Monday, February 15, 2010

"The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" by Sloan Wilson

"'I was my own disappointment. I really don't know what I was looking for when I got back from the war, but it seemed as though all I could see was a lot of bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere. They seemed to me to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness -- they were pursuing a routine. For a long while I thought I was on the side lines watching that parade, and it was quite a shock to glance down and see that I too was wearing a gray flannel suit.'"
When I was little, when we would go spend summer weekends at my grandparents' place in Rehoboth Beach, I was always drawn to the few old hardbacks on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember two of them, always found in their same alcove every year, next to an old photo in a plastic frame and a few hardy seashells: Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," and a book by Ian Fleming on Jamaica. The Wilson book in particular stood out; the cover was old and tatty, a relic from the 1950s or 60s, and featured a man in silhouette wearing a fedora, hands clasped behind his back. Why didn't he have a name? Why was he in shadow? Like most objects and events of my childhood, I was vaguely afraid of this.

I was thinking about this book recently and bought it online on a lark. I found an edition from 2002 with an endearingly ugly cover -- preserving that iconic silhouette man -- and featuring a new introduction from Jonathan Franzen.

Reader, I loved this book. I don't know if I've ever read a book that so closely matched my own life and circumstances. I was expecting another typical post-war suburban angst book: man and woman in bitter marriage, loathed or ignored children, drunken escapades, casual violence, sullen train rides into the city. And yet: the protagonist here was a decent young guy with a smart, beautiful wife. He changed jobs in an effort to find meaningful work that challenged him yet allowed him time with kids. He was loyal to his old grandmother. He treated people fairly. He was honest with his boss when he could have been a yes-man. He struggled with his past in World War Two, with the violence and infidelities that had somehow made sense in a senseless place. Ultimately he reconciled his shameful past with the future he wanted to build for himself and his family. He did it with integrity.

I found this book to be so inspiring and appropriate for me right now. The author's afterword from 1983 highlighted how young people have always been very responsive to the novel; how they have understood, unlike the critics who caricatured the book as yet another backhanded slap at postwar life, that this is actually a story of unironic aspiration and resilience. I was surprised by the sourness of Franzen's introduction which highlighted some of the weaknesses of the book (notably its rushed, pat conclusion).

I consider it a real gift, and a funny little curlique of life, that I happened to read a book I've been toying with since I was a little kid at this particularly apt moment of my life. The edition that I just read was published almost 40 years after the original hardback I eyed for all those summers, yet the man remains, waiting to be read, waiting to be understood. The passage I highlighted above really bowled me over, and the lines that followed resonated as well:
"'I needed a great deal of assistance in becoming an honest man. If you hadn't persuaded me to play it straight with Ralph, I would be thinking differently now. By a curious coincidence, Ralph and a good deal of the rest of the world have seemed honest to me ever since I became honest with myself...I would have gone on, becoming more and more bitter, more and more cynical, and I don't know where that road would have ended. But now I'm sure things are going to be better. I've become almost an optimist.'"

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