A Gallery of Prigs: Fantasy and Fable in Calder Willingham’s Novel

Posted by on November 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Uniformly acknowledged by the (largely favorable) reviews of Calder Willingham’s End as a Man I recall reading is the repeatedly erupting element of the fabulous; not only the dimensions of moral allegory that continually bulge the realistic fabric, but the flashes of effervescent fantasy that, at odd moments, luridly color the episodic progress of Robert Marquales — a somewhat volatile, moderately talented young man of compassionate impulses yet, at 19, morally equivocal. Despite the late Burton Rascoe’s huffy denial in his preface to the novel’s softcover edition, I suggest that Marquales might correspond on many points to the youthful Willingham. And he is to find his moral plasticity challenged by successive personifications of self-righteousness egoism of various kinds and degrees; culminating in the august presence of the commandant, General Alexander Draughton.

The novel begins with the arrival at the academy, not of Marquales, but of an arch-eccentric Maurice Maynall Simmons: a fantastical figure in himself, wearing a heavy topcoat and knit tee to the steaming Dixieland temperatures. (Simmons hails from the Bible Belt: not of the Baptist South, but of Ohio.) His outlandish demeanor and prim manners make Simmons a predictable target for various ordeals: among the least the nickname “Sowbelly.” But Jocko De Paris and his retinue, who start by defacing with obscenities a treasured photograph of Simmons’ younger sister, introduce a viciously dark element. Eventually, he is inveigled into a drunken spree. When the culprits are, predictably, expelled, one of them — a swaggering thug named Ted Bailey — takes a vile revenge.

Marquales’ stance is protective of Simmons. Simmons, however, keeps his own secret store of consolations: hellfire fantasies in which his tormentors are envisioned on constantly running inferno-bound elevators. Bunking with Marquales, Simmons recites the delectable vengeance-fancies with sleepy satisfaction; which, however, outrage the liberal instincts of Marquales, who chides Simmons’ “hypocrisy.” Simmons’ revenge reveries color his victim persona with a puritanical tinge that forecasts certain future images in Willingham’s works: the Reverend Jerry, a frigidly sadistic Baptist minister, in Willingham’s novel Eternal Fire. And the short story collection The Gates of Hell presents us, among other fancies, with the pedestrian eccentric “James J. Dukes”; who conjures private images of sci-fi slaughter as he sashays along the street.

Marquales prevails on some of the upperclassmen, whose patronizing favor he has curried, to resituate him with new roommates: Lester Wintermine and Ben Hewlitt. Hewlitt is a gentle and diffident chap, of pacific leanings; but Wintermine personifies yet another variant of self-righteousness: a fledgling authoritarian, Wintermine’s gung-ho arrogance is mingled with his own brand of WASP piety.

Which induces Marquales to try his mental weapons of whimsical satire. He twits Wintermine’s spit-and-polish Protestantism with a fable from his own creator’s fantasy library: a pious rabbit clan, B’rer Mother and B’rer Father, which is a shaft not only at Wintermine’s piety, but at a tributary of old Southern culture — Uncle Remus.

The vocal collisions of Marquales and Wintermine persist (an attempt to “talk out” their frictions results in a huffy exit by Marquales). Grated, perhaps, by a paternal memory, sparked by Wintermine’s condescension? A cathartic fist fight, interrupted by an upperclassman, results in peaceable relations; and, for Marquales, a small but durable sense of victory — over himself.

The flickering revelations of Marquales’ evolving character have earned him, from various red-blooded reviewers, the character of “weakling”; and his confession (under threat of expulsion) of his part in an illicit poker game (stage-managed by Jocko De Paris, and resulting in serious injury to football jock Roger Gatt) has warranted, in some eyes, the label of “informer.” Far more pertinent, it seems to this reader, is the recognition that Marquales’ is a still nascent character; a young man in what might be perceived as the classic bildungsroman condition of evolution. Only in this case, under the hard, white glare of Calder Willingham’s skeptical acumen (leavened by an often sportive and capricious imagination).

Which glares forth in baroque audacity in Marquales’ visit to the sickbed of Perrin McKee: a swankily posturing homosexual esthete (and secret adorer of De Paris). Marquales’ and McKee’s increasingly heated debate takes place in an atmosphere of hallucinatory strangeness and nightmare farce introduced by Marquales’ interview with McKee’s deranged old father —who imagines his son to be dead, and floridly describes a demonic cat that augured the non-event. McKee regales his guest with a paean of Edwardian elegance to sexual adventure, as he regards it. It includes a succulent evocation of the milk produced from the breasts of his black nurse (who, now besotted with drugs and alcohol, eventually appears).

But this stage of his progress finds Marquales adopting the role of bullyboy. In self-righteous tones that might earn Wintermine’s nod, he threatens to summon Jocko; a speech that shatters McKee’s assurance. As in any well-run nightmare, diverse unexpected persons appear: the nurse, now brandishing a knife; one of De Paris’s satellites, named Albert Wilson, bears gifts of verbal and physical abuse—as the atmosphere exhales fumes of Truman Capote (from his early fiction stage) and Raymond Chandler. While moral and ethical precepts become as a phantasmagoria of twinkling fireflies.

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