A REVIEWER CAN HAVE no greater pleasure then to discover and praise a good book. Correspondingly, few tasks are less welcome than that of pointing out a writer's shortcomings.This latter obligation becomes especially painful in the case of John Knowles, who has now dwelt for almost 20 years in the shadow of a splendid first book. In 1960 A Separate Peace catapulted Knowles both to international prominence and to life as a full-time novelist. Unfortunately, with each succeeding work - and there have been five more novels, a collection of stories, and a volume of travel pieces - Knowles has gradually been relegated to the gloomy circle of those who fail to realize their initial promise. Sad to say, A Vein of Riches will not restore him to public and critical favor.
John Knowles's lastest book chronicles the fortunes of the Catherwood family of Middleburg, West Virginia from the early 1900s to the mid 1920s. Clarkson Catherwood directs a coal empire, his born-again wife Minnie sips tea and awaits some vague blood-dimmed tide of revolution, their rather dreamy, ineffectual son Lyle searches for purpose to his life. Three lodestone events determine the fate of this uneasy family: Minnie's mystical experiences with the Reverend Roanoke and his Church of the Last Judgment, Clarkson and Lyle's converging adventures during a strike war in Logan County, and the double love of son and father for Doris Lee Pence. The story ends when the coal market suddenly collapses and each character recognizes that the result is not personal catastrophe, but unexpected fulfillment.
To be a work of art a novel requires an inventive use of language, a meanningful design, and a compelling vision of life. A Vein of Riches lack all of these. Knowles's prose is generally competent, but it can easily turn embarrasing or trite. At one point, Doris Lee reflects on her husband's lovemaking: "Virgil. He had possessed her as naturally as a stream flows down to the river, as clear and swift and exhilarating as a fast-flowing mountain stream." Lyle gushes that "Tot's biscuits were really the next best thing in this world to Canadian whiskey." Such sentences are set off by dialogue that resembles a catechism: When Lyle earnestly propounds solemn questions, his parents answer in brief soliloquies.
Many of the story elements of A Vein of Riches are so disturbingly familiar that one may suspect claim jumping. Several incidents strongly echo All the King's Men, Minnie's feeling of transience recalls Cather's A Lost Lady, the miners' struggle evokes the Steinbeck of the '30s, and Tot appears a first cousin of Faulkner's Dilsey. Virgil Pence's crucial and untimely end seems a weak homage to that masterly surprise death of Gerald in Forster's The Longest Journey. Even the name Catherwood is irritatingly close to that of Cowperwood, the hero of Dreiser's robber baron trilogy.
Knowles's treatment of his characters proves equally fragmented and unsatisfying. Minnie reveals some interior life, but she virtually drops out of the action after the first 60 pages. As may be appropriate to a man of affairs, Clarkson is viewed only from the outside, but nowhere are his business operations convincingly described. Lyle, who is intended to be the sensitive hero, comes across as merely insecure, shallow, and ignorant. At the age of 20 he has never heard of Pompeii or Vesuvius. His world is bounded by confusion, drink, and self-pity - he may yearn to become a man, but until the end he remains simply a spoiled kid.
A long panoramic novel connecting business, social progress, and family life should achieve a certain grandeur. Yet the mystical religion of Minnie leads only to a snug little farm; the miners ordeal results not in any transformed social consciousness, but in a love affair; the father and son's potentially tragic desire for the same woman is undercut by a fairy tale ending in Washington's Rock Creek Park. In brief, A Vein of Riches moves not with the inexorable rightness of art, but with the obvious contrivedness of the merely literary. It is a perfectly readable novel - R.F. Delderfield comes to West Virginia. But it should have been more.