The primary purpose of a Dawn Powell novel is to describe a society. To do so, Powell brings a number of characters together, perhaps in an Ohio boardinghouse, perhaps at a New York party or a bar. Then the characters seem to take over, as if they are determined to dramatize their own world. They act and interact, they talk, they boast, they scheme, they lie, and they confess to one another. To this extent, Powell’s novels could be called realistic. They also, however, include an element of satire. It is primarily noticeable in the characters’ inner deliberations, which Powell reveals to her readers in illuminating detail. The characters’ confusion about facts, their muddled reasoning, and above all their clearly selfish motivations, reported with such painstaking care, leave the reader no doubt as to Powell’s satiric intentions, which are further stressed in her occasional wry and witty comments.
Although Powell’s first book, Whither, was set in New York City, all but one of the six novels published during the next six years were placed in the rural Midwest. These works introduce the themes that would dominate Powell’s later work: the alienation of an individual from society, the frustration of the failing artist, the random nature of love, the limits of friendship, and above all the rule of money. Beginning with Turn, Magic Wheel, Powell wrote a series of seven novels to which Vidal refers as her “New York cycle.” Most critics consider these novels to represent Powell’s highest artistic achievement and, indeed, a unique contribution to American literature.
Angels on Toast
The third of these novels, Angels on Toast, illustrates Powell’s approach. The world that she both summarizes and satirizes is defined in the first chapter of the book. The story begins with two businessmen, Jay Oliver and Lou Donovan, on a train from Chicago to New York. The self-absorption that marks most of Powell’s characters is evident from the first.
Their world is neither abstract nor cosmopolitan. At its simplest it is made up of their own bodies and their own clothes. Jay admires his own shoes, which he thinks reflect his polished personality, and his socks, which are so dazzling that he must mention how expensive they were. Lou contemplates and assesses his weight, his shoulders, then is delighted to tell Jay how much his shirt cost and to invite him to feel the material. For men so fascinated with the most trivial details about themselves, it is not surprising that both friendship and love are limited in depth. From the facile comment that Jay is his best friend, Lou soon has moved to the notion that Jay may know too much about him; indeed, it is Jay’s company that is his best friend, not Jay himself, Lou muses. If Jay were replaced, the new man would become Lou’s best friend. Lou’s capacity for love is similarly limited by circumstances. For example, when he married above himself, he found it convenient to forget having been married before, and he is now worried because that former wife has turned up in Chicago. In a typical Powell passage, however, Lou congratulates himself because he has been faithful to his wife, except for casual encounters in places where she would never go. Jay, on the other hand, is shockingly unfaithful, picking up his regular mistress on the train and taking her to New York with him. It is not adultery, but taking such chances, that Lou considers immoral.
Thus, by re-creating conversations and by reporting her characters’ thoughts, Powell reveals their attitudes and values. Her satiric intention is clear, when she lets Lou congratulate himself for what are in fact very low moral standards; it is obvious that for him and his society, love and friendship will never stand in the way of making money.
In Powell’s later novels, New York itself might as well be listed as one of the characters. It is symbolic that the first chapter takes place on the way to New York, instead of on the way back to Chicago. In New York, the businessmen think they can get away with anything. It is, of course, ironic that the city proves to be much smaller than the out-of-town visitors think it is; unfortunately, paths do cross, and wives do find out what is occurring.
In Angels on Toast, the compelling attraction of New York is also dramatized in the attitude of an eccentric old lady who lives in a seedy hotel. When her daughter suggests that they both move to Connecticut, the idea is greeted with horror. Obviously, even a dingy hotel in New York is better than a mansion anywhere else. Actually, the old lady’s real home is the hotel bar; its inhabitants are the only people she needs or wishes to know.
Except for the fact that Ebie Vane is a commercial artist, the conflict between the creator and his crass, indifferent world is not as important in Angels on Toast as it is in Powell’s last three novels, in which the alienation of the artist from society is a major theme. The cohesiveness of New York’s literary and theatrical world is suggested by the title of the first of these books, The Locusts Have No King. The quotation, which comes from the biblical Proverbs, emphasizes the idea that although there is no single leader among locusts, they seem to have a mysterious single direction. They move in hordes and, it should be added, destructive hordes. It is such mindless human groups that can destroy the will and the hopes of an artist or, perhaps worse, turn an artist into a commercial success at the cost of creative integrity and personal relationships.
(The entire section is 2306 words.)