Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

First read: 10/2003
Reviewed on: 10/22/2003

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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Laurel started this book, and put it down after a chapter or two. "This one's too depressing, Doug, don't even pick it up."

This is a story of a woman who leaves Minneapolis and winds up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Oh, did I type that? She winds up in Gopher Prarie, and her thoughts are a lot like the thoughts I had, and the thoughts Laurel had, when we arrived in Cedar Falls. Laurel and I identified with the main character, but in different ways.

I've moved from Minneapolis to Cedar Falls, and experienced the feeling of going to a much smaller town. If you've never made such a move, it may be hard for you to empathise. The nearest large bookstore was an hour and a half away. The movies Laurel and I read about and like never make it to the big screen here. The types of restaurants and groceries we used to take for granted do not exist here. If you buy someone a nice, quirky gift here, they will know at which store you bought it. The town festival in which the locals take pride only serve to remind you of the ones back home.

The thing that I dealt with when reading this book, that Laurel did not have to deal with, is that this is not the first time I experienced the above feeling. I've moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Minneapolis. I've moved from Chicago suburbs to Ann Arbor. (admittedly with a one-year detour to a complete hole, where I picked up a good friend, but boy, did I hate his city) I've moved from New York suburbs to Chicago. Let's put it in SAT language - the following analogies are all true:

New York City : Chicago :: Chicago : Ann Arbor
New York City : Chicago :: Minneapolis : Cedar Falls
Chicago : Minneapolis :: Minneapolis : an ameoba

So the first quarter of this book was an exercise in bad, bad memories. And realizing that, location wise, my life started with living in the perfect place for me, and has been a non-stop geographic spiral, moving farther and farther away from that ideal in every respect. And then we start to realize that Carol is not a victim - in many ways Carol is an asshole. The same type of asshole as my family was when we moved to Chicago and made fun of them for watching The Tonight Show an hour too early, not knowing how to make pizza correctly and calling Danishes "Sweet Rolls." (On second thought, that last thing was legitimate grounds for mockery. "Thing look like roll. Thing taste sweet. Me call it Sweet Roll" isn't the most creative slang-term ever devised) And if I'm starting to think Carol is an asshole, what does that say about me? Ewww!

I don't care WHO you are, it is always disconcerting when you realize that a character with whom you identify is an asshole.

But she isn't - she isn't always at least. At one point in my life, I decided to stop going to Minneapolis twice a month to participate in a comedy show, and to direct my own show down here. In other words, instead of complaining about Cedar Falls not having certain things, to try to bring those things to Cedar Falls. Imagine my horror in reading the exact description of what I was trying to do written in this book. I would mention more parallels, but I'm embarassing myself enough as it is.

After the first quarter, Carol stopped acting like a stand-in for Laurel and me, and started to become an independent character. The novel stopped being a description of a situation, and started being a story. And it was constructed brilliantly. There were scenes that were repeated at the beginning and the end, completely twisted around. Stock Characters didn't cross the line into caricatures. The actual writing was brilliant, but sometimes very depressing. Tell me you can read this account of Carol's day-to-day life (at one point in the story) and not feel a sad resonance in your own:

"In Carol's own twenty-four hours a day she got up, dressed the baby, had breakfast, talked to Oscarina about the day's shopping, put the baby on the porch to play, went to the butcher's to choose between steak and pork chops, bathed the baby, nailed up a shelf, had dinner, put the baby to bed for a nap, paid the iceman, read for an hour, took the baby out for a walk, called on Vida, had supper, put the baby to bed, darned socks, listened to Kennicott's yawning comment on what a fool Dr. McGanum was to try to use that cheap X-ray outfit of his on an epithelioma, repaired a frock, drowsily heard Kennicott stoke the furnace, tried to read a page of Thorstein Veblen - and the day was gone."

For the people who insist that their Great Novels contain "truths about the Human Condition" (as some of my email respondants like to say) this book's got 'em.

"It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others."
"As she went dragging through the prickly-hot street she reflected that a citizen of Gopher Prarie does not have jests - he has a jest."

I loved the way that Lewis would move the characters back and forth in your mind. Carol goes from Victim to Asshole, from pompous to misunderstood. And her husband does the same in his way, too. The story is absorbing, and part of the reason is because you are constantly rethinking what the characters are really like. Of course, it is all a matter of perspective.

After I finished, I went back and reread the first few chapters. There was some amazing foreshadowing that I completely missed the first time around.

This book has three main characters: Carol, Kennicott, and Main Street. I've been Carol, I've been Kennicott, and I've lived on various Main Streets in my downward spiral. And I can say that this book treats all three of us fairly and with love.


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