Monday, November 06, 2006

meditation and bedticks

Over at Reading California Fiction, Don Napoli reviews one of the books from the escapegrace dissertation: Don Ryan's Angel's Flight. Ryan's failings raise his ire:

It's not unusual for me to wish that an author had ended a book another way. But I believe that only in Angel's Flight did I want the author to just stop writing at a certain point. If you had just quit here (p. 251) or perhaps even here (p. 237), I want to tell Don Ryan, you would have produced a major piece of American fiction. What was the problem? Didn't you understand what this book is about? Did you think you were being paid by the word? Oh well, I suppose getting angry won't help.

You can read more from the review here. (Don eventually does recommend the book.) I also found Angel's Flight pretty limited, but it did serve its purpose for me, providing one of the earliest caricatures of Aimee Semple McPherson. Here's my take:

In his 1927 novel Angel’s Flight, possibly written before [McPherson's] kidnapping incident, Don Ryan opens his story in a mission “that provided soup in the name of Jesus,” conducting outreach in the tradition of the Angelus Temple (13). According to Daniel Mark Epstein’s biography Sister Aimee, when an earthquake devastated Santa Barbara in June 1925, McPherson’s fleet was first to arrive on the scene with supplies, long before the Red Cross even met to discuss aid strategies. In Ryan’s novel, the down and out of downtown L.A. appreciate the handouts but not the message: “A sneer twists [a vagrant’s] lips over widely spaced teeth as he listens to the promises which the mission folk hold forth. Thwarted by circumstance, hunted by oppression, dogged by the law, he has listened in jail and bull-pen and flop-house to the promise of eternal life. His brain, which is clear, has analyzed the elements of religion and discarded the promise” (15).

Not all Los Angeles residents at the time felt that religion was the answer to all their problems, and Ryan’s protagonist is one such cynic. He refers to the mission band as “those miserable beings who find an antidote for their inferiority by ministering to those more miserable even than themselves” (18).
Will Pence, former newspaper reporter, has hit the skids when the novel opens and finds himself briefly involved in a life of crime. Like much of the plot of Angel’s Flight, his narrow escape and return to respectability are never fully explained or questioned. Pence gets work writing features for a small newspaper, chronicling “the greatest sideshow on earth” (44):

Enriched by post-war food prices, the American peasantry with money to spend flocking to Los Angeles as to a country fair. Hither likewise came the variegated hordes to prey upon them….Swamis stalked the streets wrapped in meditation and bedticks. Famous bunco men honored the city with permanent residence. Cults and creeds that had lain dormant since the time of Pythagoras springing to life to bloom exotically in semi-tropic air. An alchemist hung out his sign on Sunset Boulevard, advertising to perform physical and spiritual transmutation. Holy men from the hills, barefooted, hairy, bearded in simulation of the Nazarene, selling postcards on the corners (62).

One of the characters created by Ryan to fall prey to the variegated hordes is Galens, an unemployed victim of age discrimination who attends motivational speaker Elsie Lincoln Benedict’s course of lectures on “Personality – the Key to Success” in an attempt to give himself an edge in the marketplace. Ryan’s description of the lecture course and of Elsie Lincoln Benedict sounds strikingly similar to the self-improvement allure of Aimee Semple McPherson, albeit on a more secular and fiscal plane. Pence attends a meeting and sees “row upon row of sallow, hopeful, middle-aged faces turned up in pathetic expectancy towards an illuminated rostrum on which a dazzling woman in a scarlet evening gown was telling them how they could become young again….Their weary, disappointed faces turned up towards this high priestess of their cult” (81-2). Pence recalls Mencken’s description of the boobus Americanus, a sitting duck for Inspiration and Optimism. Elsie Benedict shills her course of lessons (“how to stay young above the neck”) and guarantees that all takers will have their “one big question” answered, evoking images of Sister Aimee in her private chambers after a sermon, meeting for hours on end with parishioners who would wait in long lines for one answer from the evangelist.

Pence makes the acquaintance of Galens at Benedict’s lecture and soon thereafter, perhaps inspired by a renewed feeling of optimism thanks to Elsie Benedict, Galens turns up at Pence’s office, looking to sell him some life insurance. Pence’s time in the Army has provided for his life insurance needs, and when Galens tries to sell him on more coverage, Pence argues that he’d prefer a policy with no suicide clause. Despite Galens’s protestations that if Pence waited a year to take his life, he’d be covered under the policy he was selling, Pence is not interested. He finally uses Elsie Benedict to get rid of the ineffectual salesman: “Look at my head, Galens. Remember what Elsie told you. Size me up phrenologically. Get my number” (89). Galens leaves empty-handed. Under the pressures of a few more failures, his sick wife, and his adulterous longings, Galens eventually takes his own life instead. Pence quits his position as a reporter when the paper is sold to Hearst, gets a job as an actor in a film production, and then is hired to write titles for the film in New York, where he is reunited with the illegitimate daughter he didn’t know existed.

Elsie Benedict is possibly the most cynical version of the Aimee Semple McPherson type: there is nothing humanistic, spiritual, or powerful about her beyond the fact she has figured out a way to play on the anxieties of the aging. Ryan frames his description of Benedict in ways that call to mind something deeper than vanity and greed – the faces turned up toward the high priestess – but in the end, youth is something that cannot be granted, even by the most prolific twentieth-century healers. Arthritis? Tumors? Blindness? Aimee Semple McPherson was believed to have cured all of these ailments. Aging? Not even in Hollywood.


Don Napoli said...

Thanks for this post. Knowing next to nothing about ASMcP, I hadn’t realized that her church was engaged in humanitarian projects. I’d asssumed that the mission described in the beginning of the book was run by the Salvation Army (or some such group) and that Ryan was contrasting it with the upbeat ministrations that Elsie Lincoln Benedict aimed at the middle class. What makes the book still readable, incidentally, (and more than a long Menckenesque diatribe) is its sympathy for the deluded Angelinos. Though a cynic, Pence is actually a pretty decent guy. In the meeting with Galens, for instance, he apologizes for his harshness. And two months later he finds Galens a sales job, one that Galens is (of course) not youthful enough to hang on to.

Anonymous said...

Elsie Lincoln Benedict was my grandmother and I believe she actually did have some kind of connection to Amy Semple McPherson but I never knew exactly what it was.