IN THE CITY By Joan Silber Viking. 246 pp. $16.95
Here's a novel one much wants to like, because the idea of it is so likable. Its protagonist, Pauline Samuels, graduates from high school in the mid-1920s, full of longing "to enter, somehow, a circle of people who did artistic and outrageous things, and to be admired by them, to be famous for being with them." She leaves Newark, takes a job at a garment-district business and moves to Greenwich Village, where she indeed enters the bohemian life but finds it to be not exactly what she had expected -- a lesson she learns at the cost of her own innocence.
It's a wonderfully American story -- a variation on country come to town -- set in a time and place that by now have become wrapped in mists of nostalgia and legend. Yet Joan Silber, for all her earnest good intentions, has failed to make a successful novel of it. "In the City" keeps the reader constantly at the edge of involvement, waiting to be drawn into a universally appealing story, but she has complicated the familiar with the implausible, and she has failed to make the 1920s setting believable. The result is that however much one may want to be drawn in, mild curiosity is the most that "In the City" arouses.
Pauline herself is both convincing and appealing. At 17, when the novel opens, she is "a trim, nervously pretty girl, with a clear, slightly nasal voice," at once naive and self-confident: "Older boys were sometimes drawn to her; she had that slyly knowing look when she was being quick and satirical (always flattering when you were not the target) and a sudden, fresh smile." She fancies herself to be a child of the new age; when her parents listen to Rimsky-Korsakov on the radio, the music "made her utterly sure that she was on the other side of things, dry and unfeeling and modern."
Like so many of the adolescent males who occupy so central a place in American fiction, Pauline is part dreamer and part schemer: determined to make her own way in a world sharply different from that in which she was raised, but utterly ill-informed about that world's realities. She is purposeful: "She assumed, in her own life, that even mistakes and failed experiments accrued toward a purpose, an eventual composite that was not random, and that everything had its later use." Yet for all her brave exterior, she is the proverbial babe in arms when it comes to life in the city, and thus she is more than ripe for exploitation by it.
The problem is that although her potential for exploitation is entirely believable, the form it takes is not. Her acceptance into the Greenwich Village crowd comes too quickly and implausibly; although there certainly is nothing especially interesting about the third-rate artists and writers to whom she is attracted, neither does it ever become fully clear why they are interested in her. Then, when her love life moves onto center stage, credulity is strained past the breaking point.
It is all well and good for Pauline to possess a degree of sexual sophistication even before she loses her virginity -- to be interested in sex in a "modern" way, and to believe that romance and marriage are not prerequisites for it -- but the men who preside over her sexual initiation are so cretinous that it is quite impossible to believe she is attracted to them. The first, Dewey, a "writer" who rarely writes, is, as one of her friends says, "a lout and a clodhopper." The second, Mack, is a 35-year-old infant who "had the intolerance of the untraveled, and he was as unforgiving as an adolescent."
Yes, mistakes are made "in the course of romance," and it is true as Pauline notes that "we learn from our mistakes," but the apples she pulls from love's magic barrel are so rotten that her story seems almost unintentional parody. Beyond that, her story is quite unconnected to the time in which it is set. Apart from a labored mention of the Sacco and Vanzetti case toward the end of the story, there is scarcely an indication that "In the City" is set in the 1920s rather than the '60s or the '80s. Since the essence of the tale could be told in any decade, why did Silber choose to set the novel in the '20s and then fail to make the decade itself part of the story's fabric -- to evoke the decade in detail and nuance?
On the evidence of "In the City" Silber is a thoughtful person and a capable prose stylist, though with a tendency to lapse into Dick-and-Jane rhythms. But what she has written here is an outline that never takes on the flesh and blood of a novel. "In the City" is likable for its earnestness and good intentions, and for the spunkiness of its heroine, but it never gets off the ground.