on June 17, 1999
Though it's moral issues are presented a little more black-and-white than in his two more widely acclaimed novels, "Crossing to Safety" and "Angle of Repose," this short novel can be read successfully on a variety of levels. It showcases many of Stegner's recurring ideas: living consciously in an increasingly unethical environment; suicide as an easy escape from responsibility; and how the choice is never between "life and death" as much as it a decision about how you want your life to effect those around you. But analysis aside, I love this book for Marian Catlan, one of Stegner's most intricate women yet. This novel is my personal favorite of all Stegners and one of the best novels I've ever read.
on June 30, 2000
The first analogy which came to mind after reading this book was that it was like being in some kind of a heavyweight boxing match. You read the book and you take a pounding and you set down the book and you're dazed. The emotional involvement is almost that physical. The second analogy, which I thought of later, was that of looking at an expensive diamond. You see a new depth of beauty every time you turn it in a different direction.
It is the story of a 64 year-old man, Joe Allston, who moves to a five acre ranch in what is apparently an area south of San Jose, California. He is retired, and he moves there with his wife to escape everyday life, and enjoy his remaining days in peace. It is 1967. But two events occur which shake him out of his quietude. The first is the sudden and unexpected appearance of Peck, a 24 year-old hippie, who asks them if he can camp out on their property. Reluctantly, and out of a sense of repressed guilt over the death of his own 38 year-old son three years earlier, Joe agrees. The second event is the appearance of a new neighbor, Marian, a 30ish woman, with her husband and child. Joe is smitten by her beauty and charm and immediately--in a purely platonic way--falls in love with her.
They have a lengthy discussion on the first day he meets her. He wants to know what she is planning to do with the property, which has gone untended for many years, and she tells him that she's going to do--nothing. She loves nature the way it is, she says, and relishes the wild, untamed, natural beauty of it. He tells her about poison oak, stink weeds, snakes and other vermin, and says to her that it is not possible to not want to change nature. He tells her about the flea-ridden gopher he had killed that morning on his property. "Do you think, for one minute, that that gopher would not rid itself of that vermin if it was able to?"
Joe is unable to change her mind, but he has many discussions like this with her, on his back patio, with his wife, in the summer sun. All of them are very charming and intelligent people, and we grow to like them immensely.
Meanwhile, Peck is taking advantage of him: building a treehouse, inviting friends over, and illegally hooking up electricity and water. As this irritant continues, disaster strikes. Marian has cancer, and only a short time to live. And between her and Peck, Joe finally comes to some realizations about himself: he wasn't merely seeking a pleasant retirement, he was instead trying to escape from life itself, and that it cannot be done. One cannot get off the treadmill--life is the treadmill.
It all sounds very simple I suppose, but the book is rich in everything. The characterizations are detailed and complex, and the plot moves as a result of the character's actions. Nothing is contrived. Joe's observations are original, witty and mature, and the conclusion of the story is unbelievably powerful. Stegner aims high and doesn't miss. This is a superb literary achievement, and possibly the finest novel I have ever read.
From the moment I began this extraordinary novel until the last word of the last sentence I was caught-up, as usual, in the richness, the sheer luminosity, of Wallace Stegner's prose. I was also taken, from the first, by Joe Allston, the 64 year-old retired literary agent, main character and narrator of "All The Little Live Things." Allston is one of the most complex characters I have met in literature and for some reason he crept into my heart.
Outwardly a curmudgeon of the first order, he is introspective and ruthlessly honest with himself...and with everyone else. Stegner once said about his writing, "In fiction I think we should have no agenda but to tell the truth." Joe Allston personifies this maxim. He seeks his own truth - the reality behind his feelings and actions. He is aware of his flaws, his resistance to change, his near obsession with the Protestant work ethic and resentment towards those seeking to escape it through alternative lifestyles. He also agonizes over the death of his son and their terribly flawed relationship.
