The Great Days: A Novelby John Dos Passos
In this semi-autobiographical novel, an American named Roland Lancaster has a doomed affair with a younger woman, Elsa, in Cuba during World War II. The love story, in its happiest moments, parallels the idyllic life that author John Dos Passos had with his first wife, Katy. The Great Days plots a key concern of the author’s in the/i>
In this semi-autobiographical novel, an American named Roland Lancaster has a doomed affair with a younger woman, Elsa, in Cuba during World War II. The love story, in its happiest moments, parallels the idyllic life that author John Dos Passos had with his first wife, Katy. The Great Days plots a key concern of the author’s in the 1950s—America’s rise to global prominence during World War II, and its loss of power in the years following the peace. In preparing the novel, Dos Passos studied James V. Forrestal, Secretary of Defense from 1947 to 1949. In his notes on the novel, he quotes Forrestal: “to achieve accommodation between the power we now possess, our reluctance to use it positively, the realistic necessity for such use, and our national ideals.”
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The Great Days
By John Dos Passos
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 John Dos Passos
All rights reserved.
The man in the belted raincoat stands hesitant at the top of the gangway. His ears roar. Blinking, he looks out across the colorless dazzle of the airfield towards the row of nondescript sheds and barracks that throw wan shadows in the early light.
This is not what he was remembering. As the press of passengers behind him forces him down the rubberlined steps he is telling himself (you damn fool) that what he was remembering was the old seaplane base and the blue and umber globe in the middle of the bright hall and the glitter of brass and the names of southerly cities: Camaguey, Paramaribo, Belem, Porto Alegre; the sunlight pouring through; and sunscorched friends to meet him: "God it's good to see you, Ro," and the hard grasp of their hands and their eyes admiring and their quizzical words, "Roly the rolling stone," and drinks and sitting easy at tables on the edge of the sunlight in the briny wind off the Gulf Stream and looking out past their laughing faces at the purple shoal water and the horizon capped with cumulus clouds and under the clouds the deep swell of the ocean and the knowledge of islands in the wind's eye.
With his ticket in his hand the man in the belted raincoat shuffles in the queue waiting at the baggage counter. He looks up at the clock on the wall. An hour and forty-five minutes before her plane arrives. Time to pull himself together. He finds himself staring at two suitcases of scuffed English pigskin. They have an alien look but they must be his. There's his name: Roland Lancaster; Hotel Lafayette on the smeared tags. God he's sick of seeing that name on a byline.
Not the only one to be sick of it, says a little spiteful inner voice. They are tearing down the old hotel; every time he publishes anything the critics tear down his poor old name. He hears the spite in his own voice when he asks the attendant about rechecking his bags. Lay off, it's not that guy's fault. The misery he planned to leave behind rises in him like bile. Forlorn. Even five years ago there would have been someone to meet him, the sour face of an aging old crony twisted into a reminiscent smile, or a kid reporter who had gotten up early to ask his slant on the morning's news.
The English raincoat with its heavy lining. Stifling him. That's the trouble. It was snowing last night at La Guardia.
Breakfast. Eat some breakfast and forget it. Breakfast will put the lid on all the old leftover gloom. This is the first breakfast on his trip.
The man in the belted raincoat buys a morning paper and sits down at the lunchcounter and orders fried eggs and bacon from a fagged waitress. When he opens the paper he half expects from the force of old habit to see his name. Hell nobody knows he's here. Wouldn't mean anything to them anymore if they did know.
Easy now ... Hasn't he always entertained the dream of boxing up his old wornout life and sending it to dead storage? And changing his name and moving to another country. A new life from today henceforward. Well? The new girl is flying to meet him. Not doing too badly ... A man can start again at fiftynine, if he's man enough.
Roland Lancaster grins into his coffee cup. He can see Elsa the way she must look right now sitting with her eyes closed in the seat of the humming stratoliner with that sullen puzzled expression he saw on her face under the mop of her red hair when she slept that night on the train.
