THOUGH I haven't been counting, I've certainly noticed a number of first novels published recently by writers over 40. What these writers seem to have in common is not only an admirable perseverance but a very decided and highly personal manner. Having pressed on this far without readers, they aren't necessarily aiming to please. They can make Jean Stafford's claim, and make it stick. "I write for myself," she said, "for a few friends, and for God."
With such an audience, it's hardly surprising that these "late bloomers" -- most of them turn out to have practiced their craft long and faithfully -- write books that bear a strong individual stamp. A young writer's first novel is likely to have the spanking fragrance of fresh paint; n older writer's often feels more lived-in. The difference is something like the difference between the owner- built home, fashioned to satisfy the most intimate needs, and the proud new house that is clearly the handiwork of an architect.
The Pull of the Earth is Alfred Alcorn's fourth novel, but the first to be published. Reading it is to be ushered into the privacy of a Massachusetts farmhouse in 1957. The house is full of secrets, forbidden desires, and guilt. Alcorn's story has a genealogy that can be traced back to Hawthorne, and his rapt, brooding language has very little in common with the sparer prose of most current fiction. He wants to catch the mythic dimensions of his characters, and often refers to them not by name but as "the boy" or "the woman" or "the man."
The terms are appropriate, for The Pull of the Earth is about the awakening of sexual passions. The boy, Bobby Dearborn, is on the verge of adolescence. The woman is his young aunt, Janet Vaughn, who wants nothing more than a child -- but she has always miscarried. Her husband, Hedley, an older man with heart trouble, hires a drunken veteran named Lucien Quirk to help with the haying.
The childless couple, the hired hand. What develops, inevitably, is the perennial New England story, a classic triangle that will remind readers of Ethan Frome or Desire Under the Elms. When Hedley is trampled by a bull and hospitalized, Janet and Lucien undergo a transformation as awkward and poignant as the boy's -- and the boy, of course, watches their every move.
Lucien falls in love, and his rehabilitation is little short of miraculous. He sobers up and makes himself useful around the farm; he turns out to be handy, devoted, gallant and even, sometimes, tender. It is one of the accomplishments of the novel that Alcorn makes you believe in this down-and-outer's reformation.
But Janet Vaughn is the main character in the drama. She has dreamed of lovers but never imagined the simple pleasures that come of being prized. Her delight is conveyed in a series of fine scenes. When Janet, who dresses up only for mass, puts on new clothes to go out to dinner with Lucien; when she buys linoleum and curtains for her kitchen, an extravagance in her economy; when she feels grateful to Lucien for his good cheer on a visit to Hedley -- at these moments, when happiness seems within her grasp, she has the reader's utmost sympathy.
For it is clear that a glimpse is all she will ever have of happiness. A Catholic, she is her own judge, and she cannot live in sin. When she imagines that she is pregnant, she is, "for a few clear-headed, bracing moments of self-truth, ready to risk the loss of her faith . . . She would risk the essential blasphemy of women who, in having children, provide the only real resurrection of the flesh."
Lucien urges her to run away with him, but Janet cannot. She stays to face the consequences of her sin. I won't give away the ending of The Pull of the Earth, except to say that it is tragic, and then some.
I groaned when I read the last pages, not out of pity but out of a wish that the writer had known when to stop. The bull is involved in the catastrophe, and fire, and resurrection, and it is altogether excessive. The faults of the novel -- the obvious symbolism, the tendency of the prose to grow plethoric, Alcorn's habit of overexplaining -- are all freely indulged.
This lapse at the end left me dwelling, I'm afraid, on the shortcomings of the novel, not its virtues, and I found myself wondering if perhaps Alcorn has grown just a little too used to writing to please himself. A novelist, after all, has to trust the reader. And if a novel may indeed be compared to a house, then the writer ought to be prepared to vacate the premises and turn the place over lock, stock, and barrel. This reader, anyway, doesn't want to be treated like an intruder or even like a guest in someone else's novel. I'd rather feel as if I lived there.