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"McTeague" by Frank Norris
(Penguin, $3.95)
Review by John Gabree

A generation ago, highschoolers still read Frank Norris' "The Octopus," a realistic novel that was in part a muckraking attack on the railroads. I'd wager few of today's students have heard of Frank Norris or his novels. Too bad, because he was not only historically important in liberating American fiction from what William Dean Howells called "the proprieties of civilization," he was also a first-rate storyteller.

Frank Norris was raised in Chicago and San Francisco society, educated at Berkeley and Harvard and in Paris, and worked as a journalist in South Africa, Cuba and San Francisco. He published 10 books, most of them received as scandals by the reviewers of his day. He died at32 in 1902.

It probably doesn't (and shouldn't) matter to today's reader that Norris was instrumental in introducing realism into American writing. Strongly influenced by Emile Zola (he liked Stevenson and Kipling, too - he was also a romantic), Norris believed that fiction is a diagnostic instrument for probing life's sores. As a journalist, he acquired the knack of swift characterization and an eye for the telling detail. He put both influences to work in his own fiction.

"McTeague" is Norris' most lasting work. The story of a dim-witted San Francisco dentist and his avaricious wife, it is a powerful examination of characters pinned by fate. Despite its despicable protagonist, the novel is riveting, largely because Norris is able to achieve an almost Dickensian sensation of time and place. The descriptions are so stark and realistic that director Erich von Stroheim used the book as a treatment for his film, "Greed." This new edition of "McTeague" includes a scholarly introduction by Kevin Starr. (1982)


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