Cass Kinsolving, an expatriate, struggling American painter in the throes of alcohol addiction. A Southerner who helped destroy the furnishings in a black family’s house years earlier, Cass is guilt-ridden and depressed, conditions that led to his alcoholism. He struggles, with little success, to comprehend the symbolic implications of his dreams and fantasies, such as being locked away for a horrible crime that he cannot remember and being constantly surrounded by black people. By playing “trained seal” to Mason Flagg in Sambuco, Italy, however, Cass assumes the slave’s role and thus does penance for his racial oppression, as he does by helping an Italian peasant, the odor of whose dwelling he directly connects to the odor of the dwellings of impoverished black families in the United States. Finally, by killing Mason for his rape (and, Cass believes, murder) of a peasant girl, Cass overcomes his guilt and oppression: Mason represents the excesses of “Yankee” American materialism and sexual violence. Cass, who is symbolic of the American South, can then disavow alcohol and achieve spiritual peace and artistic success.
Mason Flagg, a millionaire American obsessed with pornography and sexuality. His name suggests America (Flagg), particularly the North (Mason, as in Mason-Dixon Line). He is abusive of women but not capable of murder. In Cass’s words, he is not “evil . . . just scum.” Presented only through the descriptions of Peter Leveritt and Cass Kinsolving, Mason develops as a victim of an uncaring, distant father (devoted only to making films and attending parties with celebrities) and of an excessively doting mother who becomes alcoholic because she is neglected as a spouse. Mason is dismissed from high school for seducing a thirteen-year-old imbecile. He buys and controls women and male friends via his wealth. In Sambuco, Mason conflicts with and manipulates Cass, an obsessive Southern artist who hates Mason’s greed,...
(The entire section is 826 words.)