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H.M. Pulham, Esq. Paperback – August 30, 2005
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Given this premise, a more cynical, pessimistic novel might try to make Pulham out to be secretly miserable, and a more simplistic one might try to turn him into a moral paragon, a Promethean hero who suffers for a sacrifice; but Marquand's vision of him is what each of us could be, a little bit of every man. Pulham has a wife, Kay, and two teenage children, a son who is lazy and insolent and a daughter who is abnormally immature for her age. This seems to be the family that was always his destiny, and he is generally happy with the arrangement despite the occasional quarrel.
After the war, Pulham's best friend from Harvard, Bill King, gets him a job at a New York advertising agency where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful, vivacious young woman named Marvin Myles, who is a completely new type of girl to him--an independent woman who triumphed over hardships to earn herself a professional career at a time when women rarely had the opportunities to do so--and nothing like the spoiled, sheltered, superficial girls he knew growing up, one of whom was Kay. Why he did not stay with Marvin may have had something to do with his family's prejudice that she wouldn't be the "right" girl for him to marry, whereas Kay was a part of his world and therefore a supposedly better choice. The life that could have been, and the suspicion that Kay, after all these years, may be having an affair with Bill King, are the conflicts Pulham examines in his narration.
There are no shocking revelations and none of the violent drama that a tawdrier novel might try to contrive; instead, we get a very sincere and realistic look at a man who is laying his life bare without expecting sympathy or admiration. Marquand's language is crisp and unpretentious, giving his narrator an affable tone--wise, mature, sober, comfortable with his privileged upbringing but never snobbish. It is indicative of Pulham's state of mind that of all the books he could be reading, he is currently trying to finish the "Education" of fellow Harvard alumnus Henry Adams, also an aristocratic Bostonian who devoted himself to the study of the course of his baffling life.
Unfortunately by now this novel seems to be almost completely forgotten, lost in the dustbins of twentieth-century American period pieces, struggling to stay in print in a new century that claims to have different values and urgencies. Granted, it does not approach the majesty of "The Great Gatsby" or the depth of "The Sound and the Fury," but as a faithful chronicle of the American zeitgeist it deserves a better fate--if novels of comparable quality and scope like John O'Hara's "Appointment in Samarra," Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt," and Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer" can survive, why not Pulham? I would hate to think that cultural elitism plays a part in its obscurity.