Friday, December 2, 2016

Pretty Leslie by R. V. Cassill

She had to be capable of anything now.  When the surface of her life flowed on like rote--as it usually did--still the lower currents wandered among the stony surprises of an unknown stream bed.  
I spent some time in Des Moines on my recent Thanksgiving travels, and found that the public library was selling books for five cents each! Among those I purchased for this cheap as free price was R. V. Cassill’s Pretty Leslie, a Bantam paperback from 1964 with an interesting red cover that proclaims it to be “the brilliant, moving novel of modern sexual life!”, complete with exclamation point! (The book first appeared as a Simon and Schuster hardcover with a repulsive cover in 1963.) The back cover text of my paperback suggests this 295-page book is about a horny chick whose horniness gets her in some kind of trouble; I guess we’ve all been there, haven’t we?

Ronald Verlin Cassill was born in Iowa, and my copy of Pretty Leslie was once part of the Des Moines Public Library’s collection of books by Iowa authors. It is in quite good shape; evidently nobody found the sexalicious cover enticing  enough to actually sit in the library ("FOR USE IN LIBRARY ONLY") and read it. I guess it does look more like one of those "curl up all alone with" type of books.  But don’t think that I purchased Pretty Leslie in hopes it was a piece of pornography!  Not only did Cassill win various literary awards as well as the praises of the snobs at the New York Times and James Dickey (whose Deliverance I read about six years ago and am happy to recommend)--for two decades Cassill edited The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, a perch of great power and prestige in the world of wordsmithery!  All the evidence suggests that Pretty Leslie, even if it is about a horny chick, is a respectable piece of modern literature!

Leslie Skinner (Skinner?  hmmmm...) grew up in the tony Long Island suburb of Manhasset, and then moved to Manhattan and worked at a famous magazine. As our story begins, Leslie is 27 and has lived with her husband, Ben Daniels, a pediatrician, for three years in Sardis, Illinois.  Leslie loves attention, and is a skilled liar and clever manipulator: “She could, and did, still make anyone she wanted to fall in love with her.  The tactics were exactly those that had worked in Manhasset High...."  She flirts with Ben's friends and the men at the ad agency where she works part time, and tells white lies to her female coworkers to get them to tell her their own secrets--these secrets she relays to her husband.  Leslie, Ben reflects, has a "contagious lust for drama."

The back cover of Pretty Leslie, with its handwritten quote from the title character's diary, had given me hopes that this novel would be a first person narrative from a nymphomaniac or someone with some other psychological problem, but it is in fact written in the third person omniscient form, and we follow several characters, learn their backstories, look into their minds, and witness events from their points of view. In the first of the novel's four parts we learn Ben Daniels' deep dark secret: As a child growing up in Kansas he cunningly murdered another boy, meting out rough justice for that boy's having tortured a dog. The murder was ruled an accident, and Ben and his stepmother moved to New York City to start a new life. Throughout his life Ben has wrestled with a dilemma: can he unburden himself of this weighty secret, tell anyone, even his wife, how he coaxed Billy Kirkland behind a car parked on an incline and then, oops, released the brake so Billy was crushed?

In Part Two we learn about Leslie's past: she was fat, which scarred her mind, making her obsessed with keeping off weight.  She developed a slender figure as a young adult, but she is haunted by a "Fat Girl" and at times of stress will quickly gain weight and resort to girdles.  Cassill's novel is full of Freudian mumbo jumbo: we not only learn about the childhood incidents which have caused the various characters' adult fetishes and hangups, but read all about their stupid dreams, and all the characters fling around goofy psychological analyses of each other. Ben, for example, thinks that when Leslie gains weight it may be because she subconsciously wants to be pregnant.

Did I say "fetishes and hangups?"  Leslie wants to be treated roughly by a man, dominated, or at a least part of her she isn't quite ready to admit to, even to herself, does. One of Cassill's recurring themes is personalities split in two, entities composed of two opposing or complementary elements.  Leslie is both the sexy sophisticated professional and the Fat Girl, while Ben is both the cunning assassin of a child and the devoted preserver of children's lives.

Leslie's desire to be roughly handled is all mixed up in her attitudes about race.  While she calls herself a liberal and was "madly for Adlai" during her high school days, she was sexually aroused when she heard a horror story from the South about a black woman who was gang raped by whites while held up against the fender of a car, and was also excited when she saw a cop on the streets of Greenwich Village beating Puerto Rican boys with his billy club.  That very same cop later tried to make the moves on her, and when she resisted he hit her with the very same club, a beating she found cathartic.

Ben has his own complicated views of blacks and Hispanics, which are all mixed up in his beliefs in superstition and "the uncanny."  Ben's father died in Africa where his parents were missionaries devoted to helping whom Ben calls "black idiots;" a "witch doctor" tended Ben's father on his deathbed and Ben's mother soon after went insane. Ben himself volunteers two days a week at a clinic in an Illinois ghetto, looking after "Negro" children.  In an early part of the novel Ben fails to save a black baby (the little boy ate lead paint chips and dies of lead poisoning) and the same day revives an apparently doomed white little girl; Ben conceives the ridiculous notion that the events are inextricably linked, that somehow the little Negro boy was sacrificed to rescue the Caucasian child.

