One by one, the writers who came of literary age between the Second World War and the Sexual Revolution—the Glossy Age of American fiction, as I have called it elsewhere—are dying off. Evan S. Connell Jr. was found dead in Santa Fe last Thursday, January 10. He was 88.
Mr. Bridge, his first novel’s “twin,” as the obituaries misleadingly called it, was published exactly ten years later. Connell perfected a flat objective tone, flawless in delivery, unblemished by sympathy or satire, which was ill-suited to his narrative strategy. The casual bigotry displayed by the Bridges and their neighbors, the hyperconsciousness of good manners and good shoes, the adroit avoidance of “threatening subjects,” including intellectual curiosity in any shape, the regular evocation of “nameless panic” and “wild, wild desire” (never acted upon) as a counterpoint to the “white, sweetly scented anonymity” into which they sink—a counterpoint that eventually becomes as uneventful as their lives: the Bridges are steadily reduced to cultural clichés.
Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention, by the firm and consistent application of the principle that every depth must be left unexplored (“if super-celestial ideas were accompanied by subterranean behavior,” Mrs. Bridge reflects, “it might be better to forego them both”). But because he has confined himself to the undisturbed surfaces, where his characters choose to dwell, he is at a loss how to suggest what lies beneath. He must resort to tricks. Mrs. Bridge’s reflection on high ideas and low behavior, for example, is provoked by “a line from Montaigne,” which comes to her out of nowhere, exactly and inexplicably quoted. The distinction between ideas and behavior is located in the realm of ideas, to which Mrs. Bridge has recourse in order to forego ideas. Connell is able to establish the superficiality of upper-class WASP lives only by admitting the depths that explode the superficiality.
Connell also became famous for Son of the Morning Star (1985), his exciting account of Little Big Horn. It success gave him some economic freedom at last, in his sixties. He was rare in his generation—the first generation of writers to take refuge in American universities—by declining to teach. “A teacher has to do an horrendous amount of talking,” his friend George P. Elliott explained; “a writer who (like Evan Connell) does not talk a lot should not teach (as Connell does not).” He never married, had no children. His life was devoted to writing.
Connell published nineteen books during his lifetime, but for my money his best are The Connoisseur (1974) and Double Honeymoon (1976), the last two novels he wrote before largely abandoning fiction for historical essays (he wrote a few more short stories). Both of these novels are about Karl Muhlbach, “the most respectable of men,” who had made his first appearance in three stories in At the Crossroads (1965). “I have violated nothing,” Muhlbach declares. “All my life I have represented civilization, now I am threatened.” An insurance executive, he too is a well-to-do WASP. The tone is the same, but the difference is that Muhlbach, unlike the Bridges, is vulnerable to the unexpected.
In The Connoisseur, Muhlbach is astonished when he happens upon a terra cota figurine from the Mayan period—a squat magistrate with his arms folded—in a curio shop in Taos. “I want this arrogant little personage, he thinks with sudden passion,” although he cannot say why. His life is transformed; he becomes a collector, “obsessed by pre-Columbian thoughts.” Connell takes his motto from Aquinas: id quod visum placet. Muhlbach is not an intellectual, although he becomes an expert in Mayan art. His is not the realm of ideas, but of beauty. He is changed because he allows himself the pleasure of looking.
Double Honeymoon is the expansion of a story written a decade earlier and published originally in At the Crossroads. Its events occur before Muhlbach’s conversion by beauty, and serve as a ten-years-earlier “prequel.” At a Christmas party, the 45-year-old Muhlbach meets a lovely 20-year-old with ambitions to become a “high fashion model.” She is much too beautiful “for her own good.” Her name is Lambeth Brent. She is the kind of girl he would have lost when he himself was 20—she would have found him dull, “dull and a trifle cold, [his] spine too rigid when [they] went dancing, [his] interests too academic.” Older now, a widower, Muhlbach pursues Lambeth. She is “buggy,” as he puts it later—erratic, unreliable, emotionally unavailable, a liar and a thief, perhaps bisexual (perhaps not), lousy at everything she has ever tried, a lost and troubled soul. Muhlbach does not learn any of this until much later, after he is already hooked on her. He wants to marry her and have children with her, even though Lambeth says that she wants children like she wants leprosy. He believes (against all evidence) that he can bring her “around to some kind of normalcy, enough so that she could keep going.” He tries vainly to get her to take some responsibility for her own life: