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Dawn Powell: The Locusts Have No King

The title comes from the Bible, Proverbs 30:27: The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands.

Our hero is Frederick Olliver. Frederick shares a flat with Murray Cahill in New York (though they know very little about one another). Frederick lives hand-to-mouth but he is not too bothered. His own poverty never inconvenienced him; his ascetic tastes required little more than enough for dinner at Umberto’s or the Chinaman’s, coffee and a sandwich in Whelan’s, a beer or two, a concert, a book. He is writing a serious book: he wrote what he chose in the manner he chose for a limited and highly respectful audience; he lived an independent scholar’s life which was a boon it itself, and he had his love.

His love is Lyle Gaynor. She and her husband have written a successful play called Summer Day. Nevertheless, she is having an affair with Frederick. She is also trying to improve him, inviting him to posh events, which he does not particularly enjoy and which he cannot really afford. His clothes are falling apart and he needs new ones, but they cost money. Indeed, he can barely afford the taxi fare. But he gets to meet Lyle there and, who knows? – it may be useful for him.

Allan Gaynor has been injured in an accident, which means he is confined to a wheelchair and is no longer able to have sex. He mocks all and sundry from his wheelchair – his wife, questioning why she does not have an affair, unaware that she is so doing, his business manager for his possible homosexuality and anyone else in his line of fire. He had been a successful actor and is older than Lyle. It is he who brought her into the theatre but, apparently, it is she who writes most of the plays.

One evening, Frederick is en route to a posh party at the Beckleys. Ephraim Beckley is an important publisher and Lyle, who has been invited and is taking him as a guest, is sure that it will be helpful for his career to meet the Beckleys and other important people there, even though he is dreading it. He had been doing the round of the bars, looking for Murray, so that he can borrow some money from him. He finds Murray and also meets Dodo, an ambitious young woman from Baltimore. (Powell mocks pretty well everyone and everything in this book; she seems to fixate on Baltimore as being really out in the sticks, though it is a mere 170 miles away from New York by road or train).

Dodo sees him as someone important when she learns he is going to the Beckleys and latches on to him, persuading him to take her, even though he is only a guest of a guest. He tries to escape her but she is too clever for him and he is too polite to refuse her. Dodo is only really interested in Frederick for his use to her and he is not the slightest bit interested in her. Lyle, however, is jealous. Lyle and Frederick have a fight and Lyle and Allan then head South for a few weeks.

Lyle and Dodo start an affair. Though it is not too serous – she suggests marriage not out of any real commitment to the idea but only to get him to propose so that she can turn him down. He finds the relationship soenwhat liberating, as he no longer has to pretend to others, as he does with Lyle, a married woman. As a result, he becomes more social, going out much more, usually with Dodo. She does mock him – Honestly, I can’t understand a word Freddie writes and I don’t think he can either. Nobody wants to read that sort of bunk but he does not really mind.

Things improve for Frederick. His publisher gives him a job running a magazine called Haw, a popular publication, definitely beneath Frederick’s normal standards. However, it pays more than he has been earning from his teaching and writing so he takes it. He also continues his teaching at the League for Cultural Foundations, an institute where people are eager to spend time and money studying not a subject in itself but methods to conceal their ignorance of it.

When Lyle returns, they do meet but only in public places and very much seem to be drifting apart. Much of the rest of the book, concerns Frederick’s professional fortunes, as his career seems to be going well, and, of course, his relationship with Dodo and Lyle, both of which have their ups and downs. We also follow, to some degree, the story of Murray Cahill and the women in his life. Indeed, Murray and Frederick become much closer because of their respective women problems, while the women seem to be rivals and not just over the men but over their artistic careers.

It is not all critical of women. Powell gets her feminist digs in, for example nowadays men wanted a woman to work but not to be too good at her job—just good enough to pay her own way and not bright enough to add up what men owed her, not bright enough to see when she was getting a bum deal; they wanted her clever enough to admit his brains and ability when he shot his trap over world affairs but not bright enough to realize it was the liquor bought by her salary that was loosening his tongue.

Powell herself, in her diaries, described what she saw as the subject of the book: The Destroyers—that cruel, unhappy, ever-dissatisfied group who feed on frustrations.… If people are in love, they must mar it with laughter; if people are laughing, they must stop it with ‘Your slip is showing.’ They are in a permanent prep school where they perpetually haze each other. They destroy their own happiness by being ashamed of whatever brings it; they want to be loved but are unloving; they want to destroy but be themselves saved.

While this is certainly an accurate description of the work, at least on the surface, this books reads as a reasonably convoluted love story, with all its complications, with a background of mocking satire of the 1940s New York social, intellectual and artistic scene. No-one escapes Powell’s digs and perhaps no-one deserves to. Most of the characters are shallow, given to parties, idle gossip, mass consumption of alcohol, naked ambition and desultory and all too often not very satisfactory love affairs. Lying, cheating and deception are the order of the day. It certainly is an amusing and enjoyable read but I do not feel that this is her best work.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Charles Scribner’s Sons