by Wallace Stegner
Considering the degree to which the award-winning American novelist and nonfiction writer and self-proclaimed "westerner for life" [xiii] Wallace Stegner is revered in certain circles today, a disinterested observer might well suspect that John Leonard's 1972 New York Times smackdown of Angle of Repose as "a Pontiac in the age of Apollo, an Ed Muskie in the fiction sweepstakes," while undeniably a great piece of trash talk for anybody old enough to appreciate the period insults, is probably a bit harsh in its condemnation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. However, I'm not so sure that Leonard wasn't on to something. There is, to be fair, plenty to like about Angle of Repose even if its sprawling, 557-page multigenerational family drama set in various places in the 19th and 20th century American West and Mexico tends to wear mighty thin at times. I enjoyed, for example, Stegner's fine eye for the surprising but perfectly observed detail ("the hand that held the lines were freckled like tortillas" ), his evocation of place and space on both a local and a grand scale, and his curmudgeonly emeritus history professor Lyman Ward's ongoing interrogation of the nature of historical sources (here, musing about his taciturn grandfather's probable response to a key event early in his marriage): "Or I suppose that is what he felt. The fact is, I don't know. He is the silent character in this cast, he did not defend himself when he thought he was wronged, and he left no novels, stories, drawings, or reminiscences to speak for him. I only assume what he felt, from knowing him as an old man" (223). In a work that's been both praised and vilified for its uncredited interpolation of first-person historical sources lifted from the letters of the 19th century western writer/illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, though, I found it all too ironic that what should have been the most real life character in this ambitious historical fiction hybrid felt like the most fictional of all regardless of how much her high maintenance ways, her "Quaker 'thee'" grating talking quirk (333), and her quest to bring Eastern civilization to the uncultured West might have mirrored the historical reality. More to the point re: Stegner's artistic choices, I also felt really let down by the way this initially unpredictable novel of place eventually devolved into a rather pro forma tale of two dysfunctional marriages. In other words, I'll have to get back to you on whether "a Pontiac in the age of Apollo" actually tells it like it is or is really more like coded 1972 speak for "Jodi Picoult called, and she wants her fucking book back." Disappointing.
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)
The underwhelming Angle of Repose was read as part of a conversation with the mighty Séamus of Vapour Trails. His review can be found here.