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Walker PercyMarch 05, 2024
Walker Percy (l) and Wilfrid Sheed (r). (Composite image/Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfrid Sheed, the critic, has always seemed more at home than Wilfrid Sheed, the novelist. Being at home in this case means doing what you do (or appearing to do so) with zest and ease, playfully. To use a sports image Sheed is fond of, he is like a basketball player who can change his move in the middle of a layup, just for the grace and dazzle of it; he has moves in his moves. Sheed does criticism so well, and maybe so easily, that he shrugs it off. It’s nothing, he says, but a couple of insights and a few simple waltz steps. Well, it’s more than that when Sheed does it. When he gets down to business, the knife flashes, sometimes the surgeon’s scalpel dissecting the tissue of the author’s good intentions and occasional successes. But let an author come on pretentious or meretricious, and God help him. The saber flashes now, slash, cut, zing and there goes the jugular.

In his fiction he’s always been competent, prolific, improving all the way, at times brilliant but also a good deal of the time rather more dutiful than dazzling. He did all those things a novelist is supposed to do and did them well enough. The reader registered accordingly: yes, good, O.K., right, so…? To get back to sports, you’d have had to rank Sheed the novelist as a classy middleweight who’s a pro all right with a good right hand, but maybe there’s something wrong with his left. In his early novels particularly, instead of using the simple declarative sentence as a clean left jab, he’d use three or four phrases, dab—that didn’t quite get it, try again—dab—a little better, once more —dab….

Sheed does criticism so well, and maybe so easily, that he shrugs it off. It’s nothing, he says, but a couple of insights and a few simple waltz steps. Well, it’s more than that when Sheed does it.

This time around though, he may have hit on a way of getting at the novel without giving up his big game as critic, the happy slash-and-cut free style. At any rate, People Will Always Be Kind is his best by far, an arresting, complex, enigmatic novel which comes at the main character from two startlingly different directions, leaving the reader impressed and perhaps at the end a little baffled, which is not a bad way to put down a novel. Sheed has, for sure, tried something quite daring. The reader, noting the risks, salutes the author’s audacity, then wonders whether he’s gotten away with it.

The novel breaks into two parts, as different as dogs and cats. The question is whether, after a dog and a cat are shaken up in the same bag, what comes out is a single creature, which after all is what a novel is supposed to be.

The first part is the story of Brian Casey as youth, felled by polio, a very bright, tough, foul-mouthed, funny and absolutely unsinkable teen-ager, an account unsparing in its honesty, savaging both youth and family alike, but notable especially for shooting down all standard literary techniques for treating illness. Instead of sentiment, we get a Dracula humor. The things that happen to this family are so singular, ghastly and horror-show funny that, paradoxically, the fictional tracks are jumped. Hey, thinks the reader all of a sudden, this is the way it really is! Illness is cruel as every novelist knows, but so can its victims be. Here is the recognizable, nonfictional (and perhaps saving) cruelty of children. Says Brian, who has heard about a new cure, to his already overworked father: “Couldn’t you do some extra work or something?”

For a while it looks as if one fellow is going to be saved, Salinger-style, as a nonphony, laconic good guy. Phil is cynical, sardonic, truthful and so forth, the real article it seems, the sort who (in novels) sticks through thick and thin. But when it gets thin, Phil pulls out. Phil pushes Brian once around the block in the wheelchair, then quits for good. “It’s too much like work,” he says. Anyhow Phil is honest. And Sheed has got it right all right. Serious illness is not the sort of thing that aesthetic categories easily get hold of. This is no Brian’s Song.

Young Brian Casey’s story goes on for well over half the book. What’s Sheed up to, the reader is beginning to wonder. For he has read about Sheed’s own polio. So is this going to be a kind of quirky Sheedian updating of Of Human Bondage, novel as Heldenleben, writer as triumphant over handicap but this time no disguises thank you, no stuttering tricked out as clubfoot. No such thing. Turn [to] page 213 and here comes the shocker. We’ve jumped 25 years ahead and here’s a middle-aged and far from heroic Brian, seen through a stranger’s eyes, and doing what? Running for President! (Yes, of the U.S.A.)

This is some layup all right, a midair head-fake defying time and gravity. Does the shot sink? It just might. If it does, it’s against the odds. For here’s Brian a quarter century later and hardly recognizable. It’s like running into a classmate at the 25th reunion. The name sounds familiar, but who is this guy?

Sheed has pulled off quite a stunt here. He rescues his main character from his, Sheed’s, inveterate ironies and derisions by putting him out of sight.

