Which “End” is Up?: Some Reconsiderations of Calder Willingham’s End as a Man

Posted by on February 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Calder Willingham’s novel End as a Man, originally published in 1946, was originally acclaimed (starting with James T. Farrell’s pre-publication rave review) and subsequently publicized as an expose´ of Southern military academies. Such acclaim, overly facile, also largely bypassed consideration of End as a Man‘s literary status: which seemed to me then, and now, the more durable aspect of the work.

Let me explain that I could not less be concerned with End as a Man as a “great” novel. As one exposed to the expression’s usage and (for the most part) abuse, time after time, I have come to regard it as an anti-critical, rhetorical gas bubble, implicitly hostile to the functions of criticism: observing, identifying, and evaluating. Suffice (I hope) to say, End as a Man, on the basis of my three or four re-readings, stands as a vigorously concerned and—shimmering through the gravelly candor—a quietly, even subtly, humanely moral work: an anti-bildungsroman; the “hero” of which—freshman Robert Marquales—is perceived, during the novel, and with a chilling suggestion of finality at its conclusion—embarking on a career of prospective moral opportunism.

The off-Broadway adaptation, by Actors Studio, featured a cluster of future Broadway and Hollywood luminaries. Ben Gazzarra rendered the swaggering, unsavory glamour of Jocko; Pat Hingle was his toady, Harold Koble; Albert Salmi, the football lummox targeted by Jocko for persecution; Paul Richards, the homosexual esthete who finds erotic inspiration in Jocko.

I was excited and hopeful, at the time, cheered by the fluid compactness of the stage presentation: seeing it as helpful advertisement (though, I realized even then, severely diminished) of a book I admired. Indeed, as the result of favorable critical reception by the sensitive Walter Kerr and others, the production was transferred to Broadway, but without duplicating the earlier success. In any event: the production, more than a condensation, represented a basic trivialization of the novel. Later, glancing through the on-Broadway version in the 42d Street Library, I noted some lick-and promise-attempts, in lines and stage directions, to recapture the novel’s tone. I can only regret, if fully understand, Calder Willingham’s apparent acquiescence to the earlier surgery.

Basically, I would say, the tapestry scope of End as a Man was untransferable to any stage. At very least, it would have required the microcosmic vision of a Brecht, or Büchner. The most telling sacrifice was of Calder Willingham’s tone by “tone,” I mean, not merely Willingham’s coolly precise narrative voice. I mean: the saturation of the story with a scintillating evocation of the Southern oral tradition. The work abounds in characters’ recollections, anecdotes, gossip. That squalid farceur, Cadet William Poley, gleefully recalls his adored racist father savagely beating a Negro who attempted to “pass.” The aged General Draughton recalls an incident from decades past, in Panama, when he jailed a criminal informer. Perrin McKee’s deranged old father conjures up a demon cat, with agate eyes, that allegedly visited his son. Those autocratic aristocrats chuckle over remembrances of the sadistic upperclassmen that persecuted them. In between accounts, they snicker at the alleged improvised sexual habits of the elderly administrators. Willingham’s tone transmutes what might have been mere hopeless chagrin, and self-stifled rage, into a taste for the monstrously absurd that does no dishonor to Swift.

I have no wish, however, to suggest that Willingham’s narrative is a mere assemblage of anecdotes and aperçus. About halfway through the novel, for example, Marquales, assigned to enlisting alms for the Academy, finds himself partnered with one William Poley: a lout, boor, and ultimate muff. On their first visit to a local grocery, Poley berates the Jewish grocer and his mixed-origins assistant, with the predictable epithets. Marquales flees, seeking out the friendly upperclassmen; in whose company, Marquales baits Poley and excites his clumsy abuse, to the approving mirth of Marquales’ new-found companions. Poley flees, but Willingham does not abandon him. For William Poley, it seems, is a True Believer in the Academy, and Willingham unsparingly traces his fumble-fingered attempts to find a niche: suggestions for winter sports; ill-fated articles invariably returned, with Ds and Fs, by the smirking recipients. Willingham follows Poley through to the hideously farcical blunder by which he loses, disgraced, his humble place in the Academy. Such volume, such density of compassion, were utterly bypassed by the earlier adaptation of Calder Willingham’s novel and travestied by the Hollywood “adaptation,” The Strange One: which amply deserved retitling to Brother Rat Saves the Old School.

nicked from papermag.com

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