By Bill Sheehan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
By John Crowley
Morrow. 389 pp. $25.99
John Crowley's most recent novel, "Endless Things," provided a resonant conclusion to his four-volume Ægypt saga, an epic meditation on magic, memory and the cyclical movements of history. Crowley's new book, "Four Freedoms," is a different sort that shares with its predecessor a fascination with the intimate details of vanished historical epochs. His subject this time is the nature of life on the home front during World War II. Through his wide-ranging imagination and precise prose, Crowley re-creates that era -- its culture, its sexual mores, its dominant air of uncertainty -- with seemingly effortless fidelity.
The narrative follows a diverse group of characters whose destinies converge in the unlikeliest of places: Ponca City, Okla. Ponca City has joined the war effort and serves as the construction site for Van Damme Aero, the company responsible for building the B-30 Pax bomber, the largest aircraft ever designed for military use. Workers from across the country flock to the site, forming a self-contained community in a town called Henryville, which springs up almost overnight around the Van Damme plant. Included in their ranks are skilled laborers with military deferments, the undersized (known locally as the Teenie Weenies) and the disabled, along with a great many women learning to survive in a world now largely devoid of men. From 1943 to '45 they work together on this single project, until a literal wind of change blows through town, leaving chaos and wreckage in its wake.
The central figure in all this is Prosper Olander, a disabled young man from the East Coast. Prosper is born with lordosis, a relatively minor spinal deformity made infinitely worse by "corrective" surgery. Orphaned at an early age, he spends a substantial portion of his adolescence in an orthopedic hospital. Raised, alternately, by two eccentric maiden aunts and a pair of marginally criminal uncles for whom the war represents an economic opportunity, he adapts, with resourcefulness and impressive good cheer, to a world simply not designed to accommodate his needs.
In Ponca City, Prosper discovers a larger, more expansive life than he has ever known. First, he finds a job that takes into account both his burgeoning artistic gifts and his physical limitations. He then enters into a series of sexual entanglements with a trio of memorable women: One is a world-class softball pitcher who moves to Oklahoma after her father's cattle ranch collapses. Like Prosper -- and virtually everyone in this novel -- she is searching for a better life. Another woman, accompanied by a son with the unfortunate name of Adolph, has come to Ponca City to reunite with her distant -- and unfaithful -- husband. And Prosper's third affair is with a very young, newly married woman who has to cope with a pair of unplanned pregnancies. Crowley depicts these very different women with sympathy and skill, adding to the amplitude and depth that distinguish the narrative at every turn.
On the surface, the subject matter of "Four Freedoms" seems a departure from Crowley's earlier, more fantastic fiction. Beneath that surface, however, are some familiar Crowleyan concerns, among them the vision of history as an endless succession of World Ages, each one giving way to a new, sometimes radically different age, and the little/big dichotomy in which grand, sweeping events and small, personal dramas assume equal importance. The novel also reflects Crowley's ongoing fascination with the utopian impulse, the desire, never fully realized, to create the Harmonious City out of the flawed materials of human civilization.
Ultimately, the significance of "Four Freedoms" lies in its thoroughness, the sheer specificity with which Crowley has imagined this one small corner of an imperiled planet. Whether he's describing a women's softball game, summarizing the early history of flight or elaborating on the proper method of forging ration coupons, he always makes the reader feel at home.
I'm particularly impressed by his portrait of the world as it appears (or appeared back then) to people with disabilities: filled with hills, stairs and random obstacles that litter the everyday landscape, turning ordinary acts into potential hazards. Equally impressive are his casually authoritative descriptions of the work carried out by the riveters, welders, designers and mechanics who built the planes that helped to win the war.
The result is an accessible, painstakingly crafted work that offers many pleasures and rewards. It could be the novel that finally brings Crowley the wide attention he has long deserved. One can only hope.
Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub."