Thursday, June 7, 2012

Manhattan Transfer

A terrific book, absolutely terrific, with writing so energetic it's as fresh today as when it first appeared in 1925, and its message so relevant it could serve as a manifesto for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The novel takes place in NYC early in the 20th century when America was being flooded by millions of European immigrants. It begins with the birth of Ellen Thatcher who grows up to become a chorus girl. At age 18 she marries John Oglethorpe, a flamboyant thespian, in order to advance her career. Once he has guided her to early success on Broadway, she discards him for the company of more influential people.

She has an affair with Stanwood Emery, son of a senior partner in the law firm of Emery & Emery. Stan is a social parasite, a reckless fun-loving alcoholic who in a drunken moment deliberately immolates himself, leaving Ellen pregnant with his child.

The war intervenes, after which she reappears with a baby and a new husband, Jimmy Herf, who was a friend of Stan. She has given up acting and works for a magazine under the byline Helena Herf, a change in direction that Jimmy, a reporter, presumably helped with. She divorces him and agrees to marry George Baldwin, a womanizing lawyer with Emery & Emery. He`s just been appointed DA and has political ambitions.

Although Ellen, Jimmy, and George are the main characters who propel the plot forward, they are sometimes almost lost from view due to a mob of minor characters ranging from the ruthless rich to the starving poor. The view of NYC is kaleidoscopic as the book jumps from character to character, sometimes slipping into the present tense and shifting without warning between narration and inner thoughts, and offering up slangy dialogue, pungent smells, menacing policemen, clanging fire engines racing to and fro, and newspaper headlines clamouring for attention. Whew!


Reading this book I was reminded of Kerouac's prose and Carl Sandburg's “Chicago" and the poetry of e.e. cummings, who was a friend of Dos Passos and fellow ambulance driver in WWI. Each chapter begins with a brief prose poem, while the text throughout eschews apostrophes (dont, mustnt, hustlin) and rams words together giving them a strange appearance (hairyhoofed, illassorted, accordionpleated, fireengines) and sometimes elevating them into neologisms (neckshave, hungersniff, hushdope, antlerhung).

People are described so vividly they seem illuminated by a flashbulb and frozen in place like images in a comic strip panel:

his face sleek as an olive
a policeman's ballbearing eyes
hats aslant on perspiring necks
a rawboned man with big sagging eyes like oysters
decks packed with upturned faces like a load of melons
a man in a checked cap with a face knobbed like a squash
his small brown eyes measure her face like antennae as he talks to her

Adding to the comic book effect are the many signs, sound effects, snatches of songs, and snippets of fractured English, all of them giving the impression of NYC as a "city of scrambled alphabets:"

Oh I'm juss wild about Harree

Say why de hell doan yous guys loin English?
The wheels rumbled in her head saying Man-hattan Tran-sfer. Man-hattan Tran-sfer
Diddledump, going south, Diddledump, going south sing the wheels...


Jazzy Keroucian passages communicate the city's sprawl and rush.

In the crammed subway car the messenger boy was pressed up against the back of a tall blond woman who smelled of Mary Garden. Elbows, packages, shoulders, buttocks, jiggled closer with every lurch of the screeching express. His sweaty Western Union cap was knocked onto the side of his head. If I could have a dame like dat, a dame like dat'd be wort havin de train stalled, de lights go out, de train wrecked. I could have her if I had de noive and de jack. As the train slowed up she fell against him, he closed his eyes, didnt breathe, his nose was mashed against her neck. The train stopped. He was carried in a rush of people out the door.


The book is divided into three parts, in each of which there is a fire and a death. Bud Korpenning, a starving man with a horrible secret leaps off a bridge at the end of the first section. Stan Emery sets himself on fire near the end of the second section. Phineas Blackhead, a corrupt businessman, dies of a heart attack near the end of the book.

In the final chapter, "The Burthen of Nineveh," Dos Passos takes off his gloves and shows us what he really thinks of society's high-flyers. So far George has been portrayed as a shallow philanderer, but when Ellen keeps him waiting for 45 minutes, he "wanted to go up to her and hit her in the face."

Ellen, who has not been entirely unsympathetic, completes her transformation into a cold and heartless person. When George asks her to marry him, she says, "I guess I can stand it if you can." When a fire breaks out out at Mme Soubrine's and she sees a worker with "a seared black red face, horrible naked head," she coolly informs the other patrons that nothing serious has occured.

Later they have a dinner engagement with a "fishfaced" judge who has just sentenced a man and his girlfriend to 20 years for armed robbery. In rendering his judgement he speaks righteously of "dooty" and the "constitootion." The man is a war veteran, flat broke and unable to find work, his girlfriend pregnant.

When Blackhead dies, his servant immediately walks up to him and spits in his face.

Manhattan Transfers

The emptiness of the American dream is epitomized by a number of transformations. There is the downfall of Blackhead, and the rise to prominence of Ellen Thatcher who becomes Elaine Oglethorpe, then Helena Herf, and finally the future Mrs. George Baldwin. A French sailor known as Congo Jake starts out as a barkeep and makes a fortune as a bootlegger. He changes his name to Armand Duval (aka the Marquis des Colummiers) and marries Nevada Jones (aka California Jones), a former lover of George Baldwin. The prospect of several months in jail does not concern him because he will return to society as a millionaire.

The book ends with a reverse transformation. Jimmy Herf grew up in the Ritz, refused to follow a career path offered by rich relatives, the Merivales. Now he turns his back on NYC and leaves on foot with 3 cents in his pocket.