Harris, MacDonald (Pseudonym of Donald Heiney)
Harris, MacDonald (Pseudonym of Donald Heiney) 1921–
An American editor, critic, novelist, and short story writer, Harris attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and spent much of his youth at sea. His stories reflect, in subject and theme, his attachment to the sea, and they are often humorous in the vein of Evelyn Waugh. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Trepleff] is a strange novel, propelling a reader forward pell-mell and totally absorbed, but never providing a solid footing. Experiencing it is an exciting but precarious business, like running along a fictional tightrope. Hence, while Trepleff's separate merits are many, and it is far better than most novels these days—in fact, it is very fine—the book as a whole never reaches the level of the assured, sometimes brilliant writing in its parts.
For one thing, though its central subject is a man who marches steadily from a position of affluent respectability to a state of semi-idiotic nothingness, its tone sways hither and yon from dead seriousness to slapstick comedy, from high lyricism down to existential coolness, with intermittent squiggles of mood as unexpected as they are indescribable, as if MacDonald Harris was never quite sure what attitude he should have about his own creation. For another, characters don't develop, they leap from this to that, sometimes sans motive or credibility. And always there is the nagging question, what to make of them?
As perhaps might be expected from such a complex balancing act, Trepleff, the hero, ends up in a sort of combined prison-hospital-insane asylum, those final refuges of so many of today's weak but saintly heroes. Yet when he asserts in the last pages that he is not some kind of isolated freak, that there are many destinies like his, the statement echoes the haunting feeling a reader has had all along about the fundamental significance of Trepleff's zany adventures and concerns….
By way of clarification, Trepleff is a character in Chekhov's drama The Seagull, and since role-playing is still another major theme in this theme-packed novel, the name works as both a title and an identity for the protagonist….
Trepleff's decline is mated with his roles. As Trepleff he marries, less for love than out of pity, a girl already pregnant by another man. As Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith he becomes a $60,000-a-year psychiatrist, the epitome of scientific rationality and square living. As a quasi-Christ he ruins his career by making dutiful love to one of his most pathetic patients. As Trigorin, the heartless novelist in The Seagull, he manipulates a rich widow into supporting him, finally driving her to suicide. Basically, however, Trepleff is Trepleff, compassionate and desiring love, doomed by fate and an inner demon to play multiple parts, and as a result to suffer fears, separations, and even crucifixions in each of them.
These are the steps in the action and its principal theme: the inability of men to care, and the pain they cause to themselves and others when they try. Yet any sequence of related episodes and any solid foundation of idea falsifies the nature of this crazy-quilt odyssey. What will stick in the mind are the best of its moments: Trepleff ransacking his own house for loose cash; Trepleff trying unsuccessfully to drown his dog because it insists on fornicating around; shoeless Trepleff being thrown out of a swank Paris hotel; Trepleff in Rome, interrogated by the police about a murder that never happened; Trepleff working out a modus vivendi with Nadia, the widow, in one of the queerest love-hate relationships in a long while….
Such episodes as these are handled with a mature style, with wit, energy, intelligence. For such traits a reader should be willing to be a bit out of kilter, to live in a house of fiction where, as Trepleff puts it, the walls are not quite straight. (p. 31)
Robert Maurer, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 20, 1969.
(The entire section is 4,221 words.)