Four Freedoms

In the 1943 RKO Radio Pictures film Tender Comrade — to the dismay of ardent fans, the flick is generally unavailable these days except as a bootleg — Ginger Rogers plays a war bride who sets up communal housekeeping with three other women, amid the dire physically and morally challenging conditions on the WWII home front. With a script by Dalton Trumbo, the film is an equal mix of soap opera, utopian socialism, and shared sacrifice leading to mass consciousness-raising. (In fact, the socialistic aspects of the script would later be used as a bludgeon in the infamous HUAC hearings.)

I have no doubt that novelist John Crowley, himself a screenwriter and well versed in the products of Hollywood’s Golden Age, has watched, internalized, dissected, and mentally rejiggered Tender Comrade, as well as Dive Bomber (1941), This is the Army (1943), Since You Went Away (1944), Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), and any number of the other message-laden, heart-tugging, alternately bathetic and genuinely tragic propaganda films of this era. His new novel, Four Freedoms, is too firmly implanted in this tradition to have sprung up spontaneously. Additionally, the comforting illusions provided by the cinema form an explicit thematic subtext in the book — as how could they not, in any faithful literary re-creation of such a Hollywood-besotted time?

Forsaking the magical realism and urban fantasy of books such as Little, Big for pure limpid naturalism (although certain mild absurdities do propel the aircraft of the novel toward tentative gonzo liftoff at points), Crowley has fashioned as pure, potent, and powerful a vehicle for imaginatively re-attaining this vanished, seminal era of the American Dream as any book of recent memory. Any vestige of 21st-century attitudes and beliefs, any contemning or approving or disbelieving hindsight, any wish-fulfillment time-travel whimsy have all been ruthlessly eradicated, in favor of fashioning a vibrant, subtly research-rich, high-resolution simulation of the period — a virtual-reality chamber of sorts, where the reader can experience Crowley’s empathetic and compassionate view of the human condition via a cast of lively characters enacting the topical yet eternal dilemmas of their day.

The strange attractor which draws all the personages of Four Freedoms together, the inspired McGuffin that allows Crowley to convincingly assemble his motley crew in a pressure-cooker environment, is the creation of a warplane ironically named the Pax. Headed by two eccentric brothers who conjointly summon up the iconic Howard Hughes, the Van Damme Aero Company, having landed a big defense contract and outgrown its California facilities, erects a sprawling new plant and ambient town in Ponca City, Oklahoma. To this dusty, shoddy, adventitious industrial metropolis dubbed Henryville are lured the desperate, the eager, the curious, the blasé, all seeking wages and a home in varying proportionate degrees. Male or female, hale and hearty or crippled, patriots or subversives, the workers pile in, providing a yeasty cross-section of the American citizenry.

We meet Horace Offen, a glib, cynical publicist always hoping for a revelation of some ideal he can cherish; Bunce and Connie Wrobleski, a feuding married couple who seek to maintain the love that originally drew them together; Vi Harbison, an ex-farm girl who discovers in herself a capacity for sports and risk and adventure; Sal Maas, a midget who once performed along with others of her stature as the public face of a famed newspaper strip called the “Teenie Weenies”; Diane Nunez, whose infidelity takes a surprising turn; and Pancho Notzing, former fabric salesman and “bestopian” dreamer.

But central to the narrative is one young man, Prosper Olander. This book is truly his story, a depiction of how someone who might otherwise have been caged by circumstances comes to experience freedom in a time of tumult, when the usual structures of social control and status come tumbling down. We will watch Prosper grow from earliest childhood to a curiously self-assured yet oddly flawed manhood, and his voyage will encapsulate the whole topsy-turvy period.

(And in fact Crowley structures the intertwining narratives of all his cast as an oscillating flow of back-story and real-time passages, with continual, unpredictable movement from past to present and even into minimally adumbrated flash-forwarded futures. I would estimate that the real-time narrative actually constitutes only about a third of the wordage of this book, and this relative scanting of Henryville action in favor of the formative years of the protagonists is arguably the novel’s one flaw. Life in Henryville is so fascinating that we demand more than we actually receive.)

Prosper was born with spinal troubles, and a botched ameliorative operation during childhood left him with useless legs. But even as a “cripple,” Prosper possesses an indomitable optimism and sanguine outlook on life that sees him through any difficulties. Dubbed “Candide” by his pal Pancho at one point, Prosper demurs. And yet Crowley does endow his hero and his course through life with some of that same unquenchable naiveté and faith — only in Crowley’s universe, such a Weltanschauung is rewarded more often than not.

Surely the most radical aspect of Prosper’s life is his record of sexual conquests. He has relations variously with Vi, Connie, and Diane in Henryville, and other lovers from his past crop up. In a milieu where men are at a premium, Prosper radiates not just sheer masculine availability but also a sincere empathy toward all things feminine that is erotically alluring. If at times he exhibits typical male selfishness and ego, more often than not he is just what the various women in his life need at that moment of their engagement. And Crowley’s forthright yet lyrical depictions of the unique mechanics of Prosper’s couplings bring the requisite carnal heat to the tale.

Prosper’s acceptance by the community of Henryville — as fellow worker and sexual peer and adviser and leisure-time comrade — form the author’s prime illustration of how the deracinated and desperate era encouraged experimentation and a closer approximation of Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” (later idealized by Norman Rockwell’s quartet of paintings) than more settled and regulated times allowed. Dreams supplemented what reality could not provide, and sometimes dreams even came true.

The evocation of the dense cultural matrix surrounding Prosper’s adventures constitutes the other majestic accomplishment of this book. With sensory richness and perfect attention to the brand names, beliefs, and bywords of 1944, Crowley plants the reader firmly in this bygone foreign country that was once America. Himself born too late to know this period firsthand, Crowley has submerged himself in the documents and artifacts of the era until he has achieved a complete intuitive sympathy with and vision of wartime America, which he then presents in prose with just the right mix of heft and delicacy. The reader will be seduced into hearing big bands playing and the Pax roaring overhead on its test flights, into feeling the hot sheets of an Oklahoma summer and smelling the astringent hospital ward of Prosper’s rehabilitation.

Like Thomas Pynchon and Kim Deitch, John Crowley has a fondness and affection for the mythic past of America. And like these other creators, he is able to see past the myths into the underlying humanity — tawdry and romantic, standing in the gutter and looking at the stars.