Cross Damon’s wintry search for meaningfulness and happiness falls into five stages, omnisciently narrated in books of the novel entitled “Dread,” “Dream,” “Descent,” “Despair,” and “Decision.” By the time Cross reaches the fifth stage, no decision can stem the worsening of his life that is suggested by the first four titles.
When the story opens, Cross dreads everything about his intolerable life, which quickly comes to a crisis under pressure from his fifteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, his abused wife, and his moralistic mother. Then the completely unexpected happens: He survives a subway accident and learns that a mangled victim has been identified as him. Cross takes this opportunity to create himself anew. Again, however, the unexpected happens; he is seen by a friend, and rather than return to a life made even worse, Cross kills him.
Cross’s life is now dreamlike, because he carries in his mind a twenty-six-year identity that he is consciously denying. He is only early in the process of inventing what he believes will be a new personality, and therefore he is at the mercy of external circumstances. An accident in the dining car of a train causes him to meet two people who will haunt him like images in a dream that turns into a nightmare. Bob Hunter entangles him in the Communist Party, and Ely Houston is insightful enough to recognize him as a fellow outsider inclined to “ethical lawlessness.” The style of Wright’s narration in this part of the story is not dreamlike, however, as philosophical analysis plays a major role in his narration and characterization.
In New York, Cross meets Party members who claim to be rational, objective, and benevolent but whose only law is their purpose of domination. Cross, needing human contacts to give substance to his new identity, and believing that with his intelligence and existential freedom he is more than a match for anyone...
(The entire section is 794 words.)