Tuesday, May 24, 2011
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit / by Sloan Wilson
In post-World War II America, Tom Rath is just another New York City businessman. His life revolves his job to which he commutes by train every morning, his wife Betsy and their three young children. As modest middle-class Americans, Tom and his family are just trying to make ends meet. So when an offer for a riskier but higher paying job comes his way, he takes it. The gamble pays off. Before long Tom catches the eye of his new boss Ralph Hopkins who wishes him to be his personal assistant, a prestigious but far more rigorous position meaning Tom will now have to choose between becoming a workaholic businessman or be just another 9-to-5-er who at least has time for his family. As he mulls his options, his homelife becomes more complicated. His only living relative, a grandmother, has died and left her estate home to Tom who now has to decide if he and his family should live on the property or accept the offer to sell the land as a potential housing project.
There's something else too. Even ten years later, the war is never far from Tom's thoughts. On his way to and from work, he reminisces about his harrowing combat experience as an Army paratrooper, the violence involved in killing enemy soldiers at close range and the loss of his best friend (partly of his own error). There's also a girl he knew in Rome, an Italian refugee named Maria, whom he'd had an affair with while on leave. When by chance he meets an old Army buddy and learns that Maria gave birth to his son after he left Italy, he must decide between keeping the love child a secret, hoping he can somehow forget about it, or letting his wife know and hope she'll understand. For Tom Rath, just another man on the street in a gray flannel suit, it seems like the entire world is held in the balance.
Penned in 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the quintissential 1950's story, one which entails the baby boom of the post war years, the suburbanization of American families, expanding American enterprise and the still lingering after effects of the war itself. Rath is a great character (Gregory Peck as Tom in the 1956 film version gave a sound performance). A man of admirable qualities, he's also plagued by many problems. Reading about Tom, the time and place he inhabits and the life which pulls him in so many different directions, creates intrigue about every aspect of the book right down to the peculiarly sad life of mega-mogul Ralph Hopkins. Here we see an individual feeling the grind of the corporate sinkhole, the decentralization of home and work, the burden of an ambitious wife and, not to be sold short, the first real problems confronting American veterans in quite some time. The book is a solid snapshot of an American decade more associated with conformity and standardization than indecision and uncertainty. Touching on the kind of America Updike would depict a decade later, it is one which brilliantly concentrates all of the trials and inadequacies, the ambiguity and suspicion inherent in post-war life into one identifiable character and condition. (FIC WILSON)