Category Archives: Cues Pulitzer Reviews

Arrowsmith; Sinclair Lewis

Review by Moira Cue

Moira Cue is an award winning fine artist, singer, songwriter, and art and literature editor of The Hollywood Sentinel, who is reviewing every Pulitzer Prize winning novel ever written. 

If any Pulitzer Prize winning novel has lessons in particular for 2020, it is Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, written as a sort of exploration of if not outright homage to the science of epidemiology (loosely translated, the study of epidemics). It was published in 1925, not long after what was then referred to as the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (now referred to as the 1918 flu or an H1N1 flu outbreak) that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Sinclair Lewis is known today by animal rights activists as an early expose of the meatpacking industry for a previous novel, The Jungle, published in 1906. The book was intended as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the labor movement,” but what Americans reacted to was the treatment of animals and the unsanitary conditions described, rather than the treatment of workers. The book led to major reforms. We can only imagine what he would think about today’s factory farming and slaughterhouses.

Sinclair Lewis, a socialist, rejected the Pulitzer Prize awarded for Arrowsmith in 1926. In his non-acceptance speech, he decried the phony morality of the prize. Some speculate his piquant vitriol was merely a veneer for sour grapes over a previous snub.

The book’s protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, is a self-involved chauvinist. Hardly an anomaly among Pulitzer Prize winning novels (cough *John Updike*). In college he simultaneously dates two women; the self-effacing doormat Leora and a high society girl named Madeline. In fact he goes so far as to propose to both, and then invite them both to lunch together to let him fight it out. In other words, he is a classic narcissist:

He was grim. He could do it now, if he got over it quickly. “Madeline! Brought you two together because—Don’t know whether you cotton to each other or not, but I wish you could, because I’ve—I’m not making any excuses for myself. I couldn’t help it. I’m engaged to both of you, and I want to know—“

Madeline had sprung up. She had never looked quite so proud and fine. She stared at them, and walked away, wordless. She came backed, and touched Leora’s shoulder, and quietly kissed her. “Dear, I’m sorry for you. You’ve got a job! You poor baby!”

And that settled that little triangle, after which Leora mentions that she’s not very important and that he only loves her because she lets him bully her. It is a marriage of a Very Important Man (a doctor and scientist) and a long-suffering, self-sacrificing nurse who makes him sandwiches while he studies and praises his brilliance endlessly.

If Arrowsmith’s marriage(s) were the only subject of this novel, it wouldn’t be worth reading,  much less Pulitzer-worthy. But the doctor/research scientist is even more in love with pure scientific inquiry than he is himself. And that is the book’s redeeming virtue.

As fiction, the book’s structure and tone could have served as a model for the 1997 Pulitzer winner set in the same time period, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: Tale of an American Dreamer. Both books center on a larger than life protagonist (both Martins) who “jumps the shark” around 75% into the third act of the book. In other words, the narrative piles fantasy on top of grandiosity, and veers into the satirical, farcical absurd. Martin Dressler builds a hotel that makes Mall of America and the Versailles of Florida look minimal and subdued. Martin Arrowsmith cures a tropical plague (which unfortunately puts Leora out of her subservient misery) and is conveniently free to marry a wealthy socialite who funds his research laboratory with millions in love money. Of course, he jilts her too, because she wanted him to be “present” and he prefers to work in isolation, in a backwoods cabin, rather than be interrupted by tennis matches.

One of the sections I find most engaging and realistic is when Leora and Martin move to Nautilus, where Martin accepts a position within the small town Department of Public Health. (Throughout the book, Dr. Arrowsmith is pulled between two halves of his great passion, the “real practice” of medicine, and the “pure theory” of research. At every step he is countered by corruption; big money, small minds, provincialism and capitalism.) Describing the fictional town of Nautilus, Sinclair writes,

            “Iowa has the richest land, the lowest illiteracy rate, the largest percentage of native-born whites and motor car owners, and the most moral and forward-looking of all the States, and Nautilus is the most Iowan city of Iowa.”

To Arrowsmith’s credit, he hates it there. He refers to his boss, Dr. Pickerbaugh, as “the worst poet who ever lived” and says he knows “less about epidemiology than I thought any one man could ever learn.” Less to his credit, he fantasizes about Pickerbaugh’s teen-aged daughter, Orchid.

