Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987
Bob Slocum is a character who uses dreams and memories, which make up a substantial portion of the novel, as part of his ongoing struggle to determine the key event, the “something” that “happened” to him, to cause him to be the man he is. Very early in the book, he thinks, “Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur. I dislike anything unexpected.” Because life is unpredictable and the unexpected happens daily, Slocum has come to dislike his life, but because death and change are also unpredictable and unexpected, even those alternatives provide no hopeful option for him.
Bob Slocum is a character suffering what pop psychologists would call a midlife crisis. The outer circumstances of his life change very little during the first three-fourths of the novel, but within his mind he contemplates changes in almost every area. He considers divorce. He contemplates how a proposed promotion might affect his life. He tries to face the necessity of institutionalizing his retarded child. Through dreams and memory, he even tries to re-create the happy and sad experiences of his growing-up years in search of a security that he feels he once had but which is now missing. He becomes particularly obsessed with the memory of a girl he knew when he was seventeen and working part-time for an insurance company. After many years of knowing that the girl, Virginia Markowitz, committed suicide while he was in the army, Slocum still clings to the hope represented by their innocent and unconsummated passion for each other.
Slocum’s exploration of his life is, in part, a struggle to establish a valid point of view from which to make the decisions he faces. At one point he asks himself, “Where is a frame of reference now for any of us that extends even the distance to the horizon, only eighteen miles away?” Although Slocum understands other people fairly well, he cannot translate that understanding and perception into actions or relationships. He remains trapped within his own mind, which he imagines oozing excess matter and ready to explode.
The relationship between Slocum and his wife is neither happy nor unhappy. He says that he has always wanted a divorce, even before he met his wife and married her. Yet he has not. He is regularly unfaithful with both whores and women he meets at work and at parties, but it is his wife who is his most satisfying sexual partner. He must sometimes use her as a fantasy figure in order to be fully aroused with others. He is terrified by the possibility that she might be unfaithful to him. Finally, her main failure seems to be her inability to make Slocum feel the same absolute and total security he remembers from very early childhood. He is somewhat annoyed by her drinking habits, but only when they cause her to embarrass him at parties or to be too assertive in the home. Their relationship is essentially unchanged over the course of the novel.
Slocum resents his daughter’s sullen, aggressive personality and her sexual maturity, from which she refuses to shield him by dressing in ways to obscure it. He feels compelled to best her in arguments and battles of wit, even as he realizes that besting one’s fifteen-year-old child is no real victory. He feels enormous rage and anger at the thought that some male might seduce her, and he wants to protect her from her own unhappiness and all the world’s dangers. Yet he also wants to be her superior; thus, he fails to develop any relationship beyond the hostility that he initially sets out to comprehend and control.
It is the nine-year-old son whom he calls his “boy” that Slocum says he loves more than anything in the world. The most positive actions in the novel are made in the boy’s behalf. Slocum intervenes to spare his son the macho wrath of a physical education instructor. He tries to persuade the boy not to give away his money, pennies and nickels mostly, but takes secret pride in his spontaneous and generous nature. Perhaps the most terrible alienation Slocum feels, in a novel entirely about his alienation, is the feeling of isolation from this boy, who suddenly takes to spending all his hours at home behind a closed bedroom door, exactly like his surly sister. The novel’s climax, which comes very late, occurs when the boy is injured by a runaway vehicle in a shopping plaza. Slocum, anxious to help him, holds the child so tightly to his chest in an effort to comfort him that the boy dies of asphyxiation.
The third child, Derek, is never actually present in the novel’s action, but his offstage presence is overwhelming. For both Slocum and his wife, Derek’s birth seems to be a turning point, the place where life’s hopes and possibilities are irrevocably diminished. Although both know that they must eventually send the child away, they cannot, even by the novel’s end, bring themselves to do so.
Woven through what is essentially a static story about upper-middle-class family life are scenes at the vaguely defined company where Slocum works. His promotion, at the expense of a man who trusted and confided in him, coincides with his son’s death, making the climax of these secondary plots part of the larger family story. For Slocum, the world of the office is as disillusioning and frustrating as is the world of the family. When the romantic notions of his recollected youth collide with the hardened cynicism of his middle age, his emotions lead him to conclude that his personal inadequacies are the cause of his failures: “I am guilty. . . . I am numb with shame. I feel so helpless and uncertain.”
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