HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION by Thornton Wilder (New York: Harper Perennial), 2003, 240 pp.
In fact, the copy that I’ve just reread with pleasure for the second time is a first edition (New York/London: Harper & Brothers, 1935). But Wilder as a novelist is so unfashionable that there’s nothing very pricey about this book in any shape or form. I persist in regarding Heaven’s My Destination as one of the truly great American novels, and I’ve pretty much felt this way ever since I first encountered it in the 1960s — and not just an archetypal middle-American road farce with memorable period settings (including trains, cars, hotels, campsites, boarding houses, bordellos, restaurants, and movie theaters) but also the potential basis for a great movie. It concerns a 23-year-old textbook salesman and devout Baptist from Michigan named George Brush, moving through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas during the height of the Depression, spreading havoc and consternation wherever he goes with his hilarious and maddening fanaticism. (A key line towards the end: “`Isn’t the principle of a thing more important than the people that live under the principle?’”)
I can’t really fathom why this incredible mini-epic has never been canonized — shunned by the Library of America, ignored by Alfred Kazin. [July 24: Someone at Library of America must have seen this complaint, because I was just sent a press release with the welcome announcement that they're bringing out a full volume devoted to five Wilder novels, including this one, along with stories and more essays, on August 20: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948.] The same is true of Wilder’s The Eighth Day (1967), which I’ve just read for the first time — winner of a National Book Award when it came out, but dismissed by the literary establishment ever since as middle-brow, ponderous, or both, though I must confess I found it engrossing, haunting, and mysterious, despite all its philosophizing. And so is this much shorter and earlier gem, which leaves almost all of its philosophizing to its comic antihero and, unlike either The Eighth Day or Our Town, could never be accused of what Dwight Macdonald dismissively called Midcult. It seems that there are two ways for major artists to become marginalized: by working too far away from the mainstream or, more paradoxically, by working in the dead center of the mainstream, like Howard Hawks or Thornton Wilder.
At first glance, Heaven’s My Destination is a bit like a version of Candide set in Depression America — and an even better-written one than Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, published just a year before (a book that for me is ultimately polluted by its savage bitterness). But the further Wilder’s story develops, the more it takes on the tragicomic ambiguity of a Don Quixote, albeit without any character who qualifies as a Sancho Panza. Is George Brush, an ideologue and prude (albeit a sincere one), simply an obnoxious pain in the ass or a genuine saint? Wilder somehow manages him to make him both, at every instant, epitomizing what’s most irksome as well as most endearing about American solipsism and idealism without ever falling for an instant into either snobbery or sentimentality. And this is what makes most of the book such a comic triumph — faltering only a bit in its penultimate section (as Edmund Wilson, one of its biggest fans, astutely observed), when Wilder has to briefly imagine Brush as a husband. Most of the time, I think we wind up siding with the wide spectrum of characters who find Brush exasperating, but like Wise Blood‘s even more relentless and dimwitted Hazel Motes, he keeps coming back to bug and haunt us. He won’t leave us alone. [5/20/09]