This is a story of relationships, of love, alienation, anger and death and their role in Allston's life and in the human condition. Set in the late 1960s, a time of political unrest, general dissent and back to nature "hippie lifestyles," Joe is bewildered and angered by society's changing mores. He and his wife Ruth have a ranch in the California hills. When a manipulative young man on a motorcycle asks to camp on his land, Joe begrudgingly gives his consent. Another newcomer to Allston's life is the lovely young mother, Marion Catlin, who moves to a nearby house with her husband and child. A hauntingly poignant love story lies at the heart of this novel - the relationship between Joe and this young, pregnant mother. Marion is the daughter he always longed for and fills a void in him that no one has before. Allston describes Marion: "She looks as if she had bloomed into this spring day, she had a tremble on her like young poplar leaves." "She is one of Willie Yeats's glimmering girls, with apples blossoms in her hair, and I admit to a pang. God knows what it is - maybe envy that someone is lucky to have such a daughter." Gorgeous!
The story and characters are so real, so totally believable! And this is no accident - it is due to the author's careful crafting. Every time I read a novel by Wallace Stegner I wind up proclaiming it to be my favorite. "All The Little Live Things" is certainly a favorite and an absolutely glorious work of fiction.
on January 4, 2002
This is one of the most powerfully emotional books I have ever read. It is not third-person entertainment. It is a book that makes a reader think about how to accept, if not submit to life, with all of its fullness, including both joy and pain.
The story is set in the late 1960's, around the retiring life of Joseph and Ruth Allston. Joe tells the story in first person, over a period of about one year. It opens with a dreary October day as Joe and his wife, Ruth, return home after a somber event. The rest of the book traces what led up to that event, and the overwhelming affect a young woman had on Joe's life.
The woman, Marian Catlin, is Joe's opposite. Joe is a highly responsible, controlling kind of man, with traditional values, who has recently retired and moved to the hills of Northern California to build his perfect life and to escape from the painful memory of the death of his 37-year-old son. Marian, the same age as his son, is his new neighbor and welcomes life openly, with all of its vitality. Joe loves Marian as his own daughter, and he reluctantly learns to accept life much more openly, and with a far deeper degree of sorrow than he has ever known.
There is another interesting character who plays a key antagonist role, a dysfunctional hippie named Peck. Peck has all the irresponsible qualities of Joe's deceased son, and he hates him for it. The interplay of emotions created in Joe by the rebellious, irresponsible Peck with the openness and acceptance of life by Marian results in a gripping tension that builds flawlessly throughout the book, to the powerful end.
There are some dramatic scenes in the story, but the real drama is what you will feel tugging within your own heart. This is an exceptional book, one of a few to remember over a lifetime...and you will.
As a writer, myself, I could not recommend this book more highly. Wallace Stegner, the accomplished, deceased author, gave us a treasure of a book.
on March 19, 2000
It is amazing to find an author like Stegner whose richness of human understanding increases with his age, while his students like Ken Kesey were such a brilliant and brief flash of light. I found this novel to be among his best -- my other two favorites are Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose. And like those works this piece stacks full of question and thought and answer, without being pious. This, I think, is his first great novel, and it isn't matched until years later with Angle of Repose (and is much more profound and impactful than its sequel Spectator Bird). His age and wisdom, best described as an openness to the human condition, reminds one of his mortality, of his anger towards that awful reality, while in the same instant one celebrates the beauty and bewilderment of life its self as experineced through Stegner's eyes. A must read. Whenever I feel estranged, a good Wallace Stegner book like this always reminds me that I am not alone, and that is not a feat easily done.
Every once in a while you happen upon a novel where you know you'll never forget the experience of reading those words. You know you'll never forget the characters. You know you'll never forget the lessons it taught you. You know that no matter how many books you read in your life, there won't be more than a handful to come close to it. All the Little Living Things is certainly one of those few.
All the Little Living Things is one of the finest novels I have ever read. I will not go into the plot because other reviewers have done so very well (read Paul McGrath's review; it's far better than mine), but I will say that it is immensely readable. Everything that happens in the novel happens because of the character's actions or thoughts. Nothing is contrived. Reading the story truly is a physical, not just a mental exercise, and you are exausted after finishing the novel. The prose is also superb. This is the third novel I've read by Wallace Stegner, and I don't know how many pages I have written down of quotes from the novels that I want to remember. The greatest thing about this novel is most definitely the characters, though. Joe Allston, who is also the main character of The Spectator Bird, is singularly the most complex character I've read in literature. You know everything about him, every aspect of his character. The supporting characters are superb too. They take on many dimensions. This novel thrives on the insights Joe gains from just being around these people. It is amazing to see Joe change: to see him learn about his relationship with people of a younger genteration, to see him learn that he can't escape life, and to see beauty in all aspects of life. It is amazing to learn with Joe.
