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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Paperback – October 23, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Though it's cited in nearly every book and article about the culture of the 1950s, few readers under 65 know Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit firsthand. The 1955 bestseller is being reissued with a new introduction by Jonathan Franzen-and, indeed, the story of disappointed Westport, Conn., strivers Tom and Betsy Rath anticipates the novels of suburban anomie by Franzen and his contemporaries. Dreaming of a bigger house for his wife and three kids, WWII veteran Tom leaves his job with an arts foundation to be a well-paid public relations executive at the United Broadcasting Corporation. But corporate ladder climbing and consumer rewards leave him miserable. Though his sentimental conclusion now seems dated, Wilson's portrait of the martini-soaked malcontents is sharp, memorable and still resonant today.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"The writing is vigorous, unvarnished, tartly observant; its overhanging disquietude isn't dated - if anything, it's deepened." - Los Angeles Times Book Review
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The main character has an interesting division of his personality. On the one hand he wants to earn more money to enjoy his life, wife and children and focus on the the pleasure he feels with them. However, he also experiences the daily pressure of business encouraging him to give up any outside life and dedicate all his energies to work so he can succeed.
The main character Tom Rath is a likeable protaganist who shares the same ideals as many of us today. The constant martinis are a funny part of the book and wonder how many times a martini is mentioned. Rath is a military veteran of WWII and the author skillfully takes you through Rath's experiences in the war and the woman he meets and ultimately has a child with.
The other characters in the book are great and helps to keep the book flowing. I enjoyed the parts when Rath was dealing with the Butler Edward. The book is about a young couple coming to grips with post war America, finding the right job, keeping the family happy, and living with ideals of the time. Just a nice book to read that is fun and a good escape with a dose of reality that makes you think. I now understand why the book is considered to be a critically acclaimed novel.
The movie is excellent, too. What's not to like with Gregory Peck?
Sloan Wilson's THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT is such a work. Intended as mere novelized autobiography, it struck such a chord with readers that, decades after it was written, it still symbolizes for many the oddly shallow dark side of what was supposedly America's "Golden Era" - the 1950s.
SUIT is the story of Tom Rath, a middle-class American everyman who, in the mid-1950s, experiences a kind of premature midlife crisis. On the surface, Rath seems to be rock solid - he has a beautiful wife, three kids, a car, a house in the New York suburbs, and a good job with a secure future. Stepping off the A train with briefcase in hand, his missus always has a cold Martini on hand, and a nice meal on the stove. Hell, his aged grandmother is even about to will him a mansion on Long Island! By the plastic-fantastic standards of the 50s, he should be ecstatic. But he isn't. He isn't even happy, and neither is Mrs. Rath. They are, in fact, pretty miserable.
The Rath's prosperity is actually an illusion. His wife feels emotionally disconnected from him ever since he returned from World War II - and rightly so, since can't bring himself to talk about it or the seventeen men he killed while it was going on. His kids are spoiled. His car is a piece of junk on its last legs, and his "starter house" seems to have turned out to be his burial plot. His grandmother's "mansion" is a rotting hulk mired in zoning problems and lawsuits. Even his "secure" job downtown is an unsatisfying bore.
Prodded by feelings that his life is passing him by and that he has failed to achieve any of his prewar dreams, Rath chucks up his old job and takes a new one as a speechwriter for a workaholic millionaire. As he does so, he encounters an old acquaintance from his army days, the sight of whom forces him to face some very unpleasant truths from his wartime past - truths that threaten to destroy his marriage and ruin him financially. At the same time, he struggles to fit in in the go-go, cutthroat atmosphere of his new employer (his immediate superior, Ogden, is so undermining, condescending and rude that the normally placid Rath has fantasies of killing him). Over time, Rath - whose growing cynicism is alienting his wife even further - begins to question absolutely everything in his life - from his marriage to the corporate rat race. He's even forced into painful self-examination over his actions during World War Two. And this is the crux of the novel: will Rath open up to his wife - which could lead to ruination and divorce - or will he continue to play the tight-lipped, buttoned down Mr. Cleaver role that has been suffocating him since the end of the war?
SUIT is by no means a perfect book. The pace is often sluggish, and a lot of Wilson's prose is bland and colorless - although this may be by design, as his reminiscences of the war are extremely vivid and well-drawn, probably Wilson's way of indicating that Rath's past is more vivid than his present. There are some bizarre point-of-view shifts which occur surprisingly late in the novel, and the sub-plots are all wrapped up so conveniently it threatens the story's integrity. The final exchanges between Rath and his wife are totally unrealistic - the dialogue, realistic up to that point, becomes unbelievably melodramatic. But these flaws, while significant, don't really diminish the book's laurels.
Whether Wilson intended it to be or not, SUIT is a generational tale: Rath symbolizes the silent and painful battle that WW2 veterans waged with themselves after 1945, when they returned to find, in many cases, that that American Dream that they had fought and killed for consisted of nothing more than crass advertising, jingo patriotism and banal materialism, all set to the tune of a merry commercial jingle. Was it possible for such men to find meaning in such a shallow world as "Leave it to Beaver" represented? Sloan's answer to this question may surprise you.
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