Thursday, 2 October 2014

IRWIN SHAW The Troubled Air (1951)

Random House first US edition, 1951

'Wait a minute,' Archer said, puzzled.  'I haven't done anything.  Nobody's accused me of anything.'
  'Not yet.'  Hutt came around from his desk and put his hand lightly and in a friendly manner on Archer's elbow.  He seemed dapper and insignificant standing up, away from the cold bulwark of his desk.  'But if you become known as a partisan of an unpopular group for whatever innocent reasons –– you must expect to have the searchlight put on you.  Your reasons will be investigated – everything about you will be investigated.  People you've forgotten for ten years will come up with damaging misquotations, memories, doubtful documents.  Your private life will be scrutinized, your foibles will be presented as sins, your errors as crimes.  Archer, listen to me'  Hutt's voice sank even lower and it was hard for Archer to hear him even though he was standing next to him.  'Nobody can stand investigation.  Nobody.  If you think you can you must have led your life in deep freeze for the last twenty years.  If there were a saint alive today, two private detectives and a newspaper columnist could damn him to hell if they wanted to, in the space of a month.'  Hutt dropped his hand from Archer's arm and smiled, to show he was through being serious.  'There is a motto,' he said, 'I am thinking of putting up over the doorway here –– "When in doubt, disappear." ' 

The Novel:  With the exception of a full head of hair, Clement Archer has everything that a man of forty-five could apparently ever want or need.  A former college history professor and failed playwright turned successful radio director, he's as respected by his number-crunching network bosses as he is by the actors and technicians it's his daily task to manage, rehearse and supervise.  He has a charming and ebullient wife named Kitty who's expecting their second (very late) child and an eighteen year old daughter named Jane who's beginning to attract attention as both a beautiful young woman and an actress of great if untested promise.  University Town, the syndicated program he directs, is a hit and has been for years, with its star Vic Herres – who's also his best friend, a former student who convinced him to abandon his mediocre academic career to try his luck in New York –– consistently topping the polls as one of the most popular radio actors of his generation.

But this is 1950, a time in American life when nobody in the arts –– indeed, in any industry –– can afford to take their success or its trouble-free continuation for granted.  The Cold War is barely five years old and the government's obsession with rooting out and exposing Communists and anyone even remotely suspected of harboring Communist sympathies has already destroyed the lives of several of Archer's longtime colleagues in the entertainment business.  There are Reds lurking everywhere, it seems, and their numbers and influence keep increasing by the day.  Five of these alleged 'traitors to democracy' even work on University Town, their voices heard by unsuspecting millions when the program is beamed out live across the nation every Thursday night.  Archer is given a list – a list which includes the name Vic Herres – and instructed by Leonard Hutt, the despotic head of the network, to fire them because they've been publicly named as 'Commies' by Blueprint, a reactionary scandal sheet funded and published by a group of wealthy so-called 'patriots.'

Whatever his faults, Archer is, first and foremost, a man of principle.  Realizing that unemployment and the very real prospect of never working in their respective professions again awaits the actors and the composer who have served him so loyally and well for so many years, he asks for and receives a two week grace period from Hutt's cringing subordinate O'Neill – time he intends to use to do his own checking into the personal and political backgrounds of the people whose lives they expect him to callously ruin.

Instead of resolving the issue, Archer's investigations plunge him into an ever-deepening morass of political, moral and personal confusion.  Frances Motherwell, his leading lady, freely admits to being a Communist, citing the effects of the Depression and a wartime romance with a doomed but idealistic pilot as her motives for joining the party.  His acerbic black comedian, Stanley Atlas, acts cagey with him, refusing to admit to any specific Communist affiliation while refusing to specifically deny such an affiliation either.  Herres, when confronted with the information the network has uncovered about his past, adopts a stoic attitude to the idea of having his career destroyed on the basis of what amounts to not much more than hearsay and a lot of uncorroborated speculation.  

