The late Nathaniel Benchley, son of Robert and father of Peter, produced a novel before his death last year that would seem to have all the elements for failure if judged by current standards of commercial fiction.
"Speakeasy" is a literate, decent, witty, predictable and thoroughly enjoyable story that uses an illicit watering hole as a dramatic device and the boozy perambulations of its clientele as plot.
The novel's charm lies in its enforced naivete'. Sex is a mere afterthought to drinking, on the one occasion it occurs; violence is limited to brief, bloodless encounters between the peerless peephole operator and the Mob. The prose, airy and lucid, contains no judgments on the people caught up in the gentle tyranny of their own bad habits.
Conversation is the primary occupation, some of it funny, some hackneyed. It is doubtful, even in the halcyon days of the Round Table at the nearby Algonquin Hotel (the "Gonk"), that poetry and dramatic allusion would have filled the air of a Manhattan speakeasy, or that the untutored owner and his imported French wife would call their establishment the Club Circe. (Circe is the Greek goddess who transformed men into swine.) But Benchley seems so delighted with this notion that the reader willingly suspends disbelief.
Americans in the '20s wanted to forget about the Volstead Act, World War I and the shootings and bombings associated with bootlegging and political radicalism, if Benchley's retrospective is at all accurate. "The country seemed to be entering a new and violent era," and the speakeasy was a haven for the variously gregarious, talented and lonely. Those at the Club Circe include Bogey and Barrymore who, unlike the real characters in some other contemporary novels, are neither obsessed nor engaged in antihistorical caprice. They just sip their gin from teacups and bitch about bad reviews.
Barrymore even puts the inebriated protagonist, Roland Butterworth, onto a train bound for Westchester, an act of kindness that does little to improve Butterworth's domestic situation. Butterworth came to Manhattan a teetotaler, was hired by The Tribune and introduced to the Club Circe by a fellow reporter, MacDougall. Ginger ale gave way to scotch sours, and . . . well, you can guess the rest. The gradual estrangement between Butterworth, the budding sybarite, and a wife who cannot understand the allure of the speakeasy is familiar yet touching.
The best parts of the novel, in fact, take place beyond the cellar walls of the "speak." Benchley amusingly describes the jaundiced atmosphere of the old city room, where editors chew pencil stubs and send fledgling reporters out after stories that exist only in the editors' minds. Butterworth is told to write a story proving the Sacco and Vanzetti matter is no longer a divisive issue among the populace. He discovers the opposite, is sacked, and takes on the protective coloration of a press agent.
This leads him into another cynical domain, this one populated by hustling actors and producers who cannot remember what transpires from one drunken day to the next. Butterworth never loses his good humor, trying to make enough money to support his family and his bachelor's existence, a kind of Prohibitionary Candide using the speakeasy for sustenance, and contacts.
He is fired by a producer, then by a mortuary (Butterworth wanted the mortuary to create a Poet's Corner), but still lives in the best of all possible worlds. His friend MacDougall writes a play, and Butterworth gets the lead. In Benchley's rosy view of the stage, a natural actor need do nothing more than read aloud the lines of a good play, which Butterworth does, gaining instant success.
The Club Circe does not transform its owners and customers into swine, but it does change them. If there is a moral, it is that people naturally become old and disillusioned, and if they drink a lot, they get older and disillusioned faster. But it's all great fun.
Reading "Speakeasy," I couldn't help but wonder where Benchley would have set a similar tale about contemporary America. A Nautilus gym, perhaps. Aerobics is to us what hooch was to the flapper era, and our flabby unexercised bluenoses don't even have probity on their side. The difference between the speakeasy and the health club is, of course, intercourse. The solitary pursuit of bodily perfection does not lend itself to a romance like this one.