Reading the first half of Arthur Quinn's book on politics in 19th-century California — I've been wavering on whether to buy the book or just check it out of the library again to read the second half — prompted me to reread another tale of the same time and place, Frank Norris's McTeague. Like many, many other novels of the time, McTeague is about the financial ruin of its lead character. Unlike them, its lead character is a rock-stupid dentist who gets pool balls stuck in his mouth.

Some of the things McTeague does not have going for it are polished prose, subtle symbolism, or genuinely funny comic relief interludes — it's quite repetitive, many of the objects might as well have what they represent written on them in big letters like in a bad political cartoon, and the would-be humor is mostly nasty caricatures of German immigrants and the working class. What rescues McTeague — what makes it not only not utter crap but actually well worth reading — is that in contrast to a lot of the other novels of the time, this isn't all about head games coded in Victorian protocol, isn't four hundred pages detailing in the most abstract of phrasings what's going through the head of an heiress five years into her marriage, twenty of those pages describing the rug in the parlor. McTeague, as the pool ball incident indicates, is all bold strokes. You have extreme characters (not just the Hulk-smash dentist, but Trina the miser who doesn't use her fortune to pay the rent on her dilapidated rathole of an apartment but instead rolls around naked amongst the coins, and many more just as outlandish) doing extreme things (winning lotteries, biting each other's fingers, wetting their pants) in extreme places (the Sierras, Death Valley). It's a big, brash breath of fresh Pacific air from a place that didn't have much in the way of littachur yet.

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