Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although he is not sure that his attraction to Arthur Lecomte is final proof of a homosexual orientation, Art does find tremendously appealing the seemingly spontaneous, unstructured, impulsive pattern of living that Lecomte and his circle have evolved. At the completion of his senior year of college, he senses that he is about to be captured by the world of his father, a controlled, fundamentally serious, and frighteningly powerful man. Art respects, warily admires, and uneasily “loves” his father, but he believes that he is likely to lose the nascent elements of his own individual consciousness if he succumbs to his father’s subtle pressures. He fears never becoming a complete and self-sufficient person, like his father, unless he permits the hazards of change to enter his world.

Already prepared for a form of outlaw aestheticism by his eclectic reading, Art launches himself into a “life” that can be assessed and appreciated as a work of art in which he is the hero. Art’s awareness of his role as a player in this construction serves to sharpen his perceptions; his initial exhilaration at his admittance into the elite cadre of “extraordinary” people eventually shifts to a wiser, wider perspective that permits him to begin to see the shallow, almost desperate aspects of Lecomte’s gestures and Arning’s bursts of manic energy.

Art needs both his elevation into a realm of heightened experience and the gradual awareness of his friends’ uneasiness to begin to develop an understanding of his own relationship to his family. Art seems to realize that his father was forced into a criminal position because his Jewish background made him a permanent outsider. This realization helps him to understand his own refusal to accept bland assimilation. Art’s determination to preserve his poetic sensibility parallels his father’s decision to maintain the freedom to act as an individual. His father has come to terms with his choices, and as the novel closes with Art looking in reflective satisfaction on his impulsive, romantically expectant plunge into what he now recognizes as a “lovely, dire summer,” his decision is ratified. He needed the disruption and the thrill of chaotic agitation to grow beyond the silence and ill will that held him in a clutch of fear at the novel’s onset.