Luckily for Martin, Dr. Pickerbaugh makes a successful run for Congress despite lawn signs that read:

            For Congress

            PICKERBAUGH

            The two-fisted fighting poet doc

            Just elect him for a term

            And all through the nation he’ll swat the germ.

Luckily for Leora, Orchid goes to Washington with her father without ever getting much farther than batting her eyelashes at Dr. Arrowsmith. In Pickerbaugh’s absence, Arrowsmith is appointed the Acting Director of Public Health of Nautilus.

Once Arrowsmith takes over the Department, he changes it completely, believing his predecessor to have spent half his time making inspirational speeches. He wants to record race and socio-economic conditions of all newborn babies as part of an effort to track the effects of poverty and living conditions on the spread of disease. He “makes his first mistake” assigning his assistant to work in the free clinic, which upsets the “good” citizens of the town who don’t want public health officials supporting “freeloaders .” He is also responsible for the routine work of quarantines and anti-tuberculosis placards. Unlike his predecessor he worried about the killing of rats and fleas. And unlike his predecessor he was obsessed with his own research. He accidentally discovers that the maximum production of hemolysin (a substance in the blood that destroys red blood cells) was between four and ten hours. But his research is interrupted by the favorable court ruling granting him authority to tear down a row of tenement slums (owned by an unscrupulous but politically-connected woman) that were breeding grounds for TB. This is one incident that begins a domino effect of other social faux-pas that lead to Martin becoming very unpopular (he is referred to as The Schoolboy Czar). And once the narrow-minded public rejects him, he has to leave town and seek work at a research institute.

The idea of public health being a role that government should be responsible for is not as old as the Constitution itself; it is only about as old as the Pulitzer Prize. The moralizing, cynicism, and contempt for society that Sinclair (a Socialist) shows notwithstanding, this is a novel that has been beloved for decades by medical students because the real hero isn’t Martin Arrowsmith, it’s the possibility of medicine to cure disease. Whether you are an anti-vaxxer or a World Health Organization devotee in the mold of Bill Gates, or somewhere in between, this book makes medicine interesting. Sinclair is facile with ideas. He shows us that issues we think of as contemporary; such as the debate over public health versus personal freedom, the role of money and politics in pharmaceutical research, and understanding and stopping the spread of communicable diseases, have a history that goes back to the turn of the twentieth century. Much of what science has set out to do—eliminate germs through antibiotics, eliminate viruses through vaccines, etc.—comes with a Pandora’s box of ethical conflict and the ability of the microscopic to evade our weapons.

(c) 2020, Hollywood Sentinel, by Moira Cue. Visit the artwork of Moira at  https://www.MoiraCue.com 

The Sympathizer

Art and literature editor of Hollywood Sentinel, Moira Cue is reviewing, in no particular order, every Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel ever written. An award winning artist, Moira was an undergraduate and graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

PAVN forces. US Army, US Army, Command and General Staff College, Combined Arms Research Library, Center for Military History: Vietnam Studies, (DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY, WASHINGTON, D. C., 1989) Public Domain: courtesy of Wikicommons.

The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

It took me two days to read “The Sympathizer,” the debut novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen, recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. If there was a film noir set in Vietnam and Los Angeles during the liberation of Saigon and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it would be based on this book. Like in film noir, this story is chock full of seedy characters, double-crossing lovers, homicides, and moral ambiguity. The protagonist is a Communist sympathizer who serves the Revolution as a mole to a Vietnamese general. He learns, from a CIA agent named Claude, how to torture suspected Communist agents.

The book is written as a long flashback confessional (a technique which lends itself to cinematic expression). We know that the nameless author has been caught and exposed. All that remains to be seen is how things went wrong, and if he will escape his captors. He is not a good guy, but, like a tough talking, quick-tempered Humphry Bogart character, he emanates cool. You root for him, but at the same time, you keep thinking “he’s gone too far this time,” a little like Walter White in “Breaking Bad.”

The narrator was the love child of a teenaged maid and a French priest. Vietnamese society never let him forget he was second class. His two best friends from childhood were the only people who mattered to him because they stood up for him when a childhood bully taunted him about his mother and father. Later on Bon, an American émigré’ who volunteers to assassinate suspected Viet Cong, and Man, who mentors the author in revolutionary ideology, take opposite sides (although Bon doesn’t know it, because Man, like the author, is undercover).

