Knowles, John 1926–
An American novelist, short story writer, and travel writer, Knowles is noted for his sensitive portrayals of the problems and joys of youth. Best known for his novel A Separate Peace, Knowles has received critical acclaim for his brisk, unaffected style and his adept use of imagery. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
In 1960 A Separate Peace catapulted Knowles both to international prominence and to life as a full-time novelist. Unfortunately, with each succeeding work … Knowles has gradually been relegated to the gloomy circle of those who fail to realize their initial promise. Sad to say, A Vein of Riches will not restore him to public and critical favor.
John Knowles's latest book chronicles the fortunes of the Catherwood family of Middleburg, West Virginia from the early 1900s to the mid 1920s….
To be a work of art a novel requires an inventive use of language, a meaningful design, and a compelling vision of life. A Vein of Riches lacks all of these. Knowles's prose is generally competent, but it can easily turn embarrassing or trite. At one point, Doris Lee reflects on her husband's lovemaking: "Virgil. He had possessed her as naturally as a stream flows down to the river, as clear and swift and exhilarating as a fast-flowing mountain stream." Lyle gushes that "Tot's biscuits were really the next best thing in this world to Canadian whiskey." Such sentences are set off by dialogue that resembles a catechism: When Lyle earnestly propounds solemn questions, his parents answer in brief soliloquies.
Many of the story elements of A Vein of Riches are so disturbingly familiar that one may suspect claim jumping. Several incidents strongly echo All the King's Men, Minnie's...
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Up to now John Knowles has been something of a miniaturist, his novels and stories set in close quarters: the boarding school of "A Separate Peace," the Yale campus of "The Paragon." At their best these short, intense novels are quite fine; in particular, Knowles has displayed a sensitive and unsentimental appreciation of the real and imagined agonies of young men as they go through the rites of passage.
But "A Vein of Riches" is something else again…. It pains me greatly to say so, but the novel does not possess a single redeeming virtue. Its characters and situations are clichés. Its irony is hamhanded. It is utterly lacking in subtlety, grace or wit. It is talky, obvious and boring….
It's an old story, and all Knowles's ingredients are old: the domineering, insensitive, sexually frustrated father; the dreamy, wispy, yet unexpectedly resilient mother; the son [Lyle] frustrated by his father's indifference, desperately seeking his own identity; the widow whom the son adores but who becomes the father's mistress; the dogged, feisty miners and the blacks reeking with natural integrity. There isn't a spark of life or originality anywhere in the novel.
As if that weren't bad enough, Knowles's depiction of Lyle's adolescent maunderings has none of the clarity and subtlety of his earlier work. He wavers uncertainly between sarcasm and melodrama; sometimes he seems to regard Lyle as a drooling idiot, at others as the conscience of Catherwood castle. He makes Lyle bear too much of the novel's thematic burden, and it isn't long before Lyle—like the reader—collapses under it….
Whatever the occasional failures of his earlier books, they are all honorable, scrupulous—and serious. "A Vein of Riches" is windy and graceless. I'm sorry Knowles wrote it.
Jonathan Yardley, "Mined Out," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 19, 1978, p. 15.
Most people remember John Knowles as the author of A Separate Peace, a brief, enormously popular novel which searchingly studied the lives of two boys on the brink of adulthood. The writing was low-keyed, but it seemed to capture perfectly the quicksilver mental atmosphere of that stage of adolescence. In A Vein of Riches, Knowles turns to a different subject—the expansion and collapse of the "King Coal" industry in West Virginia from 1909 to 1924—and to a new genre—a Dreiserian chronicle of people and power. He seems very knowledgeable about the subject and rather uncomfortable with the form….
[The southern coal industry is portrayed] through the adventures of the Catherwood family, one of the small dynastic groups at the pinnacle of this terribly American boom society, and they are, unfortunately, transparent devices….
Further, the narrative point of view shifts often and abruptly from one character to another so that each person can show us yet another phase of the special world the author wants us to explore. In the same vein, Knowles drags in other awkward storytelling tricks: like the series of implausibly analytic, informative letters supposedly written by one minor character to his wife.
The result is a readable but rather flatly ordinary tale that somehow seems like the prospectus for a "docudrama" series on public television. Finally, one gets the impression that Knowles would have preferred to settle down with one of his characters and get on with the kind of personal probing he does so well. A Vein of Riches might have been a better book if he had. (p. 7)
John McInerney, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), April, 1978.