The most pitiable cases, however, are those of Alice Weller, an aging bit-part actress whose only 'act of treason' was to speak at a post-war peace conference, and Manfred Pokorny, an Austrian-born Jewish composer who was a member of his homeland's Communist Party for two weeks in 1922 – an affiliation he subsequently denied in order to gain entry to the United States after fleeing from the Nazis.  It's for these people that Archer feels the most compassion and, in a sense, the greatest sense of responsibility.  If the genuinely innocent are to be roped in with the fence-sitters and the self-confessed guilty, then where, if anywhere, can the line be drawn between traitor and 'loyal, patriotic American.'  And what of Herres, his wife Nancy and their two young sons?  How will they be affected by this slander and the damage it's bound to do to Herres' artistic reputation and what, until now, has been his flourishing career?

Signet Books, c 1952
Archer is distracted from his brooding by a plea from Pokorny –– fat, unhealthy, shy and unfailingly polite –– to borrow $200 from him so his lawyer can fly to Chicago and collect an affidavit from a former musical associate which might prevent him being deported back to Austria.  Archer lends Pokorny the money, just as he has lent Alice Weller and another disgraced journalist friend named Burke money, motivated as much by guilt as by the desire to see the poor, apparently friendless composer at last clear his name.  But Pokorny's plan, always a gamble, backfires, with the friend in Chicago – fearful for his own future as a fellow immigrant –– refusing to sign the affidavit, meaning that Pokorny will almost certainly be stripped of his US citizenship and deported.  A visit to the Pokorny home, where Archer encounters and is abused by the composer's openly Communist wife, only serves to worsen what's now become an intolerable situation for everybody.  

Feeling he must do more to help, Archer returns to the Pokorny apartment after dinner one night only to find the composer dead in his bath from an overdose of sleeping pills.  The next day a weary and depressed Archer finds himself becoming the scapegoat and the focal point of hatred for card-carrying party members like Mrs Pokorny and for patriots like Hutt and Sandler, whose company sponsors University Town and has begun to feel the pinch as its still unproven links to 'the Communist menace' begin to affect its reputation and, even worse, its profits.

At the same time, Archer's personal life begins to unravel.  Kitty challenges him about the money he gave Pokorny and the others – money they can ill afford to lose with the prospect of him losing his own job now a distinct possibility – while Jane disappoints him by taking up with Dominic Barbante, the cynical writer of University Town and a well-known ladies' man.  Suddenly, the life Archer has enjoyed and taken for granted for so many years is gone, leaving in its place bitterness, suspicion, recrimination and fear.  Offered the chance to speak at a rally designed to unite the Communists and non-Communists against their common foe the US Government, he's at first reluctant to accept, afraid that doing so will further undermine his already shaky position with the network and its outraged sponsor.  Yet his conscience refuses to allow him to remain silent and –– following yet another bitter fight with Kitty during which she accuses him of being the dupe of Vic Herres and of being secretly in love with Vic's wife Nancy –– he appears at the rally, speaking to a mostly hostile crowd who either despise him for being too weak to save the helpless Pokorny or too uncooperative to save himself, the entertainment industry and, by implication, the country as a whole.

When Frances Motherwell, now converted back to the 'true path' of capitalism courtesy of Hutt, steps up to the microphone and begins to rattle off a long list of what she claims are undeniable proofs of Archer's Communist sympathies, he can do nothing but get up and leave the auditorium, aware, as a crying Nancy Herres follows him out to the elevator, that the information the self-serving and probably half-insane Motherwell has based her accusations on could have come from one source and one source only –– his best friend Vic Herres.

Nancy confirms this assumption as they trudge through the wintry New York streets together.  Although she still loves her husband and has resigned herself to staying with him no matter what, this doesn't prevent her from describing him to Archer as a fanatical Communist, somebody perfectly willing to sacrifice 'little things like a friend or a wife for the future of the world.'  Vic has used Archer, she explains, in the same ruthless fashion he used Motherwell and the dead composer Pokorny – as pawns in a game he's determined his side must win at any cost.  'Forget him,' Nancy urges before she and Archer part for what they both realize, sadly, will be the final time.  'Write him off.  Don't see me.  Wipe us all out.  Please.'  Hurt and disillusioned, Archer arrives home to find his daughter trying to console herself for losing Barbante to an older woman (which shows just how much relationships have changed since 1951) and Kitty sleeping in the spare room to punish him for speaking at the rally and jeopardizing whatever may be left of their now far from certain future.

