#193: LIGHTING OUT. It’s what I think of as the Huck Finn motif. In its contemporary form, the world at large expects you to take a job at your earliest maturity, stay at it until retirement, concentrate on making a lot of money (the more the better) and hack away towards the naked accumulation of more and more stuff (the more the better). The Huck Finn character is the troubling person who looks at this model and says, with varying degrees of politeness and vehemence, no, thanks, none for me. (Huck himself famously ends talking about “lighting out for the territories” to get away from all these courtesies and tablecloths.) In some cases this is all tied up with an idea of taking time—a certain amount of time, or maybe leaving that open-ended—and staying outside the system to think, read, travel and figure out “what it’s all about.” Younger people now, surviving in the gig economy, will probably find this synopsis a little strange; they may not realize how long and with what monolithic strength this model operated in the U.S. for most of the twentieth century. For a short while the postwar counterculture spoke seriously, even passionately, about transforming society as a whole—a short while, as I mentioned, before things closed down again, though its influence has lingered. Usually the figure opting out has been a male; but now we see women (and female characters in books and movies) going to ashrams, winning sailing contests, pursuing artistic careers, postponing or skipping marriage and procreation. The times they are still a-changing, if slowly.
You could approach the 1938 film of Philip Barry’s play “Holiday,” directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, from a lot of different angles. By this time you’re into the thick of screwball comedy, and it was one step as well of seeing Cukor help both Grant and Hepburn form their comic personae, though what seems classic now was not financially successful at the time. Watch the earlier (1930) film version and you can hone your eye for how movies got loose from the stage conventions of the time. Etc., etc., down to the intensity of Hepburn’s playing of the scenes with her character’s alcoholic, troubled brother (“I’ll be back for you, my fine bucko.”); the suicide of Hepburn’s own brother was a formative tragedy in her life. But Grant’s entirely personal combination of physical eagerness with emotional hesitancy makes his Johnny Case, the Huck figure here, both believable and touching. His intelligent, working-class character wants to take a year or two off—to “try to find out who I am and what goes on, and what about it?”—and his wealthy fiancée and her father are determined to install him instead into a pre-planned honeymoon, job, house and life. It’s all played lightly enough, the interaction of Hepburn and Grant bring the theme visually to conviction, and it ends happily, with a somersault and an embrace. But “Holiday” leaves a faint melancholy behind it; things skate awfully close to unhappiness, not everyone escapes, and there’s something malignant glinting in all that insistent conformity.
In W. Somerset Maugham’s late novel The Razor’s Edge (1944), the Huck motif reappears as Larry Darrell, the central character in a complex and involving group portrait. Like Johnny Case, Larry is attempting to avoid ending up trapped behind a desk; he wants to study (he is a voracious reader), to think, and intends to pick up physical-labor jobs as he goes along to pay his bills. To his friends’ plans for him he declines with thanks, and goes on, maddeningly to them, pretty much to succeed in his plans; he ends up in India, studying Vedanta. Fully as much as Larry, the novel is about the reactions of those around him: Isabel, his rueful once-fiancee and pursuant, who discovers that she doesn’t want to be Mary Magdalen to Larry’s Jesus Christ; Gray Maturin, a rich businessman’s son who marries Isabel, a well-meaning bufflehead plagued with bankruptcy and migraines; Suzanne, the amiable opposite to Larry’s idealist, who keeps a very friendly relationship with the main chance; Sophie, a self-destructive woman with her own appointments; the narrator, cunningly and deceptively identified as Maugham himself; and, finally, Elliott Templeton, Isabel’s kindly and generous uncle, a snob of Proustian proportions, who dies convinced he “shall move in the best society in heaven.”
What’s wonderful here, quite aside from the fluency of Maugham’s nimble, confident storytelling (and despite the fact that his American dialogue is no more convincing than Johnny Case’s unidentifiable mid-Atlantic accent) is the complexity of the characters, whom Maugham layers with restless, constantly revised shading, and the resultant depiction of Jean Renoir’s wonderful epigram (from “Rules of the Game”) that “everyone has their reasons.” Larry’s polite but stubborn refusal to play by the other characters’ rules is what fascinates and frustrates them; it’s the engine of the book, and what pushes the other characters to define themselves, like a locked-room mystery with one of its characters as the mystery to be solved. It’s deft, satisfying, and written by a man who has long mastered his craft. Read it before you light out yourself.