AMERICAN EPIC: IRWIN SHAW’S RICH MAN, POOR MAN AS GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, TELEVISION LANDMARK … AND SOVIET PROPAGANDA By Michael Coyne ‘All of literature comes out of the family – Oedipus, Hamlet – even Genesis is a family story. Storytellers always revert to the family – the people we’re born from and the people born to us. It’s impossible to exhaust.’ – Irwin Shaw Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) has all too frequently been dismissed by American literary critics and literary historians as a once promising ‘sell-out’. An idealistic young left-wing playwright who found early success with his anti-war drama Bury the Dead (1936) and his anti-fascist allegory The Gentle People: A Brooklyn Fable (1939), Shaw was thereafter frustrated by poor reception of almost a dozen other theatrical efforts. By the late 1930s Shaw had also become an acknowledged master of the American short story. In February 1939, he published two sharply contrasting stories which have come to be regarded as American masterpieces: ‘The Girls in Their Summer Dresses’, a delicious sketch of sexual daydreaming and yearning beyond and despite the confines of marriage, and his hard-nosed and ultimately brutal anti-Nazi tale ‘Sailor Off the Bremen’. These two, along with his 1941 story ‘The Eighty-Yard Run’, a wistful chronicle of a life dwindling into unfulfilled promise, are generally considered the most accomplished of Shaw’s short fiction. Yet it is not as a playwright or as author of a lifetime total of 84 short stories (63 later reprinted in the 1978 anthology Five Decades) that Irwin Shaw is most commonly remembered. Shaw certainly defied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. After serving as an enlisted man in World War II (at one time assigned to movie director George Stevens’s film unit, and hence one of the first Americans to enter newly-liberated Paris), Shaw wrote the epic war novel The Young Lions (published 1948). While other grand-scale US fictional accounts of the war focused on conflict in the Pacific (Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Leon Uris’s Battle Cry), Shaw alone depicted the US contribution to the war in Europe on a panoramic canvas – perhaps partially inspired by War and Peace (reputedly Shaw’s favourite novel). And that, as far as American literary critics have been concerned, is the sum and substance of Irwin Shaw’s laudable achievement: a couple of idealistic plays and a handful of superbly crafted short stories, all penned before Pearl Harbor, later supplemented by his sprawling saga of Americans at war against Nazism. The Young Lions was, of course, merely the beginning of Shaw’s ‘second act’ – which, according to critical wisdom, quickly became a woeful tale of vertiginous descent, as he opted for a self-imposed, self-indulgent exile in Europe from 1951 to 1976 and blithely resigned himself to churning out indifferent screenplays and commercial pot-boilers in pursuit of ‘mega-bucks’ (long before that phrase was in vogue). There’s been an intellectual snootiness (jealousy?) at the heart of much of the anti-Shaw criticism. As early as 1939, Alfred Kazin dismissed Shaw as ‘half a writer’, patronisingly observing of Shaw’s first collection of short stories: ‘I like Mr. Shaw’s stories about as much as I like his plays; a good many of the stories, in fact, seem to me thoroughly bad ... [A] motley of half a hundred influences and impressions, ill-digested patois out of the Brownsville tenements, imitation Irish brogue, creamy sob stories out of The New Yorker, and naturalistic violence for the sake of violence, such as James T. Farrell exploited to the full long ago.’ Seventeen years later, Leslie A. Fiedler’s review of Shaw’s novel Lucy Crown (1956) was not merely literary criticism but personal excoriation: ‘As a matter of fact, it is only what is typical about [Shaw] that makes him interesting enough for critical comment. His books and plays with their breathless pursuit of the very latest liberaloid cliché problem,
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his improbable dialogue (only he himself apparently talks like his own characters), his limp watery prose are scarcely worth more than the sentence it takes to describe them. More precisely, perhaps, they would be worth no more than that sentence, except for the fact that they represent an ideal of literary achievement, a style and attitude and choice of subject of which a whole class of readers dream. Irwin Shaw is, in fact, a sociological touchstone ... [S]lickness and sentimentality … turned from the service of entertainment and brand names to social awareness and “human understanding” … remain still slickness and sentimentality. If mere “decency” of intent could redeem banality, Shaw would be a first-rate writer rather than a symptom.’ Thus, despite the fact that Shaw published another 11 novels in the wake of The Young Lions, none of these were deemed to have any critical merit. Quite possibly, the highbrows loathed most of all that phenomenal commercial success which befell him in the last decade of his life, courtesy of his sixth novel, Rich Man, Poor Man (first published by Delacorte in 1970). Other than The Young Lions, this was the only Shaw novel which might truly be called an epic. Rich Man, Poor Man is Irwin Shaw’s grand statement on the American Dream in the turbulent decades of the mid-20thcentury, staking his claim to that elusive eighth wonder of the world, the Great American Novel. I suggest Rich Man, Poor Man is his greatest glory. The importance of this one novel cannot be underestimated, either in terms of Shaw’s career or of its impact on American culture. Shaw’s hardcover advance for Rich Man, Poor Man was a then virtually unprecedented $100,000, and an additional $25,000 as a performance bonus.Yet it was the TV serialisation of the novel in 1976 which catapulted Irwin Shaw to a hitherto undreamed-of level of wealth. Ironically, he was deeply irate about the terms of the deal by which Rich Man, Poor Man had been sold to television. His agent, the legendary Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar, sold the TV rights for $110,000 in 1971 – and was convinced he had just made some easy money for his client. How could purchasers Universal and ABC possibly fashion a made-for-TV movie from Shaw’s behemoth of a best-seller? Consequently, Lazar didn’t negotiate for any extra money in event of the show being broadcast – or, indeed, bother to factor in residual payments for the repeat showings. Furthermore, Lazar wasn’t concerned that according to the deal Universal would retain all the TV rights to the characters in the novel, which would in effect freeze Shaw out of the creative process if the studio decided to extend the story by way of a televised sequel. In fairness to Lazar, he just didn’t think a TV version of Rich Man, Poor Man would ever see the light of day. When it eventually was televised that error of judgement gnawed away at Shaw and, ultimately, it soured his relationship with Lazar irrevocably. Yet it was that same television version which, just as
irrevocably, assured Shaw’s great wealth for the rest of his life – and his continuing fame, long after his death. When Rich Man, Poor Man first aired on American TV in February 1976, bookshops across the United States were inundated with orders for Shaw’s novel. Dell currently had around 75,000 paperback copies in print, but bookshops had taken orders for 750,000. Five and a half years after its first publication, Rich Man, Poor Man gained the momentum of an overnight phenomenon. It revitalised sales of Shaw’s back catalogue (The Young Lions and other previous novels The Troubled Air (1951), Lucy Crown, Two Weeks in Another Town (1960), Voices of a Summer Day (1965), Evening in Byzantium (1973) and Nightwork (1975), in addition to several short story collections), and provided an invaluable surge for all his future novels (naturally, to Rich Man, Poor Man’s sequel, Beggarman,Thief (1977), but also to The Top of the Hill (1979), Bread Upon the Waters (1981) and his last completed novel, Acceptable Losses (1982)). New editions of all Shaw’s novels now customarily bore the front-cover caption: ‘Author of Rich Man, Poor Man’; and today, a generation on from his death in 1984, that is indisputably how he is most – and, I would also contend, best – remembered. If The Young Lions was Shaw’s equivalent of War and Peace, then Rich Man, Poor Man might be considered his Anna Karenina. It is an epic of yearning and discontent and self-destructive impulses, and it conforms perfectly to Tolstoy’s oft-celebrated observation about each unhappy family being unhappy in its own way. The Jordache family is unhappy in spades. The father, Axel, is a German immigrant who came to America in 1921 after knifing a drunken Englishman in Hamburg and relieving the dead man of his wallet.Vicious and embittered, Axel Jordache toils nightly at the white-hot oven in the basement of his bakery in the depressed neighbourhood of Port Philip in the Hudson Valley. Jordache is a savage misanthrope – and a true man without a country. His sentiment concerning the wartime devastation of his native Cologne is: ‘It couldn’t have happened to a nicer city’ (p.13; this and subsequent quotations from Rich Man, Poor Man are drawn from the 1977 hardback edition, published in the UK by Book Club Associates, by arrangement with Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Shaw describes Jordache as ‘a patriot of no country, but he reserved his hatred for the land in which he was born ... He was pleased that Germany had lost the war, but he was not happy that America had won it’ (pp.89-90). Though born a Catholic, he nurses a lifelong hatred of the Church. He was deceptively gentle in wooing Mary Pease, a naïve, romantically deluded girl raised in a Catholic orphanage; but he has subjected her to a life of penury and sexual brutality since the day he put the wedding ring on her finger. He makes coarse, suggestive remarks about the possibility of his daughter Gretchen falling pregnant to a soldier. Summoned to school to face the irate French teacher who has caught one of his sons sketching her naked, Jordache turns the tables by playing the bumpkin, asking: ‘Do teachers pose nude in high school these days?’ (p.67) and finally slapping the woman and calling her a ‘French c**t’ (p.68).Virtually the first thought Jordache entertains in the novel is that he
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might randomly poison one of those rolls he bakes – ‘For laughs. For anything’ (p.12), and that is the last thing he does – ‘My message to the world’ (p.231) – before rowing out to a forlorn suicide at the bottom of the Hudson. Jordache is one of Shaw’s most vivid creations. His wife Mary is a violated soul. Educated by nuns, her romantic aspirations of a dignified, refined life were destroyed forever on her wedding night, and since then her marriage-bed has been her Calvary: ‘All the fragile hopes of the timid, rosy, frail young girl who had been photographed smiling in bridal white beside her unsmiling, handsome groom just eight hours before disappeared in the blood-stained, creaking Niagara bed. Speared helplessly under the huge, scarred, demonically tireless, dark, male body knew that she had entered upon her sentence of life imprisonment. ‘… They never discussed the nights. When he closed the door behind them after dinner it was as though two different and unconnected souls swooped down to inhabit their bodies. They had no vocabulary to discuss the grotesque combat in which they were engaged. The severe upbringing of the Sisters had left her inhibited and full
of impossible illusions of gentility. Whores had educated him and perhaps he believed all women who were worthy of marriage lay still and terrified in the marriage bed. Or perhaps he thought all American women.’ (pp. 39, 40) Mary Jordache is already an old woman at the age of 42 – slatternly, alienated from the faith of her youth, continually at loggerheads with her miserly husband over money, beaten down by life, and the habitual writer of suicide notes. One can easily interpret the once promising, now run-down neighbourhood the Jordaches live in as a metaphor for the disillusion and emotional debris of Mary’s life, right down to the telling observation: ‘How was she to know that the neighbourhood was going to deteriorate, that the people she would have liked to befriend would consider her beneath them, that the people who
would have liked to befriend her she would consider beneath her …?’ (p.39). Her loneliness is thus partly reinforced by her own snobbish self-delusion.Yet, most tragically, she is emotionally indifferent toward two of her three children. Rich Man, Poor Man begins in 1945 – in the last weeks of World War II – with Gretchen Jordache aged 19 and her brothers Rudolph and Thomas aged 16 and 15 respectively. The saga which will unfold over the next 23 years is primarily concerned with their diverse odysseys through one of the most tumultuous, most controversial eras of American history. It’s an epic of America’s great unholy trinity of sex, money and violence, with each of the Jordache siblings supplicant before the altar and victim on the cross of one of these obsessions – made flesh and made worse by their lethally incompatible parents. For Gretchen, her god and her demon is sex. While working as a volunteer nurse’s aide at a nearby Army hospital, she’s propositioned by a Black soldier who invites her to spend an afternoon with him and a buddy. They’re willing to pay her $800 they’ve accumulated in back pay for the privilege. Although initially repelled by the suggestion, Gretchen travels to the rendezvous point and is poised to keep the appointment when she is intercepted by Teddy Boylan, owner of the factory where she works. Boylan is the worldly, cynical, self-loathing scion of a family with
diverse holdings from sea to shining sea. He refers to himself as ‘The last and least of the line’ (p.54). He seduces Gretchen that same day. Boylan is, in effect, akin to a small-town Jay Gatsby – living in splendid isolation, savouring his secret pleasures in his mansion outside of town. (In choosing a name for this morally debauched and ultimately pitiable playboy, Shaw was perhaps having a little wicked fun of his own. While a student at Brooklyn College, Shaw had occasionally crossed swords with its strait-laced President, William A. Boylan. The choice of the same surname for Rich Man, Poor Man’s dissolute, amoral catalyst was a less than respectful tip of the hat). Gretchen becomes his mistress, but does not love him. ‘He was anonymous, nobody, the male principle, an abstract, unconnected priapus, for which she had been waiting, unknowing, all her life. He was a servant of her pleasures, holding a door open to a palace of marvels’ (pp.78-79). For Gretchen, her liaison with Teddy Boylan is essentially
