A sprawling character study that dissects a businessman working in Manhattan, bedding every woman he can, and talking incessantly, in this reissue of a 1948 work.
Ten years before Australia-born Stead (The Puzzleheaded Girl, 1967, etc.) published this New York–based business novel, she brought out the 800-page House of All Nations, which showed how a Paris bank touched many lives. This novel anatomizes a single character who does the same. Stead introduces cotton trader Robert Grant in May 1941 in a fur showroom, a sideline of his. There he meets the book’s other main character, a woman on her uppers named Barbara Kent, who will soon join Grant for one of his many trysts (the title is his euphemism for these compulsive quickies). They will remain stormily connected even when she entangles him as correspondent in a divorce. In this “life of bars, taxis, and bedrooms,” they and others converse in the slang-rich patois Hammett perfected and Hollywood borrowed in the Thin Man series. When he is not serially seducing, Grant looks after his interests on the Cotton Exchange, where he can make $30,000 daily, and in real estate, with some profiteering on a war barely glimpsed by this set. Fairly straight in business, Grant cheats, connives, reneges, and skimps in his dealings with lovers, friends, and relations. He ignores his wealthy wife in Boston and cajoles and mistreats his older son. He’s trying to get his life story told in a book or play, the source of much humor. And always in this perhaps overlong book there is his torrential talk, an oceanic spew that lies, bullies, justifies, wheedles, backtracks, and constantly reiterates pet phrases and idées fixes that suggest a mad salesman’s spiel. Callous, comical, loathsome, and tiresome, Grant also, as the David Malouf introduction notes, can sometimes stir sympathy thanks to Stead’s artistry.
Stead has created a fascinating precursor to Bellow’s garrulous heroes and the little boy who takes on Wall Street in Gaddis’ JR.