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The Clarion

September 28, 2011

The Clarion reminded me a bit of V.V.’s Eyes, and also of K. It’s not really as smart as either of those, but it’s mostly pretty delightful. It turns out that Samuel Hopkins Adams can be charming even when dealing with disease, corruption, betrayal, and the loss of ideals. Although I guess it’s less about the loss of ideal than about their creation, or about growing into them. That’s mostly where my V.V.’s Eyes comparisons come in. I’m comparing it to K mostly because a lot of silly, melodramatic things happen in a sympathetic way.

Whatever is happening to the ideals in question, most of them belong to Harrington Surtaine, who will henceforth be referred to as Hal. Hal is the son of itinerant quack turned millionaire patent medicine manufacturer Dr. L. André Surtaine, formerly Andy Certain, and when the book opens — after a prologue I’m choosing to ignore — the two are reunited after the trip abroad with which Hal has capped his long boarding school and college education. They’ve spent time together on vacations, but Hal has never been to his father’s new home base, the city of Worthington.

Dr. Surtaine hopes Hal  will want to join the family business, but if I were him I’d be trying to keep Hal as far away from the Certina factory as I could. Dr. Surtaine’s business is founded on two things: the tasty, alcoholic recipe for Certina, and his amazing skill at advertising. Hal, however, believes that the medicine really works. It’s clear from the beginning that Hal is eventually going to have to learn and deal with the truth; his impulse purchase of the trashiest newspaper in town only raises the stakes.

It’s not a surprise to me that The Clarion was made into a movie only a couple of years after it was first published. It is surprising that it hasn’t been filmed since. I mean, really: a naive young man buys a newspaper and is taken under the wing of a cranky, secretly idealistic journalist and the two of them set out to publish a honest paper in a town full of corrupt ones. Add in the father and son stuff, the inevitable romance, and a moderate amount of gunshots and explosions, and you would think it would be catnip for filmmakers.

It’s almost too formulaic, but the characters make it work. Hal is flawed and sympathetic and makes enough bad decisions to be believable, while Dr. Surtaine is more likeable than he has any right to be. Esmé Elliott, the love interest, is sort of a toned down version of Carlisle Heth from V.V.’s Eyes, although I was never able to like her as much as I wanted to. Milly Neal, Dr. Surtaine’s smartest employee, did not get the ending she deserved, but she did get to be more interesting than anyone else for most of the book. And I’m not really sure how to talk about Hal’s journalistic mentor, McGuire Ellis, because I kind of adore him. I kind of want a whole book of Mac Ellis being awesome, only — well, this is that book.

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