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a rite of passage, part of and precipitation to her journey to adulthood and her departure from Port Philip.Yet ironically, Boylan becomes besotted and obsessed with her. At the end of their relationship, Gretchen walks away prepared for the next adventure in her young life; Boylan, by contrast, never quite gets over Gretchen (the last remnant of his lost youth?). When Gretchen’s brother Thomas finds out about the affair, he burns a cross on Boylan’s estate – in the wake of which, both Gretchen and Thomas are forced to leave Port Philip. Just before leaving, Gretchen says of her sexual awakening: ‘I liked it better than anything that ever happened to me’ (pp.122-123). Much of her quest thereafter is for sexual contentment – hence her marriage to Willie Abbott, a charming ex-Air Force Captain and would-be playwright whose fondness for booze and other women ultimately derails their domestic harmony; hence her second marriage to Colin Burke, a gifted theatrical and later movie director, not inclined toward liquor or lechery, but destined for a fatal automobile accident; hence the ill-starred friendship with a sociology student from Ghana which momentarily becomes sexual and results in humiliation, provoking memories of the long-ago proposition from the two Black GIs; and hence her affair with Evans Kinsella, another movie director, who has all of Colin Burke’s professional arrogance, but not his penchant for fidelity. Gretchen has no illusions about herself, confessing to Rudolph: ‘I’m New York’s easiest lay’ (p.340). By novel’s end she still hasn’t found true or lasting sexual fulfilment. Rudolph Jordache is the novel’s central character, the rich man of the title, and the great white hope of his parents. Rudolph’s dream, and his destiny, is material success. His impoverished upbringing focuses all his ambitions on the attainment of great wealth. He is the ‘straight arrow’ kid, the model student, dutiful, fastidious, aloof, and shrewd. His brother Thomas, not so much the classic prodigal son as a rebel without a damn, despises Rudolph; Gretchen, while closer to him, has the measure of the cool, calculating personality that is so indispensable to his smooth, seamless ascent. Yet, to Axel and Mary Jordache, Rudolph is the sole redemptive remnant of the dysfunctional family. Axel celebrates Rudolph’s birthday in uncharacteristically expansive fashion, toasting him (and surely galling his siblings) with: ‘May he justify our hopes and rise to the top and not forget us when he gets there’ (p.103). Mary’s feeling is even more intense.
All her love has been poured into Rudolph, so she has none left over for Gretchen and Thomas. Mary’s devotion to Rudolph recalls that of Paul Morel’s mother Gertrude in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers: in each case, the mother is repelled by the gross, drink-sodden brutality of her husband, and so pins her dreams on her sensitive son. Rudolph’s status as favourite son equips him psychologically – as does his image as a personable young man – to impress a series of surrogate father figures, each of whom aids his rise. Despite Rudolph’s knowledge of the affair with Gretchen, he permits Teddy Boylan to take him under his wing and finance his college education. Rudolph’s socially-conscious economics professor, Lawrence Denton, holds him in high esteem, in contrast to most of his contemporaries: ‘Serious among the frivolous. Compassionate among the pitiless. On the search for knowledge where others were merely searching for advancement’ (p.304). After graduation Rudolph becomes right-hand-man to flinty Yankee merchant Duncan Calderwood (whose name evokes memories of Frank Cowperwood, the capitalist hero of Theodore Dreiser’s big business trilogy, The Financier, The Titan and The Stoic). Rudolph takes advantage of 1950s consumer and demographic trends, modernises Calderwood’s department store, convinces his boss to build a shopping mall – and makes them both immensely wealthy in the process. Although Rudolph has a keen eye for commercial opportunity, it is significant that he prospers through honesty and hard work. He never tries to make a profit by dirty dealing. He is, essentially, a Puritan. Gretchen calls him ‘The commercial monk’, adding: ‘Except that instead of the vow of poverty, you’ve taken the vow of wealth’ (p.340). Shaw presents Rudolph as a decent, if flawed, character – a man who wants to achieve the best for himself, and one who does feel a sense of moral obligation to members of his family, but who is also rather cold, priggish and self-centred at the core of his being.Yet for all his criticism of savagery and hypocrisy in American society, Shaw also uses Rudolph to symbolise the fact that the United States still affords the best opportunity for men to thrive and prosper solely through honest industry, initiative and personal
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merit. In a 1980 interview with James R. Giles, Shaw addressed the aspirational theme at the heart of Rudolph’s story: ‘The whole cast is lower class, proletariat. Some of them rise above it … That’s one of the things I don’t like about … movies such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Last Picture Show. They never show anybody rising from that class, above the level of a kind of dumb brutality and resignation. The truth is that the men who wrote … both those things [Alan Sillitoe and Larry McMurtry], rose right above it ... [T]here is a great mobility in modern democracies. People rise and fall. And you have to show that … [I]f you just show utter desperation, you’re not being truthful to the times or to the society in which you live … [W]hile there are many things in the system that I’ve denounced, I haven’t come across a better system. People do get a chance to rise in it, and people can be decent here.’ Rudolph’s progressive and seemingly unstoppable rise ultimately comes with a price. The internal morality of sagas of the American Dream inevitably demands that success be tempered with tragedy; hubris must be punished and, after all, if such narratives didn’t remind us that having great wealth is no guarantee of happiness, then we’d all want some, wouldn’t we? Still, the irresistible rise of Rudolph Jordache through the boardrooms is not complemented in this tale by countless carefree conquests in the bedrooms of pliant, sated-as-never-before, breast-heaving beauties à la Harold Robbins. In contrast to the sexual swashbucklers known to populate panoramic, generational sagas of ambition and power, Rudolph is decidedly circumspect in his dealings with the ladies. As a teenager he is infatuated with his French teacher in high school, and he writes (but never sends) love letters, prior to drawing the fateful nude picture which provokes her meeting with Axel. Rudolph’s feeling for the woman is only a guileless adolescent fantasy – punctured once and for all when she is humiliated by his father. ‘He was haunted by the sight of Miss Lenaut, dissolved and ugly, weeping on her desk, and he was ashamed that he had ever thought a silly, shrill woman like that worthy of his passion’ (p.69).Yet, crucially, the most important reason for Rudolph’s reserve in romantic matters lies closer to home.
