"Preach on the Dusty Roads" by Irwin Shaw Originally published in the August 22, 1942 issue of The New Yorker.
An interesting part of going through old issues of The New Yorker is seeing how the stories dealt with the then-current events. Christopher Isherwood’s “I Am Waiting” featured the anxiety of 1939 when World War II was about to begin; there the character goes five years into the future and looks for answers about the state of the world in 1944.
Irwin Shaw’s “Preach on the Dusty Roads” was published on August 22, 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. I didn’t know it when I started reading the story, but its primary concern is World War II. In fact, more than “I Am Waiting,” which was kind of a satire, “Preach on the Dusty Roads” threatens to be a sentimental call to action. Another interesting part of going through old issues of The New Yorker? Looking at the cover art through the century. You pretty much always know what part of the century you’re in.
Irwin Shaw published nearly three dozen stories in The New Yorker between 1937 and 1955. I selected one from roughly the middle, though I was tempted by “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” It’s easy to see why he was so often published. “Preach on the Dusty Roads” begins beautifully. I have marked almost the entire section as material I should find a way to quote here. Of course, I won’t do that, but it is hard to pick out what to pull. Well, here’s the first paragraph:
Nelson Weaver sat at his desk and wrote, “Labor . . . Bridgeport plant . . . 1,435,639.77.” Then he put his sharply pointed, hard pencil down among the nine other sharply pointed, hard pencils arrayed in severe line on the right side of the shining desk, below the silver-framed photograph of his dead wife.
We already have a good idea about Nelson Weaver’s personality, and Shaw helps us feel the tedium and melancholy with a few well chosen details placed side by side in a long sentence. Nelson is an accountant in some Manhattan firm. He takes some time out of his work to look out his window. Below him are a few buildings that sit between him and the Hudson River. When I read the story, I was sitting in my own Manhattan office, which overlooks the Hudson. I was, in fact, taking a break from reading accounting reports (thankfully, I don’t prepare them). I wonder who could describe my life and demeanor in such a succinct sentence. And, after reading this next passage, I wondered how a masterful sentence about my own work would sound; the rhythm here is superb, the tedious job changed into an art:
The tax sheets for Marshall & Co., Valves and Turbines, were nearly done. He had sat at this desk for thirty-five days, working slowly and carefully, from time to time deliberately putting down a number on a page, like Cézanne with his six strokes a day on a water color, until the huge, elaborate structure of Marshall & Co.’s finances, which reached from bank to bank and country to country, from Wilmington, Delaware, where it was incorporated, to Chungking, China, where it sold electrical equipment to Chiang Kai-shek — until all this sprawling, complex history of money paid and money gained and credit offered and rejected and profit and loss, palpable and impalpable, was laid bare and comprehensible on five short pages of his clean accountant’s figures.
The already energetic prose — surprisingly energetic considering we are reading about a hyper-organized accountant just finishing up a tax report — builds with intensity as Nelson keeps looking at the clock. It turns out he is waiting for Robert to come along. We get a report at 10:35. A few paragraphs later we get to 10:40; then 10:43. And if we didn’t already feel sorry for Nelson, Shaw starts to let us see just how this job has affected him:
10:47. No Robert yet. Nelson put down the paper because the figures were beginning to jump before his eyes. More and more frequently, he found that happening to him. Well, along with the waistline that grew an inch a year and the tendency to wake at five in the morning and his lack of shock at overhearing people calling him a middle-aged gentleman, that had to be expected of a man who had led a quiet, rather unhealthy life at a desk and was now over fifty . . .
Robert, it turns out, is Nelson’s son. He comes into Nelson’s office wearing his new lieutenant’s uniform. Most of the remainder of the story describes their travel to Grand Central Station where, sometime after noon, Robert is going to get on a train that will begin his journey into the war where he will command five medium tanks. The son has performance anxiety:
“Thirty tons apiece, with a crew of four men. They represent an investment of God knows how many hundred thousand bucks. And I’ve got to tell them to start, stop, go here, kindly demolish that hot-dog stand to the left, would you be so good as to put six shells into that corset-and-lingerie shop five blocks down the street. It was easy enough in maneuvers. But in the real thing . . .” he grinned widely. “The faith the U.S. government has in me! I’m going to develop a beautiful case of stagefright.”
While waiting for the train, father and son sit down to eat. Again we get a glimpse of honorable and yet how pathetic Nelson is, even in the eyes of his son.
“When I was your age,” Nelson said, “I ate just like that.”
And suddenly Robert had looked at him very soberly, as though seeing his father twenty years old — and loving him — and seeing the long years that came after with pride and pity . . . .
It isn’t that Nelson has done anything wrong in his life. He’s a hard worker. He’s successfully raised a family. He’s dedicated. His son looks up to him and sees some great strength. What creates the pity, what underlies the whole story, is the great sense of loss when we consider Nelson’s life in that office overlooking the Hudson. It’s a remarkably well-written peace. Even if the general topic is simple (and it has been done more creatively in Cheever’s brilliant “The Swimmer”), the way Shaw puts it together is nuanced and nice to read — I only thought of “The Swimmer” afterwards. But then comes the final section where a roar of fury erupts from Nelson, and we move away from the general theme to how the immediacy of the war interacts with the hours in the office. Here’s a snippet:
I worked, and it wasn’t easy, and I was poor for a long time, and only the poor know how hard it is to stop being poor . . . . I worked . . . . Nonsense! I’m guilty . . . . I should’ve been out stopping this . . . . I am nearly the same age as Hitler. He could do something to kill my son . . . . I should’ve been doing something to save him.
It’s still great writing on a sentence level, but the problem now is that it’s hard to know whether it’s Nelson or Shaw whose doing the speaking. At the end of a subtle story we get this rant which fits with the character only slightly. Nelson’s son’s departure is brought up in the rant, as you see, but only as a means to bring about this worry, this fit of indignation, and it doesn’t feel quite genuine. This is more a bit of preaching — or, actually, condemning — from Shaw himself. I’m definitely a reader who doesn’t like a message to be conveyed that pretends to be universal, and its even worse when the writer abandons the story to purvey it. I like to take my characters and their stories as individual cases, individual explorations of humanity. I believe fiction should seek to enrich, not to prove. If I feel reproved, good — but let it be because of how the story itself affected me and not because the writer was preachy. Here Shaw seems to have diverted from his character to prove a point. Unfortunately this renders the character false because it appears that the character was derived from the predetermined ending of the story and not the other way around.
Perhaps I was feeling overly sensitive since I could easily relate to Nelson’s work life. The truth is, I see value in that viewpoint — believe me, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that there are important things to do out there that I and many others are not a part of because work demands we engage with things as seemingly silly as recording depreciation and amortization. I could have come to that conclusion on my own from the subtleties and conversations introduced in the first 4/5ths of the story.