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Dawn Powell: The Golden Spur

If you have read any of Powell’s earlier novels, you will have a rough idea of what to expect here. The action is centred around a New York watering hole, in this case the eponymous Golden Spur. We have a naive young hero/ine coming from the provinces to make his/her way in New York. We have cynical, opportunistic overrated writers and artists, their hangers-on of both sexes, knowledgeable barmen/waiters and a lot of mockery of all and sundry.

Our hero (it is a man this time) is Jonathan Jaimison from Silver City, Ohio. He has come to New York not just to make his fortune, though that is part of the plan, but to uncover his mother’s antecedents. His mother, Connie née Birch, worked as a typist for various authors in New York and seemingly enjoyed life in the big city, before returning to Silver City to marry her fiancé, John Jaimison, Jonathan’s father.

The couple were married for three years, before Jonathan had had enough and left them. Sometime later Connie died and Jonathan was brought up by his aunt Tessie, Connie’s sister. Shortly before coming to New York, he learned a secret from Tessie. It seems that when Connie returned from New York, she was, in fact, already pregnant and not by John Jaimison. Jonathan’s mission in New York is to track down his mother’s contacts and to try and find his biological father.

Not surprisingly, Jonathan finds several possible candidates for his father, based both on his mother’s intimacy with the men in question and his views on the men’s desirability as a father and whose genes he would like to be carrying. He meets them and he learns about them. At the same time, he is discovering New York, both the new York of the present day (around 1955) and also the New York of his mother’s sojourn there (late 1920s).

Things go remarkably well for him, as he has a naive but open and friendly manner and he is somebody new with an interesting back story. He very quickly finds lodgings (sharing with two women who turn out to be not only friends but what we would now call friends with benefits). He very quickly finds a job, working in a café where there is little work but that does not matter as the owner is using it as a tax loss and Jonathan is able to produce a news sheet which contains snippets of New York history, some of which is true and some of which is more creative. He meets people, both new people and those his mother knew.

Many of those he meets who knew his mother barely remember her but are happy to provide stories about her, even if the stories are invented on the spot. More particularly, he seems to have a positive influence on those he meets, somehow dragging them out of their current mundane existence and into something, though he is generally unaware of this influence.

It is through Lize Britten and Darcy Trent, his flatmates and friend with benefits, that he meets Hugow, the stereotypical somewhat mad, womanising, temperamental, alcoholic, talentless yet successful artist, who recalls Marius from The Wicked Pavilion.

The plot is, as always, complicated and a lot of fun. Jonathan manages (fairly) well in new York. He meets his various prospective fathers, who, somewhat surprisingly, are rather keen on the idea of a long lost son, even if they have only a vague idea of what relationship, if any, they had with his mother.

Above all, this book is very cynical. Most of the women seem to be interested in snaring a husband or, at least, a man, particularly for financial, reasons. Cassie Bender who will have an affair with at least two of the major characters in this book, and quite a lot of the minor ones, says, when she loses her sugar daddy, Then I’ll start looking around for that first husband of mine, if I can remember his name.

Marriage is, of course, mercilessly mocked. None of the marriages in this book is happy, with usually one or both partners having an affair and/or seeking to escape the marriage. In one marriage the couple invariably use their daughter, as Powell says, as an intercom. Whenever all three are together, the husband says to the daughter Tell your mother…, while the wife replies Tell your father…. They do not talk directly to one another.

It is a very witty book, perhaps funnier and cleverer than her previous novels, with the tortuous plot about who is the father and the unexpected twist, Jonathan’s relationship with his putative father, John Jaimison and, of course, his relationship with the opposite sex, where he seems to be even more naive than his mother was, more than twenty-five years previously. It was to be Powell’s final novel.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Viking Press