Confronted with the appallingly loveless example of his parents, he perceives marriage as a trap which he resolves to avoid. On V-E Night he encounters a girl, Julie Hornberg, whom he then dates for the next five years without seriously trying to make love to her. When she offers herself to him on the night of his graduation, he declines out of misguided propriety (and, ironically, later that night, loses his virginity to an experienced divorcée). He resists the temptations of romance in the workplace, and also sidesteps the obsessive and eventually unbalanced advances of Calderwood’s daughter,Virginia. Rudolph is exceedingly careful with women; so he’s essentially ill-prepared when tragedy stems from his marriage to the mercurial, promiscuous, unstable, ultimately alcoholic Jean Prescott. Jean’s drinking precipitates the end of Rudolph’s promising political career – and is also the spur behind the senseless tragedy which ends the novel.Yet part of the tragedy is Rudolph’s unwillingness to face the truth about Jean’s alcoholism until she is too far gone. When Gretchen tries to warn Rudolph about the seriousness of his wife’s situation, he shuts her off coldly. Croesus knows best. He’s similarly insensitive and arrogant when Gretchen asks him to use his connections to keep her son Billy out of Viet Nam. In fairness, Rudolph’s reluctance to intervene stems entirely from an abhorrence of abuse of privilege by political insiders. When Gretchen threatens to flee with Billy to Canada or Sweden, however, his response is spectacularly tactless: ‘What’s wrong with you – are you approaching the menopause or what?’ (p.596). Although Rudolph has accumulated fabulous wealth by being smart, and has cultivated popularity by being personable, evidently he has neglected to acquire wisdom along the way. Granted, Shaw believed his novel was a testament to the upward mobility of American society but, in the same 1980 interview, he pointed out: ‘Rich Man, Poor Man is a protest against the cruelty of the way the world treats the underdog.’ In Rich Man, Poor Man, Shaw created an archetypal underdog in the figure of Thomas Jordache, who is the outsider in both familial and societal terms. Thomas is utterly disdainful of that Horatio Alger/Jack Armstrong value system which his brother espouses so enthusiastically. When we first encounter him at age 15, Thomas isn’t enthusiastic about anything, except screwing prostitutes and brawling. Within the first chapter, we see his terrifying propensity for violence when he picks a fight with a GI in a cinema. The
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cross-burning stunt which precipitates his departure from Port Philip isn’t motivated by fraternal outrage over Gretchen’s affair with Boylan. Instead, it’s just an opportunity for a wild, reckless act of defiant nihilism which will offend the ‘grown-up phoneys’ (p.88) of his stifling small-town environment. Violence is as much the dominant thread running through Thomas’s life as sex is for Gretchen and money is for Rudolph, and the demon driving each one can be traced back to those unhappy, claustrophobic years with their parents in Port Philip. However, sex plays a crucial role in determining Thomas’s wayward and often destructive path. His first stop after Port Philip is working in his uncle’s garage in Elysium, Ohio (alongside a mechanic named Coyne, as it happens). At the age of 16, he finds love and happiness with Clothilde, a 25-year-old French-Canadian who works as his uncle’s housemaid. This idyll is short-lived, terminated by his uncle’s discovery. Harold Jordache, husband, father and prosperous upright citizen, has been trying to inveigle his way into Clothilde’s bed for two years – and now he has the ammunition that will guarantee him entry. ‘I’m a servant,’ Clothilde tells Thomas. ‘I lead the life of a servant. I do not want to lose my job or go to jail or go back to Canada’ (p.190), where her drunken abusive husband is searching for her. Clothilde’s submission to Uncle Harold is a stark
equation and illustration of social, economic and sexual exploitation; furthermore, it deprives Thomas of the only emotional stability and contentment he has ever known, and drives him back off the rails. He cuts a sexual swath through the willing ladies of Elysium, impregnating 16-year-old twins and thus being arrested for statutory rape. Axel flies to Ohio and shells out $5,000, explaining: ‘I did it for the only member of the family that’s worth a damn – your brother Rudolph. I’m not going to have him start out in life with a convict brother hanging around his neck’ (p.216). Significantly, from Arnold Simms’s propositioning of Gretchen, through her affair with Boylan, to Axel paying off the twins’ disgruntled father, the bartering of money for sex is a constant factor. Thomas’s new disgrace results in another speedy exit from town; and his father, now impoverished, commits suicide. Thomas’s odyssey through 1950s America is largely a saga of staying one jump ahead of trouble, but he surpasses himself in 1960 when, after sleeping
with the wife of a Mafia-financed boxer, he beats the vengeful cuckold to a pulp. Thomas has to flee the United States and he ends up on a merchant marine ship, where he clashes with a thuggish bully named Falconetti, who terrorises the crew, humiliates a Black sailor called Renway, and implies a homosexual relationship between Thomas and his friend Roy Dwyer. Finally, Falconetti goads Thomas too far and earns a thorough beating for his troubles. Subsequently, Thomas takes to punching Falconetti in the gut on a once-a-day basis. Later, when he makes Falconetti sit silently next to Renway in the mess room, this enforced integration is more than the ruffian can bear and he throws himself overboard. Thomas is haunted by Falconetti’s death. ‘Putting a loud-mouth ex-con in his place was one thing. Putting the boots to him so hard that he killed himself was another. Somewhere, Thomas realised, a man who considered himself a human being should know where to stop, leave another man a place to live in. Sure, Falconetti was a pig and deserved a lesson, but the lesson should have ended somewhere else than in the middle of the Atlantic’ (p.476). A crucial part of Thomas’s own inner torment, as Shaw himself once noted, is his struggle to suppress and overcome the savage violence which for so long has been native to his character. Thereafter, he even on occasion becomes a peacemaker to avert bar-room brawls. As
one English friend remarks: ‘Every day is Armistice Day with you,Yank’ (p.539). Tragically, however, Thomas ultimately masters and stifles his violent impulses precisely when he needs to keep his hand in. As the novel winds to its close, Thomas has finally made a good life for himself. He is skipper of his own boat (which he has christened the Clothilde) in Antibes, and in 1968 he marries an English girl named Kate. Rudolph, Jean and Gretchen come to France for the wedding – and a single sip of gin is enough to send Jean on a furtive nocturnal quest for booze, which leads into the clutches of a vicious Yugoslavian pimp, Danovic, intent on rape. In a brutal encounter, Thomas beats Danovic but stops short of killing him. As Thomas returns to the boat with Jean, he has found a new contentment in the realisation that he was incapable of killing Danovic. In addition, he is finally, wholly reconciled with Rudolph, ‘leaving his brother and his brother’s guilts and gratitudes behind him’ (p.632).
