Tom McHale Essay - McHale, Tom (Vol. 5)

McHale, Tom (Vol. 5)

McHale, Tom 1941–

McHale is an American novelist, best known for Farragan's Retreat.

Three years ago, McHale published two exhilarating novels in quick succession: Principato and Farragan's Retreat. In both he revealed wild comic gusto, a youthful, vengeful rage at certain vagaries of the Roman Catholic Church, and a visceral knowledge of middle-class Irish and Italians around Philadelphia and the Jersey shore. McHale was never a stylist; he made up in energy what he lacked in elegance.

In Alinsky's Diamond he quits his familiar landscape and sets out on a literary crusade nearly as unfortunate as the one he describes in this novel…. Alinsky's Diamond is not so much a case of an overcomplicated plot, in fact, as a whole flea market full of story lines.

Though at first McHale's worst problem seems to be the exhausting narrative, the real dilemma is that for the first time he is writing about people he does not know. The crusaders, the thugs, the conmen in these pages are strangers to the author. McHale has clearly shown that he can be a dazzling extemporizer, but he badly needs familiar roots. The very restlessness demonstrated in Alinsky's Diamond may contribute to something enduring in the future. For now, though, McHale's imagination can do without this kind of exotic melodrama.

Martha Duffy, "Pilgrim's Regress," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 30, 1974, p. E3.

In his third novel [Alinsky's Diamond] Tom McHale has drastically altered the geography of his world but left intact his fascination with the curious and the grotesque, especially in their religious manifestations. Principato and Farragan's Retreat bore the marks of their Philadelphia origins where the strong ethnic ties and bitter conflicts of Irish and Italians share a common root in the soil of cultural Catholicism. No matter how faint their actual belief, neither Principato nor Farragan can escape their inherited religion, complete with kooky or conniving clerics, ironbound conventions and occasional comforts….

[In this novel a] wildly picaresque element lends an exotic flavor to McHale's already highly spiced religious imagination, but he pays for the gain with a less convincing cast of characters.

The comic extravagances in the earlier novels grew out of a recognizable sense of place. The outrageous things McHale's creations said and did were merely blown-up versions of what we read about in the daily papers. By shifting the locale to France and assorted points between there and Jerusalem, and by introducing the almost mythic title character, Meyer Alinsky, the author has moved further down the road from realism to abstraction and allegory. Ideas have always been present in McHale's fiction—questions about revenge, belief, patriotism—but in Alinsky's Diamond the overriding issue of retribution and vicarious sacrifice is central.

McHale's facility at comic invention and his talent for creating a believable and lovable "hero" [Frank Murphy] outweigh the novel's defects….

In creating Frank Murphy, McHale has remained true to previous form; along with Principato and Farragan, Murphy is quintessentially l'homme moyen sensuel forced to deal with true believers ("As always, when he was in the company of men who had an intense personal discipline of one sort or another, Murphy felt a consummate shame")…. Murphy's innate skepticism makes him the perfect foil for McHale's darkly comic vision. No one need tell him that the world is absurd. From the moment he unaccountably escaped from the Midwestern tornado that took the rest of his family, Murphy has lived with the blessings and the curses of an irrational Providence. Moving deeper into the monomaniacal world of Meyer Alinsky, Murphy refuses to surrender either his basic common sense or his appreciation of just how awry the universe really is.

Aside from the comedy generated by Murphy and his perceptions, McHale, as we have come to expect, also provides us with a number of very funny set pieces. But as the novel progresses both slapstick and satire give way before an unrelenting and often savage irony. Even more than McHale's earlier novels, Alinsky's Diamond is intended as a "serious" comic novel, and in large part it succeeds. My only objection is that the theological issues of guilt and atonement sometimes threaten to swamp the narrative. (p. 24)

John B. Breslin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974.

I read both of [McHale's] earlier books with hope for his talent, though disappointment in his technique, and I approached ["Alinsky's Diamond"] with expectations. Alas, I found it almost literally unreadable, for it piles a farfetched and fake-picaresque plot teeming with unlikely, dimensionless characters upon a prolix corpus of strained and awkward prose. I couldn't finish it; I was wholly put off by clotted sentences like … "'Violence! Violence!' Gervais suddenly shrieked, with an elaborate Mediterranean gesture that told, despite his careful professional accent, that he was probably Marseillaise [sic] or at least came from somewhere in Provence." I have not abandoned hope, but I wish that McHale would, in the reputed words of Ettore Bugatti, "simplicate and add lightness"…. (p. 185)

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 21, 1974.