The plot becomes increasingly surreal as the author struggles with being two different people—an Occidental and an Oriental, expressing far-right ideology, while in actuality, a closet Communist.

While I won’t indulge in any spoilers, I will say that the book also reminds me of two my other favorite Pulitzer Prize winners, “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” which also covers the post-war Vietnamese diaspora, and “The Orphanmaster’s Son,” set in North Korea, which illustrates the traumatic effect of state-sponsored, systemic human rights violations. Very dark, rapid paced, super smart, and sometimes, unexpectedly funny, this is a book you won’t want to put down once you pick it up.

This content is ©2019, Hollywood Sentinel, Moira Cue, all world rights reserved. Visit www.MoiraCue.com

 

Executioner’s Song

Art and literature editor of Hollywood Sentinel, Moira Cue is reviewing, in no particular order, every Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel ever written. An award winning artist, Moira was an undergraduate and graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Portrait of Norman Mailer
The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer, is one of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels (or works of fiction) that later became a movie, although, in this case, it was a television movie (with Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Emmy).

At a whopping 879 pages, it will take on average 23 hours to read (at 250 words per minute)—just slightly shorter than the 28.5 hours it would take the same reader to complete the 960 page Gone With The Wind. As super long novels usually go, it’s epic, and contains several periods of time that in and of themselves have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

What makes this story unusual is that the book is not just fiction. It’s docu-fiction, a hybrid of documentary and fiction. The style is like that of many novels, but it is based on a true story, and took months of research.

Fun Fact: The slogan “Just Do It,” which you may associate with Nike running shoes, was inspired by a vicious double murderer, named Gary Gilmore, executed by the State of Utah in 1977. Gary not only inspired an executive to create an ad slogan that was later trademarked by Nike, but he inspired Norman Mailer to write this book that won the Pulitzer, despite its macabre topic and criticism of glorifying violence and criminality. The character created by Mailer is sympathetic, while the victims of his murders, both LDS (Mormon) are treated contemptuously. Despite its moral flaws, the book is an addictive read, and, if you’re like me, you’ll ignore other obligations just to squeeze in a few more pages.

Gilmore was a politically relevant person because he was the first person executed for murder by the United States (in 1977) after the reinstatement of the death penalty (in 1966, after a period of approximately ten years). As such he became an unwitting celebrity. (On December 11, 1976, Saturday Night Live host Candice Bergen and the cast sang a Christmas-themed medley, entitled “Let’s Kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas.” After his death, he would also inspire punk banks and rock stars, playwrights, and avant-garde artists.

But Norman Mailer’s work is probably the most extensively based on interviews with friends and family before, during, and immediately after the circus leading up to the execution. The book sometimes reads like a newspaper expose. The language conveys a sense of motion, of an unstoppable something that led to Gilmore’s violent outbursts and became a surreal circus. It is a period piece, full of late seventies, early post-everything cynicism. The anti-hero becomes the hero.

Gilmore’s history included a childhood of delinquency and an early burglary. He spent so much of his life in institutions and jails that when he was released after serving 13 years for armed burglary, at the age of 35, he essentially needed to be cared for by sponsors (a cousin in Utah). He was emotionally younger than his age and had very little real-life experience with women. It was his relationship with Nicole Baker, a troubled 19 year old, that eventually pushed him over the edge. He killed a gas station clerk and motel clerk after their relationship fell apart. Back in prison, he was obsessive, poetic, and still wrapped up with Nicole. Almost as if the murders were to get her attention.

As a reader, you are manipulated by Mailer into caring about Gary the Celebrity, even as you see how the machinery of cultural distrust, anti-establishment ethos, and media hyperbole turned a sick, dysfunctional psychopath into a hero. You’re behind the curtain, which is less surreal and more ugly—but you find yourself caught up in the hype even though you know better, much like Mailer himself must’ve felt writing the story of a killer-turned unwitting Romantic nihilist icon.

This content is ©2018, Hollywood Sentinel, Moira Cue, all world rights reserved. Visit www.MoiraCue.com