Two novels by the once acclaimed Wright Morris (1910-1998) had me reaching for my calculator. A rule for including a book in this reading project is that most of the book must be set in California. The Huge Season (1954) has many scenes of college life based on Morris’s experiences at Pomona College. But the novel warrants exclusion because 62 percent of it (by page count) is set out of state. Love among the Cannibals, on the other hand, stays on the list because only 48 percent of the book is set in Mexico. And yes, I’m pretty compulsive about all this.
Love among the Cannibals by Wright Morris. Harcourt, Brace (1957), 253 pp.
Pop lyricist Earl Horter is working on a Hollywood musical with his writing partner and roommate, Irwin “Mac” Macgregor. They’ve been friends for fifteen years, since their time as pilots during World War II. One day at the beach they meet Billie Harcum, a young singer hoping for a career break. She and Mac hit it off at once. That evening they attend a posh party at which Earl briefly flirts with mind-numbingly beautiful Eva Baum. He doesn’t even learn her name, but he’s soon planning to get together with her.
It’s an open question what Morris intends readers to make of narrator/protagonist Earl Horter. Just over forty without any record of long-term success with women, Horter relates every event with a smug sarcasm that signals his unhappiness with himself and everyone he knows. He’s a pretty pathetic guy, though critics fifty years ago may not have known it. According to the blurb in the front of the paperback edition, they found the book witty and outrageous, “sprightly yet profound.” Modern readers, however, may find the novel unbearable unless they view Horter as a case study of displaced anger.