All the Little Living Things really is a marvelous novel. I really cannot express how great it is. It is a masterpiece of twentieth century American literature, and I think that Wallace Stegner is without a doubt the greatest American novelist yet.
on July 18, 2000
I have long been a fan of Stegner, and so expected that this book would meet his high standards - yet he surpassed my expectations. With its detailed character development, easy but enthralling pace, vivid imagery, and cathartic resolution this book is among his best. Read it immediately (unless you have not yet opened Crossing to Safety or Angle of Repose - and if that's the case you have fun work to do).
on June 18, 2000
If you don't know Stegner, the title might suggest another pious paean to furry critters and cutesy pets. But Stegner is too much the hard-minded analyst for that. Not at all cold, mind you. This is a supremely pasionate writer. Stegner is the novelist who redeems absolutely the humanity of the Grump. The main character is keenly aware of his flaws, stodginess, and resistance to change, and he agonizes over the conflict between his values of hard work, self-critique, and acceptance of the amorality (read cruelty) of life, and the fuzzy standards of an encroaching young back-to-nature set. There is an amazing love story at the heart of this book--of the avuncular grouch for a young dying mother--so well written it will teach even those who have never been in love what it is to revere the divine in another human being. The dark irony of Stegner's title plays its many levels around and within the woman he loves.
on June 15, 1998
If you have never enjoyed the beauty that is Wallace Stegner, this is the one for you. I have read nearly everything he wrote and this book represents his finest effort. All the Little Live Things asks some of the deep questions of life. It is both philosophy and poetry. The theme of the book is what is evil and evil's relationship with goodness. It is full of nature images. If you enjoy nature and studying nature you will appreciate this book. Mr. Stegner was a leader in the conservation movement and those sentiments are apparent here. This book is also about death and cancer and being certain of death. Enjoy!!
on July 20, 2005
Wallace Stegner's _All the Little Live Things_ focuses on a nine-month period in 1967 in California and the lives of five neighboring families in a rural area on the verge of becoming a suburban subdivision. The first-person narrator, a crusty sixty-seven year old retired literary agent, Joe Allston, describes his relationships with his neighbors and his own struggles to maintain a healthy, ordered garden. Each of the five families has its own philosophy, whether explicit or implicit, and its own eccentricities. Much of the novel examines how people coexist and how lives become enmeshed. The Allston's garden, which despite Joe's efforts is constantly being overtaken by gophers and poison ivy, is a metaphor for how life all too often resists people's hopes and desires.
The Allstons are an older retired couple from Manhatten who have moved west to find solace and comfort in the anonymous quiet of gardening. The Welds have lived on the land for generations as farmers and with each generation must sell more and more land to survive. The LoPresti family is wealthy and socially connected. Fran, the wife, indulges her artistic sensibilities in sculpture, in part to deflect her tense relationship with her daughter Julie. The Caitlins are a young family new to the area. Marian, the wife and mother, is a beautiful thirty-year old woman whom Joe dotes over. The Allstons adopt Marian, her husband John, and their daughter, Debby. Finally, there is Jim Peck, a graduate student, who squats on the Allston property. Jim Peck and his "family" of accolytes represent the excesses of the 1960s counterculture and the dangers of chaos.
The novel works in a flashback sequence. As he walks around his property, Joe Allston reflects on the momentous events of the past year and his feelings of loss. He feels that he is "infected with consciousness and the consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death." At the same time, he realizes that the loss he has suffered has made him richer (see the quote for the review) because death, in some sense, affirms the experience of having actually lived. Marian's view, which Joe accepts intellectually but not yet emotionally, is that one must "be open, be available, be exposed, be skinless." Throughout the novel, we see Joe stripping back the layers of himself in his self-reflection. We see his rage as well as his sensitivity and acceptance. He even seems to acknowledge that he has fallen in love again to fill the void in his relationship with his wife.
Interestingly, the ending of _All the Little Live Things_ is similar to Stegner's last novel _Crossing to Safety_ and is written with the same intensity. One of Stegner's gifts is his ability to depict multiple generations in his novels and the conflicting viewpoints of generations. While Stegner usually sides with the older generation, there is a continuity in outlooks among the old and the young. Joe learns about himself--his demons as well as his strengths--in his interactions with his neighbors.