Ruth Suckow's The Folks may well be the best novel I have ever read--emphasis on I because it's difficult for me to believe that anyone else under the sun would agree. Why that's true may well be proof of a near-fatal myopia. While the rest of the world loves to read stories they don't know, I have a near fatal propensity to become entirely transfixed by imagining what I already do.
That Ruth Suckow's work hasn't made it through the years is painfully understandable. Her characters are heartland WASPs--white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants like myself, among the least interesting people today in America's ethnic and racial weave. Her characters are fly-over people in fly-over country, of interest only by their abiding support of a President who shares none of their values. Suckow's people are here, all around me. She grew up in Hawarden, just down the road, in a county where 81% of the devoutly religious populace voted for our President.
The Folks investigates the peculiar lives of people who still somehow believe that Jefferson wasn't wrong about the blessings that accrue to those who work the land. The Folks is about "the folks," the standard bearers, the dynamo that put legs beneath the purely American dream of a new nation. And, just as clearly, it's about their demise. For die they will, and die they do in the novel many believe to be Ruth Suckow's finest.
There are six novels in its 700+ pages, one each for the Ferguson children, and two, bookends, for Fred and Anne Ferguson, "the folks," whose lives are examined in sometimes ruthless intimacy.
If Ms. Suckow had an editor, I'm quite sure I would not have liked to see the original manuscript. The immensity of her characterizations make getting through the book seem a chore; The Folks is not a book you can charge through. Yet, having finished it, I don't know that I'd have wanted her to cut a word. The sheer expanse risks fatigue, even boredom--no doubt. But, to a reader like me, someone who knows the Fergusons and their children, Suckow's virtuous explorations are convincing. She loves her characters, no matter what their flaws. I know them, sometimes too well.
Carl was the Ferguson's wunderkind, a boy-celebrity in Belmond, the fictional Iowa town that is base to all family operations. Carl is the star of the football team--the local Christian college has only recently inaugurated a football program, even though the Fred Ferguson, like other conservatives, thinks football is just another means by which people dilute what should be their faithful service to the church. Carl's yankee ambitions are thwarted by his own randy arrogance; he creates sexual fantasies with women he knows and meets, to the detriment of his own marriage, a moral lesson he comes to recognize when his emotionally starved wife attempts suicide.
The folks can't help thinking that Carl should have had a better life than the one he lives. That they know what happened doesn't mean they understand.
Not for a day did daughter Margaret ever think of Belmond as home. Reared by parents who love their homey, small-town world, Margaret hated it for its American Gothic pretentiousness. What's more, she grows up in the shadows of her all-American brother. She feels trapped by Belmond, so she escapes to New York as quickly as she can shake the dust off her feet and searches for what's new and chic and a kind of love she'd never attain in Iowa. Eventually, she gets what she wanted, becomes what the folks might have called "a kept woman" if they dared to think of their daughter that way. They have no idea where they went wrong with Margaret, who calls herself "Margot" in NYC.
Dorothy, a sweetheart, marries an absolutely gorgeous young man. They move to California, thinking they'll find their dreams. But when the folks visit, it becomes all too clear that those dreams are just as far away as they've ever been, maybe farther. Dorothy is living in a hovel while her philandering husband chases the next delusion down the street, sure that this one will pay off big-time.
Bunny is conceived in what seems to be the folks' very last tryst between the sheets, and is, thus, a tail-ender. Unlike his siblings, he doesn't enroll at the small, Christian college just down the road. Instead, he chooses Iowa State, where he meets a Russian girl, a bona fide communist (the novel is set in the late 20s), several years older than he is. They marry secretly, and he takes her home as his lawful, wedded wife. The folks don't understand Bunny either.
There's palpable sadness-es in the novel, some broken hearts; but The Folks itself is neither dark nor bleak. It's just, well, real. Once they come of age to retire, the Fergusons go off the California for the winter like so many other Iowans. They nearly fall in love with new opportunities (at least Anne does), but they return after a long winter to smell once again the fertile Iowa earth, the land they're heir to, even though they'd never worked it themselves.
Their return to Belmond is not a triumph. An Iowa way-of-life isn't heralded as some heavenly blessing. But they learn, the folks do. And that's no small thing. They don't so much come to understand their children's choices, as they simply come to make peace with the mysteries that exist cavernously in their lives and ours. They learn--they attain--peace. We should all be so blessed.
I've always thought my wife and I are completely different readers. I read to examine, to assess, to reveal. I am incorrigible English teacher. When my wife reads a book, she's in it. I'm not. I explore it.
I almost hate to admit it, but I was in The Folks, an experience for me that's rare. I was in because I found myself in the novel in so many places and so many ways. Call me myopic, maybe even narcissist; but I loved the novel, not because it brought me to a whole different world but because it revealed in sometimes astonishing emotional detail, me, myself, and mine.