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That might have been an excellent point at which to end the novel, and that’s probably where a lot of writers would have ended it. But not Irwin Shaw. In two more sub-chapters, lasting a total of three pages, and in almost callously bloodless, matter-of-fact prose, Danovic reappears to oversee Thomas’s murder and then escapes unpunished, leaving the stunned survivors of the Jordache clan to scatter their brother’s ashes at sea. I’ve tried in these pages to build the case for Rich Man, Poor Man as a monumental American novel of the first rank, but that hurried, tacked-on, senselessly cruel ending is a blemish on this masterwork. Shaw was a great believer in fate determined by accident (in the sense of chance, rather than cataclysm). He once declared his philosophy to be: ‘Believe in man, and take the accidents as they come.’ Rich Man, Poor Man’s climactic determining accident is merely a log that hits the starboard propeller of the boat – cancelling their planned voyage to Portofino and necessitating their return to Antibes, where Jean will encounter Danovic. Yet unfortunately, this same sense of a rushed, cop-out ending is apparent in perhaps six of Shaw’s 12 novels. The Young Lions, Nightwork, Beggarman,Thief, Bread Upon the Waters and Acceptable Losses, as well as Rich Man, Poor Man, all show signs of a master-craftsman constructing a fictional world which draws the reader in engrossingly – only to be thrown away in the last few pages by a lazy or slapdash conclusion, which gives the impression of a writer determined to be finished by tea-time, no matter what. Nevertheless, the lifelong trajectories of the Jordache siblings are determined by a chance instance of time and place, as Gretchen makes clear to Rudolph following their mother’s funeral. In this scene Shaw uses Gretchen as his mouthpiece, delivering a speech which is part-explanatory, part-accusatory and quietly lacerating. In the process Gretchen identifies her (and also Shaw’s) prime candidate for consideration as the true villain of the piece: ‘I carried the luck of the whole family. If I hadn’t been on a certain road at lunch-time near Port Philip one Saturday afternoon, all our lives would’ve been completely different … ‘… Teddy Boylan … He picked me up. I am what I am today largely because of him. I’ve slept with the men I’ve slept with because of Teddy Boylan. I ran away to New York because of Teddy Boylan. I met Willie Abbott because of Teddy Boylan and despised him finally because he wasn’t different enough from Teddy Boylan and I loved Colin because he was the opposite of Teddy Boylan. All those scolding articles I wrote that everybody thought were so smart, were digs at America because it produced men like Teddy Boylan and made life easy for men like Teddy Boylan … ‘… If I hadn’t met Teddy Boylan and laid him, do you think Tom would have burned a cross
on his hill? Do you think he’d have been sent away like a criminal if there’d never been a Teddy Boylan? Do you think he’d be just what he is today if he’d stayed in Port Philip with his family around him? … ‘… You think you’d have gone to college without Teddy Boylan’s money? You think you’d dress the way you do or be so interested in success and money and how to get there the fastest way possible without Teddy Boylan? Do you think somebody else would have sought you out and taken you to concerts and art galleries and pampered you through school, and given you all that lordly confidence in yourself, if it hadn’t been Teddy Boylan?’ (pp.489, 490) On its publication in September 1970, Rich Man, Poor Man fell prey to fairly tepid reviews. Most damning of all was Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s verdict in the New York Times: ‘Irwin Shaw’s big sixth novel, the one he was finally going to make a comeback with, is bad, bad … It’s especially bad because it looks for a while as if he’s going to pull it off – it’s like a great old fighter who shows the great old moves in the early rounds and then begins to fall apart, swinging gracefully off target, staggering when he hasn’t been hit, and finally collapsing from sheer exhaustion. Rich Man, Poor Man is finally so bad that one even begins to wonder if the great old fighter ever had it at all, whether we weren’t taken in by the play Bury the Dead, the good short stories of the Thirties, and the novel The Young Lions.’ Yet, by mid-October of 1970, Rich Man, Poor Man was on the New York Times bestseller list – climbing to number three on the chart and remaining in that position until Spring of 1971 (never quite managing to dislodge Erich Segal’s Love Story from the top spot, but even getting to No. 3 on the NYT chart means very rarely having to say you’re sorry). And better – much better – was yet to come. Within six months of the mini-series of Rich Man, Poor Man’s first TV broadcast in 1976, Dell had 5,300,000 paperback copies in print. Episode one of Universal-ABC’s television serialisation of Rich Man, Poor Man first aired in the United States on 1 February 1976. Not only did this show revitalise Shaw’s fame and boost his wealth, but it sparked off a small revolution in high-quality American television. It was the first multi-episode yet finite US TV serial, thereafter known as ‘mini-series’: programmes of limited duration, each tracing a continuing narrative over several episodes (its format akin to classic British serials such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Elizabeth R (1971) and I, Claudius (1976)), focusing on the lives and fortunes of a core group of characters or on a particular historical event, backdrop or era. Mini-series were different from conventional series, in which each episode is self-contained; instead, these were continuing sagas, with their fair share of melodramatic contrivances spilling over from one episode to the next.Yet unlike Peyton Place, the flagship of American prime-time soap opera in the 1960s, Rich Man, Poor Man and the other mini-series to follow
