Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Lockwood Concern, by John O'Hara

Thanks once again to Anthony Burgess and his list of 99 best novels! I had never heard of this title, nor of the author. The Lockwood Concern was the 13th of John O'Hara's 17 novels, published in 1965, but it never received the acclaim (except from Anthony Burgess) of his much earlier works, Appointment in Samarra and Pal Joey.
I tend to view the time I spend with a book as a short-term relationship. Sometimes it ends with a deeply felt promise to meet again, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, it ends in a huff at the end of the first date (a chapter or less).  My relationship with The Lockwood Concern began with a mad thrill  -- that infatuated feeling that I could never get enough.  This led predictably enough to disenchantment and disappointment, but I didn't dump it. I pushed on; the plot threw me enough pleasant surprises to string me along. At the end of the novel, I was ready to say good-bye to it, but with no ill feelings. It's not at all a bad book, but I don't imagine I'll want to re-Kindle our affair.  [Sorry, couldn't resist that.]

The book opens with the construction of George Lockwood's enormous new house and the very high wall surrounding it.  Mr. Lockwood is a man who places great value on privacy.  He has two hidden staircases installed, one going from his bedroom to his library, and the other from the library to the wine cellar.  The Italian workmen brought in from New York and lavishly paid are the only ones involved in the project who know about these staircases. Less skilled and trusted workers lay the bricks for the fortress-like wall with the spikes around its top. What is more deliciously enticing than such great secrets?  Surely Mr. Lockwood has some fascinating concern obscured behind his tall, spiked walls.

That's human nature, isn't it?  We see tall walls and imagine that there must be a magnificent house (or a magnificent something) concealed behind them. We sense that someone is keeping secrets, and we leap to the conclusion that they are salacious, or hideous, or wondrous. Present us with news of a hidden staircase or two, and our imaginations run riot. And there you have it:  the seduction phase of my affair with this book.

As our affair progressed, however, I came to meet not only George Lockwood, but also his grandfather Moses. Moses had killed two men in early 19th-century Pennsylvania. Some said the killings were in self-defence; others were sceptical.  At any rate, his reputation was rather checkered. As he acquired wealth, there were always murmurs of ill-gotten gains and abuse of power. We then meet Moses' son (and George's father) Abraham, who pursues an unspoken but single-minded goal:  He wants to create a Lockwood empire in his small part of Pennsylvania.  He does not wish to join the well-established Mainline Philadelphia elite -- they're already too established.  He wants his corner of the world to be the locus of the Lockwood empire, and his every thought and every action are directed toward this goal.  This, it turns out, is the Lockwood Concern.
Abraham Lockwood, as stated, had heard of the Quaker Concern, and he was aware that his great plans could be called a Concern, but he did not so refer to them, or it. He gave no name to it. A concern. A cause. A campaign. A plan. A strategy. An obsession. A purpose. A mania - it did not matter that he gave it no name. It could have mattered if he had given it a name, since a designation, a definition would have inhibited his actions within the meaning of the name. It was so constantly in his thoughts and took so many forms of action that an action that could be called loving was sometimes followed by an action that could be called cruel, and neither modifier would be applicable to a third action. Since the Concern was Abraham Lockwood's secret it did not need a name.
Abraham's two sons fall relatively complacently into place as the next generation of secretive, dynastic Lockwoods, increasing the fortune but failing to share their father's vision of a local dynasty.  George and Penwood share office space (and a secretary, Marion Stademyer, to disastrous effect) in New York.  They go in on some business deals together, others separately. Their relationship seems rooted in business far more than in blood.

George has a son, Bing, who is tossed out of Princeton for cheating, much to his father's disgust. After a vicious argument, Bing removes himself to California to find his way in the new business of prospecting for oil. Some years later, through a prep school connection, George hears of his son's dazzling financial success, and he greets the news with rancour.
And now George Lockwood was beginning to discover the cause of his forgetfulness. It was not forgetfulness at all. It was hatred, and it had been started with Preston Hibbard's visit, his report on Bing and Bing's wife and Bing's children and Bing's Rolls-Royce and Bing's standing in the Far West. The boy was self-sufficient and had made himself so with no help from the father; and he had made his mark in a kind of existence in which the father could not have survived. George Lockwood had not forgotten his son, but had banished him from his mind, and the son had made him lie to himself. He had not been overcome with desire for Marian Stademyer but by the urgent need to dominate a human being who, being a woman, could give him pleasure in the process. Yet even that was a form of postponement. He now knew that even without the violent consequences of his rendezvous with Marian Strademyer, a meeting with his son was unavoidable - because he would not have avoided it. The Hibbard snapshots had made the meeting necessary. George Lockwood had been compelled to have one more try at dominating his son even though the attempt would end in disastrous failure... The only thing left to save was his position. He had always been a sonofabitch in the eyes of his son. He would maintain that position. His son must be kept from knowing that his triumph in life was also a triumph over his father.
And there it is.  George Lockwood's walls, his hidden passages, his silences and his lies conceal only that:  he's a thoroughly unpleasant, unprincipled and unfeeling man.  There is no mystery.  And in the end, his secrecy and amorality will lead to his death, in a very fitting fashion.  So long, George. I can't say we'll miss you.

Although my initial infatuation was long gone by the end of the book, I admired this novel. I was glad to have met it and spent the time with it that I did. It reflects the desires of people everywhere, not only in America, to achieve a status that their society is reluctant to grant them.  It reflects perfectly the character of its author, who although he achieved a certain degree of literary success, never felt that he got the recognition he so craved.  Brendan Gill, who edited many of O'Hara's stories for The New Yorker, saw clearly O'Hara's distress.
"Oh," writes Gill, "but John O'Hara was a difficult man! Indeed, there are those who would describe him as impossible, and they would have their reasons." Gill indicates that O'Hara was nearly obsessed with a sense of social inferiority due to not having attended college. "People used to make fun of the fact that O'Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters." Of O'Hara, Hemingway once said, cruelly, "Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale." O'Hara also yearned for an honorary degree from Yale. According to Gill, Yale was unwilling to award the honour because O'Hara "asked for it."
Sometimes we erect walls and build secret rooms simply to house what we feel we don't have.  And to give the illusion that we have something even better.

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