In a sensitive and full-dimensioned portrayal of American life, Martin Flavin has created a memorable character. By turns admirable, pitiable, tough, noble, weak, futile, and brilliantly effective, a lonely man going nowhere in the dark, Sam Braden mirrors thousands like him who have put their familiar stamp upon the American way of life.
He wanted wealth, and he got it. He wanted to belong to the social world in which the Wyatts moved so easily, and in time he did. Most of all he wanted Eileen Wyatt, and this too he achieved, but only after a fashion. To explain this average man who had wanted success above everything, and who achieved an enviable degree of it and yet who never escaped from the prison of his loneliness, Martin Flavin takes the reader back to the friendly, democratic world that existed along the Mississippi in the Eighties, to the influences which shaped the boy and fixed the pattern of the man.
Journey in the Dark is the story of Sam Braden, a self-made man from the American Midwest, who rises from a life of poverty to become a millionaire, and as might be suspected if you were assuming the novel would follow traditional storytelling clichés, Sam Braden then learns that having money isn’t everything. While there is a little more complexity to the story than that, the basic plotline seems an uninteresting and overused trope. However, the novel does have a few redeeming qualities.
First of all is the storytelling style itself. Many of the chapters are framed by Sam Braden taking a walk, a car ride, or making a commute, and as the places he passes trigger memories, we are given the bits and pieces of his past that add up to tell his story, little by little, memory by memory. There is a type of nostalgia channeled in the prose and framing of the story so the reader is given a linear story, but with the occasional hints and commentary of hindsight. We are given clues as to the successes and failures that Braden will experience in the future, and then shown all the bits of his story that lead up to those events. It’s a more subtle way of telling the story, layering and adding on parts of the story through subsequent nostalgic discourses.
The other redeeming quality is the fallibility of Braden, and his tendency to become unlikable from time to time. Sam Braden is a much more interesting character because of his faults, and is not set up as some sort of perfect example of the self-made millionaire in the story. The first of his faults we encounter in the story is also one of the most frustrating, because it never has any sort of resolution within the bounds of the story. While still in high school, Sam impregnates his African-American neighbor, who is then sent to live with her grandmother through the pregnancy. But Sam never realizes what he did. He never finds out, even after the neighbor comes back into his life as his father’s, and then his own, maid, that she had a child with him. He is never held accountable for it. And it is never revealed to him. It is a wonderful anti-Chekov’s gun, but the way this secret is hinted at and teased through the beginning of the story, and after the neighbor comes back into the story later on, but alas, the storyline leads nowhere.
Braden is a clueless and awkward child who spends his whole childhood and much of his adulthood enamored with an old schoolmate from a rich family, and much of the drive toward his success is in a misguided desire for and pursuit of his schoolmate Eileen. In pursuit of this, he becomes an often ruthless businessman, at one point even waiting to buy out his business partner after he suffered a stroke and had racked up medical debts because he knew he could get the other half of the business for less once he and his wife were in extreme financial need. And all of this leads to his own wealth and even, improbably, marriage to the object of his infatuation, Eileen.
This is, however, the beginning of his decline, narratively. His attraction to Eileen is as much, if not more, an attraction to her lifestyle and wealth, and he discovers that in his actual marriage to her, not only does she not truly love him, but he always feels inferior to her, despite his own wealth, because he did not grow up in with wealth, did not become a part of high society until much later in his life. The thing he desired most was not Eileen, or her wealth, but her childhood.
Braden remarries and has a son, and attempts to give his son the childhood he never had, but as children are likely to rebel in stories, just as he rebelled from his father’s way of life and pursued wealth, his son rebels by falling in love with the penniless daughter of an old friend of Braden’s from childhood. And so all the jealousies and desires from Braden’s childhood which set him on his course are undone in his son, who rejects everything his father worked to create out of his life, ultimately guiding Sam Braden towards a mild sort of redemption.
Ultimately, the story falls short of being anything spectacular or memorable. The slightly interesting narrative style and the moderate complexity of Braden as a character are not enough to lift the novel beyond formulaic and clichéd, and the “everyman” character Flavin attempts to create for his rags-to-riches story seems like a nobody at best, not alike enough to be familiar, but falling into a story that has been overused.
He had visited New York on hasty business trips, but he did not know the city–not the way she did. Like most Midwesterners he was a bit afraid of it, inclined to feel provincial, conscious of his dress as being not quite right, over-tipping waiters in an effort to convince them, complaining of service, comparing everything with something in Chicago which was “just as good, or better”–mechanisms of defense against a rooted sense of inferiority.
Why you should read it:
While it has a few nice moments, and the structure of several chapters in the way it utilized memory and nostalgia for pacing and storytelling is interesting, if over-used, the book on a whole is mostly forgettable, and doesn’t stand up well after several decades.
Currently reading: Colcorton by Edith Pope