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...
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