U.S.A. (trilogy)

by John Dos Passos

U.S.A. is comprised of three separate books: The 42nd Parallel, Nineteen Nineteen, & The Big Money. Dos Passos' writing could be generally classified as historical fiction, and the time period this trilogy is concerned with is the before, during, & after of WWI. Fortunately, with each book of the trilogy at about 400 pages in length, I am happy to report that I find U.S.A. eminently readable! (Although I think I liked the books slightly less as I went along; the last one not quite as enjoyable as the first two.) If you have gaps in your understanding of the first three decades of the twentieth century, this volume is actually a great history book. And in particular, John Dos Passos paints a beautiful & heartbreaking portrait of the history of the Labor movement.

There are also some unlikely modernist parts to each of the books in the trilogy. In such chapters, cadence, tone, & even font change, signaling that the reader is headed into experimental writing. These sections are called "Newsreels" & "Camera Eyes." The former read like what it would sound like if someone else were controlling the dial of a radio & surfing: tuning in a signal just long enough to catch a news headline or the strain of a popular tune, before turning the dial to the next station. And the latter are more stream of consciousness yet! Both kind of look & read a little like e.e. cummings. They take getting used to, so please don't be scared off of reading U.S.A. if you open to page one of book one, and it makes no sense. One adjusts to that particular ebb & flow of writing (plus it affords a lot of natural stopping points to set down & then take back up the reading). Additionally the books are peppered with brief chapters about actual historical figures.

If we return though to what mostly makes the books soar, it's Dos Passos' narrative of the lives of about a dozen characters. Most of these folks appear in at least two of the books; some in all three. I wish more authors could take a cue from the way John Dos Passos handles the interweaving of separate characters' stories: the gentle taking up, setting aside, then picking back up again. It is interesting to me that the reading of this book then becomes a simulacrum for how it was written. Dos Passos' storytelling comes across organically rather than telegraphed; it feels naturalistic; it's done with subtlety & grace. (The historical fiction of James Michener [for example], in comparison, reads ham fisted, with run-ins between seemingly disconnected characters seen coming up Broadway, yet still improbable.)

Other stuff: Dos Passos includes enough portmanteaux to give William Faulkner a run for his money; many adverbs & adjectives become handy singular neologisms that make you wonder why these haven't been words in the English language all along. I think this might be the only 'picture book' on the list! My three-book volume is illustrated with pen & ink drawings by Reginald Marsh. For being so 'sketchy,' these are delightfully expressive...except when they're racist. Many of the drawings however, when paired perfectly with the text, and hitting on the exact right moment to illustrate, had me laughing out loud heartily. (Or as John Dos Passos might write, "heartylaughing": one word.) As readers know, I love it when one book on the list references another, and in The 42nd Parallel, Arnold Bennett & The Old Wives' Tale are mentioned twice...thereby making me even more a fan. But, damn...for every reason...would I hate being a woman in any of these three books... *sigh*