John Crowley’s most recent novel, Four Freedoms, published in 2009, is, like The Translator, a mainstream novel set in a recent history period, this time some twenty years earlier.
The story takes place during the Second World War, and centres upon a number of disparate individuals, drawn together to work at the gigantic Van Damme Aircraft construction plant, outside Ponca City, Oklahoma. Prosper Olandar, Vi Harbison, Connie Wrobleski and Diane Nunez are just four of many who have come into this place, a virtual city on its own, drawn or driven by various reasons to the effort to defeat the Nazis and the Japs.
I hadn’t read the book before writing this review and, not being American, I didn’t understand this significance of its title, which is an overt reference to a speech of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the Four Freedoms that he regarded as being essential for the lives of all American citizens. Midway through the novel, Crowley makes this reference explicit, through he only names two of the Freedoms whilst doing so.
However, it seems to me that he is using Roosevelt’s (locally) famous maxim as a reflection, a symbol, and that the freedoms the book refers to lies in regard to the fates of those characters who come together in these pages.
Four Freedoms is similar to Endless Things in that it continues Crowley’s plainer, less involved style. The narrative is more straightforward, the philosophical speculations about alternatives and motives is similarly withdrawn. At least the book continues Crowley’s minimal approach to plotting, lacking in strong storylines that require action.
The main character is the unlikely named Prosper Olander – all the other characters are given down-home names, plain and real, and reflective of the American Melting Pot. Prosper is an artist, a lover and a cripple, dependant upon crutches, unable to climb stairs, his legs imprisoned by braces. He is not a victim of polio, though that condition is assumed by others, but rather of spinal lordosis, coupled with an unsuccessful operation for spine-straightening, when he was ten.
An orphan by that point, Prosper is brought up by a pair of lesbian aunts and a pair of wide-boy uncles, who try not to mix with each other any more than is necessary. These relationships persist until Prosper begins sleeping with a woman a few years older than him, Elaine, and when he refuses to use his artistic skills to forge gas stamps (Black Market fake petrol rationing coupons).
His uncles cut him off, Elaine abandons him at an Elevated Railway station because he can’t get up the stairs and his meeting with a curious man of social planning instincts, named Pancho Notzing, takes the two of them to Oklahoma, and Henryville, the company town that has quickly grown up around the Van Damme plant.
But despite his apparent deficiencies, in an era that noticed and made much of such things, Prosper doesn’t half get it on with the ladies. There’s the tall, strong Vi, escaping from a dying family farm, a top class softball pitcher and star of the works team. When she ends it, it’s just in time for Connie, following a husband who doesn’t want here and their boy here, and not just because he’s screwing someone else. And if that’s not enough, there’s Diane, latina passing for white, maybe or maybe not married, whom Prosper gets pregnant.
The back-stories of these ladies parallel that of Prosper, but the end is still the same: they go off and leave him. Vi meets up with a truck-driving lady-friend, and the pair go off to enter into a lesbian relationship. Connie really only has eyes for her husband, though she is punished for making the wrong choice by his being killed on service. As for Diane, Prosper sends her and his unborn child away with Martha, a jewish woman, a natural flyer, to her returned, war-traumatised husband, reuniting them quickly enough that he will never realise the the boy isn’t his.
I found Four Freedoms difficult and unsatisfying. Not difficult to read, for Crowley has lost not of his fluidity. But I never became attached to the characters in any way. I found it difficult to care about what happened to them, to remain interested long enough.
In part, this was because the book was too similar in its milieu to an old J. B. Priestley novel, a wartime propaganda piece, all but forgotten, but which completely absorbed me. Daylight on Saturday is set in a UK munitions factory, it’s title deriving from the early starts and late finishes that mean that the workers really only do see daylight on Saturday. It’s a mosaic novel, with multiple characters, the viewpoint passing from one to another as if along a chain, drawing together people of all shapes and sizes, minds and hearts, and ultimately leading to madness and the tragedy of a good man’s death in saving an innocent, and though I haven’t read it in many years, its simple strength, and Priestley’s deeply-characterised people given even dim memories of it a far greater potency than this less-then-rooted novel.
The ending, when it comes, seems rushed. The events of the war, which up to a very late point, have not penetrated this self-sufficient world, suddenly start tumbling over one another. The (fictitious) wonder bomber they’ve been building never gets off the ground, there’s Victory in Europe, plans are made for the return of the men, women are laid off to go home and cook, blacks to their places, cripples to be replaced by the able-bodied.
A twister destroys Henryville and the plant. Prosper and a number of his friends go on to the next phase of their lives, the book comes to an end.
Four Freedoms is about painting a picture of an age, with phenomenal accuracy if the book’s blurbs are to be believed. I may enjoy it more on a re-reading but, unlike The Translator, there is a complete absence of poetry herein.
Many years ago, I composed an aphorism that summed up my belief in what is the minimum necessity for a work of fiction, that it must make us care about something that never happened to someone who never existed. On that level, I cannot really pass Four Freedoms.