I should probably note that animals also play a role in the novel (there is the aforementioned dog, for example, as well as a pet bird, some pet fish, and a recurring reference to a chimpanzee) and that these animals play a role in the novel similar to that of the numerous minor nonwhite figures--they are alien inferiors, and the way the three white principals treat them reveals something about their character.  

First edition; are those gummy worms
or mitochondria?  Hideous!
The climax of Part Two comes when Ben is down in Caracas, at a medical conference where he learns about the plight of Latin American children.  After a party at her boss's fancy house Leslie has a brief affair with a social inferior, Donald Patch.  We learn all about Patch in Part Three.  A short man Leslie doesn't even like, Patch is a loutish commercial artist and science fiction fan (!) whom nobody respects; he uses an airbrush to paint highly detailed and "garishly" realistic depictions of people, aircraft and military equipment (sophisticated people like Leslie prefer abstract modern art, even if they work at an ad agency which makes its money by offering clients Patch's realistic work.)  Patch is a serial womanizer, but he has only ever had lower class women, including many "Negro" women--white, educated middle-class Leslie is a major catch for him.  Patch seduces women by being dismissive and cruel to them (I guess nowadays people call this "negging") and he is a violent lover who hurts Leslie.  This selfish creep brings Leslie to orgasm, something her kind and gentle husband has never done!

Also in Part Three Ben returns from Venezuela, his contact with poor Latin American kids having fired him with the idea that he and Leslie (who have been unable to have their own child) should adopt.  But when he suggests this idea to Leslie over dinner at a fancy restaurant she isn't even listening to him--she's thinking of Patch!  Over the succeeding weeks various clues convince Ben that Leslie had another man in his absence.  He tries to be modern and liberal about it ("If someone had her on her back, what's the harm in it?  Who am I to rock the boat?") but the knowledge of her infidelity has terrible effects on his mind; he becomes impotent, for example.  Patch badgers Leslie into resuming the affair; she spends her days in Patch's crummy apartment and her nights in the house Ben bought her.  Cassill suggests that Leslie needs both gentle Ben and brutal Patch to achieve satisfaction, and even that Ben and Patch are different versions of the same person, shaped by different circumstances. The climax of Part Three is when Leslie discovers she is finally pregnant!

In Part Four Leslie flees west and Ben finally realizes what is going on and confronts Patch; he and Patch (it appears) die, while Leslie, sower of discord, moves on to another phase of her life.

There are some good things in Pretty Leslie; the sex stuff is more or less entertaining, and the uncomfortable race stuff, Leslie and Ben's powerful but condescending, ambivalent, and at times hypocritical feelings about blacks and Hispanics, is interesting.  I liked the character of Donald Patch, the brutish artist consigned to the edges of polite society.  I give Pretty Leslie a passing grade.  But there are also lots of problems--it is certainly not as "brilliant" or "moving" as advertised.  Cassill doesn't have a very engaging prose style, and he uses lots and lots of elaborate metaphors and similes.  Some of these work, but some just weigh down the narrative, expressing an idea with more words but no more clarity than a simple declaration would have.  Some of the longer metaphorical passages I found distracting and, as my mind wandered, incomprehensible.

The profusion of metaphors suggests Cassill is trying to produce a serious literary novel; he also assumes a level of cultural literacy on the part of the reader, including plenty of references to artists like George Bellows and Willem De Kooning and fictional characters like Circe, Madame Bovary, and Mrs. Miniver.  Cassill never uses Maugham's name, but makes it clear Patch thinks of himself as Strickland, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham's Moon and Sixpence, an artist above the stifling strictures of bourgeois morality.

In the same way the overabundance of metaphors makes the book feel a little too long and too slow, there is a superfluity of minor, uninteresting characters who appear briefly and then never show up again; maybe Cassill could have combined some of them--how many friends and colleagues do the Daniels really need for the narrative to function?

A recent edition
The novel's biggest problem is probably that it is about a marriage, but neither the husband nor the wife is very interesting, and their relationship isn't compelling either.  Leslie and Ben Daniels are wishy washy--why should the reader be "moved" if Ben and Leslie themselves are so bland and hesitant, so ambivalent, about each other?  I can't remember why they even got married, what attracted them to each other in the first place, they never exhibit the kind of deep love or ferocious hate I want to see in drama. Don Patch, a man driven by big emotions who stands at odds with society, is the book's most interesting character--he acts and reacts, he feels things and he does things.  Leslie and Ben just go with the flow, they think and talk but can't make up their minds about what they feel and what they should to do, and end up feeling and doing very little.  Leslie and Ben are passive victims to whom things happen, and victims are boring--Patch is a villain or antihero who makes things happen.

A part of the problem is all that modern psychology jazz; it quashes the characters' agency as well as any romance or tragedy the story might have had, turning them into malfunctioning machines instead of flesh and blood people you can feel for.  The idea of people as deterministic machines may make sense as a description of real life, but it can ruin fiction, especially when the characters, instead of rebelling against determinism, blandy accept it.

Pretty Leslie wasn't a waste of my time, but Cassill lacks the sort of special something--depth of feeling, a beautiful style, a unique point of view, humor or a sense of fun, surprising ideas--that excites me about the "mainstream" or "literary" writers I really like, such as Proust or Nabokov or Maugham or Orwell or Henry Miller or Bukowski, so I don't think I will be reading any other of his numerous works.

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