Something else nags the reader. Sheed knows whereof he writes in both cases—oh does he know—the young Brian dealing with his polio and the young Perkins following a Presidential candidate. Sheed has been through both and has got down to perfection, one has to believe, the feel of both. Is the novel therefore a slap-up job, two valid and vividly rendered experiences knocked together, author mining two mother lodes and mixing the metals and hoping somehow the amalgam will make it? Does it all work?

It works, at least in part. There’s a logic in it, a tenuous but indefeasible syllogism strung across the 25-year gap. One Brian leads to the other. There’s the classmate 25 years later, and he’s different all right, but he’s also the same. But here’s the best of it: if it works, it works the hard way, not through psychologizing but through the novelist’s peculiar logic. The easy way out for the novelist taking on Brian Casey would be to psychologize him, and it might have made a passable enough novel. But Sheed is always one jump ahead of Freud, Adler or whoever. Why not explain Brian, as in fact somebody does in the novel, as an embittered cripple compensating with crazy power drives (Adler)? Or why not see him in early Freudian terms as turning to politics to get women? For in fact the first thing the young Brian does after a small political triumph in college is to go find a prostitute. He feels entitled. And it’s true of the older Brian too: the more votes, the more women. There is a very funny treatment here of a girl campaign-worker who could be the heroine, if not of Vaginal Politics, then of a novel perhaps entitled Politics as Eros.

Freud and Adler were probably right but not right enough. Indeed, Part II might be read as the systematic sabotage of all theories, types and ideologies as they might apply to Brian Casey. We see Casey through the eyes of Sam Perkins, New-Politics Ivy-League type in search of a Peace Candidate. Sam Perkins, by the way, may be the most successfully realized character of all. Yet he is sketched in with the left hand so to speak. We see him only through his frustrated attempts to see Casey. Yet, or because of it, he comes across in the round as a wholly believable slightly aging, clean-Gene kid who manages to be both bright and uncomprehending, attractive and repellent, a thoroughly presentable pain-in-the-neck. So here’s the kind of inside straight Sheed sets himself to fill: we have to see Casey, a very complicated man, through the eyes of Perkins, who doesn’t understand him.

What we see is Casey suffering a series of eclipses, eclipsed as idealist-liberal, as Peace Candidate, as bog-Irish revolutionary, as family man, even as tough pragmatic politician, until finally Perkins throws up his hands. In the end he can’t make head or tail of Casey. The question, of course, is whether the reader can. Some reviewers take Perkins at his word and agree that Casey’s “closetful of minds” eventually cancel out and that the closet is empty. Brian Casey does, in fact, seem to self-destruct before our eyes, dissolving in the acids of his own cynicism. He even blows the election by an apparently suicidal speech. Is he doing it deliberately, having gotten his kicks, his “psychology” satisfied? Perkins thinks so, but Sheed isn’t talking.

Says Casey to Perkins after the speech:

“Did it ever occur to you that I might be sincere?”
I shook my head. “Not for a minute.”
“No? Pity. I just might be. You don’t know very much, do you?”

Sheed has pulled off quite a stunt here. He rescues his main character from his, Sheed’s, inveterate ironies and derisions by putting him out of sight, out of Perkins’ sight. We have to grope for Casey in the dark of Perkins’ blindness. For what Perkins can’t see for sour apples is that Casey might just see himself as, and in fact may be—God help us—a sinner and believer. So poor Perkins is both scandalized and baffled. Not that anyone can blame him, for Casey’s sins, unlike say Marlon Brando’s as movie sinner, are singularly unattractive. As for his putative belief, whenever Perkins or anyone asks him about it, he tells them to mind their own damn business.

What with Casey not talking and Sheed covering up his own tracks, the reader is on his own. Maybe too much on his own. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d guess that four out of five people will come away from this novel with the notion that super-clean-Gene Perkins (that is, Gene McCarthy laundered of his Catholicism) is the good guy, the clear-eyed narrator who is telling the truth about Casey, the truth being that Casey struck out. Now for a fact Casey does strike out. But the question is, by whose rules? And as far as that goes, what is the game? If this is so and the reader is misled, the upshot is not necessarily a novelistic virtue—although one good reader out of five is maybe more than a novelist of this stature can expect. The artist, as Joyce said a while back, has to be a cunning, guileful fellow who uses every trick in the bag for his own good ends, these ends being presumably and among other things the trapping of the reader into revelations of truth, beauty and suchlike. But there may be such a thing as covering one’s tracks so well that the reader doesn’t even know when the trap is sprung.

One reader will not be fooled. Recently Norman Mailer called Sheed, not ill-naturedly, a papist. This novel will not do much to change Mailer’s mind.

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