The next day Archer is summoned back to Hutt's office, where he's all but flayed alive by his boss and by the equally irate Sandler for speaking at the rally despite them having expressly forbidden him to do so.  Hutt makes it clear that his failure to cooperate means the end of his career in radio, perhaps the end of his career as anything except a politically unsound 'fellow traveler.'  Archer, fully aware of this and more or less resigned to it after everything he's been subjected to so far, surprises himself by telling them both to go to hell and punching Hutt in his smug, well-fed face – an impulsive act that does nothing to aid his cause and forces a chastened and apologetic O'Neill to drag him from the room.  It's while he's speaking with O'Neill in the latter's office, listening to O'Neill's attempts to justify his own cowardly behavior as Hutt's hatchet man, that he receives a call from his daughter, telling him that Kitty has unexpectedly gone into labor.  Forgetting his own problems, he races to the hospital, answering O'Neill's offer to call him if he ever needs anything with the intentionally ironic question: 'Just what do you mean by anything?

Archer arrives at the hospital to find his wife in an immense amount of pain and literally fighting for her life.  Their child, a son, is born a few hours later, but Archer is told that the chances of the child surviving are minimal at best.  True to the doctor's word, the boy dies within a few hours – an event which, while undeniably tragic, has the positive effect of reuniting him with Kitty and showing the latter how foolish she was to have placed her needs above those of persecuted individuals like Pokorny, Alice Weller and her own, unfairly maligned husband.  Leaving Kitty to sleep, Archer goes downstairs where he's confronted by Vic Herres, who has sought him out in a vain attempt to explain his reasons for betraying him.  

The two men talk, with Herres making many intelligent points about the irrelevance of ideas like 'treason' and 'betrayal' in a world that refuses to save itself from the atomic bomb and continues to place profit and the economic stimulus that is modern mechanized warfare above the idea of bettering the lot of the common man.  'America is immune to everything,' he zealously informs the still skeptical Archer, 'including Fascism and the common cough, because God loves us so much.  Let me tell you something about America.  We're the most dangerous people in the world because we're mediocre.  Mediocre, hysterical and vain We can't bear the thought that anybody anywhere else might be more advanced or more intelligent or better organized or be closer to the true faith than we are –– and we're ready to knock down a hundred cities in one night to stifle our own doubts.  We're the ruin-bringers.  We lick our chops, waiting for the moment to start the planes off the runways.  All over the world when people hear the word America, they spit.  We call it freedom and we'll stuff it down their throats like hot lead if we have to.'  Archer listens to these arguments but remains unconvinced by them.  He tells Herres they can no longer see each other, but he can't bring himself to hate the man who has been his closest friend since they first encountered each other as teacher and pupil back in the politically-charged, Depression-ravaged 1930s.  'You represent fifteen years of my life,' he reminds Herres.  'I've got to make myself remember what I believed about you for many years –– that you were an extraordinary man –– that you were valuable human material.'  Still, this doesn't prevent him from declaring that he'll fight Herres and his kind, just as he intends to fight the Government if necessary, because, at bottom, they're interested in one and the same thing –– the acquisition and maintenance of power via fear, blackmail and political intimidation.  After Herres leaves, Archer goes back upstairs to his wife, unsure as ever of his future but realizing that he's survived, and will continue to survive, as long as he doesn't betray himself by turning his back on the struggle and abandoning his principles.

Open Road Media, 2012
To say that a novel like The Troubled Air is a product of its time seems obvious and, some might say, redundant.  All novels, to a lesser or greater degree, are products and reflections of the time in which they were written, published and originally read (or undeservedly ignored as the case may be).  That said, a book like The Troubled Air seems to fall into a special category, dealing as it does with what was one of the most harrowing, socially destructive periods in modern American history.  It took a brave writer (and a brave publisher) to stand up in 1951 and declare that the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee were morally reprehensible and, in fact, more 'un-American' than the alleged 'Communist menace' the Committee had supposedly been convened for the purposes of exposing and eliminating.  

