The Main ChanceDecember 31, 2012
The Main Chance is one of those business-and-ethics-and-someone-has-a-pretty-daughter stories, brought to you by the author of House of a Thousand Candles. It centers on three young men and the fairly new midwestern town of Clarkson.
John Saxton is the newcomer. He’s from Boston, has never proved himself to be particularly good at anything, and failed at running a ranch in Wyoming before some friends found him a job overseeing the Western interests of an Eastern financial company.
Then there’s Warrick Raridan, born and bred in Clarkson. He’s cultured and charming and sort of the town’s only dilletante. He has a law degree, but has trouble sticking with a legal career, or with anything else. He and Saxton quickly become close friends.
James Wheaton is the one who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but while being steady and honest has landed him in his position as cashier of the Clarkson bank, it hasn’t done much else. he’s dull to talk to and doesn’t know how to deal with social situations at all.
Saxton is theoretically the protagonist, and the book begins and ends with him, but the middle spends more time on the other two. Which makes sense: while Saxton is slowly and carefully getting the affairs of the Neponset Trust in order and enjoying his friendship with Warry Raridan, the others are having Drama. Wheaton is learning how to be a person that interacts with other people and dealing with the occasional reappearance of his unfortunately not long-lost convict brother. Warry is trying to reform himself for the benefit of his old friend Evelyn Porter, who has only friendly feelings for him, although everyone in town insists on coupling their names romantically.
And then…I find that I don’t really want to give anything away. It took me a long time to get into The Main Chance, because it was kind of unfocused at the start, and not much was happening, but once I readjusted my expectations — away from House of a Thousand Candles and vaguely in the direction of V.V.’s Eyes — I couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t the need to find out what happens, or to confirm my suspicion that a certain character was completely and utterly doomed, although those certainly helped. Mostly I just wanted to find out how everyone was going to resolve their personal inner turmoil. And also, later, to appreciate John Saxton being awesome.
Saxton doing that thing where a character finally lands in the appropriate position for their talents to be properly appreciated was a late highlight. So was a stocks-and-bonds-and-machinations mess involving public transportation that was gripping and involved until Nicholson decided to wrap it up much too quickly. What kept me reading until those things appeared on the horizon was the incredible grounding detail. Wheaton’s total lack of social skills was not only realistic but totally gutting, except in comparison to the passage where he goes to the fashionable church and Bishop Delafield’s sermon hits him so hard where he lives that he literally can’t listen to it, or understand why.
Next best, in kind of the opposite direction, was Saxton’s genuine, diffident kindness. When do protagonists of early 20th century novels get to be likable and self-effacing and hard to get out of their shells? Usually they’re darkly humorous and a little bit masterful or good-natured and outgoing and a little bit masterful. Saxton, is, I suppose, also a little bit masterful, but only professionally. And he’s embarrassed about it. I like him a lot, and Evelyn Porter, too, who is tarred with a similar brush. A contemporary reviewer found her to be too ordinary, and I agree, but I think it’s a good thing.
You may be getting the impression that this book is really wonderful. That impression would be, I’m pretty sure, mistaken. But parts of it are amazing.