He drinks down his orange juice.
He is relishing his coffee.
The headlines in the paper fade in his mind as fast as he reads them. For the third time he starts to read the column on a grand jury's indictment of the district attorney for taking money from a syndicate of gamblers.
Half way down the page the print fades ... Is he in love with Elsa or isn't he? She's a strange girl. Too young for him, of course, but so much has happened to her: her hapless marriage has aged her up. Forlorn. She needs him as much as he needs her.
It is not only a question of money. It is his confidence she needs, the ability to put on the dog, that sort of thing. He'll make plenty of money once he gets his grip on the world again. He has always made money. But he will have to tell her how close he is sailing to the wind right now. She isn't a girl who kids herself. The figures $49.50 pop up in his head like the total on a cash register. That's his bank balance. $49.50 was his bank balance after he paid the plane fares and drew out the cash for his trip. At least he isn't overdrawn.
He feels the sour grin spreading across his face. In the old days he was always overdrawn. Didn't matter in the old days with all that money coming in. All his life he'd found ways to make money when he needed it. Would again, but he'd have to be careful. Elsa wasn't extravagant. Still he was a fool to carry his money in cash. Ought to have bought express checks instead of toting that great wad of cash. Buy express checks in Havana, he admonishes himself sagely. He lets his hand slip back to his back trousers pocket to make sure his wallet is still there.
As he sips the last of his coffee his eyes follow the waitress while she limps around behind the saggy counter with a rag in her hand. Her frizzy hair has grown out since it was bleached so that the dark ends show against her head. Bags under her eyes. Crowsfeet. Saggy granulated skin. Fagged. Up too late last night. Middleaged. Forlorn.
Elsa is young and strong, but that's the sort of job she would be taking if she got stranded someplace. That waitress and Elsa they live in the same world.
A gamble, this trip is a gamble for both of them. Maybe he and Elsa will get stranded together.
What would the waitress think if she knew he was sitting there sipping her lousy coffee with three thousand smackers in his pocket? A gamble. Elsa now, Elsa was the kind of girl who'd love a gambling man.
He has to admit to himself he doesn't know too much what kind of a girl she is, not with those kids always around. The old woman who lived in a shoe, he'd teased her about that. Those twins never would go to bed. How did that damned jive artist ever manage to support them all?
... Now for me, the man in the belted raincoat thinks, for me money never was a problem. I never had any trouble supporting Grace or paying Chips' or Louie's college bills for that matter up to the time they flunked out. The trouble was somewhere else, hadn't raised them right, poor little devils. Oh well, the army and navy had taken them over. The Korean war. It was up to Uncle Sam to turn boys into men ...
The waitress is scrutinizing him with a bleary eye. "Another cup of coffee?" she asks. He doesn't answer.
... And Grace's face pale and taut in the hospital bed, her hair a muss on the pillow. "It's because of us, Ro. If we'd turned out right, they would ..."
It was the day before she died.
He winces from the pain. These are the things he went to all this trouble to stop thinking about.
The waitress has her eye on him. She piles his knife and fork and cup and saucer on his eggy plate and brushes the crumbs off the counter with his crumpled paper napkin.
"You sick?" she asks.
He shakes his head.
"I don't mind telling you I am," she says with a sigh.
To get her inquisitive eyes off his face he orders another cup of coffee.
He must keep his mind on Elsa.
He begins to think meticulously back over the last months. They'd never really been alone except that night on the Pennsylvania train in the drawing room when they drank so much whiskey. He was on his way to do the big Chicago article. What a flop that article had been. Damn good article too.
He has finished the coffee.
For the fourth time he tries to read the grand jury's indictment of the district attorney.
He feels too damn miserable.
It would have been so simple just to have died the day the Japs shot up that observation plane over Manila ...
