Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2174
At a cocktail party in Manhattan, Karl Muhlbach, the protagonist of Double Honeymoon, explains to a swinish author named A. Telemann Veach why he does not read much modern fiction. Veach’s surprised response—“I’ll be a son of a bitch!”—seems to confirm the justice of Muhlbach’s opinion that modern authors are tortured, frenetic, shallow, and tiresome. Though he is not much of a reader, Muhlbach says, he enjoys the essays of Hazlitt, or old novels marked by “eloquence, intellect, chastity of mind, courtesy, and a conviction that tomorrow morning as usual the sun will rise.”
These qualities, along with “dignity and grace,” also prized by Muhlbach, are rare indeed, not only in modern American literature but in that of any age. They are abundantly present in Double Honeymoon, but perhaps because the public prefers the crudities of “A. Telemann Veach,” Evan Connell will never become a household name. That is a pity, because in this book as in his earlier works, particularly Mrs. Bridge, Connell shows himself to be a master portraitist of character through style. His work suggests the psychological acuteness of Henry James and the unerring eye for social realism of Sinclair Lewis, though it is so deceptively subtle and understated that a careless reader may miss the point.
The immediately obvious theme of Double Honeymoon is hardly unique, at least not in broad outline: there is no fool like an old fool. Karl Muhlbach, a middle-aged (early forties), middle-level executive with Metropolitan Mutual Insurance Company, fairly recently widowed with two adolescent children, is a decent, intelligent, and cultivated man. His life is neat and orderly, so patterned that he is sure his late arrival at a Christmas party, caused by a late bus, will be noted and wondered at. When a strikingly beautiful but somehow decadent young woman, not half Muhlbach’s age, boards the deserted bus, the reader at once knows that she will become this solid, respectable citizen’s obsession. The remainder of the book has the predictable fascination of watching a man walking into quicksand. The suspense is entirely psychological, the essential question being, “Will he survive? Will he come to his senses and see that the girl is poison?”
The mere asking of the question suggests that the reader should care whether Muhlbach survives—and one should, because he is worth saving. It is not simply that Muhlbach is a good person; we suspect that he is, though there is no real evidence of it. What captures the reader’s sympathy is not only Muhlbach’s sense of balance and proportion, but of humor as well—though his humor is so dry that others seldom notice it. If these qualities, along with intelligence and discipline, are not enough for survival, then which of us has any chance at all? Muhlbach is more “one of us” than Conrad’s Lord Jim was—he is Everyman with an identity crisis.
Although both the character of Muhlbach and the situation are familiar enough, Connell’s method of telling his story is somewhat unusual. It is told in the third person, limited to Muhlbach, but is entirely in the present tense. The natural mode of storytelling is to use the past tense, the present being used occasionally for short stories but very seldom for novels. The absence, moreover, of quotation marks and of qualifying adverbs describing how people talk, gives one the impression of stream-of-consciousness writing, but without, thankfully, the inchoate confusion that customarily goes with that form. In addition, because the novel is essentially a succession of scenes, Double Honeymoon has something of the feeling of a play or a movie script—but only the feeling, it should be noted quickly, because this novel is very carefully written, with an attention to nuances of style seldom found today.
It may be that this impression comes not only from the outline of the novel itself but from the character of la belle dame sans merci, Lambeth Brent, whose brief, tragic life is a series of dramatic poses. The title Double Honeymoon is intensely ironic: Muhlbach slips deeper and deeper into infatuation with Lambeth, despite warnings from her prior amours and his own good sense, and finally takes her on a trip into the country where he had been with his wife years before. The second honeymoon is a comic disaster, one which dimly foreshadows the true horror to which Muhlbach is introduced soon afterwards. Lambeth, it turns out, is the star of a pornographic movie called Double Honeymoon.
Muhlbach learns about this aspect of her life from one of her previous lovers, a one-time minor member of the Honduran diplomatic mission named Señor Rafael Lpez y Fuentes. Fuentes has been replaced by Muhlbach but bears him no ill will—though he is such a mixture of comedy and Latin menace that one is not sure whether malice might not play a major part in his ostentatious aid to Muhlbach. The relationship between these two aging lovers is most engagingly developed by Connell; Muhlbach has avoided the natty Latin assiduously, having observed the poor fellow’s decline since being cast off by Lambeth, and all the while reminding himself he will never let things get so far out of hand. But when Fuentes, his equanimity miraculousy restored by, he says, a new love, tells Muhlbach about the movie and offers to take him to a private screening, Muhlbach feels he must see it for himself. The innocuous prelude to the action in the honeymoon motel is described in detail; the action itself is a blur of genitalia to Muhlbach’s dazed eyes (and, incidentally, a refreshingly understated sex scene).
Sickened to his soul by what he sees, Muhlbach vows to have nothing more to do with Lambeth. Predictably, however, he allows himself to pass near her apartment. They meet, and she rebuffs him rudely. Shortly afterwards when Lambeth dies as the result of a fall which might have been suicide or murder, we are relieved for Muhlbach’s sake because it is clear that his obsession is now a succubus, draining his life—he has already half-convinced himself that she was forcibly drugged for the movie. At the same time, however, it seems that Muhlbach has lost not only his obsession but the quality that distinguishes him from the crowd of anonymous umbrella-carrying pedestrians which he joins at the end of the novel. He was interesting, Connell is saying, only so long as he was vulnerable—now he is only a part of the crowd, sheltered and ensheathed and invisible.
