McTeague by Frank Norris. Doubleday and McClure (1899), 442 pp.
McTeague, a burly and sluggish San Francisco dentist in his early thirties, lives and works in a rooming house near an upscale neighborhood. Although he learned his trade via apprenticeship rather than formal education, McTeague knows enough about what he’s doing to provide acceptable service to his lower middle-class clientele. He has no strong interests outside his job and enjoys nothing more than having a few drinks with his best friend, Marcus Schouler, who works in a dog hospital run by Old Grannis, another resident of the rooming house. The building’s maid, Maria Macapa, wants to hook up Grannis with Miss Baker, a retired dressmaker who lives in the adjacent apartment and to whom he’s never spoken. In the meantime she fascinates Zerkow, the neighborhood junk dealer, with tales of her family’s lost gold. McTeague, meanwhile, has no thoughts of love or money until he meets Trina Sieppe, Marcus’s pretty cousin and girlfriend. He’s soon surprised to find that he wants to marry the young woman.
McTeague has a well deserved reputation as one of the masterpieces of American naturalism. Readers will thus expect characters who are buffeted by forces beyond their control. Which in this case means not so much outside coercion as inner urges, especially avarice. Forsaking subtlety, Norris paints his protagonist as something of a brute: “immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (p. 3), “ignorant, vulgar” (p. 28). Clearly, McTeague is not the sort of person who can make things happen through the intelligent application of will power. Neither are the book’s other characters. They, like McTeague, behave badly but deserve no blame. Fortunately, readers who find this view of human nature too gloomy still have a reason to try out the book: Norris’s vivid descriptions of lower middle-class life in the 1890s. He renders with precise (but not burdensome) detail everything from how people viewed their circumscribed world and what obligations they assumed toward others to what they did for low-cost fun and how they arranged their cramped living quarters. Which should be enough to allow many readers to suspend disbelief of strange behavior and unlikely plot twists and to remain enthralled right through the book’s famous ending.