... The black oil from the conked out motor welling over the wing beside me and the thoughtful way the P.R.O. in the next seat kept licking his lips and how quiet we all sat as we passed the heavy belts of ammo back to the gunner who was dropping them out through the bombbay. "I guess they'll throw out the correspondents next," I shouted and somebody repeated it over the intercom and the guys looked grateful to me for breaking up the tension.
God how alive we felt when we tumbled out of the plane onto the steel mesh of Lingayen airstrip and how we laughed in the faces of the men with the fire extinguishers and the ambulance waiting. Alive enough to live a thousand years.
It was after I came home that the misery began ...
The man in the belted raincoat is staring up at the "on time" on the blackboard against the number of the incoming Chicago plane. He has been waiting patiently, hardly anxious at all, but now he is in a dither to see her.
Half afraid, too.
The attendants in their white jumpers are pushing the gangway up against the plane's trembling silver flank while he stands batting his eyes as he leans against the railing looking into the sun.
The door opens. The stewardess smiles at somebody. Inconsequential people come tumbling out, pallid, wintrylooking; Elsa among them, tall and frowsty with her hair over her shoulders. Her hair shines cruelly red in the flailing sun. She is still wearing those canvas sneakers that always look runover. She walks well all the same. A calm even stride.
"Well," she says and puts her hand on his arm. "I didn't sleep a wink. Did you?"
He kisses her but her mouth slips away from his.
"Had any breakfast?"
She puckers her lips.
"An airplane breakfast. I'd just gotten to sleep when a stewardess shoved it under my nose. When do we take off?"
"Ten thirty. Rancho Boyeros in about an hour. Lunch at that place at the beginning of Obispo I keep forgetting the name of."
"Las Delicias?" she asks with a childish pleased smile. He is surprised how well she pronounces the Spanish. "That's where we met Mortimer Price." Her tongue starts rattling. "The great man was very nice to us. Asked us over to his table and everything. Everybody said he'd bite our heads off."
"He likes up and coming young guys."
"Up and coming phew."
She faces him with eyes hard as pebbles. Then quickly she smiles. "And next day we met you. We sure were excited about meeting all the celebrities."
"You were coming out of the elevator in the old Spanish hotel."
He's remembering the skin pink behind the white embroidery of her blouse, the heavy auburn of her hair, the pale brown eyes round like an astonished schoolboy's, the frank "How do you do," the delighted "Imagine meeting you here," the plain handshake like a man's. "Gov said you were staying in the same hotel but I didn't believe him."
Even a year ago she didn't look young; forlorn, rather, Ro's remembering. Behind her came shambling that sallow short young man, with extraordinarily large dark eyes that he kept blinking. Gouverneur Haines. Ro remembers how his first thought was that the guy must be a bloody bore, these young New York characters that get successful too soon.
"This time we'll make the world our oyster." The boom of Ro's voice jars on his own ears as he settles Elsa at a table in the lunchroom. He catches a disapproving smirk on the fagged face of the waitress behind the counter. The waitress's mouth is all pursed up. "Old enough to be her father," that's what the waitress is thinking; and suddenly he sees himself through the waitress's eyes, a sick old fool doddering over a young woman.
"You drink the coffee while I check us in at the counter," he says to Elsa in a tone more peremptory than he intends. "A cup of coffee, please," he tells the waitress defiantly. "For the young lady."
He feels like a travel agent as he strides across the waitingroom ruffling the edges of the tickets through his fingers. He is good at that sort of thing, Lord knows he has had enough practice.
When he sees her two oldfashioned suitcases leaning pathetically together on the scales, the tenderness clutchs at his heart like a hand. They must have belonged to her mother. Not a golddigger's suitcases, not by a long shot. They are the suitcases a Swedish servant girl would land with at Ellis Island.
His eyes are still moist when he starts back towards her. He is thinking about how to tell her about that comic wartime flight with Mortimer to Lisbon, and the old seaplane base, and the Dorchester during the bombings, and wartime Washington, the diagnostic finger on the pulse of power; the days when Key West was still an island and there were all the fish in the sea to catch, all the whiskey in all the pubs to drink, all the grand guys in the world to be friends with. He must kindle that feeling in her, the feeling of great days.
