Monday, March 12, 2018

Free Air by Sinclair Lewis

Cross-country car-culture rom-com
Free Air, a novel by Sinclair Lewis, was first published in serial form in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post from May to June of 1919. It was the last novel Lewis wrote prior to hitting it big with his monumentally successful book Main Street. These two consecutive novels do share some common ground in that they both feature a female lead and both depict the small-town life of common American folk west of the Mississippi. The similarities end there, however, and the two works differ widely in literary quality. Though Main Street has its flaws, Free Air isn’t even in the same league with it. Lewis may have been the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but you wouldn’t know it from this trivial piece of fluff.

Free Air may be the first road trip novel of the automobile age. It follows the travels of driver Claire Boltwood and her passenger father, two members of the wealthy smart set of Brooklyn Heights, New York, as they engage in a marathon cross-country drive from Minneapolis to Seattle. The book provides a glimpse into early car culture, when few if any western roads were paved, drivers were required to do much of their own repairs on the side of the road, and options for dining and lodging were spotty at best. Soon after departing on their journey, Claire and her father become acquainted with Milt Daggett, a small-town mechanic who also just happens to be traveling to Seattle. While lending roadside aid to the Boltwoods, Milt develops romantic feelings towards Claire, but surely their difference in social class makes an insurmountable obstacle to any possible relationship between the two. Or does it?

The tone of the novel is humorous throughout, though the laughs have faded over the past century. At first it seems that the road to Seattle will be paved with bad jokes, but the rapid-fire delivery of antiquated quips kind of grows on you after a while. The prose is littered with overly clever home-spun similes like “He looked as improbable as an undertaker’s rubber-plant” or “lonely as a turkey in a chicken yard.” My grandfather, who served in World War I, would have no doubt found this book hysterical, but the humor is tame and obvious by today’s standards.

Largely on the basis of Main Street, Lewis is considered an early proponent of feminism. In Free Air, Claire Boltwood may be an independent woman driving cross-country, but as a character she’s really a non-entity. She doesn’t need to work because she’s rich, her sole purpose in life is to make an advantageous marital match, and she really has no personality. She basically just serves as a receptacle for the affections of her suitors, who are the real characters in the book. As far as its perspective on womanhood goes, this novel is roughly the century-old equivalent of a romantic comedy starring Katherine Hiegl or Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Lewis is also known as a spokesman for the common man, but here he falls short on that score as well. Ostensibly, he wants to make fun of class distinctions by lampooning both the unwashed masses and the snooty upper crust, but really the lower and working classes take the brunt of most of his satire. The book is chock full of unflattering depictions of hayseeds, rednecks, and country bumpkins, some intended to be humorous and some just scary. The faults of the rich are by no means given equal time, and Lewis makes it clear that when members of disparate classes come together, they don’t meet in the middle; it is poor Milt Daggett who needs a makeover. Free Air is not a terrible book. It’s just rather tiresome and insignificant. Only the most diehard Lewis fans should spend their time on it.
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