Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on "McTeague" by Frank Norris

We never learn the first name of the eponymous protagonist of this tough, grim, and disturbing novel, written by Frank Norris and first published in 1899.

We learn much else though: McTeague is a crude, animalistic block of humanity, “a young giant . . . moving his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscle, slowly, ponderously.” His simple brain grinds along equally slow and ponderous. As you also might be alarmed to learn, McTeague is a cut-rate dentist who lives and works in a one-room office on a rough and ready corner of Polk Street in 1890s San Francisco.

The world portrayed in this novel is not the Gay ‘90s San Francisco of waistcoats and jeweled feathered hats, but the San Francisco that most people actually lived and labored in, the city out of sight, grimy, gritty, and often barren. McTeague is the story of small lives compressed into small dark rooms.

McTeague is not the dentist folks go to if they can afford another. He labors like a gorilla, sometimes even pulling teeth with his huge bare hands. (For those who suffer from Fear of the Dentist, the novel may throb like an exposed nerve in a broken tooth.)

McTeague charges his patients only enough to keep his life stumping along. His only remaining ambition is to buy a giant gold-plated fake tooth to hang outside his office window.

Then, one day, this simple brute soul is swept away by a torrent of feelings he doesn’t understand and over which he has no control--feelings that will hurl him over a precipice.

It begins when Marcus Schouler, a fatuous, pompous companion, sends his cousin Trina Sieppe to McTeague for dental care. Trina is a very young girl from the East Bay, tiny, doll-like, and as unwise as McTeague is in the ways of the world.

One afternoon, while Trina lies in a sedated slumber in his dentist’s chair, McTeague is suddenly stormed by rumbling passion for her and, like the prince in the fairy tale, kisses her as she lies unconscious. Then, when she awakens, he passionately, roughly begs her to marry him.

Normally, you would expect—especially these days—that such a courtship might end in another court, say civil or criminal. But gender roles and mores were different then and McTeague becomes a man driven, infatuated, and determined by passion, unswayed by restraint, perspective, and sense. With his great size and ursine personality, he overwhelms Trina and finally persuades her to marry and come live with him on Polk Street.

But there are complications. Marcus Schouler has had the eye for Trina for much longer than McTeague. But as he fancies himself a good sport and true friend to McTeague, he bows aside and everything between the three of them seems dandy . . . until, just before the wedding, a lottery ticket that Trina bought from one of McTeague’s neighbors wins her $5,000 (a fortune about equal to over $1 million today).

Marcus is more than out a girl. He thinks he’s also been cheated out of a fortune by poor hapless McTeague. He can’t get the loss out of his system. Soon, McTeague’s and Schouler’s friendship ends in a stunningly bloody brawl, a scene written with raw tension and brio.

But for that misfortune, married life seems to suit McTeague, at first. Soon though, his fortunes founder after he’s disbarred from practicing dentistry for not having a license.

McTeague, unable to adapt to the loss of his livelihood, turns to Trina to help them both out, only to find his bride is a fierce miser, insanely obsessed with money and determined to cling to every penny of her fortune, to where she drives them both into grim poverty.

McTeague collapses under the weight of his failure and his wife’s greed. It’s a loud fall, too. His limited mind is unable to cope with forces beyond his ken, both without, and, most dangerously, within. You don’t “make small” with a gorilla like McTeague.

In fact, with pitifully few exceptions, no one in McTeague’s world seems capable of self-restraint or finding a way to reason. Only base passions rule. Under the indifferent thumbscrew of life and society, unruly passion soon turns murderous.

McTeague is a naturalist novel, a genre that rose to prominence at the end of the 19th Century, starting with French novelist Emil Zola. It expresses a “scientific”/ Darwinian view of behavior, pointed up by the fact that we never learn McTeague’s first name. It often reads as a detached, clinical, sometimes satirical, portrait of society’s lower rungs (with an added unfortunate whiff of anti-Semitism at one point.)

There are many pleasures to be found, though. A family adventure to a variety show at the old Orpheum Theatre on Market Street is a delightful interlude that colorfully recalls a lost world of live entertainment. There are also winsome scenes of the newlywed McTeagues’ first days of marriage and the tender comic courtship of two elderly neighbors.

Some critics have called McTeague a tragedy, but I find this novel to be too deterministic for tragedy. It looks too much askance and amused at its characters. With no first name, McTeague becomes, under Frank Norris’s stern moralistic pen, like a lab rat, struggling and drowning under the clinical eye of a behavioral scientist. (Sam Peckinpah’s nihilist film classic Straw Dogs takes a similar, but even more despairing, approach.)

McTeague feels more like a sigh of pathos than agonizing tragedy. Unlike a tragic work, there seems to be little sense of better paths not taken. Norris offers McTeague and the other characters no choices, no other possibilities for life. They barrel on in the grip of their base animal instincts and morbid monetary obsessions of the society around them. At times, like Peckinpah, Norris seems to be melodramatically whipping these poor folks on to their doom to prove his thesis.

McTeague is still a worthwhile read for serious, adventurous readers. It is vividly and authentically written with superbly detailed, colorful portrayals of everyday life in San Francisco and environs. Despite its air of disdain toward its characters, suspense and terror grows as the narrative reaches a melodramatic—if not wholly convincing--climax in a heat-blasted Death Valley summer.

Frank Norris’s Gravestone, Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

This was Norris’s second novel and it was hugely influential. Only a handful of books followed from his pen, including the even more famous The Octopus, which portrayed a bloody war between the Southern Pacific Railroad and California wheat farmers. Two more linked novels were to follow, but another set of outside forces got to Norris when he died at the age of 32 from peritonitis. He was buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland.

Curiously, he was not quite the scruffy raging Bohemian I at first assumed—he lies under a large obelisk erected by his U.C. Berkeley fraternity, Phi Delta Gamma, who, to this day, holds the annual Frank Norris Dinner in his honor.

His novels also lives on, especially McTeague. In addition to a 1982 opera adaptation directed by Robert Altman, it was famously adapted in 1924 by director Erich von Stroheim into what was intended to be a ten-hour epic known as Greed. It was eventually cut to two hours by its studio, MGM. I saw it many years ago, but unfortunately recall little about it. Somehow, I suspect Norris’s tendentious, intense book will stay with me longer.

(Re-edited 11/11/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photos by author.
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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