Monday, October 26, 2009

The Flirt

Booth Tarkington, a novelist now lost in the annals of regional literature, won the Pulitzer twice in the early 20th century, in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and again in 1922 for Alice Adams. His entertaining novels are too uneven to win a place in the canon, most readers would agree, yet they are engaging, comical, and strangely moving. He shares Sinclair Lewis’s gift for satire, but is more genial. He is as good a storyteller as Edna Ferber but is less smooth. Upton Sinclair, another of his contemporaries, operates on an altogether political plane. Tarkington is a joshing upper-middle-class raconteur, a judge's son, born in Indianapolis, educated at Exeter, Purdue, and Princeton, a sophisticated humorist who documented family life in slow-paced midwestern towns and cities. If you're new to Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons is your best bet, but I found myself lately lost in his 1913 novel, The Flirt,a public domain novel which I downloaded onto my Sony. (It has been downloaded 238 times.)

First serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, The Flirt is a fast-paced, colloquial, not particularly well-written novel, but its characters are always alive. Tarkington is especially adept at describing dysfunctional midwestern families. At the heart of The Flirt is the Madison family, all of whom revolve hectically around the demanding middle daughter, Cora, a beautiful, selfish, cruel, charming flirt who keeps her gentle, good-hearted, financially unsuccessful parents in a state of constant apprehension, her lovely, sensitive older sister, Laura, in constant attendance, and her mischievous younger brother, Hedrick, in a constant fury to expose her fickleness and lies.

There is another flirt in the novel: a huckster, Valentine Corliss, who returns to his midwestern hometown, Capitol City, and befriends the Madisons, the tenants of the house he has inherited and intends to sell. Corliss is a charming, intelligent, flirtatious, sexy, likable liar, and he soon begins to practice his con, persuading people to invest in nonexistent Italian oil mines. Cora falls for Corliss and soon puts herself to work furthering his scheme - though she doesn’t understand it’s a scam.

The action revolves around the shallow Cora and Corliss. Everyone in the novel is affected by the cheating of Cora and Corliss: Cora even persuades her sensible former boyfriend, Richard Lindley, to invest in Corliss's scheme, though Laura, who is in love with him, begs her not to; another of Cora's boyfriends, Ray Vilas, a drunken lawyer who doesn't practice law, sees through Cora but will do anything to please her; and Cora's father has a stroke trying to please her.

Cora hurts everyone: her victims are legion. But Corliss is, of course, even worse: there is a line drawn by Tarkington, but it's a very fine line. It's interesting how he takes the concept of flirtation and analyzes its manifestation in men (business relationships) and women (the business of love).

Not the best book I've read this year, but very interesting.


Ellen said...

I've not read any of his adult novels, but I know (as many do) that Orson Welles made a great film from The Magnificent Andersons (now in remnants). I did read a book for young adults, Penrod which I remember liking a lot; then Penrod and Sam. Sam is black and probably condescended to, but I didn't realize it at the time. And then Kate FEnnigate. What an innocent world yet the characters were very real to me.


Frisbee said...

I've never read Penrod, but that is one of his famous novels.

I LOVE the Orson Welles movie.

Maia said...

Great Tarkington entry, Frisbee. I did read The Magnificent Ambersons, when I was in a read-what-was-made-into-movies kick, and then read the Penrod ones (which were originally serialized). Alice Adams was also made into a movie and, though I'd never heard of The Flirt before (I'll downloaded it; sounds fascinating) I'd bet there's a movie of that, too, because I can remember almost perfectly a Bette Davis movie where she plays that exact same character. I'll do a run through IMD to check that out.
Love your site! :)

Mad Housewife said...

Maia, you're right! There is a Bette Davis movie of The Flirt, called The Bad Sister. I can hardly wait to see it! And won't my husband be thrilled! (well, err, not!)