Now if I were to write my own life it would sound a good deal like Charles Mason’s Hilliard’s. “I am an Episcopalian and I bowl occasionally and sometimes play golf. In politics, I am a Republican, hoping that the day will come when Mr. Roosevelt leaves the White House.” There was nothing wrong in that. Charles Mason Hilliard was marching with all the rest of us through a term of years, marching with Marvin Myles and Bo-jo Brown and Kay and me, with all our friends and enemies, out into nowhere.
Henry Moulton Pulham gets a call one day he isn’t expecting; it regards the twenty-fifth year reunion of his college class. He gets another one in the same vein; from a woman he loved once, years before, who wants a very different kind of reunion. And with just that impetus, John Marquand launches us into a devastating, melancholy and tragic look at the malaise and dissatisfaction of ordinary life.
If the mid-life crisis is a cliché by now, if the class reunion has become a hoary way of getting at psychology, Marquand manages to stitch these things into a whole cloth of distinctly and profoundly moving tapestry. Pulham plunges into a reverie that chases him through the years, from his childhood to his marriage and all the uncertainty between. After this first half, the book returns to the present, the twenty-fifth year and Pulham’s inability to forget the first half, to put behind him what is behind him, to leave the past to the past.
It’s a masterful work and Marquand says things without saying them; there’s an extramarital affair that is devastatingly obvious to the reader though Pulham, narrating the story, never seems to twig to it. It’s plain and painful to us, but Pulham’s simple mind and simple voice skims over it, laying the details before us without ever connecting the dots himself. In this narrator, Marquand has crafted an exquisite voice, speaking things simply, inferring and implying depths that swirl and eddy in this man’s life as if in tide pools. Pulham is not self-aware, not comfortable, not voluble. He’s the kind of narrator that it takes an author of true courage and talent to utilize, because the story seems to happen most often in the pauses between words, in the blank spaces at the end of chapters and between paragraphs.
Slowly, the world of H.M. Pulham, Esq., a ridiculously formalized way of talking about an average man, becomes bleak, dark and utterly lonely; the past is both hauntingly near and infuriatingly out of reach . . . we can always see it and feel it, but never return to it. In his secondary characters, Marquand continues the deep probing of the human condition. Bill King is the voluble man that Pulham wishes he could be, the cynical friend who sees through the fog, but still entangles himself in unhappiness. Kay Motford is the unhappy kindred spirit who can’t seem to rise out of her own malaise enough to recognize the similar malaise in her husband.
It’s a book of dark dissatisfaction, of weariness with empty lives, of painful pasts that intrude on the present, of moral dilemmas that tear the soul. It’s a book, in other words, about the way real people often live. It’s a masterpiece, actually.
4 ½ out of 5 stars.