"Gate four in ten minutes," he tells her. His pulse flutters a little with the old giddiness of departure.
She looks up at him with crinkled brows as he leans across the table to pick up the check. "Ro," she asks, "what color was your hair before it turned gray?"
He feels a tenseness in his hands. "You ought to know by this time, kind of reddish." He finds he is snapping his fingers.
"I wish it hadn't been. My husband was a redhead too. Redheads should never take up with each other."
"How about Gov? His hair is black."
Her eyes are those pebbles again. Suddenly there is no light in them. "You needn't have brought that up," she says pouting.
"But Elsa," he starts in a reasoning fatherly tone, "we'll both have to retrace our lives a little. Havana will be full of old footsteps to me. Even for you. After all that was where we first met last year. You were stepping out of that decrepit openwork elevator."
"Thought I looked decrepit, did you?" She's kidding him now. They both begin to laugh. The loudspeaker voice is rattling off the departure of their plane. Arm in arm they hurry out into the sunlight.
The tenderness wells up in him again when he leans over her to fasten her seatbelt. He feels as if tears might come to his eyes. "We've got so much to catch up on," he whispers with his lips against her ear. She doesn't use any perfume. His nostrils fill with the tang of her red hair. He can feel the warmth of her body through the tips of his fingers.
The plane has begun to taxi off across the airfield; she can't hear what he is saying anyway. He grins at her reassuringly. She grins back. There is something quieting and strengthening about the feel of her thigh against his. He needs a woman so. He lays his hand over hers where it lies in her lap. She grasps his hand with her long fingers. It has been years since he has felt happy like this. They are both of them looking out expectantly along the bright surface of the wing.
The motors roar to warm up. The plane shakes. The motors are throttled down. The plane starts to race down the runway into the wind. They are airborne.
For an instant Miami spreads out beyond the end of the wing in pink and white cubes, then flattens to a map on the wall; soon the wing is sweeping the bay sprinkled with toy boats and the fancy architecture of the ranked hotels and the long stretch of beach blurred where the surf is. Then they are levelling off over rippled sea so blue it is purple and looking down on the steamy clouds over the Gulf Stream.
It all crowds back so fast into his head he can't find the place to begin. I must tell her about everything. He must even tell her about Thurloe, Thurloe and Grace; and Mortimer Price. What he doesn't know about Mortimer.
"Remind me to tell you a story about Mortimer," Ro shouts into Elsa's ear. The tangle of her red hair tickles his nose as she turns her face towards his with an uncomprehending smile. She hardly seems to know who he is. She too is deep in some reverie. "No use trying to talk," he goes on lamely, "just jangles your vocal chords."
A couple of minutes later, he is the travel agent again. He points past her short nose towards the curved reach of mottled land and water, colored like the contours in a geography book, white and yellow and muddy green with streaks of bright green darkening to blue where the channels are. "Those are the Florida Keys," he shouts.
It is like falling, like falling deep in a dream, the way the words open a pit of memory as he speaks them: the Florida Keys ...
Excerpted from The Great Days by John Dos Passos. Copyright © 1958 John Dos Passos. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
John Roderigo Dos Passos (1896–1970) was a writer, painter, and political activist. He wrote over forty books, including plays, poetry, novels, biographies, histories, and memoirs. He crafted over four hundred drawings, watercolors, and other artworks. Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He preferred the moniker of “chronicler” because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction. Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”—and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of songs, newsreels, biographies, third-person fictional narrative, and first-person semi-autobiographical narrative snapshots to convey the frenzy of America’s industrialism and urbanism in the twentieth century. His most memorable fiction—Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the U.S.A. trilogy (1938)—possesses the authority of history and the allure of myth. Likewise, he sought to vitalize nonfiction history and reportage with the colors, sounds, and smells documented on his journeys across the globe.
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