Bow Down, Bow Down

Dweeb definitionThe slang word “dweeb”, I’m guessing, did not exist when Louis Auchincloss wrote The Rector of Justin. Now that we have that word, we can make it one of the choices for describing the major narrator of the novel.

If instead we are feeling flush with word-money and in the mood to pay for a more elegant term, the sort of word we might find wearing a white tie and holding a glass of champagne, let’s say that Brian, the narrator, is a pathetic sycophant. Or yet again, let’s drag out some literary hardware, build a suitable metaphor, and stand that up in public. Then we can say that Brian, a man in his early 20s, could well be described as an anxious elderly woman, looking timidly around her and unsure of what to do. In his own words, Brian “trembles” sometimes from the emotion of speaking to someone.

Yeah, that Brian. He’s not very likeable, but he’s also not the main character, just the narrator. We do learn things about Brian, because the book is written in first person, and the novel is somewhat framed as the story of how Brian comes to work at the private boys school called Justin Martyr, how he eventually goes to seminary, and then returns to work at the school.

But the real subject of the book is Dr. Prescott, who created the school and runs it for most of the book. We see Prescott as a young man with an ambition to create a school, and we see a few incidents when he is in his prime, but for most of the book he is elderly and the book ends with his death. Dr. Prescott is the Rector of Justin Martyr, thus the title of the book.

An approach used by Auchincloss in this book is to tell the entire story through the writings of various characters. Each person tells their piece of the story, relating their own interaction with Dr. Prescott. They speak in first person and talk about themselves, yet since their subject is always Prescott, his story—the real story—is told in third person as they talk about him. I think it is clever that Auchincloss used a series of first-person narratives to tell a story in third person.

Soon after the beginning of the novel, Brian comes to adore Dr. Prescott, which seems to be the core of the book. Consider this sentence from Brian’s journal, written after Prescott has retired: “It was as if God had paused and withdrawn to a misty mountain-top to see how man will manage his creation.” Maybe you don’t find Brian’s attitude revolting. Some people apparently don’t. I wondered where the author could be going with that sort of thing. Satire, perhaps. A subtle condemnation of Brian’s irritating sucking up, perhaps. But no, no satisfying smacking of this pusillanimous puppy occurs.

In fact, as irritating as it becomes to read about Brian’s obsequious worship of the Rector, it turns out that every important character in the book is completely obsessed with Dr. Prescott. Granted, not every character wallows in adulation the way Brian does. Two characters speak of Dr. Prescott very negatively—but positive or negative, one gets the feeling that every person in the book thinks of almost nothing else but him. One character even hates the Rector as much as other characters adore him, but the sick obsession is exactly the same.

I read a discussion suggesting that the author, Louis Auchincloss, followed in the tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James. I could see both of those comparisons. Wharton wrote about the extremely wealthy parasite class in New York around the 1890s, and although The Rector of Justin partially takes place during World War II, there are references to “old New York” and “old Boston”, and there is a very strong feeling in this book of class and wealth. The comparison to Henry James I would see partly based on style, with a meticulous parsing of psychological nuances. Unlike James, however, Auchincloss creates characters who actually breathe air and seem alive.

Though I didn’t like the story or the characters here, I can see that Auchincloss is a skilled and capable writer. He can create characters and he can move a story forward using imaginative techniques. He is also quite good with language, with a style that may be a little fussy for some readers, but his writing is elegant and erudite. I’ll try to illustrate why I think so with a couple of quoted examples: (1) “Soon, only too soon, reality will burst the walls and swell the gutters of the school to boiling livid streams, but the interim is ours and is not the interim as real as reality?” (2) “That morning he took his text from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and he described amusingly the natural exasperation of those who had borne the heat and burden of the day only to receive the same wage as the Johnny-come-latelies of the afternoon.”

Though my overall reaction to the book has been largely negative, you don’t need to trust me. This book was loved by people who publish in better places than I ever have. A review in The New Yorker said of the novel that “Its poise and taste and intelligence strike one on every page…” From the New York Observer we read that this novel is “a certifiable masterpiece”.

Not to me it ain’t. Maybe you will like it better.

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