The route by which one travels from the cradle to the grave is no broad highway but a road with many ups and downs, sudden turnings, and strange byways. To many modern novelists, no route is more interesting or significant than the downward road to wisdom. In much modern fiction, the beginning of knowledge is the loss of innocence.
The fable of innocence confronted by evil and gaining a sad kind of wisdom in the encounter is the theme of James Leo Herlihy’s All Fall Down. The fact that its youthful hero makes a long journey in the geography of his own soul puts him into some rather interesting literary company: Huck Finn on his raft, Holden Caulfield exploring an adult world of hypocrisy and sham, Frankie Addams willing herself into becoming a member of the wedding. Although All Fall Down is a book that invites comparisons, to note them is not to say that Herlihy is in any way imitative. Quite the opposite: His ability to present the emotional adventures of youth as a difficult passage between childhood and maturity and to tell the story as if it had never been written before is striking proof of his imaginative force and dramatic control.
Clinton Williams, his hero, is a boy as freewheeling in his character as J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), but in a vastly different way. Caulfield is an uncomplicated realist whose quickness of mind enables him to identify pretense wherever he finds it. Clinton, on the other hand, grows up pursuing an illusion, the glamour that his romantic imagination creates around his older brother, whom Caulfield would have recognized at once. Ironically, while Caulfield the realist suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of his disillusioning experiences, Clinton the romantic experiences emotional liberation through his painful epiphany. Although Clinton wants to be a writer, he cannot produce anything but verbatim transcriptions of other people’s speech and correspondence, because he has not yet learned how to synthesize his experience. This bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, mainly concerns Clinton’s liberation from bondage to his illusions. This liberation comes through his insight into his brother Berry-Berry’s true character. There is a strong suggestion that Clinton’s adoration of Berry-Berry has homosexual overtones and that the story, like Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy (1965), is really about the disenchanted protagonist’s attaining the freedom to form a wholesome heterosexual relationship when he finds an appropriate love object.
Ralph Williams, Clinton’s father, who was a political activist and dynamic personality in his youth, seems to have been emasculated by a dull marriage and his effort to maintain middle-class respectability. He deals in real estate but does not do...
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