But Muhlbach will probably return—he was the subject of an earlier novel, The Connoisseur (1974), and he obviously is drawn, moth-like, to dangerous but illuminating flames. It is true, as noted earlier, that his story is a familiar one, told in the movie The Blue Angel, in the play Two for the See-Saw, and by Chaucer in The Merchants’ Tale—and one should probably include Nabokov’s Lolita. All these and many more similar tales deal with the obsessive infatuation of an older man for a much younger woman. What then makes Muhlbach’s story different?
First, Muhlbach himself is a completely realized character who is alive in a sense that more recognizable figures in recent American fiction are not: Mailer’s Rojack in An American Dream, for instance, or any of the stick figures from Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, Brautigan, and others. The creation of a character, of life, is mysterious and inexplicable and not all that common, but Connell has accomplished it with Muhlbach. That is sufficient justification in itself for the book.
But Double Honeymoon is also of considerable interest for the ways in which it dramatizes not only the gap between the generations but also certain aspects of middle age described in the recent book by Gail Sheehy, entitled Passages. The generation gap is a cliché, familiar to anyone who is ten years older than someone else—even Lambeth is at a loss when she and Muhlbach pick up a hippie hitchhiker who carries on about a rock group which she has never heard of. Connell uses the cliché, to illustrate character in a series of juxtapositions of his two characters, the most telling of which is Lambeth’s adolescent astrology opposed to Muhlbach’s rather impressive knowledge of astronomy. We come to see, in fact, that the opposition between Lambeth and Muhlbach is not merely a matter of generations. Everything about Lambeth is meretricious, as Muhlbach might say, or, in Lambeth’s vocabulary, tacky—from her taste in poetry (Rod McKuen) to music (folk singers and rock bands) to clothes and jewelry (she wears a dress that looks like the top half of “lime green pajamas” and a string of paste pearls “twisted around the lacquered pagoda on top of her head” when Muhlbach picks her up for their first date—he wonders if they will be arrested). The only thing Lambeth has going for her is a beauty so striking that men turn around in the street to stare; and for most men, that is enough.
Certainly it is enough for Muhlbach, because he is in the throes of what Sheehy describes in Passages as the mid-forties crisis, when men in particular see themselves as trapped. It is at this point in their lives that they know they will never be the chief executive of their corporation; never isolate the cause of the nation’s number one disease; never win the Nobel or the Pulitzer or the President’s Medal. They see now the apparent truth of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives. Muhlbach, according to this reading of his character and his situation, is an accident waiting to happen, and it is merely bad luck that the object of his affections has to be Lambeth. We see, in retrospect, how off-balance he is before Lambeth appears, while he is waiting for the bus. Suddenly, hearing voices through a window, he feels an intense isolation, and reaches out to slap the street-light pole sharply. He is startled by this lapse of self-control. Soon the bus arrives—itself an imposing machine which goes momentarily out of control at a snowy intersection. Lambeth boards it, and Muhlbach’s obsession begins. Later, in a dialogue with Lambeth that could be a paraphrase of one of Sheehy’s case studies, Muhlbach says that he has realized his life will never change: he will go on “toting that barge and lifting that bale” as long as he lives. He will “never touch the rainbow.”
Following this line of thought, it would seem that Lambeth is not really the cause of Muhlbach’s flirtation with self-destruction, but merely the instrument. If it were not Lambeth, it would be somebody else, for Muhlbach has already all but decided to resist the Valkyrian blandishments of Eula, to whose party he was going that Christmas night. While Eula might have been attractive twenty years ago, now it is uncertain, Muhlbach wryly notes, whether she will explode or deflate when all her foundation garments are removed, and in bed she is as erotic as a beached porpoise.
But even though Muhlbach was ripe for a fall, the question remains: why Lambeth? Lambeth’s nearest analogue is Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Holly has charm, wit, and brains, all of which Lambeth lacks. “She’s stupid!” Muhlbach realizes suddenly at one point. And while Capote allows for a sentimental interpretation of his tramp, never depicting the favors responsible for those hundred-dollar trip-to-the-restroom bills, Connell is quite clear about the depths to which Lambeth has sunk.
Perhaps this is the key: it is possible to read newspaper accounts today of girls working their way through college doing what Lambeth does, presumably unaffected by shame or remorse. But Lambeth, for all her toughness, does feel shame and remorse. Her alternately antagonistic and loving manner with Muhlbach is, we realize at the end, not the result of cruel manipulation but of her desire to save him from herself by making him miserable, hoping he will stay away from her. Underneath her two façades, then—one of beauty, the other of decadence—lies an essentially decent person who might conceivably have been saved. It is this quality—the quality that allows Lambeth to take on the responsibility of a sick kitten, not that which lets her desert it—that attracts Muhlbach as much or more than her beauty or sex. If he had answered her request to come over on that last night of her life she might still be alive. But he had hesitated in front of her house, been questioned by two cops and frightened home, where he spent the evening immersed in his thirty-year-old stamp collection. Later that night Lambeth dies; the reader’s initial hope that this decent man will be able to wriggle off the hook of his obsession has been granted, but at an ambiguous cost.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32
Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, January 1, 1976, p. 22.
Library Journal. CI, March 15, 1976, p. 832.
New York Times Book Review. May 23, 1976, p. 4.
Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, January 12, 1976, p. 50.
Saturday Review. III, April 17, 1976, p. 33.
Time. CVII, June 21, 1976, p. 74.