Irwin Shaw’s next to last novel, published by Delacorte Press, is a tome bearing all the virtues of the author’s other achievements elegance, masterful craft, language free of banality and chiseled into an unobtrusively beautiful filigree, the muted mournful music of the prose, and most of all, the intelligence and moral slant of a philosopher.
It is a tale cannily and delicately told of the disintegration of a middle-aged teacher’s life, home, and family. Its point of view would be recognizable by any reader of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Henry James. Shaw does not find physical pleasures repugnant; he does not write about them, except as incidental background to his plain interest the effect of life upon Character. He has the cool bemused vision of an Austen, the passionate moralism of an Eliot, the fine concern for the venomous corruptions of money and upward mobility on personal stability, ethics, and lateral familial and peer relations.
Bread Upon The Waters is a sad book. It describes the endurance and testament of a father, husband, friend and pedagogue molded into an exemplar of the pagan moralism of Greece and Rome in an empire in its terminal phases which Shaw compares obliquely to the subject of Gibbon’s mighty tomes.
This is a subtle volume, both readable in a superficial way for the general public, amply filled with nuggets of clever and understated Art for the lover of adepts at this craft. It has flaws too. Shaw’s ear plays him false when he tries to write dialogue of 80s youth, and the ending is contrived. These are minor errors.
This pessimistic and elegiac production is a vintage autumnal work by a writer whose works have for nearly five decades been the political and personal conscience of his age and class with their unique communal experience. This set of peers evolved partially out of the economy generated by the post Civil War Eastern Seaboard Industrial Trusts and the ethnic cattle they imported from the Old World to be the weak, blind Samsons of their factories.
Their Social Darwinism is most evident in Dreiser, their slippery legitimacy in endowments of the older Eastern provincial landholding aristocracy in the chilling satire of James. Dreiser, though preceded by Twain and Howells, was the first of the 20th century Midwesterners to make the literature that with its empire has dominated the world.
Some Midwesterners are better known, like Hemingway, Anderson, and Fitzgerald than others like Algren, Hecht, and Denver-born Fowler and Runyon; the first trio touched Shaw in his early work. Even in these jejune Hemingwayesque tales there is the mature Shaw to come. A few of his tales seem like parodies or comic versions of Hemingway stories compare Twenty Grand with Stop Pushing, Rocky. In the 1940s the center of this post Civil War world seemed to appear in Brooklyn. Along with the South, Brooklyn was one of the few places in America whose mythic vitality and uniqueness had not been wiped out by the Industrial oligarchs.
Two Brooklyn Jewish boys, Irwin Shaw and Norman Mailer, set out to do for World War Two what Hemingway had done for the First World War. Both were authentic proletarians in that Leftist time, Shaw the Brooklyn College graduate, football player and sportswriter more than Mailer, brought up in tough Williamsburg but a Harvard-graduated ceramics engineer.
Both men produced intelligent big books that made every gesture of being Great Novels. They were both writing for the same audience the grandsons of the l9th century internal Empire that had suffered through the Depression, dreamt of the romantic alcoholic expatriate days of the 20s, were to be the ruefully upwardly mobile ex-mavericks of a global Empire that made more of its citizens affluent than any other in recorded History. Mailer, the risk taker, the virtuoso, the ever-dangerous slugger, the tactician who gleefully teased death, shifted his audience to the 60s generation and their afterbirths; to his consternation he did it in the early 50s when the readers were beardless witlings drooling in nurseries.
He treasured the ferocity, anger, and animal nature which made him from the first an impossible candidate for Shaw’s upper middle class crypto-patrician New Yorker audience. Shaw moved ahead in a straight line. Originally, critics despised and were revolted 248 by Mailer; they condemned Shaw for professionalism, craft, success and for not writing books he did not choose to write. As the 60s ended, Mailer was seized upon by arbiters of fashion as the most intelligent and approachable White Negro fleer from the New Yorker world and its suburban aridities, its Alexandrian finesse. So he was.
Besser Norman Mailer than John Lee Hooker. And Shaw? An aery confectioner, his moneymaking ventures unredeemed by the dungstained vulgarity of a Schulman or Robbins. I believe Time will ennoble Irving Schulman as the author of a great Brooklyn trilogy and acknowledge that Harold Robbins was a kind of Christopher Columbus of the predatory emptiness and shallowness in the Empire, but in the 1980s it is worthwhile to examine Irwin Shaw.
