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Wright Morris: The Field of Vision

This novel is set primarily at a bullfight in Mexico, though we are following the back-stories of a few key characters. The main character is Walter McKee, but he is called McKee throughout the book. He is, of course, a Nebraskan. His wife is Lois and she is sitting next to him. He is married, with three adult sons. Gordon, the grandson of his oldest son, also called Gordon, is also with them, wearing a Davy Crockett hat, as is his grandfather, Tom Scanlon, Lois’ father. Tom looks rather silly wearing a coonskin hat but he does not care. He is almost blind and deaf. His wife had said of him that, when the century turned, everyone else went forward into the new century but he went back to the old one. She left him but, before doing so, she made detailed arrangements for what she thought would be his forthcoming funeral. She died several years later. Thirty years later, he is still alive. He repeats several times in this book that the shortest way to heaven is through hell.

Also with them is Mrs. Kahler who sees what she wants to see. She does not want to see the bulls so she does not see them. Dr. Lehmann didn’t seem to feel at home if he wasn’t at the bottom or top of something. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is Gordon Boyd. Gordon Boyd’s father had died when he was very young but he had been quasi-adopted by a rich family called the Cretes. It was Mrs. Crete who pushed his playwriting career and he had some success. McKee had always looked up to Boyd. Indeed, he never talked of anyone else, not even himself. He even named his oldest son after him (to his wife’s disgust). The boy had become a wastrel as a young adult, chasing girls, but had met a sensible, level-headed woman and had settled down. Her wealthy father had set him up as a stock breeder. He has now asked his father to try and find him a pair of good oxen in Mexico for breeding purposes.

Boyd had gone on to have a successful career as a playwright, though less so recently. McKee had seen one he called the sandpit play. He did not like it, not least because it featured two events involving McKee. When McKee first introduced Lois to Boyd, well before they were married, Boyd, to everyone’s surprise, kissed her. This was the first time she had ever been kissed and she has remained (somewhat) traumatised by it ever since. Boyd had, at one time, claimed to McKee to be able to walk on water. Naturally, he could not and nearly drowned. These two events both appearing in the play, which was later revived with young Gordon acting in the play.

We gradually follow the stories of all the main characters. Dr. Lehmann was born in Weimar and, though he has been in the United States for many years, he still speaks with a strong German accent, which Morris mocks. He was a psychoanalyst and took on cases, mainly of women, that other analysts had given up on. Paula Kahler is one such case, though he had previously treated Gordon Boyd. Paula Kahler had, apparently, killed a bellhop when he tried to assault her in a lift in the hotel where she worked as a chambermaid.

One other key event had occurred in Boyd’s life. When he was a young lad, he and a group of friends took balls to the ball park to get them signed by the great baseball player, Ty Cobb. However, when Cobb noticed the large number of boys approaching him, he hurried away but not before the boys surrounded him and, in Boyd’s case, grabbed hold of one of his pockets and tore it off. He has kept this pocket, now dirty and looking like an old rag. When McKee and some of his family went to New York, they decided to look Boyd up and, though he had little else, he still had the dirty old rag.

While we are learning about the characters, the bullfight is proceeding. A young bull is brought on and Boyd squirts Pepsi Cola in its face. There is a parade, which they see as a parable of life, with the heroes at the front and the those who have to clean up afterwards at the back. A young man runs onto the field, when the first bull appears and is charged by the bull and knocked down. Mrs. McKee is so horrified that she faints but the young man gets up and staggers off. The bulls come on and are killed, their bodies left in the sun, with flies all around them. One matador is gored.

While we do learn much about them, Morris’s technique is to pick on a few incidents – the kissing of Mrs. McKee, the walking on water, the Ty Cobb pocket, the Paula Kahler incident and so on – and repeatedly refer to them, as though it was these incidents that defined the lives of the characters and made them what they are today. All the time, he is linking the bullfight and their discussions with their lives. I do not think that it quite works, though it is an interesting idea, not least because none of the characters is particularly appealing. McKee’s obsession with Boyd, whom, after all, he has not not seen for some time, for example, is far less understandable than Mrs. McKee’s antipathy towards Boyd. Perhaps the most interesting character is the cantankerous old man, Tom Scanlon, who cannot see the bullfight or, indeed, anything else, but who sits there, unimpressed with the world, with Mexico, with bullfighting and with his family.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Harcourt, Brace and Company