Monday, February 20, 2012

McTeague by Frank Norris

American Zola
Frank Norris was a great American novelist who unfortunately only produced a handful of novels before his untimely death. McTeague is one of his earliest works, first published in 1899. Norris’s writing was heavily influenced by the works of Emile Zola, and its hard to imagine a faithful student offering a more blatant homage to his master. At times McTeague reads like the end result of a Zola sabbatical to San Francisco. Add a gritty dash of Jack London’s California adventure stories, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the style of this book. 

It’s hard to summarize the plot of McTeague without spoiling the surprises, so I’ll say very little about it. McTeague is a big, stupid dentist (Norris uses the word “stupid” at least twenty times in describing the character) who resides and practices his trade on Polk Street, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco. He shares an apartment building with a likeable assortment of misfits, including his pal Marcus Schouler, a conceited, hot-headed veterinarian’s assistant; Miss Baker and Old Grannis, two unmarried senior citizens who are secretly in love with each other; and Maria Macapa, the nutty housekeeper who may be heiress to a Central American fortune. Norris draws the reader into their world, vividly detailing their habits, mannerisms, and aspirations, until it becomes a pleasure to just hang out with these characters, regardless of where the plot leads. From amongst their lovable quirks, however, disturbing faults begin to emerge. The underlying theme of the novel is greed, and several characters exhibit the deadly sin, each in his or her own unique manifestation. Yet these are not stereotypical thieves and misers we’re talking about here, but regular people with realistic human shortcomings. As the result of a series of unforeseen circumstances, about halfway through the book things start to get dark—real dark—and you find yourself wondering how you ever got mixed up with this bunch of psychos. Norris skillfully orchestrates this gradual darkening of tone, so that the reader scarcely realizes when this pleasant tale of a goofy dentist and his love life has turned into a tense and suspenseful thriller. The ending of McTeague will seem familiar, because it’s been stolen by several movies, but as penned by Norris it’s more fresh and surprising than any of the latter-day rehashes.

Soon after completing this work Frank Norris would go on to publish his masterpiece The Octopus, a great work of literature and a truly American epic. While I don’t think it quite measures up to the standard of that later book, McTeague is an expertly crafted novel by a master writer, an entertaining page-turner from beginning to end, and an insightful examination of the destructive effects of avarice on the human psyche.

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