Clement Archer's dilemma was a common one during the first, politically turbulent half of the 1950s –– to cooperate and 'play ball' with the US Government or refuse to cooperate, to betray your friends by 'naming names' or keep quiet and lose your livelihood and very possibly find yourself in jail as a result of exercising your constitutionally guaranteed right to say nothing that might incriminate you and everyone you'd been associated with, no matter how fleeting or incidental that association may have been.  Shaw captures the oppressive uncertainty of the period and the ebb and flow of its political rhetoric with remarkable even-handedness but it's on the personal level that the novel makes its most important moral statements, showing how fanaticism and paranoia –– regardless of which political ideology they claimed to be serving –– could combine to destroy not only the public reputations of so many talented Americans (the majority of whom had no connections whatsoever to the Communist Party and had never formally joined it) but even the relationships of casual acquaintances, close friends and husbands and wives.  

The investigations carried out by HUAC and, later, by Senator Joseph 'Tailgunner Joe' McCarthy, did far more than exclude innocent men and women from their professions and deny them the means of earning a living.  They drove wedges between individuals which remained in place for decades and, in some cases, continue to serve as ongoing sources of friction and bitterness more than six decades later.  It's worth noting that of the three hundred writers, directors, actors and producers who were placed on HUAC's Hollywood blacklist, only 10% went on to clear their names and successfully rebuild their compromised careers.  What became of the other 90% is a story still waiting to be told.

IRWIN SHAW, c 1965
The Writer: Irwin Shaw was no stranger to HUAC or to the havoc it wreaked upon the careers and reputations of so many of his socially committed countrymen.  In 1951 he was named as a Communist in the right-wing anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels because he signed a petition calling on the US Congress to review the convictions of fellow screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson –– men who had been charged with contempt for refusing to cooperate and 'name names' (ie. inform on their friends) to the Committee, becoming members of what infamously came to be known as 'The Hollywood Ten' as a result of their refusal to be intimidated by their own, allegedly democratic Government.  Already a well-known radio scriptwriter and playwright whose 1936 play Bury The Dead (which he allegedly wrote in just three days) had enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, Shaw's name was placed on the Hollywood blacklist along with that of Trumbo, Lawson and many other 'politically suspicious' writers, directors and actors, prompting him to move to Europe where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life, writing bestselling novel after bestselling novel until his death from prostate cancer on 16 May 1984. 

Shaw was born Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff in the New York City borough of The Bronx on 27 February 1913, the eldest son of an immigrant Jewish couple named William and Rose Shamforoff.  It was Shaw's father, a real estate developer, who chose the family's Anglicized surname, possibly in the belief that a more Gentile-sounding name like 'Shaw' might help him attract a wealthier, non-Jewish clientele.  This instinct, if this was the case, proved to be the correct one from a business point of view.  William Shaw's real estate office prospered, allowing the family to move to the slightly more respectable borough of Brooklyn shortly after his son's birth.  (A second son, named David, followed in 1916.  David Shaw would also go on to become a successful writer, winning a Tony Award for his contribution to the 1959 Broadway play Redhead as well as authoring dozens of TV scripts and the 1969 film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.)  But the Shaws' prosperity did not last.  By 1932 William Shaw's business was bankrupt, a victim of the Depression which had forced hundreds if not thousands of small, independently operated businesses just like it to close right across America.  

By 1935 it was Irwin, not his financially ruined father, who was supporting the family, churning out scripts for popular radio serials like Dick Tracy and The Gumps while he wrote plays and stories for The New Yorker and other publications – including authentic classics of the latter genre like The Eighty-Yard Run and The Girls In Their Summer Dresses –– that would see him establish a reputation as one of the most prolific and gifted writers of short fiction the United States has ever produced.  The following year saw the young author relocate to Hollywood where he wrote his first script, for a film about football called The Big Game, for RKO Pictures.    

