Testimony and Demeanor
John Casey’s first novel, An American Romance (1977), is a long, sprawling, extravagant book, set in both the East and the Midwest, filled with the voices and events of university life in the 1960’s, and narrated through the intelligences of its two main characters, Mac and Anya. Mac is a laconic Canadian outdoorsman, Anya a fiercely intellectual Jewish Easterner. Their love story provides not only the backbone of the novel’s plot, but also a means by which Casey can explore the American landscape in both its literal and metaphorical senses. Now comes Testimony and Demeanor, a collection of four stories with similar protagonists and similar themes. Disciplined and spare, these stories are in some ways at the stylistic antipodes from An American Romance, yet the two books taken together reveal the range of Casey’s prodigious gifts as a writer of fiction; or perhaps taken together they reveal the development of Casey’s prodigious gifts as a writer of fiction. Because three of these stories were first published before An American Romance appeared, it is impossible to tell which.
In either case, Testimony and Demeanor is a delight. Of varying lengths, the stories are subtle, tightly constructed variations on the time-honored subject of a young person’s growth toward self-knowledge. Casey achieves these tight structures in two ways: by strictly, almost claustrophobically limiting his settings, and by using as his first-person narrators four observant and articulate young men who are, on the whole, “bright but not too bright.” The slight sense of claustrophobia is important to the stories’ total effect, as are the similarities of his protagonists. They are all in their twenties, their Ivy League educations completed, their professions just under way. One is at Fort Knox, going through basic training on his way to becoming an Army officer; another is a middle-level bureaucrat at HEW; a third, Oliver, is an English instructor at the University of Iowa, and Charlie, the last, is a new associate in a large New York law firm. Despite the distinctive qualities of their narrative voices, these four young men are “similar details” in the accepted, predictable pattern of life for the upper-middle-class male Easterner. This life has its privileges, of course; it also has its limitations, and much of the tension generated by the stories arises from the protagonists’ encounters with those limitations. “In my schools,” says one, “I was taught to be myself, to be a gentleman, to be a success. Several different things, it turned out.”
Although only one of Casey’s narrators is actually a lawyer, all four have the “lawyer-like habit of being an objective observer on the vortex of other people’s passions.” They are, and take pride in being, detached, disembodied analysts of what happens around them. They are also, like Eliot’s Prufrock, self-conscious, self-ironic, and somewhat removed from their own feelings; one can easily imagine their well-bred heads, severed from their bodies, smoking imported cigars and reading the New Yorker. Caught up in the intellectual demands of their professions, the men are all, in some sense, isolated connoisseurs of emotional experience rather than full participants in it. They perceive themselves as stable, unlikely to change. And for all these reasons, they are vulnerable to emotional assaults from unpredictable quarters. As analysts, they observe others; as witnesses, they reveal their responses to these assaults in their demeanor as well as in their testimony.
The protagonist of “A More Complete Cross-Section” is, like all Casey’s narrators, somewhat given to metaphors, and Casey uses these to reveal and comment on changes in the character’s perceptions. Acknowledging the irrationality of the military, this young man nevertheless yields to it because he understands that for him, being an Army underling is only temporary, like the field stripes he wears as platoon guide; as a result, he can enjoy coincidences of names (for example, the bugler is named Roland) and can compare soldiers to models for a mural painting. As platoon guide he is generous and fair but unable to see his men as individuals and as humans. He imputes his own blindness to them by thinking of himself as a swallow among bats: they are blind, they circle in darkness with only their radar to protect them from collisions; elegant and deft, he flies by day, a true bird. He even corrects the other soldiers’ grammar. Eventually, of course, his superiority must be challenged. His men, by covering him with a blanket, strip him of “what he has been taught” and reveal at least momentarily what he is: a fellow human, with a physical body, whom they will not allow to remain unseeing and remote. The story’s final metaphor is breathtaking; the narrator is no longer airborne, but “entirely present, as though they had thrown a blanket of my...
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