LOCUSTS AMOK

Reviewed by KATE CHRISTENSEN

There’s the kind of novelist who conveys his or her serious intent with weighty sentences and paragraphs, and then there’s another kind, the kind whose prose and story are so effortless to read that you hardly realize the novel is about anything at all — how can something so entertaining be good for you?

Always and ever in this latter camp, Dawn Powell once wrote that although her writing might occasionally concern itself with serious matters, there was never any need to get heavy-handed about it. The Locusts Have No King, first published in 1948, is a stellar example of this quasi-manifesto. Like all Powell’s novels, it glides, fast but deep, from the first sentence to the last, written with impeccable finesse and a flawless ear, never grinding its wheels or getting lost in egotistical undergrowth. For all its sweetness and light, Locusts is an intelligent, hard-headed, clear-eyed examination of art, love, ruthlessness, infidelity, commerce, ambition, betrayal, and destruction. It is, in short, a quintessential New York novel.

The story opens on a night in Greenwich Village just after the end of World War II. Our hero, a solitary, obscure medieval-history writer, Frederick Olliver, has just finished the weighty tome he’s been working on for seven years. He’s making his way through the bars of the West Village in search of his roommate, the womanizing, perpetually soused, debt-ridden Murray, who naturally owes him money. Frederick needs this money to go that night to the dinner party where he knows his beloved will be: the beautiful, redheaded, sensitive, unhappy, but wildly successful Broadway playwright Lyle Gaynor. Frederick dreads this dinner party because he loathes the people who will be there and what they represent, but he has to go. He passionately adores Lyle and can only see her in certain surroundings, since her husband and playwriting partner, Allan, is wheelchair bound but still very much alive, and essential to her career.

As Frederick goes in and out of one bar after another, we see, through his eyes, a certain subculture of New York, the timeless democratic brotherhood of drinkers, a world Powell knew very well and presents with affectionate, funny, gimlet-eyed clarity. Enter Dodo, a sexy, baby-talking, ditsy little social climber from Baltimore, newly arrived in the big city and looking for her ticket Up. Hearing the name of Beckley, the famously rich guy whose house Frederick is headed to, she latches onto him like a remora and tags along to the dinner party. Lyle sees them arrive together and naturally misunderstands. Thus trouble begins, and the novel gets delightfully underway.

The plot is simple: Lyle is up and Frederick’s down. Then the Bronx and the Battery switch places, as Frederick’s career takes off while Lyle’s stalls and plummets. Meanwhile, their love affair suffers classic comic-romance misunderstandings caused, of course, by pride and prejudice. Frederick, thinking Lyle has slighted him, takes up with Dodo; Lyle’s heart is broken and she withdraws, etc.; but still, in the course of all these reversals and trials, the love between the two protagonists remains the one pure thing in a corrupt and wicked world. The title, taken from Proverbs, refers to the destructive plague of heedless insects driven only by greed; the deep, true love between Lyle and Frederick is rendered that much more poignant against a backdrop of narcissism, cynicism, and ruthlessness.

The novel is populated by a set of fast-talking, wisecracking minor characters as fun to read about as they must have been to invent, all of them riding the magic wheel that is New York City, the grand machine that turns inexorably up and then down and then up and then down again. In addition to her feather-light but devastatingly satirical bar and nightclub scenes, Powell has particular fun, here as in many of her New York novels, with a certain type of friendship between two vaguely bohemian single career women in their late thirties and early forties, Lorna and Caroline — no longer young but still viable, a friendship predicated entirely on mutual gain. They sheathe their claws and mask their deathly sexual competitiveness with drunken affirmations of solidarity amid self-serving chatter; naturally, the instant one or both women cease to benefit from their alliance, boom, it’s over, although it can be reactivated just as easily when someone’s fortunes turn again, as they always do, and will.

Many of Powell’s satirical grenades are lobbed at people with power who will do anything to keep it or people who want it and will do anything to get it, but she holds plenty of ammo in reserve for pretentious artistic types. One chapter of Locusts involves a lavishly detailed, breathtakingly dead-on description of an arty soir?e at a sordid, out-of-the-way loft: an evening of bad poetry, high-minded but totally meaningless pronouncements, absurd performance art, and sheer lack of talent masquerading as preciousness. Powell is as scathing toward those with no ambition as she is toward those with an excess of it: her bohemians live self-consciously unconventional but torpid lives of much drinking and posturing. They excuse their lack of any real artistic output with lines like, “The reason I never went in for painting is I’d want to do it so much better than anyone else,” or “My great ambition has always prevented me from doing anything.” This chapter’s milieu and dialogue could easily be about contemporary New York; in fact, the whole novel still rings as true now as it must have more than half a century ago.

The Locusts Have No King is a tough-minded satire that nevertheless holds out a timeless, modern kind of hope. Just before the Bikini Atoll A-bomb tests are broadcast on the radio, Lyle thinks to herself, “There was never too much that a person could give or endure in love.” The final line is an echo of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: “In a world of destruction one must hold fast to whatever fragments of love are left, for sometimes a mosaic can be more beautiful than an unbroken pattern.” This novel is itself designed as a mosaic, a portrait of a fragmented, flawed, but iridescently beautiful city.