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The Blunderer

Walter had a vision of a little window.  It was a beautiful little square window, just out of his reach, filled with light blue sky with a suggestion of green earth below.

Adulthood, you will surely have heard, may be summarized as a series of one's choices (some apply this label to life as a whole; yet in so many instances of our childhood, choices are snatched from our tender fingers), a lovely mantra for your friendly neighborhood Freewill Society.  We are also told by some of the members of this same organization that religious faith is anathema to volition, because the existence of an omnipotent otherness suggests that our fates are already carved out in some dark and distant cave for us, sooner or maybe much later, to discover.  These same board members, whose staffing is replicated in a club almost invariably named, in cruel irony, "humanist," will then advance their theories as to why science alone promotes freewill.  Science, that same discipline that claims everything can be determined by genetics, fossils, and other unstoppable forces well beyond human direction.  Scientists have made some incredible leaps the last century and a half, but they increasingly jump without a moral compass or parachute, instead electing to manipulate whatever earthbound relics to their own evanescent theories.  The fact of the matter is, one can only exhibit freewill when there is a moral dilemma, because otherwise what we might term "volition" quickly devolves into a synonym for "convenience," or, in dire times, "survival."  Being moral means choosing what is right before the ledgers and balance sheets of ease and self-preservation are perused.  A fine way to examine the protoganist's ordeal in this novel.

That protagonist is New York attorney Walter Stackhouse, and from our first scenes with him we understand he will also become – or perhaps has always been – the title character.  Walter is married to a petite, pretty, and squirrelly real estate agent by the name of Clara, and we would do well at this point to recur to that old adage about judging a man by his wife.  It is unclear to even the casual observer why on earth Walter, physically attractive, well-off, and a respected colleague, would have settled in suburban Connecticut with Clara, who does not seem beautiful enough to justify her behavior.  Neurotic in that way unique to unrepentingly smug and selfish people, Clara is a master hand at that oldest of wifely wiles: driving a wedge between her husband and his male chums ("He had already lost five friends").  Her public and private comportment might even lead one to believe she is trying to induce a divorce (a couple of odd reactions suggest she may be having an affair with one of Walter's friends; a later scene reveals staggering emotional immaturity), which, after a few exhausting years of wedlock, Walter is now ready to give her.  And so, our story would likely have been as tedious and commonplace as a bickering couple were it not for Walter's hobby of chronicling ill-matched pairs:

The essays had been Walter's pastime for the last two years.  There were to be eleven of them, under the general title 'Unworthy Friendships.'  Only one was completed, the one on Chad and Mike, but he had finished the outlines for several others – and they were all based on observations of his own friends and acquaintances.  His thesis was that a majority of people maintained at least one friendship with someone inferior to themselves because of certain needs and deficiencies that were either mirrored or complemented by the inferior friend.  Chad and Mike, for example: both had come from well-to-do families who had spoiled them, but Chad had chosen to work, while Mike was still a playboy who had little to play on since his family had cut off his allowance.  Mike was a drunk and a ne'er-do-well, unscrupulous about taking advantage of all his friends.  By now Chad was almost the only friend left.  Chad apparently thought: 'There but for the grace of God go I,' and doled out money and put Mike up periodically.  Mike wasn't worth much to anybody as a friend.  Walter did not intend to submit his book for publication anywhere.  The essays were purely for his own pleasure, and he didn't care when or if he ever finished them all.       

I give away nothing by mentioning one of The Blunderer's more curious aspects: namely, that as compromising as this diary of sorts could have been, it is summarily discarded early on, never to resurface.  Provided, of course, one didn't understand it as a precursor to a few of Walter's future personal relationships, one of which will be with a dreadful beast, a killer by the name of Melchior Kimmel.

We meet Kimmel in our opening scene, which may remind the attentive reader of this film.  The German immigrant's actions are swift, bloodhot, and premeditated, but they are not foolproof, and anyone who encounters this mammoth bookseller whose "main source of profit" is "pornography" cannot abandon a few initial impressions.  The first is that Kimmel is extremely, almost dangerously intelligent; the second is that he is capable of incredible violence; and the third proffers an explanation for his journey hither:    

Then he stood by his bookcase, playing with his carvings, moving their parts at various angles and observing the composition.  He could see them fuzzily against the light-colored bookcase, and the effect was rather interesting.  They were cigar-shaped pieces fastened invisibly together, end to end, with wire.  Some looked like animals on four legs; others, of ten pieces or more, defied any description.  Kimmel himself had no definite name for them.  To himself, sometimes, he called them his puppies.  Each piece was differently carved with designs of his own invention, designs somewhat Persian in their motifs, their brown-stained surfaces so smoothed with fine sandpaper they felt almost soft to the touch.  Kimmel loved to run his fingertips over them.  He was still fondling them when the doorbell rang. 

It might be relevant to note that Kimmel did not "love to run his fingertips over" his wife, unless you include his wicked actions near that bus rest stop, but there are few greater wastes of time than to ratiocinate with a murderer (anyone who "loved white shirts more than almost any tangible object in the world" likely has a baleful deed or three on his conscience).  In the ensuing two months, Helen Kimmel's slaying remains unsolved but not ignored.  The man officially on the case is police detective Lawrence Corby, who will prove himself in more ways than one to be a worthy opponent.  But a certain Connecticut attorney, unhappily married and a very poor prognosticator of future events, decides to clip an article on Helen Kimmel's demise for his scrapbook.  The same scrapbook that Detective Corby will leaf through once Clara, en route to bury a mother she never loved, does not return to her Pittsburgh-bound bus. 

The Blunderer may not be one of Highsmith's very finest works (nevertheless, a new film version is afoot), but it was also one of her earliest.  Its main flaw, apart from the "Unworthy Friendships" cul-de-sac, is the inclusion at the novel's onset of far too many minor characters, suggesting perhaps that a grander scope was initially intended.  Yet the master's touches can be found on nearly every page: "He felt violently bored and annoyed suddenly, the way he had felt in the Navy a couple of times when he had had to wait too long, naked, for a doctor to come and make a routine examination"; "Not simply hatred, he knew, but a particular tangle of forces of which hatred was only one"; "Even if he fought the whole long way back in words"; "A bitter disappointment in Nathan, like a private inner hell, filled Kimmel's mind, balancing the outer hell of the room"; "His heavy body rolled with his movements, and for a few moments his brain seemed to be concentrated in his fat arms and hands"; and "for Walter simply to be near her for a few moments satisfied a deep craving, like the craving he sometimes felt to lie naked in the sun."  The "her" in this last citation is a young music teacher by the name of Ellie Briess, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination since she is so embarrassingly the opposite of dear old Clara.  Or, for that matter, of dear old Helen Kimmel.   

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