A labor arbitration case? Am I going to tell you that someone could produce a great novel about a labor arbitration case? Yes, I certainly am. A skilled writer can present complicated characters and an interesting story against even the most unpromising of backgrounds. And David Duncan is a terrific writer. Here he cuts back a bit on the usual energy of his prose to tell his tale in all of its complexity. I like this book a whole lot. When I get around to compiling a list of favorite California novels, The Serpent's Egg will be near the top.
The Serpent's Egg by David Duncan. Macmillan (1950), 243 pp.
Toward the end of World War II, a labor dispute about overtime pay for bus drivers leads to a War Labor Board arbitration hearing. Jim Kensington, an emotionally unexpressive lawyer prone to self-analysis, agrees to head the panel. On one side of the issue are the representatives of labor: John Duffy, the driver who filed the complaint; his union's business rep, Brad Johnsen, whose rise into the middle class threatens to alienate his idealistic wife, Sue, an active Communist party member; and Ann Herick, a married researcher for the law firm hired by the union and the longtime object of Kensington's romantic desires. Opposing them are various men affiliated with the bus company, chiefly its slick attorney, Vance Vickery. Also on the panel is Claude Piper, a pompous economics professor at Berkeley. It soon becomes clear that the outcome of the case has the potential to impact not merely the economic interests of the drivers and the company but also the futures of all the seemingly ancillary figures.
Duncan achieves several goals in this ambitious novel. He makes a trenchant exploration into the life and mind of Jim Kensington, a man wracked by doubt and insecurity despite his successful career. The author also adroitly delves into the problems and personalities of his lesser characters, notably Sue Johnsen, who must choose between personal commitments and political ideals. In addition, Duncan presents the social setting -- class differences, ethical standards, governmental procedures -- in which his characters operate for their own advantage. He combines all of this in an engrossing story that builds to clever climax. "Altogether a remarkable novel," said the Saturday Review of Literature. It is "sharp, literate, crystalline" and employs a "virtuoso touch," added the New York Times. The Serpent's Egg exemplfies the best of serious fiction from a half-century ago. It is highly recommended.