Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Yes, You Should Read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

I’ve become enamored by old paperbacks and have just finished Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It’s the story of Tom who is nine years returned from WWII as a paratrooper who now lives a life as a married father of three, in a starter house that he and his wife feel trapped by. He makes a just-enough living to maintain the life they have but not the one that he and his wife once imagined for themselves. Then he learns of a better job prospect. The first quarter of the novel is his interviewing for the job and the large gap he feels between who he is and the role he feels he must play in order to get it. Ironically, the job has to do with putting together a foundation advocating for mental health funding, but Tom never considers that he himself would benefit from such a foundation, struggling as he does with his memories from WWII. 

Eventually, he does get the job—at about the same time that his grandmother dies and leaves him a small inheritance and a house. The pressures at work (caused as much by his fear of failure as by learning this new job) added to the pressures created by the unsettled and disputed estate lead to Tom seeing himself as a phony—or at least he starts really meditating on the chasm between his experiences in the war and the workaday world he is now expected to live in. 

This is when we finally learn of Tom’s time in the war. From the rhythm of jumping out of airplanes, becoming lost on one of the jumps and killing a man for his coat, to the brief leave he has in Italy before being sent to a third location. He and his best friend believe that they will surely die this third time, and the droning nearness of death creates the atmosphere in which Tom ends up having a love affair with a woman for the 49 days of leave.

Like Odysseus living with Circe on her island, Tom lives with Maria in a kind of fever dream. She too understands the darkness of war, having watched her parents die from white phosphorous. He has seen men take the heads, teeth, and fingernails of enemies for souvenirs. But in that brief time together, they live in a sort of highly attuned present. On the day he learns he’s to report for duty, she tells him she’s pregnant. The rest of this is followed by a harrowing memory of dropping from an airplane onto an island already under attack by water and his accidental killing of his best friend whose corpse he then carries for hours searching for a medic. 

Now, back in his New York life he mainly tries not to think or talk of the war. The children have chicken pox, his wife wishes for a better house, he commutes to work on a train with other men in gray flannel suits. He finds his wife lacking in depth since she has had a comparatively easy life and judges her attempt to see the bright side of any situation a symptom of this—and so their marriage seems like a dull theatrical production they both play parts in—if only because they married before he left for the war and must resume their parts after. 

In a particularly poignant passage, Tom sees the pre-war vision of himself still lives inside his wife--and with it their pre-war dreams. On the night of his return from the war, his wife takes him to a hotel and 

“began to talk brightly about the future. As he listened to her, he had gradually realized that here in this pretty girl sitting across from him in a pair of silk pajamas was himself as of 1939. Here was a kind of antique version of himself, unchanged. Here was the casual certainty that he would get a job which would soon lead to the vice-presidency of J.H. Nottersby, Incorporated, or some firm with a name which would have to sound like that. Here was all the half-remembered optimism, the implicit belief that […] they would of course be happy, real happy for the rest of their lives. The trouble hadn’t been only that he didn’t believe in the dream anymore; it was that he didn’t even find it interesting or sad in its improbability. Like an old man, he had become preoccupied with the past, not the future. He had changed, she had not.”

As Tom sees success in his new job, he runs into a former paratrooper from his company who knew of Tom’s relationship with the Italian woman and the resulting child. Tom fears the man will use the knowledge of the child to blackmail him or worse. Much of the novel is Tom fearing the worst, whatever the situation. What will happen if he loses his job. What his boss will say if he doesn’t feign positivity and play the “yes man” to whatever the boss asks of him. What will happen if his grandmother’s will is successfully contested. Everything always feels teetering on a precipice in his mind.

The later part of the novel dips briefly into two other men on the periphery of Tom's life. First, the local judge who will have to settle the matter of the estate and his background--the way conflict makes his stomach ache, which is constant in his job, and the way in which his Jewishness has isolated he and his wife from the town, despite how highly he is respected for his fairness as a judge. And second, Tom’s boss, a man small in stature who has pulled himself out of childhood poverty by working twelve-hour work days, despite his now significant income and enviable lifestyle. His public and personal life is work, which has led to a hollow marriage, despondent wife, and strangers for children. Finding himself the head of United Broadcasting, various foundations and non-profits, and a life tangentially connected to his family's, he starts to see the negative results of such a life—but is so entrenched in it that he only considers his way out by grooming Tom into the same financial trajectory. He is our cautionary character who never served in either of the wars, having enlisted but not deploying before the first war's end. His existence in the novel suggests a kind of cultural rift between the generation that experienced the first war and the generation that experienced the second, and with it, dissimilar perspectives about life and death. 

By the novel’s end, Tom has stopped being a “yes man” and has started telling his boss the truth as he sees it. This eventually leads to positive results. The estate is settled on his side thanks to the judge's investigation into the matter. Tom learns that his Italian love and child are living in poverty and rather than ignoring this, he decides to send money to support them, after telling his wife the truth of the war —of having killed 17 men, the godawful experience it had been, the affair, and she in turn is able to be honest with him. This all happens toward the end of the book, so while she does become angry with him, it takes her only a matter of hours to forgive him and stand by his side—agreeing to help support his child in Italy however they can. Had Wilson given more time to the revelation, Tom's wife may have become a more dimensional character, but likely not since all of the female characters are self-sacrificing supporters of their men--the depth of their support equal to their value in the eyes of the men (and novel).

There is enough grimness, cynicism, and tension throughout the novel both to propel it forward and to allow its rather tidy, fairy-tale like ending. 

At the heart of the novel is the friction between the American Dream and the disillusionment of it after war as well as the question of how people survive their own lives—through busying themselves, ignoring their pasts, working tirelessly, pretending to agree with those with more power in order to gain in power, to live in a nostalgic past, acting opposite to their parents in an attempt to avoid their mistakes, or trying to profit from a changing present—all while coming from or waiting for the next war. 

Overall, yes, you should find a copy of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. There are so many well written passages—both in analyzing the society or of striking images, such as burning the legs of a grand piano during a picnic—that the book is worth your while. I’m glad I picked it up.