2.23.2013

Life at Happy Knoll by John P. Marquand



Life at Happy Knoll is an understated satire by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist I suspect few readers bother reading today.  Though in his day, around the time he won the 1938 Pulitzer for The Late George Apley, he was commercially successful and critically well received.  So it's a minor shame that, not dusting off the cobwebs of a forgotten novel by John P. Marquand every now and then, in order to enjoy his mid-century skewering of double-talking high society WASPs.  Of folks fixated on protecting their precious domestic insularity and supremely shallow social values -- common themes in Marquand's novels and especially Life at Happy Knoll -- that made his primarily WASP audience perhaps chuckle and gasp simultaneously in discomfiting recognition of itself.

Happy Knoll and Hard Hollow country clubs are in a constant letter writing battle (that's all the novel is -- the correspondence of rival boards of governors pandering to potential new members to join their country club and not that other one) as they compete for new residents recently relocated into their Revolutionary Road-like community.  Where Richard Yates rarely strayed in his strict adherence to bleak realism, Marquand routinely ventured mildly over the top in his less stringent realism.  Cadillac owners, for instance, are de rigueur in Happy Knoll and Hard Hollow, though less prestigious car owners are tolerated even as they're privately derided to whatever degree their set of wheels happens to correspond to whatever lower notch on some agreed upon and yet arbitrary country club continuum that measures the virtue most important to them -- status.

Marquand gleefully showed us how his country-clubbers would, of course, and regardless of a member's real or, more importantly, perceived status, never think of bad-mouthing a member for owning a lower class of automobile than their Daddy's Caddy, because that's just not -- obviously meaning it most assuredly is -- how Happy Knoll or Hard Hollowites behave socially.  Right!  Marquand mocked them, gifted and deft as he was conveying their subtle double-speak, double standards and general snootiness.  Marquand's country club masses are too deluded by their own hypocrisy and masks to remember they're all merely average achievers at best, and in no position whatsoever to be judging anybody within or without the narrow-minded strictures of what amounts to their stunted development, these supposed adults stuck in their extended adolescence for decades removed from their proms, rehashing the petty jealousies and insecurities of their high school cliques.

Life at Happy Knoll was Mad Men-hooks-up-with-Desperate Housewives half-a-century before either iconic Stateside television show aired, only the novel's not as serious as the former or as funny as the latter.  Mildly amusing, never savage or too outrageous, this semi-serious, mostly lightweight (but not inane) satire of Marquand's, remains a relevant class commentary of 1950s Americana.  While Marquand's novels have fallen out of fashion, the contemptible country club hubris he chronicled endures.  Or rather it has, in fact, become more pervasive in this now mediocre yet entitled "culture" of ours that's become as much the Happy United Knolls or Hard United Hollows as the 21st century United States....

Marquand first published Life at Happy Knoll near the end of his career in recurring installments (1955-1957) for Sports Illustrated.  The magazine's golf aficionados made the series a success, and soon Marquand's publisher cashed in on the country club craze, releasing the complete series as a short epistolary novel the summer of 1957.

A good introduction to The Novels of John P. Marquand.

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