Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2021
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 own skin over me and pulled it tight all the way to the ground.” The story is tight, too, but with a complex underlayer of metaphor and detail that makes its surface tightness all the more satisfying.
Longer but equally tightly constructed is the volume’s final story, “Testimony and Demeanor.” As in “A More Complete Cross-Section,” the protagonist, a lawyer named Charlie, unfolds before us a mental map of his development. At the beginning of the story he too is detached, closeted away as an associate in a law firm where he regularly puts in twelve- and fifteen-hour days. His work is his life until Charles Pelham, a fatherly senior partner who is attracted by the younger man’s astonishing energy, takes Charlie on as a cultural and emotional protégé. At first Charlie is baffled by the cross-examinations of his self-appointed mentor, but he grows to like Pelham, through whom he becomes involved with a woman much older than he. Ann Morr is mainly interested in her own past, Charlie in his future, and this imbalance eventually takes its toll, but not before she has taught him to savor, rather than fear, the processes of change and memory. On business for his firm, Charlie visits a steel mill which provides him with an extended metaphor for his rapidly, visibly changing self: “It amazed me that a process so violent and precise should have a by-product as momentary and delicate as those shades of red. . . . Not until Ann and Mr. Pelham came along did I realize there were appreciable by-products, that I was not so colorless—and did not have to be so grimly thrifty with myself—as I had grown used to thinking.” Although Charlie’s relationship with Ann ends, his ambivalent attachment to Pelham deepens to “moral concern,” the concern of a son for a father through whose growing old the son may continue to understand his own growth.
Although it is not clear whether the narrator of “A More Complete Cross-Section” is permanently changed by the violence he encounters at the end of the story, Charlie certainly is changed in some fundamental way because of his relationships with Charles Pelham and Ann Morr. But “Testimony and Demeanor” and “A More Complete Cross-Section” frame two stories in which the experiences of the protagonists do not so much change them as force them to clarity about what and where they are. In “Mandarins in a Farther Field” the narrator has been working for several years in a comfortable job at HEW. Except for college and summers, he has never left Washington, D.C., and by the end of the story he knows he never will. His trust in governmental institutions, his faith that “the proper arranging of things in the world was something that I could become a part of to the point where everything that went right, that was brought into its place, would give me satisfaction,” gives way to the certainty that he can never realize such a vision of wholeness. In truth, being a mandarin means resigning oneself to seeing only one’s own fragment. The protagonist comes to this understanding through his friendship with Pavel, a perceptive Russian bureaucrat who is farther along in his awareness of his place in the world. Pavel shows his friend that they are not their states’ heroic workhorses, but instead are flies with multiple prism eyes that see only fractions. Like “A More Complete Cross-Section” and “Testimony and Demeanor,” “Mandarins in a Farther Field” moves not so much by incident as by image and detail: the comical spy episodes; the statues of concrete workhorses outside the Federal Trade Commission, each with an eye on both sides of its head; the flies with prismatic eyes that never see the whole; the hunting dog who moves between the narrator and Pavel in an arc like that of a windshield wiper—all this linked imagery suggests different ways of seeing and contradictory possibilities of movement and immobility. What the narrator has seen as “carefully nurtured schizophrenia,” as a balanced view of American society and his place in it, is, he learns, not balance at all but a dead end, a blind alley, an arcing ideal immobilized by its own mechanical weight.
The problem of balance, of integrating all the parts of one’s life and experience into a whole that makes sense, is articulated especially clearly in “Connaissance des Arts,” even though as a story it is not as successful as the other three in the collection. Its protagonist, Oliver, is similar to his counterparts in the other stories in that he does not fully participate in his own experiences; rather, he analyzes them out of all countenance. As with many intellectuals, Oliver’s self-conscious sense of irony results in a sort of emotional paralysis. As long as Honorée, the Iowa freshman who has a crush on him, keeps a certain distance, he can savor the experience of her interest in him, just as he savors from an even greater distance the “erotic power of marginal comment” in the margins of his female students’ papers. But when Oliver must confront Honorée’s ecstatic, robust physicality at close range, he becomes uncomfortable. Eventually he leaves the University of Iowa and returns home to New York, where two old chums give him a snug sense of continuity with his Eastern past, a sense repeatedly assaulted by the agoraphobia he experienced in Iowa. For Oliver, the landscape of the Midwest suggests possibilities that he can manage only when they are reduced in size and presented to him in a medium he can manipulate. Thus, back in New York, he gets a copy of a student film in which Honorée appears and runs it backward and forward, at his own speed, in the darkness of his room. Oliver fully understands the appeal of Honorée, of her expansive Western landscape, of a vast future in which he would be different. He especially likes the end of the film—a road, “a straight, unstoppable bright ribbon rising and falling and reappearing crest after crest . . . three arcs of road can suggest endlessness. There is no greater suggestion of openness or promise. . . .” Am American Romance ends with Mac walking on such a road, but Oliver, from his safe Eastern distance, rejects the reality and can only contemplate the image.
“Connaissance des Arts” is the negative miniature of An American Romance. This story is the only one of the four that has not already appeared in print, and one can see why: even though it is the longest piece in the collection, it seems overpopulated, overstuffed, too big for its genre. It works much better as a part of the whole collection than it would on its own. And indeed, all these stories contribute to that whole. Within stories and from one to the next, the tightness of Casey’s structuring and the bright precision of his language pull against the rich and intricate texture of his details to create a tension which illuminates and enriches the experiences of these four men. Over and over in Testimony and Demeanor, Casey’s witnesses verify what Charlie has learned from Ann Morr: that “art should be concerned with . . . the changes that are ordinarily hidden from us.”
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support