Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Lynching of Orin Newfield by Gerald Jay Goldberg

The Lynching of Orin Newfield
by Gerald Jay Goldberg
1970
*****
5 stars - great character and wonderful writing

ALR Green - a dog gets kicked, but he's OK, and Mr. Newfield takes excellent care of his cows


Before I start my review, allow me a bit of reflection regarding my history with this book. 

Because, you see, I recall quite clearly a lot about how I came to first read it.

As a child, I was allowed free access to any book I fancied. I early on developed a joy of reading and one of my favorite spots to make purchases was the Hathaway House Bookshop (shown here, slightly before my time).


Ah, book lovers, can anything compare to the delight of wandering through the narrow passages and crowded rooms of an old house converted into a bookstore? My parents encouraged my habit by taking me there and setting a price or quantity limit on my purchases. I would very carefully select perhaps a dozen candidates and then, sadly, winnow it down to a precious three or four.

Given the timing of my purchase, The Lynching of Orin Newfield must have undoubtedly been up front with the sparkling new releases. How else would it have come to my attention? A precocious 13 year old at the time, I must have been intrigued by the dust jacket which promised the tale of Orin Newfield, "... wealthy dairy farmer, self-made man, [and] both victim and perpetrator of the community's plot to extinguish his existence."

Any doubt would have been erased by a glimpse of the writing, as in this passage where Newfield describes his court appointed lawyer:

Didn't want him in the first place. You shouldn't need anybody if you tell the truth, but the judge insisted and threw him in for free. Said he was high-minded, too. Court-appointed Billings from Windsor, a legal giant dedicating his services to the preservation of a fair, free, and impartial judicial system regardless of the accused's status in society, high or low. Another pious philanthropist, but I wasn't inclined to be unreasonably prejudiced. As long as he got me off, I didn't give a damn about his queer motives.

I loved the book and was quite titillated by the foul language and blatant sexuality of Mr. Newfield. So much so, in fact, that when my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Benson, asked the class to recommend a book that we all might read, well, I handed him my copy. And you know what? He agreed. So my whole 8th grade class got to read the book. 

Unfortunately, there my memory grows dim other than to recall that I was somewhat disappointed with the lackluster reception by my classmates.

But for years, now, the memory of the novel and the questions in my mind of why I liked it have tickled my brain and so I set out to reread it. No longer in print and not available in all of the metro-west Boston libraries, I purchased a used copy online (one which will be staying in my personal library).

And you know what? This is an awesome book and it makes me wonder why Gerald Jay Goldberg didn't write more. It's complex and fascinating. The story takes place during the week from Christmas to New Year's and must be set in the late forties given that Truman is president.

Here we are in rural Vermont, listening to Orin tell his story. He's a sonofabitch, no doubt. Prone to violence and condescension to all, save his wife, Alma, and his beloved herd of cattle. But is he really a bad guy? Well, yes and no. The beauty of the book is that he isn't all bad, nor is he really good. And while he is hard to like, he's kind of hard to dislike as well. 

The central incident involves Orin's assault on his handyman and the subsequent (alarmingly speedy) trial and fallout. Again, from the dust cover:

The central meaning of the novel resides in the confrontation between two notions of justice - one rigidly inhumane, the other sentimentally vicious.

Cool, right? Best of all, you can open up to any passage and be both horrified and enchanted by Newfield's musings as in this excerpt from when he was "comforting" a grieving widow:

For some reason that set her off worse than ever and she began to shake, roll, and thrash about as if she was going down for the third time. Since she was busy, I didn't see any harm in running my hand up her legs to pass the time. They were smoothies all right, as good as they looked, and I was just beginning to get comfortable when Mrs. Brownhower jerks herself up ramrod stiff and, eyeing my paw on her property, gives me the cold squint of suspicion. Whoops! Tried to get rid of the damn limb but it was like a hot wire. I couldn't drop it.

Finally, I am sad to report that the Hathaway House Bookshop is now an alarmingly upscale furniture store full of breathtakingly overpriced furniture all done up in Official Olde New England antique house settings. I went there once and felt like my wallet had been emptied just by walking through the door. 

2 comments:

  1. Ah, we used to go to a few book stores like that back in the day. I bet they're all closed or changed to something else now, too.

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  2. I love tiny bookstores, which seem to be sadly nearly extinct these days. I always saved every penny I could find, even picking up pennies, nickels and the occasional dime or even quarter off the street, and then ordered at least one book per month from the Scholastic book order forms at school. Sadly, every time we moved, my idiot mother downsized my personal library (and that was at least once a year). I met a lady at a tag sale last fall, where I bought a complete set of the Harvard Classic Books for my lawyer daughter for $100. The lady was at least 80 years old, and she proclaimed herself a bibliophile, rejoiced when I understood, and told me that her libertine father would let her read any book she liked from the age of 12 onward, including "shocking" books like Lady Chatterly's Lover. We bibliophiles have the best stories, I think.

    And if I ever see this book at one of my book sales, I will grab it.

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