Probably like others, I became aware of Merle Miller’s 1961 novel, “A Gay and Melancholy Sound” through librarian Nancy Pearl and her Book Lust Rediscovery series. In the novel, Joshua Bland (born in 1921) narrates the story of his life in flashbacks that move back and forth in time as he dictates events into a tape recorder. Josh is either a former child prodigy with an IQ of 186 (when tested as a child) or perhaps merely highly gifted with an IQ of 132 (when tested at Fort Dix on entering military service during World War II). Regardless, Mr. Bland is a highly cynical man who is critical of most people he encounters in his career as a successful theatrical producer. Beyond merely being cynical, he has a pathologic inability to give or receive love. What’s worse, he has an inexplicable need to hurt those who try to love him. Whereas Joshua’s superior intellect may have predisposed him to cynicism, his inability to love seems to have had its roots in his childhood relationship with his mother and stepfather Pavan. His mother is primarily interested in capitalizing on Josh’s intellect for her own vanity and financial gain. She is exasperated when he fails to win the $10,000 first prize in the Harvey Jordan O’Conner “cranium derby,” and shows no sympathy for him when he is hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. Her next step is to market him as a contestant on a quiz show called “Can You Top Them?” when Josh is 11 years old. Josh is befriended by his philosophy teacher, Orion Bernstein, while a student in the experimental school at Pegasus College in 1936. In a betrayal of this friendship, Josh forges a letter of recommendation for a scholarship in London.
While relating his story, Mr. Bland refers to people in four households where he witnessed love: neighbor and childhood friend Hughie Larrabee, two lesbian teachers (Miss Parkinson and Miss Auerbach) who take a personal interest in his early education, his Aunt Mettabel and Uncle Dick who own a farm where Josh works one summer, and Professor Hollis Lindsay and his wife Kathyrn in London. Josh experiences some happiness while picking strawberries, grooming horses and keeping the books on Uncle Dick’s farm one summer. However he is despondent when Uncle Dick and Aunt Mettabel explain that they cannot simply “adopt” him, and he must return to his mother and stepfather at the end of the summer. In two other situations, Josh’s inability to accept love results in tragic consequences. He argues with his friend Hughie (accusing him of jealously) just before leaving for London to study and the two never see each other again after Hughie enlists and is shot down over the Pacific near Gaudalcanal. While Josh is in England, Orion Bernstein volunteers for the Spanish civil war and is killed. Hollis and Kathyrn Lindsay take Josh into their own home and show him the kind of love they felt for their own son Ronnie, who died many years ago. They leave for a trip to Greece and Josh is to follow, but he receives word that his mother and Pavan have died in a house fire and he prepares to leave for home. On his way out, he smashes a treasured Chinese statue of Kathyrn’s and takes Ronnie’s picture and treasured butterfly collection (inspiration for the cover photo on the Book Lust Rediscoveries edition of the novel). On the boat back to New York, Josh rips the photo to pieces and scatters it on the ocean and then he dumps the butterfly collection overboard.
Josh’s first wife Letty comes from poverty and is determined to become successful and wealthy whatever it takes. Their relationship ends in divorce and Letty makes sure that Josh and their daughter Taffy remain estranged until the end. Letty submits Josh’s fictionalized war letters to a publisher, and Josh achieves fame as the author of “Prodigy as Private.” He becomes a celebrity soldier and is paraded around the country on tours promoting the sale of army bonds until his drunkenness at one event results in his being reassigned to combat, an outcome he secretly wanted. Josh’s war experience with his friend Nick Contino is reminiscent of what happens to Yossarian with the B25 turret gunner Snowden in “Catch 22” (also published in 1961). Nick is decapitated by a German 88 mm anti-tank artillery gun at the siege of Bastogne in Belgium while Josh is running from enemy fire.
Josh’s final attempt to find love with Charley, a woman who is moved by his anti-war speech at a party, as expected, also doesn’t work out. On leaving, she says: “I’m sorry you never had a childhood. I’m sorry for all the hurts you felt and feel. I’m sorry that when somebody reaches out to caress you, you hit them before they can. I thought maybe I could help you, but I can’t. Nobody ever will.” Overall, the book is bleak, and it is hard to sympathize with Bland’s cynicism and self-hatred. It is well-written and kept my interest for the full 570 pages, but I wouldn’t count it among my “top 10” favorite novels.
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