society” into the superior realm of art. But in a novel like Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Updike, describing lives totally pressured by inflation and the oil crisis of the late seventies, seems to be writing a sequel to Babbitt. He deliberately brings Lewis’s novel into his own.

Updike, born ten years after Babbitt appeared, is classy, subtle, a man of ideas, a brilliant critic, a stylist in more colors than Lewis would have dreamed possible. With the same relentless productivity as Lewis, Updike has been able to perform a variety of subjects in a colorful array of literary manners and choices.

“Rabbit,” Harry Angstrom, is a more tragic character than George F. Babbitt; Lewis would never have been able to handle his plight. All values are inflated like the value of our money. There is no authority to rebel against. Rabbit is a Toyota dealer in a middle-sized town (like Babbitt’s Zenith) smirking over “an average gross mark-up of eight hundred dollars per sale. Rabbit is rich.” But he is marred and damaged in his love life, and spiritually—another theme Lewis would not have handled—he feels disgraced. In a previous Rabbit novel his wife accidentally drowned their baby in the bathtub; she was drunk. Rabbit has taken his wife back after this and after his wife’s affair with a salesman right in his own shop. But though they are active in bed, they are not really together.

Nobody in Zenith, in the early twenties, would ever have been suspected of such damage to one’s soul. But then, nobody would have expected oil sheiks in Arabia to make beggars out of American motorists.

The details in Updike’s brilliant performance spatter like a hard rain on the windshield: “Fast-food huts in eye-catching shapes and retail outlets of everything from bridal outfits to plaster birdbaths have widened the aspect of this, the old Weisertown Pike, with their parking lots, leaving the odd surviving house and its stump of a front lawn sticking out painfully. Competitors—Pike Porsche and Renault, Diefendorfer Volkswagen, Old Red Barn Mazda and BMW, Diamond County Automotive Imports—flicker their FUEL ECONOMY banners while the gasoline stations intermixed with their beckoning have shrouded pumps and tow trucks parked across the lanes where automobiles once glided in, were filled, and glided on. An effect of hostile barricade, late in the day. Where did the shrouds come from? Some of them quite smartly tailored, in squared-off crimson canvas. A new industry, gas pump shrouds. Among bitter lakes of asphalt a few small stands offer strawberries and early peas.”

By now a lot of us no longer remember the shrouds covering the empty gas pumps of 1979. But every detail about Japanese cars, the pumps, open marriage, the competing sexual preferences of married partners, even the once exotic daiquiri Rabbit’s father drinks at the blue-collar saloon, is prime stuff. Updike’s keen young eyes have not missed a thing. American novelists have for more than a century now been so quick on the trigger giving the stuff of our lives back to ourselves that we never tire even when we read the artfully stylized duplications of reporting in Time and Newsweek.