Sunday, June 1, 2008

Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell

Did you know that Ernest Hemingway called Dawn Powell his “favorite living writer?”

In “Turn, Magic Wheel,” written in 1936, Dawn Powell began a series of books satirizing literary life in New York City. Powell’s biographer, Tim Page, has stated “if there is another novel that manages simultaneously to be so funny and so sad, so riotous and so realistic, so acute and yet so accepting in the portrayal of flawed humankind, I have not yet found it.” All this high praise is much deserved for I haven’t read a book this good in years!

Ambitious novelist Dennis Orphen decides make a name for himself by writing a book based on the life of his close friend Effie Calingham – ex-wife to a Hemingway-like literary legend. Fifteen years have passed since Effie graciously let Andrew Callingham run off with another woman. At the time the scorned wife made a conscious choice not to put up a fight or indulge in any melodramatic scenes in the belief that he’d love her all the more for making it easy for the literary legend to pursue what she thought would be a temporary dalliance. But was it the right choice?

Long after her divorce has gone through and after Andrew’s marriage to Marian, her rival, Effie valiantly upholds her ex-husband’s legend and her connection to him. She wears his name like a banner; she admits to no one that she has been thrown over and rejected; she feeds on her memories, exalting Andy as a hero, she nurses a secret, romantic hope that some day he will return to her.

During Andrew Callingham’s self-imposed exile abroad, he has become a writer of extraordinary repute, inciting the up-and-coming novelist and notorious womanizer Dennis Orphen to seek out a platonic friendship with a much older woman, the author’s ex-wife, as a means of access to the great man. Although they are the closest of friends, Dennis and Effie see each other daily; though he has an angry pity for her, though his attitude is one of half-worshiping affection, Dennis wants to make a name for himself as a writer, so he cannot resist the temptation of putting Effie into print.

Dennis has a ravenous curiosity about other people’s lives, and Effie’s romantic story offers him tantalizing material. “Turn, Magic Wheel” opens on the eve of his tell-all’s publication and the revelation of his blatant betrayal of Effie. Under the thinnest of disguises he’s written a book about the Callinghams, exposing Andy as an egotistical rake, proof that Effie’s life is founded on pathetic lies.

While Effie, whom he despises himself for hurting, is attempting put on a game face to the world, Dennis has his own problems. For several years he’s been stringing along his girlfriend, Corinne, an aspiring writer and devoted, desperate housewife who deceives her prosperous husband with breathless innocence. For all her frivolity, her alternating clinginess and flirtations with other men, Dennis and Corinne share a powerful sexual attraction; while he has no illusions about her, she is a necessary evil to him. Corinne, then, has the power to arouse his passion and his jealousy, but--by a strange quirk--it is to Effie that his loyalty is given – for she’s the one woman who will never try to tie him down.

The newspapers’ proclaim the debut of Dennis Orphen’s roman-a-clef of Andrew and Effie marriage and break-up, they also bring news that Andrew has thrown over Marian for a Swedish dancer. In an ironic twist, Effie can only empathize with Marion while secretly hoping for Andrew’s return. When word reaches Effie that Marian is dying of cancer in a nearby hospital, Effie has enough kindred spirit in her to attend to her now pitiful rival in her desperate time of need, she also recognizes the opportunity to connect once more with her ex-husband when Marian enlists Effie’s help in summoning Andrew to her death bed.

The scenes between the two Mrs. Callinghams, their dialogue and inner thoughts as they re-hash their roles in the great man’s life and career, their feelings for each other as rivals who share a past and man only they can understand are alone worth the price of reading this book.

Will literary lion Andrew Callingham tear himself away from his new girlfriend, from his splendid life of wealth and acclaim to re-unite with Marion? Or Effie? Both? Neither? And what of his opinion on Dennis Orphen’s just released libelous book and Effie’s connection to its author? More so than any thriller I’ve read this year, this book kept me up nights, turning the pages to find out the answers.

But “Turn, Magic Wheel” is about so much more than this. With the advent of Dennis Orphen’s book, and its subsequent sensation, Ms. Powell satirizes the NY literary world, skewering publishers, agents, editors, and writers in equal measure. What surprised me was how little the industry has changed since the 1930’s when hype and controversy ruled over talent, and derivative pedestrian writing still finds an audience.In the tradition of the best old Woody Allen films, this book pays homage to Manhattan; the lyrical descriptions of the city will leave you breathless. Every minor character in this book is distinct and exquisitely drawn, and the main characters are complex, each a study in contrasts, inner conflicts and irony. With its fully realized characters and scenes that are both hilarious and heartbreaking in the same moment, this is the ideal teaching novel – a level of perfection to which every writer should aspire. The more than satisfying ending is an inevitable surprise, a moment when you say “of course” and at the same time say, “God, I never would have guessed.”

Dawn Powell was born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, on November 28, 1896, the second of three daughters. Her father was a traveling salesman, and her mother died a few days after Dawn turned seven. After enduring great cruelty at the hands of her stepmother,
Dawn ran away at the age of thirteen and eventually arrived at the home of her maternal aunt, who served hot meals to travelers emerging from the train station across the street. Dawn worked her way through college and made it to New York. There she married a young advertising executive and had one child, a boy who suffered from autism, then an unknown condition.

Powell referred to herself as a “permanent visitor” in her adopted Manhattan and brought to her writing a perspective gained from her upbringing in Middle America. She knew many of the great writers of her time, and Diana Trilling famously said it was Dawn “who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit.”

When Powell died in 1965, virtually all her books had gone out of print. Not a single historical survey of American literature mentioned her, even in passing. And so she rested in peace, seemingly destined to be forgotten – or, to put it more exactly, never to be remembered.

How things have changed! Twelve of Powell’s novels have now been reissued, along with editions of her plays, diaries, letters, and short stories. She has joined the Library of America, admitted to the illustrious company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Edith Wharton. She is taught in college and read with delight on vacation. For the contemporary poet and novelist Lisa Zeidner,

writing in The New York Times Book Review, Powell “is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland, and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh.”For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell’s sudden popularity: “We are catching up to her.”

Her books live, and with these newly designed editions, with their reading group guides inside, more people than ever before will be able to hear Dawn’s distinctive voice.