by Arnold Goldman

There is now no telling what Desperate Scenery contained in 1948 - when Paul delivered the book to his publisher - as distinct from the contents of the book as published after Paul (with Saxe Commins’s editorial assistance) revised it in 1953. It is possible that typescript also involving Elliot’s time in Boise and at the Arrowrock Dam was delivered at one time or the other, but sheared from the pages to be published - "Boise and Arrowrock will have their places in another volume of these Items."1 The story elements, involving Elliot only marginally except as an observer or assistant, seem the most likely to have been invented; in any event they carry the thematic burden of the narrative. (Paul seems to have developed at least as early as Linden on the Saugus Branch this method of translating and externalizing more personal experience; it shows the blocked novelist rechanneling himself through "autobiography.") Once again Paul shows his interest in what creates "community," especially as in the West - unlike Ibiza, France, New England or Kentucky - there is no historical and cultural inertia. But here for the first time in the "Items" series, the community is personal relationships. The burden of Desperate Scenery is that faith, and faithfulness - if sometimes a helpless love (whether consummated or not) against which society erects barriers - constitute the social bond and that these are sufficiently sustainable and sustained to justify one’s own faith in mankind. These are matters on which Paul may well have been dwelling in the months before abandoning his fourth wife - and their child in 1948.

On the train to Pocatello, Idaho, from Louisville, young Elliot meets two young ladies and a young man, of varying backgrounds, who become friends, and whose experiences allow the book to fill out the possibilities of the West for ardent youth. One, Belva Capwell, a "Jack Mormon," or backslider, from Utah, is going to work in the Riverview Hotel, to which she introduces Elliot. Elizabeth Wong, from Texas, works for "free China," raising funds for Sun Wen (Sun-Yat-Sen)’s Republic in the Chinese communities of the West. Her ingenuousness is matched by the trust of others. (Elliot promptly falls in love with her.) Wilfred Heron, a bizarre collegian, the only son of wealthy parents who send him a monthly allowance,

might be a poet or a problem, or both. He... wore a black raised skull-cap like an inverted dish with a one-inch rim, and a dull black broadcloth robe that was pressed and spotless. He was carrying a slim straight staff that reached the level of his chest.... topped with a very beautiful blue stone. "Polyhedron crystal from the Andes."

Wilfred is "a disciple of Spinoza," and he is going to Reno, Nevada for the Jeffries-Johnson fight, to "replenish my funds" by betting on the black man. That he does, and returns to Idaho to give his faithful friends the winnings on the stakes with which they have ingenuously entrusted him. He had seemed to be right out of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, but "NO TRUST" is not this book’s theme tune. On arriving in Pocatello, Elliot meets Oscar Rydvall, wandering violinist, who completes the group, providing him with a particular friend, one who will join him, making music, sharing confidences, and working on the U.S. Government’s new Jackson Lake Dam project across the state line in Wyoming.2

Just as Desperate Scenery lays down its faithful friends, so there are prime examples of lack of trust, the harm it can do (unless averted by the more benign), and the betrayal of humanity that it constitutes - on the young

persons’ arrival in Pocatello, a zealous authority arrests Elizabeth Wong on suspicion that she is a California Chinese hooker; a comically-presented Food and Drug Commissioner, insists that no-one take short weight even though the community has got by happily on rougher measures for years; the government requires every order for the new dam in quadruplicate with self-defeating rules about tendering. Paul’s altruistic theme is like Stephen Vincent Benet’s in "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Lack of trust is collusion with the forces of evil; trust is productive and healthy.

Elliot and Oscar stay for a time in Ashton, where he boards with the Mormon family of Nephi Coleman. Before the dam-workers leave for Jackson Lake, Coleman’s wife Altha falls for Oscar and they engage in rapturous love-making. She "had spiritual stature enough to sustain her own repentance," and by keeping her peace about her infidelity, Altha paradoxically wins the author’s praise as a model of higher faith.3

The narrative is replete with sub-plots about the faith of women - including manly women and womenly men. There is "The Dilly" (or "Miss Hat"), who helps two girls who have been beaten escape from the Reform School, herself in love with one of them, and risks everything for them. The chef Fritz’s homosexual passion for his assistant Walter nearly gets him murdered. Both he and The Dilly (and her protegées) are rescued by Elliot and others as a - quite unlikely, as realism - acknowledgement of the intensity of their passion, which to a lesser or greater degree scandalises society but without risking which there would be no social bonding at all. A repressed society would lose much else beside. These are "Winter’s Tales," as is the practical joke played on the trusting boss carpenter, Abe Johnson, whose good faith is practiced upon, as a result of which he organises out of misplaced compassion a large and quite unnecessary loan. So awed are the pranksters by Abe’s trustfulness that they thenceforward pretend that the need for a loan was not a joke. Honest human nature triumphs, unknown to itself. The hunter McCaffrey has suffered from exposure and injuries and as a result cannot return to Boise, where he is assumed to be dead. He worries all winter about whether his wife is being faithful to him,

The [other] patients would lounge in the front office... and when the door was open into McCaffrey’s room, would tell about experiences they had had or heard about, involving wives whose husbands were away, and especially about wives who had quarrelled with their husbands [as had McCaffrey’s] just before the latter had departed There were endless discussions of the nature of women, what proportion were chaste, those who had been born wanton, and the thousands or millions in between. Doc was asked all sorts of questions in that field, as to how long a lively woman can go, unmated, without having a nervous breakdown.4

In the event, it turns out that Flossie McCaffrey had scalded herself and was perforce chaste all through the period when McCaffrey is missing, presumed dead. And finally there is the torch that Elliot carries all winter for Elizabeth Wong, which is left burning at the book’s conclusion, and promised by Paul to have a conclusion in a further instalment which, whether it was drafted or not, never appeared.


1 Elliot Paul, Desperate Scenery (New York: Random House, 1954), 302. No further volume of his memoirs was published.
2 Ibid., 6, 7.
3 Ibid., 138.
4 Ibid., 215-16.

This analysis of Desperate Scenery is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

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