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had a recognisable beginning, middle and end. Rich Man, Poor Man had two significant consequences for the development of American TV programming from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. It unleashed a stream of mini-series as the grand-scale narrative entertainment events of the small screen. Think of Roots (1977), Washington Behind Closed Doors (1977), Holocaust (1978), Centennial (1978), Shogun (1980), The Winds of War (1983), The Thorn Birds (1983), North and South (1985) and Lonesome Dove (1988). Each of these, epic in its own right, followed the trail pioneered by Rich Man, Poor Man. Second, the TV serialisation of Shaw’s panoramic novel whetted audiences’ appetite for melodramatic sagas revolving around money, sex, and feuding families. In this respect, Rich Man, Poor Man prefigured both Dallas (1978-1991) and Dynasty (19811989) – but its ideology differed markedly from that ‘Greed is Good’ ethos of the execrable Eighties. Rich Man, Poor Man provided a showcase for two remarkable, hitherto little-known young actors, launching Peter Strauss as a rising star of American television and Nick Nolte on a successful movie career. Peter Strauss starred as the earnest, industrious, hyper-ambitious Rudy Jordache, with Nick Nolte capturing the hearts and sympathies of audiences as his wild, reckless, violent, ultimately doomed brother Tom (with their Christian names shortened from the novel immediately inviting a higher level of audience familiarity). The show also featured a prestigious supporting cast, unprecedented in the annals of movies made for TV, among them old-time Hollywood stars (Dorothy McGuire as Mary Jordache, Ray Milland as Calderwood, Dorothy Malone,Van Johnson, Gloria Grahame) and familiar television faces (Robert Reed in a career-best performance as Teddy Boylan, Bill Bixby as Willie Abbott and, in Emmy Award-winning roles, Fionnuala Flanagan as Clothilde (transformed, accordingly, from French-Canadian to Irish) – and, head and shoulders above all other supporting players, a monumental turn from Edward Asner as the brutal, embittered Axel). The TV serialisation began on V-E Night in 1945 and concluded in 1965 (Shaw’s novel, dealing with the same climactic events, had ended in 1968). TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man had taken roughly the same trajectories of the brothers’ lives, taking Rudy from idealistic high school senior (young man most likely to succeed) to serious but shrewd student and commercial go-getter, and thereafter from coolly self-possessed executive kingpin to honest, progressive Senator – just before his career and his life go into tailspin due to his wife’s alcoholism. Like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, Rudy begins as a bright-eyed All-American kid who gradually becomes more calculating and more ruthless. He never plumbs the moral depths, as does Michael Corleone.Yet by the end of the nine-hour saga, all Rudy’s aspirations have proved hollow, and his shattered marriage and his brother’s murder leave him ill-consoled by all the wealth he has accumulated.
Nolte’s Tom starts out as a vicious, nihilistic tearaway – certainly the marginalised son, but a scary little hoodlum nonetheless; the sequence in which Tom goads a soldier into a brawl outside a movie theatre is a perfect example of his propensity for mindless violence.Yet it’s also clear that the odds are continually stacked against him at home. One scene (expanded from a brief exchange of dialogue in the novel) features Tom provoking a fight with Rudy in the bedroom they share; Axel comes in and, without asking questions, knocks Tom clear across the room. After Tom’s fiery transgression on Boylan’s property (here transformed from the potentially politically suggestive cross-burning to an act of arson in Boylan’s greenhouse), another violent confrontation between father and son ends with Tom punching Axel, and sending him crashing into a glass display of pastries. The first glimpse we see of Tom’s vulnerability is at the very end of episode one – when there are tears in his eyes as he takes the bus out of Port Philip. Through the rest of the saga, Tom is increasingly humanised rather than brutalised, and we feel all his subsequent defeats and keenly. Tom’s the classic anti-hero who (after Port Philip, anyway) seldom goes looking for trouble – but somehow it always finds him. He is redeemed by Clothilde’s love but, understandably, goes off the rails after he loses her. As a consequence he becomes involved with the sluttish Teresa (Talia Shire, real-life sister of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), whose subsequent pregnancy causes Axel’s financial ruin. Tom becomes a boxer, is building a good professional reputation for himself, and also becomes a devoted father when his wife has a son. But when she leaves Tom and takes the boy with her, he goes off in pursuit – sacrificing his shot at the title, hence consigning his boxing career to the doldrums. Later, he’s making ends meet as sparring partner to Mafia-controlled boxer Joey Quayles (George Maharis) till his dalliance with Quayles’s wife prompts an unscheduled bout of fisticuffs and he has to flee the country. Tom tries to keep a low profile as a merchant seaman, until the shipboard bully Falconetti (William Smith) pushes him too far. In the final episode, happy and successful at last, he has just been reunited with his son and married Kate (Kay Lenz), so the last thing he wants is trouble … and yet it finds him, once again, when his brother’s wife sneaks off to hit the booze. In contrast to the bloodless, throwaway paragraphs with which Shaw ended the novel, the screen version of the scattering of Tom’s ashes at sea featured a dignified, emotionally charged speech by the newly-wed and newly-widowed Kate. There was scarcely a dry eye in the audience as Alex North’s evocative title music swelled and the end credits rolled. Rudy Jordache had lost his brother. The rest of us felt we’d lost a friend. Naturally, there were a number of changes in the adaptation of the novel for the screen. One small change, among the most instantly discernible but readily comprehensible, involved the scene between