The Young Lions, film poster, 1958
Brooklyn was an inseparable part of Shaw's life and served as both the inspiration and the setting for much of his early writing.  He attended its tuition-free local college, graduating from it with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934 after starring on its varsity football team, and continued to think of it as home until America entered the war and he was drafted into the army, in which he eventually attained the rank of Warrant Officer.  He spent the war years as a member of a Signal Corps unit, often serving in the thick of the fighting in North Africa and Europe while churning out articles for Yank and other military publications and somehow finding time to send dozens of letters home to his wife, the British-born actress Marian Edwards, in which he faithfully recorded everything he was seeing, thinking and feeling as and when it happened.  Much of this material would later find its way into his first novel The Young Lions (1948), which became an instant bestseller and later served as the basis for a prize-winning 1958 film starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin.  (Shaw was not especially fond of the film, claiming that Brando's portrayal of the Nazi Christian Diestl made the character, and the German people, seem much more sympathetic than they actually had been both prior to and throughout the course of the war.  The film's director, Edward Dmytryk, was one of those who had willingly 'named names' to HUAC in order to salvage their careers.)

Shaw's second novel The Troubled Air appeared in 1951, earning him the approval of the critics and once again sending his name racing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.  Ironically, his success now began to work against him, with many of the same left-wing critics who had praised Bury The Dead and his powerful early stories accusing him of selling out –– a charge that would be repeated ad nauseam throughout the ensuing decades as his reputation as a 'serious novelist' suffered, not as the result of any reduction in the quality of his work, but as a result of the widely-held misconception that anyone who earned large sums of money from their writing automatically forfeited whatever right they'd earned to be considered an important 'literary' novelist.  It was an irony that was to plague Shaw for the remainder of his career, placing him in the awkward position of being too talented to be considered an outright hack and too popular to have his work deemed worthy of serious critical evaluation.

IRWIN SHAW, c 1975
His glamorous expatriate lifestyle no doubt contributed to the misleading perception that he was nothing more than a hedonistic playboy who, by the early 1960s, had completely sold out to commercialism.  Originally basing himself in Paris, where he and his wife –– and, shortly thereafter, their son Adam –– lived in a series of rented apartments, he moved to the Swiss ski resort of Klosters in 1954.  Klosters would remain his home for the next thirty years and see him become its unofficial international mayor, playing host to American friends like actors Deborah Kerr and Gene Kelly, film director Robert Parrish and fellow novelist James Jones and also to 'new' European friends like actress and writer Salka Viertel and Jacques Graubart, hero of the French resistance and a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  Most of his later work beginning with Lucy Crown (1956) and including the blockbusters Rich Man, Poor Man (1970) and its equally popular sequel Beggarman, Thief (1977) –– was written in Klosters, either in rented apartments or at the Chalet Mia, the home his wife received as part of her settlement when they finally divorced (for the second time) after thirty, very stormy years of marriage.  Shaw was, by then, an unwell and unhappy man, too old to drink and womanize as he'd done for most of his adult life and visibly affected by arthritis, which made it difficult if not impossible for him to sit at his desk each day and work.  

Sadly, Shaw's literary reputation never recovered during his lifetime, although he's now beginning to be recognized as the uniquely gifted writer he was, one whose lifelong dedication to his craft was unjustly obscured by his earning power and his seemingly effortless command of dialogue, setting and narrative.  His attitude to what he felt to be his deliberate snubbing by the critics remained, for the most part, philosophical.  'Posterity makes the judgments,' he famously remarked in an interview published in The Paris Review in 1979, 'not The Saturday Review of Literature, or The New York Review of Books, or even the Sunday Times Book Review section. There are going to be a lot of surprises in store for everybody.'

Click HERE to visit the official website of IRWIN SHAW, created and maintained by his son ADAM SHAW.  You can also click HERE to purchase a digital version of The Troubled Air from Open Road Media.  To read a free online version of IRWIN SHAW's brilliant, hugely influential short story The Eighty Yard Run please click HERE.

You might also enjoy:
JAMES JONES To The End of the War (2011)
RICHARD YATES A Special Providence (1969)

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