Tom McHale is as relaxed a novelist as any we have, and that is a refreshing, though limited, virtue. It certainly makes for readability; Alinsky's Diamond flows along free from any narrative tics or stylistic self-consciousness, all surface casualness and poise….

The point of tension … becomes the relation of Murphy [the protagonist] to Alinsky—the one passive, disillusioned, ineffectual; the other manipulative, amoral, obsessive. Alinsky is full of a passionate intensity (he murders, imprisons, corrupts); Murphy lacks all conviction. The process of the book is Murphy's moral rehabilitation accomplished through the negative example of Alinsky.

McHale's Murphy is of the same stuff as [Herbert] Gold's Curtis [in Swiftie the Magician]. They are victims/observers, playthings of the fates and fashions, witnesses to their own and the world's disintegration. Caught in a world of passionate excess, they are beset by the same dilemmas: how to be reasonable in the face of hysteria, how to feel compassion in the face of pervasive brutality, how to maintain coherence in the face of cultural chaos. Their philosophy, such as it is, is this: in a tidal wave, it is better to be a cork than a dam.

This is the new passivity. It is successor to the embattled innocence of the Fifties and early Sixties, Salinger's rants and Ginsberg's raves. It is part of a post-New Frontier, post-Vietnam, post-New Left exhaustion. There is a sense in these characters of having seen all things, felt all emotions, tested all beliefs, taken all drugs, loved all women. What remains is a tasteful self-deprecation and a distaste for extremists….

The adversary is no longer those who feel too little but those who feel too much—the Swifties and Alinskys of the world. Not insensitivity but hypersensitivity is the enemy, not complacency but fanaticism. Bellow gave early expression to this mood in the person of Sammler; Gold and McHale, in their more modest achievements, bring the attitude further up to date….

McHale [aligns himself] with the sober majority, and after all the trafficking in exotica, [his book ends] in celebration of simple domestic virtues. The ambivalence is striking: the fascination with things contemporary that ends by rejecting them in the name of a sober decency….

[McHale is] well immersed in the mainstream…. What [his new book points] up is a general drift toward cosmopolitanism, facetiousness, and casualness, toward the topical and the urban, the novel as sustained flirtation with the world. (p. 112)

Michael Levenson, in Harper's (copyright 1974 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the November, 1974 issue by special permission), November, 1974.

In Alinsky's Diamond Tom McHale spatially extends the world of his earlier fiction, the two novels Principato and Farragan's Retreat, but he does not really alter it or its laws. The several reviewers who faulted the new book for sketchy or unbelievable European and Middle Eastern locales, instead of the familiar Philadelphia (where on the whole they would rather have McHale be) surely cannot remember … the earlier books very well, and they make McHale out to be much more a local colorist than he is or tries to be. His strengths, like his weaknesses, are elsewhere. If a dilapidated bar in Philadelphia could be equally in New York or Boston, then why not make it a café in Italy? If an American Irish Catholic can assume the identity of the Italian Principato, then why not let him be an American expatriate drinking himself to death in the French provinces?

In fact, the dimensions of McHale's world, which depend hardly at all on physical environment, are remarkably constant. At its center is a single man—Angelo Principato, Arthur Farragan, and now Francis Xavier Murphy—who can be young or middle-aged, failed or successful, impoverished or comfortable, but who will be pleasant, passive, and reasonably humble, manipulated by, uncomprehending of, and finally, subtly, rebellious against the events and people about him. The events strike the reader as very funny when they happen…, but they turn out to be either slightly sinister or malignant in the extreme. Most of the people, the supporting cast, turn out to be the way they seem initially, also malignant in the extreme, and their incapacity for change reflects the shallowness of their conception…. [One] of the best things about the protagonist, who, unlike his adversaries, does have some depth and ability to work toward self-knowledge, is simply that he is gentler than the nasty people in his family. That means that he cusses less than they, though all McHale's characters spend a lot of time cussing, and that unlike them he doesn't say, or says only when coerced and then with uncommon embarrassment, words like jap, yid, and nigger, a sure index of nastiness in McHale's world. (pp. 459-60)

[There] will be in every book not only celibate priests and gluttonous gigolos, as well as occasional homosexuals and practitioners of deliciously odd perversions, but the man who is or seems to be totally impotent….

