Monday, December 2, 2019

Other Gods by Pearl S. Buck

I married a celebrity
Pearl S. Buck’s 1940 novel Other Gods may spend some time in China and Tibet, but it is not one of the historical novels of Asia for which she is famous. Though Buck references the Dalai Lama in the book’s one-page preface, this is strictly a novel about American (and a few British) characters. The story opens in the Himalaya, as an expedition is attempting the first ascent of a mountain named Therat. Bert Holm, a farm boy from New York state, signed on to the mountaineering crew as a mechanic, but through a series of unusual circumstances he ends up being the only member of the expedition to reach the summit. When word of this feat reaches America, Bert becomes an instant celebrity superstar, on the order of magnitude of a Charles Lindbergh.

By the time Bert makes it from Tibet to Peking, his fame has preceded him. With his handsome good looks and all-American-boy charm, he is considered a very eligible bachelor despite his humble beginnings. At one of the many banquets held in his honor, Bert meets Kit Tallant, the daughter of a wealthy American banker doing business in China. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple marry before returning to America.

Buck frequently refers to Bert and other celebrities of his ilk as “gods,” a metaphor that feels like a stretch. The novel is primarily told from Kit’s point of view as she deals with the difficulties of being married to a major celebrity. The pair are constantly in the public eye, hounded by the press, and must employ a publicist to manage their public image. Bert has some skeletons in his closet, and Kit must deal with her feelings about his past while the publicist frets over how such revelations will be received by Bert’s adoring fans. In addition to the annoyances of Bert’s fame, Kit must deal with the fact that she married a man whom she barely knows. The drama of Bert and Kit’s marital woes gets overly melodramatic at times and is far less gripping than the mountaineering scenes. Nevertheless, this is first and foremost a book about marriage, and as usual Buck displays a talent for sensitively depicting the psychology of human relationships.

Buck was not only a Nobel-caliber author but also a world-class humanitarian who spent her life fighting racism and spearheading several worthy charitable causes. It’s surprising, therefore, that the worst thing about Other Gods is its blatant classism. Every working-class character in the book—Bert, his parents, his hometown friends—are depicted as ignorant and uncouth, even so far as to border on redneck caricature. While the educated and gentile Kit finds solace in poetry, the less refined Bert naturally turns to the bottle for his kicks. He is often referred to as an overgrown child and constantly contrasted unfavorably with Kit’s ex-fiancé Norman, a playwright. When Kit despises Bert’s parents for being simple farm folk, Buck as third-person narrator does little to stand up for them but rather gives the impression that she agrees with Kit’s assessment.

I’ve read over a dozen books by Buck, and this one is middle-of-the road in terms of quality. Though chronologically this is sandwiched between classics like the Good Earth trilogy and Dragon Seed, Other Gods reads more like one of Buck’s later and lesser books written under the pseudonym of John Sedges. It does have its moments, but only Buck’s most diehard fans need venture off the beaten path for this one.

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