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Axel and the French teacher. In the novel, Rudy has drawn Miss Lenaut in the nude; in the TV adaptation Tom is the budding artist. In the novel, Rudy’s sketch is symptomatic of his naïve teenage romanticism; in the TV show both the art and the act are more in keeping with Tom’s recklessness, while Rudy is quite straitlaced. Yet the most significant alteration between page and screen concerned an ingenious conflation of disparate personalities. There were so many characters in Irwin Shaw’s sprawling narrative that executive producer Harve Bennett and scriptwriter Dean Riesner kept the project manageable by combining different characters from the book into one person in the mini-series. Thus the Chasen twins whom Tom impregnates in Elysium and Teresa, whom he marries and who becomes mother to his son Wesley, are all rolled into the character of Teresa, portrayed by Talia Shire. Willie Abbott, the drunken philandering would-be playwright who becomes Gretchen’s first husband in the novel, and Colin Burke, the second husband who dies in a car crash, are combined in the mini-series so that Bill Bixby’s Willie Abbott is the boozy, womanising, failed writer who marries the heroine and later perishes in a road accident. Tom’s seafaring friend Roy Dwyer and their Black shipmate Renway become one: the TV show’s Roy Dwyer (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) is Black, and he is the butt of Falconetti’s racist as well as sexual taunts. In the book, Falconetti was a loathsome figure, but he only lasted six pages before pitching himself into his well-deserved watery grave. In the TV version, William Smith’s Falconetti becomes one of the most memorable, certainly most hateful villains of all time; for, in the mini-series, Falconetti doesn’t throw himself overboard. Instead, his fight with Tom results in the loss of an eye. Ingeniously – and fatally – Falconetti, clad all in black and complete with sinister eyepatch, is combined with Danovic. It’s not just any old waterfront tough whom Rudy’s alcoholic wife falls prey to, but Tom’s old nemesis. This changes Tom’s death from a freak of chance to a reckoning waiting to happen. The most electrifying alteration, however, was the one which caused Irwin Shaw most indignation. The female lead in the mini-series is a combination of three major characters. Gretchen Jordache, the boys’ sister, is excised from the TV version. Her sexual adventures (being propositioned by Arnold Simms (Mike Evans), the affair with Teddy Boylan, marriage to Willie Abbott) are given to the TV-invented great love of Rudy’s life, Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely). She’s Rudy’s first girlfriend (incorporating Julie Hornberg) and years later, after her disastrous marriage to Willie Abbott, she finally marries Rudy and then descends into alcoholism (like Jean Prescott).
Shaw was reportedly furious when Harve Bennett declared that the changes made for the television version were an improvement on the story. Actually, I’m inclined to agree (bearing in mind that I first saw the mini-series in July 1976 and read the novel in the August; I might have believed otherwise if I had read the novel first). I’d suggest that the fusion of Gretchen Jordache, Julie Hornberg and Jean Prescott into Julie Prescott lends the tale a fatalistic unity missing from Shaw’s original novel, and this changes the tragedy from one of accident to one of character. In the televised version, the same person who figuratively sparked off the pyrotechnics – sneaking around with Teddy Boylan, and hence provoking Tom into the act of arson that makes him an outcast – is the one who, by another furtive act, inadvertently causes Tom’s death. In the book Rudy’s tragedy is that after many years of caution in his dealings with women, he happens to marry the wrong one. In the mini-series, Rudy’s problem is that Julie is the only woman he ever truly loved; his tragedy is he finally wins her. It’s a classic case of being careful what you wish for, because you might get it. He’s not completely blameless, either; when Julie suffers a miscarriage Rudy sidelines her by prioritising his senatorial campaign – thus giving her plenty of time to seek solace in the bottle. Julie Prescott is, initially, almost an American Lara. Like the heroine of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, she is the sweetheart of a rather rigid, puritanical, sexually inexperienced youth, but she succumbs to the advances of a worldly older man who is at heart thoroughly amoral, decadent and corrupt. There’s no doubt Teddy Boylan would recognise in Zhivago’s Victor Komarovsky a kindred spirit in debauch. But it’s entirely plausible to read Julie not as a selfish bitch but rather as a woman who is constantly being thwarted and stifled, so that her entire characterisation is a cri de cœur. Rudy has her on a pedestal and is too focused on his education as the first step in furtherance of his own ambitions. When Julie articulates her Bovary-type frustration with life in Port Philip and offers to live with him sans marriage licence in New York City, he doesn’t take the idea seriously. Later that night, when she offers herself to him, he says: ‘This isn’t something you do lightly.’ She replies: ‘It isn’t something you do at all.’ Rudy’s sexual timidity propels Julie straight into Teddy Boylan’s bed. Julie leaves Port Philip for New York, where she tries to make it as an actress. Her whirlwind romance with Willie Abbott settles, after marriage, into a routine of chores and motherhood and boozy evenings and Willie’s casual adulteries. Julie finds professional fulfilment as a photographer; after her divorce from Willie, she enjoys her independence.