The most important fact in McHale's consistent fictional world is the practical joke that God played on the protagonist when He made him a Catholic and mated him for life, maybe longer, with guilt. You don't have to be a Catholic, of course, to feel guilty about all things, perhaps especially the absence of anything rationally requiring feelings of guilt (witness poor Portnoy, trapped in a Jewish joke as Principato et al, are trapped in Catholic jokes—leading legions of dust-jacket-cited critics to call McHale, preposterously, a Roman Roth), but McHale seems to think it helps…. Guilt is the real antagonist in these books, the enemy within the pleasant hero's sullied skin. (p. 460)

Farragan must die because … he did not find it enough to live, in himself or in his son. He is guilty of not holding onto life. Long before his time is due, as his friend Fitzpatrick charges, Farragan starts "going back: acceding to the inner dyings and crumblings, embracing the lush grayness of senility…." This is wintry indeed, with a touch of the epiphanic chill of Joyce's The Dead.

This terror at the heart of Farragan's Retreat is McHale's one signal fictional achievement. Beside it, Principato appears unresolved and Alinsky's Diamond anarchic and flatly anti-climactic. It's too bad, because even in Farragan's Retreat McHale's success is attained in spite of his prose, a very remarkable feat, and when success is partial, as in Principato, or dubious, as in Alinsky's Diamond, his prose becomes more than one can reasonably ignore. How does one describe it? At best, perhaps serviceable, capable of conveying information, though with none of the richness, inventiveness, and complexity that McHale can give to incidents (part of the trouble may be that the incidents come too easily, that McHale's imagination is so prodigal that he finds no need to temper its products). At worst, which it is much of the time, hackneyed, flaccid, and dreary. When someone says something in earnest, he says it in dead earnest; when someone is awakened, he is rudely awakened. I wish that McHale wouldn't allow Murphy to become "suddenly enthused" at something. (pp. 461-62)

Still, McHale is a serious, purposeful writer, and he clearly had big ideas for Alinsky's Diamond. Maybe, like John Steinbeck in East of Eden, he is trying too hard. In their humility, which is not always quite so authentic as it seems, McHale's heroes are all Christ figures, of a sort; their Christ-likeness, however, never presumes to be pure but is interestingly mixed with something else: Farragan's with the obedience of Abraham, Murphy's with the ambiguous luck of, oddly, Barabbas. (p. 462)

McHale can get away with caricatures because they do serve, somehow, to define the problems and environment of the protagonist, but he does not allow them equal time. [But in Alinsky's Diamond] we are to believe in Alinsky for himself, as something more than a phase of Murphy's dysfunction, and yet he too is a caricature….

Objectively horrible things happen in Alinsky's Diamond, plenty of them, but they are arbitrary and gratuitous. They are not, as they absolutely are in Farragan's Retreat, a cruelly definitive interpretation of everything that has gone before…. In Alinsky's Diamond one can never really understand why the characters should get what they get, and the dozens of often comic episodes do not, finally, revolve about a single moral hub. What McHale can do at the top of his form, as he has shown once, is make you shudder, though I don't think many readers will shudder at Alinsky's Diamond. I don't want this novelist to go back to Philadelphia, but I hope he will follow his third novel with a book worthy of his second. (p. 463)

Mark Taylor, "McHale's Retreat," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 14, 1975, pp. 459-63.

Alinsky's Diamond is not funny, not savage, and not brilliant. It is a terrible novel. Its humor is supposed to be worldly and mordant. It is, however, based on whatever comedy resides in the situation of a whore, a pimp, a drunk, and an abortionist making a religious crusade from France to Jerusalem. Not very funny per se, and not much funnier for the addition of Meyer Alinsky, an ex-Iowa halfback who conceived the whole sordid business for reasons of his own. Murphy, the drunk, is pointedly presented as a Christ figure; Alinsky turns out to be a megalomaniac with a secret sorrow; Alinsky's mother is a salty, improbable combination of Molly Goldberg and the Mater Dolorosa. The plot is correspondingly gimmicky; it leaves a vacuum unfilled by virtuoso writing, Redeeming Social Value, or even pornography.

I feel victimized not by McHale but by the whole apparatus of book merchandising, by the marketing of trendy writers as commodities. I am repelled by the glibness of jacket copy that assumes the existence of a "McHale tradition"—after two novels. I am also ashamed of the feeble willingness with which I periodically succumb to this sort of cant, and there must be thousands like me. Of course it's our own fault if we choose to read Alinsky's Diamond instead of Middlemarch, and no Reign of Virtue is going to legislate the permanent availability of the good, the true, and the beautiful. I just wish we weren't so regularly offered the overpraised, the tacky, and the meretricious.

Frances Taliaferro, "Victim of the Zeitgeist," in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1975 issue by special permission), May, 1975, p. 46.