Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156

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.

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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 well at it, because of his anticapitalist sentiments and his chronic depression. He is a heavy solitary drinker. He feels despised and rejected because both Clinton and Annabel have directed all their love toward the rebellious, charismatic Berry-Berry. In this carefully orchestrated novel, Ralph stands in sharp contrast to Berry-Berry, who has no respect for convention or middle-class morality.

Clinton’s mother, Annabel, a drab, unimaginative housewife, has an unhealthy emotional attachment to her older son. There is a strong suggestion that she may have even had an incestuous relationship with Berry-Berry. At any rate, he loathes and fears her. She is the most symbolic of all the characters in the novel; she represents Herlihy’s unfavorable view of American middle-class women in general. Annabel’s unwholesome possessiveness is largely responsible for Berry-Berry’s cruelty toward women and his dread of forming a permanent relationship with a woman. Clinton escapes the same destructive influence, because most of his mother’s affection is directed at his older brother, who can be regarded as a victim as well as a victimizer.

Berry-Berry, Clinton’s handsome, predatory older brother, is about twenty-three years of age when most of the events of the novel take place. His unusual first name suggests beriberi, which is a serious and often fatal disease. Psychologists would diagnose him as a psychopath, a totally self-centered person who is incapable of realizing that other people have feelings or exist as independent entities. Like most psychopaths, Berry-Berry can be very likable and can project an illusion of human sympathy and affection. It is precisely because he is totally lacking in normal human emotions that he is so fascinating to women: He learns to mimic affection and sympathy through a natural flair for imitation common to psychopathic personalities. Although Berry-Berry is not the hero or the viewpoint character in this cleverly constructed novel, he is the sun around whom all the other characters revolve—or a “disease” with which all the other characters are infected.

Echo is a virgin in her early thirties. She lived a sheltered life as her disabled mother’s nurse and constant companion; she remained sweet and innocent. She is clearly heading for tragedy because of her alarmingly childlike trust in the essential goodness of everyone she encounters. Her wholesomeness provides a striking contrast to the sickness of the members of Clinton’s dysfunctional family. Her first name, Echo, suggests that she possesses the instinctive responsiveness, the authentic ability to relate to other people, that Berry-Berry only projects through mimicry. She is a mirror in which the other characters view their own hypocrisy and unworthiness. Most important, she is the catalyst directly responsible for the change in the relationship between Clinton and Berry-Berry.

Shirley is a young prostitute who introduces Clinton to sex and begins the boy’s long process of disillusionment with Berry-Berry by telling him cold facts about his older brother’s parasitical and sadistic behavior. This gentle, generous young woman serves as the novel’s only concrete example of the kind of women Berry-Berry habitually exploits.

All Fall Down is a story expertly told, dramatically convincing, and oddly comic. For his novel’s epigraph, Herlihy uses a passage from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the section telling of people who seize upon some particular truth, try to make it their truth only, and become grotesques as a result. The quotation is relevant to Herlihy’s novel, for the book is, on one level, a story of grotesques. For a long time, the Williamses have lived apart and according to their own concerns. It is not until they share love that they really come alive. The use of the grotesque also is in keeping with the modern view that its image, antiromantic and antitragic alike, provides the most effective means of expressing both the irrationality of things and the moral evil that is also the devouring, obsessive evil of modern society, the isolation of the loving and the lonely. Herlihy sees moral isolation as one of the conditions of being, but he does not make it, as some of his contemporaries have done, a reason for fury or despair. His novel ends on a note of hope.

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