In the 1960s and ’70s refinement of already existing technique, coolness, reflective intellectuality, an artisan’s pride in his craft, and old-fashioned morals were not what aficionados of Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix looked for in assays of literature. Like all romantic movements, the American one finally embraced absurdity and death, though rather than imitate Europe and its fascist grand opera, it established Socialist juggernauts to break up families, reward poverty, ignorance, and crime, praise all enemies of America, and usurp family, morals and love with help of Experts.
Does Irwin Shaw and the world he writes for have the right to be lauded no less for their political lunacy? Bread Upon The Waters is a novel that embraces this very question. Its hero, Allen Strand, teaches at a city high school, but he cannot pass on his knowledge of History nor his Western notion of civilization to his students. Even his intelligent ones think of learning enough to bring down the Empire as the Goths did Rome. Alienated as they are, his children turn out to be no less isolated from parents, amoral in their business and love life, and rootIess in their sense of home than the drugfilled denizens of the ghetto.
The tale moves upon a kind of allegorical sponging of the middle classes on the charity and dark predatory side of the Rich; their doleful fury or impotence is no less a mark of alienation than the violence of the poor on Welfare. As for the Rich, they are tigers whose 249 beneficence carries dues that may include adultery but always involve uprooting of their favorites and prey, no less than Welfare has destroyed the poor.
Bread Upon The Waters with its ironic title is an intellectual attack on the American empire heading toward suicide. The book is all the more terrible in its condemnation because it is full of sorrow; it does not preach. Shaw sees the dominance of vertically plummeting charity over family linkage, ties to home, honor among friends and in business, and intimacy in one’s love life as isolating, the gifts that ornament hell.
His rich man, Hazen, envies the middle class philosopher-teacher Strand his family while he sleeps with Strand’s wife, probably secretly arranges to have her Art sold to spirit her away from Strand, mostly to keep her from testifying in a heating not to Hazen’s interest. Hazen, oddly enough, probably means well; he is at the center of a world of manipulative power which corrupts him no less than his beneficiaries and prey. If lack of power corrupts, total lack of Power corrupts absolutely.
The middleman Strand is a man whose control over his life has long slipped away when Hazen meets him. His son who acts amorally in business, his promiscuous or perversely idealistic daughters are ready for Hazen’s charity that distills their destruction. The lower class avatar, Romero, is a kernel of hate that has no father, no proper mother, a home in which everybody steals from each other, a world of endless violence, and a desire only to bring down the State that made him a wolf.
Shaw’s writing from the first has always been always dotted with topical subjects; it is hard to tell whether this openly journalistic element may date his work since as of this writing the country is living out a piece of history which begins with the Depression and moves in a temporal architecture all of a piece to the present adipose cornfed Byzantium where each living room is filled with vibrant color visions that help the faithful sleep in comfort.
Shaw’s intelligence throughout his whole career has illuminated the complexities in seemingly transparent political theatre. Shaw represents precisely the kind of engage intellectual writer whose American versions have been diverse as Upton Sinclair, James Baldwin, and Jack London. 250 Shaw writes novels of manners; he shows his brains and craft first. He is toughminded, not romantic; his lack of demagoguery and easy turns of thought makes his craft work hard to accommodate his matter. It’s hard for me to understand how Bread Upon The Waters was a bestseller though assuredly it had been; it’s an awfully subtle book. Shaw will characterize his players by telltale leitmotifs, a Tolstoyan habit, but he is not trying to explore the abysses of involuted human psychology. This novel, as in all his writings, contains description of sports and drink but neither is milked for their last physical detail.
When he chooses his language is artificially poetic; he is more interested usually in telling a story with few virtuosic effects. Shaw is the prime writer for that huge set of intelligent people whose lives are elevated by the American Empire, whose passions include cognitive delights and politics, who have attempted to leaven the imperial nature of the economy with morals and charity. He is a testifier to the Depression, to the War, to the meandering times which have led to moral loss and the death of gravity. Bread Upon The Waters is another chapter to that testament.