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Books: Grey Flannel Mortarboard

3 minute read

GEORGie WINTHROP (304 pp.)—Sloan Wilson—Harper & Row ($4.95).

The bookstore browser takes a second look and, by Georgie, finds that it is true: the last two letters of the first word of the title of Sloan Wilson’s novel are italicized. The more than Oriental subtlety of the author’s device will be recognized instantly by cryptographers, Talmudic scholars, unscramblers of step-by-step directions for assembling toy rocket launchers, and other delvers into meaning’s inmost leaf. Shading his words as finely as a subdeb writing home from Miss Porter’s (the prom “was marvelous but not marvelous”), Wilson makes it clear that his hero is one of life’s least impressive Georges—more Porgie than Washington.

Georgie Winthrop is, in fact, one of Nature’s ignoblemen. At 45, he is a onetime college athlete whose beef is long past prime, whose wife garden-clubs him with motherly contempt, and whose teen-aged children ignore him. Worst of all, he is an earnest yearner who writhes in the post of college vice president, a rank

Wilson places so low in the academic hierarchy that it seems to have been created solely to give professors of business administration something to sneer at.

What passions flicker beneath Georgie’s grey flannel mortarboard? As the reader meets him, he is preparing to go horseback riding. A shrewd old groom suggests a placid bay, but Georgie rejects his advice and takes a balky black gelding. Of course he is thrown. No student of women’s-magazine prose can fail to understand the symbolic significance of this, and it has nothing to do with horseback riding. The groom (servants are as clever as presidential speechwriters in this sort of fiction) is Fate, and Georgie’s pettish assertion of masculinity means that he is in for about 300 pages of fatefulness.

Fate turns up in the form of a gorgeous 17-year-old bohemian named Charlotte, the daughter of Georgie’s childhood love. Charlotte is a dreadful shock to everyone at Wellington College: they wear tweeds and say “homosexual”; she wears leotards and says “faggot.” The scene in which this Lorelei reawakens the red-eared adolescent in Georgie is worth some study. They are alone; she reclines on black satin. She murmurs: “I was just wondering what would happen if in addition to dinner and the ballet tonight, we gave ourselves some of the ultimate pleasures? If we are at all enlightened, would either of us be any the worse off for it tomorrow?” He answers that he would be. “For one thing,” Georgie says, going on to mention two things, “my conscience would be wrecked, my self-respect demolished.” The double-barreled cadence of this speech is almost perfectly unlike anything ever uttered in shy confusion by a college vice president. Only the unreflective, however, will conclude from this that Georgie Winthrop is a wretchedly bad book. With the boldness of a man who knows his own worth.

Wilson has challenged the traditional female domination of the Never-Novel, a literary form so named because 1) it must never stray beyond the boundaries of its papier-mché and plaster never-never land, and 2) it must never, never surprise the reader with anything novel. Never-Novelist Wilson qualifies neatly on both points.

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