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She is happy to rekindle her first love with Rudy – but she is conscious that she’s a very different person now. The financially shrewd but emotionally naïve Rudy still looks at Julie through the eyes of a teenager. It’s Rudy who is eager for them to get married. Just before this finally happens (in 1962) he tells her: ‘Julie, you have got to make up your mind.’ Julie says: ‘There are people who just aren’t meant to be married, you know. I’m beginning to think I’m one of them … All I know is that when Willie and I were living together, we had a marvellous time. As soon as we got married the whole thing went to pieces.’ There’s a warning in there, but Rudy just doesn’t hear it. Julie’s reservations are prophetic. Rudy’s post-entrepreneurial political career demands too much of his time, while Julie’s miscarriage and slide into alcoholism lead to a widening gulf that portends the disintegration of their marriage. Rudy is an emotional inadequate, Julie is desperately dissatisfied. Ironically, Tom, who alone finds true contentment, dies partly because of their shortcomings. Rather daringly for a mid-1970s mainstream American TV show, Rich Man, Poor Man contained a few well-aimed swipes at corporate capitalism. In line with Shaw’s original intent, the mini-series exhibited a pronounced sympathy for the underdog. The most striking example was in an address direct to camera by Rudy’s economics tutor, Professor Denton (Lawrence Pressman), set in 1947 when HUAC was riding high: ‘The American economy is a rigged crap table with loaded dice. The laws are carefully arranged so that the rich throw only sevens, and everybody else throws snake eyes. These laws are called “tax shelters”. The Wall Streeters and the plutocrats get richer, and the poor get it where the cat got the thermometer. Case in point. In 1932, Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, American citizen and multi-millionaire, didn’t pay one cent of income tax. Not one red – excuse the expression, these are sensitive times – not one red cent of income tax. During that same year, on a tutor’s salary, I paid exactly five hundred and thirty-seven dollars and thirty cents to the Federal government.’ If that’s the most didactic example, probably the most poignant comes when Willie Abbott says to the newlygraduated Rudy: ‘You’ve come in your little Brooks Brothers suit, ready to knock the big city on its can by making a million dollars before you’re thirty years old. The Great American Dream – is that it?’ Rudy asks defensively: ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Willie replies forlornly: ‘Don’t ask me – I only work here.’
Rich Man, Poor Man had an especial generational appeal to Americans who, like its protagonists, came of age after World War II. But it quickly became compelling entertainment for 50 million viewers – the kind of TV event that prompted conversations around the watercooler at work the next morning. ABC, with a huge hit on its hands, rushed a TV sequel into production, and the 21-episode Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II aired over the 1976-1977 season. Peter Strauss returned as the surviving brother Rudy, Susan Blakely made a guest appearance as Julie in the pilot episode, and much of the action now concerned Tom’s son, Wesley (Gregg Henry), and Julie’s son, Billy Abbott (James Carroll Jordan). According to the deal ‘Swifty’ Lazar had cut in 1971, Universal now owned exclusive TV rights to Rich Man, Poor Man and had no need to consult Shaw about the further development of the characters. Later in 1977 Shaw published his own version of the continuing adventures of the Jordache clan, titled Beggarman,Thief. Like the sequel made for TV, Shaw’s new novel began immediately after Tom’s funeral and thereafter centred in large part on Wesley Jordache and Billy Abbott.Yet, in every other respect, TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II and Irwin Shaw’s Beggarman,Thief were entirely different stories. In 1979, Universal also filmed Beggarman,Thief for television, but there really didn’t seem to be much point. Unlike 197677’s Book II starring Peter Strauss, TV’s Beggarman,Thief didn’t refer back directly to its phenomenal progenitor. It featured entirely different actors in key roles, starring Jean Simmons as never-before televised Gretchen, and Rudy, who had figured prominently in Shaw’s Beggarman,Thief, was omitted altogether from the two-part TV version. It was a travesty. It felt like watching strangers masquerading unsuccessfully as old friends. It made one wish that Universal and ABC had poured their energies into developing Rich Man, Poor Man – Book III instead. Ask most enthusiasts of the Jordache saga, they’ll tell you that’s where the televised versions stop. In 1982, with the Cold War still decidedly frosty, the Russians made their own TV version of Shaw’s book, a five-hour, four-part epic serial titled Bogach, Bednyak. The first episode begins with Elvis Presley singing ‘America the Beautiful’, but what’s on offer here is clearly America the Horrible, as the song plays against grainy footage of police brutality, racial unrest, class strife, militarism, violence, gross sexuality and bizarre frivolity. The great 1976 mini-series focused (as Shaw’s novel had) on the Jordaches as a microcosm of the aspirations of America’s post-war generation. Bogach, Bednyak, by contrast, starts from a single ideological premise: that the United States is a grotesquely debased society. It’s keen to belabour the image of America as a police state. Tom is hauled off by nightstick-wielding cops after his street brawl with the GI outside the cinema,
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and there is even a quietly understated but ominous police presence at a teenagers’ dance. Several unsavoury aspects of Shaw’s novel, excised from Universal’s mini-series, are restored here to add weight to the pervasive sense of moral corruption or despair. The mother’s suicide attempt, Axel’s random poisoning of a roll before his own demise, and Tom’s blackmail of an upper-class kleptomaniac at a gym where he is working were all excised from the classic TV series – but they all resurface in this Russian nightmare of the American Dream. Credibility is strained by the fact that many of the exteriors are clearly filmed on Eastern European streets – and continuity is all but shattered by the fact that Rudy and Tom are each played by two different actors! A number of the characters who were combined for the American adaptation are redivided into their separate individual personalities. Gretchen features prominently from the beginning, and Rudy’s girlfriend Julie is the most laughable Russian caricature of an American singer (N.B.: ‘Goodnight, Ladies’ was not a popular hit among American teenagers of the mid-1940s); Dwyer and Renway appear as separate characters; and so, lethally, do Falconetti and Danovic. There is a significant degree of elision (eg. Axel is ruined by shelling out money, not for Tom’s sexual profligacy with teenage twins, but for burning the cross – that, too, is restored – on Boylan’s lawn); however, overall, Bogach, Bednyak attempts to be more faithful to the contours of Shaw’s novel than the acclaimed Hollywood mini-series, which became a global success. There are two major instances of character conflation that are entirely the invention of the Russian series. Teddy Boylan is not only Gretchen’s seducer and Rudy’s mentor, but he also supplants Calderwood as Rudy’s senior business partner. Also, Rudy’s ill-fated marriage is to Boylan’s newly-invented daughter, ‘Jane’, who embodies both the psychological instability of Virginia Calderwood and the alcoholism of Jean Prescott – and factors crucially in the events culminating in Tom’s death. Bogach, Bednyak’s Teddy Boylan exercises a demonic influence over the Jordache family that’s all the more ruinous. He’s Jay Gatsby,Victor Komarovsky and Mephistopheles rolled into one: an epic villain for the most epic, most American of sagas. Michael Coyne is author of The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western (1997), the novel The Sun From Both Sides (2006), and American Political Films (forthcoming from Reaktion Books).
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