McTeague by Frank Norris

If I had to pick one word to describe McTeague by Frank Norris, that word would probably be ‘downer.’ I’m kind of kidding…but I’m kind of not.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Stephen King.)

McTeague starts out with a character of the same name. He’s an ox, working as a dentist in San Francisco although he actually just learned from a traveling charlatan instead of going to dental school. He’s strong, but seems like a good guy. Takes pleasure in simple things:

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee-joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna’s saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. It was his habit to leave the pitcher there on his way to dinner.

Once in his office, or, as he called it on his signboard, “Dental Parlors,” he took off his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed his little stove full of coke, lay back in his operating chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking his beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food digested; crop-full, stupid, and warm. By and by, gorged with steam beer, and overcome by the heat of the room, the cheap tobacco, and the effects of his heavy meal, he dropped off to sleep. Late in the afternoon his canary bird, in its gilt cage just over his head, began to sing. He woke slowly, finished the rest of his beer–very flat and stale by this time–and taking down his concertina from the bookcase, where in week days it kept the company of seven volumes of “Allen’s Practical Dentist,” played upon it some half-dozen very mournful airs.

McTeague has a friend named Marcus. Marcus has a girl named Trina. McTeague falls in love with her and Marcus decides to be a good guy and get out of the way:

Marcus was thinking hard. He could see very clearly that McTeague loved Trina more than he did; that in some strange way this huge, brutal fellow was capable of a greater passion than himself, who was twice as clever. Suddenly Marcus jumped impetuously to a resolution.

“Well, say, Mac,” he cried, striking the table with his fist, “go ahead. I guess you–you want her pretty bad. I’ll pull out; yes, I will. I’ll give her up to you, old man.”

The sense of his own magnanimity all at once overcame Marcus. He saw himself as another man, very noble, self-sacrificing; he stood apart and watched this second self with boundless admiration and with infinite pity. He was so good, so magnificent, so heroic, that he almost sobbed. Marcus made a sweeping gesture of resignation, throwing out both his arms, crying: “Mac, I’ll give her up to you. I won’t stand between you.” There were actually tears in Marcus’s eyes as he spoke. There was no doubt he thought himself sincere. At that moment he almost believed he loved Trina conscientiously, that he was sacrificing himself for the sake of his friend. The two stood up and faced each other, gripping hands. It was a great moment; even McTeague felt the drama of it. What a fine thing was this friendship between men! the dentist treats his friend or an ulcerated tooth and refuses payment; the friend reciprocates by giving up his girl. This was nobility. Their mutual affection and esteem suddenly increased enormously. It was Damon and Pythias; it was David and Jonathan; nothing could ever estrange them. Now it was for life or death.

“I’m much obliged,” murmured McTeague. He could think of nothing better to say. “I’m much obliged,” he repeated; “much obliged, Mark.”

That is, until Trina wins $5000 in a lottery. Then Marcus becomes bitter. The friends become enemies, though much of this goes over McTeague’s head.

Frankly, after a long buildup to a happy life for McTeague and Trina, things spend the rest of the book going downhill. Marcus rats out that McTeague isn’t really a licensed dentist and McTeague and Trina descend into poverty. The brutish side of McTeague magnifies as time goes on, he really turns out to be a horrible man, as does the avaricious side of Trina.

Things pretty much go bad for everybody. Maybe this was just the way things were in San Francisco before the turn of the twentieth century.

I know I’m being kind of flip here, so don’t think that I didn’t like McTeague. The characters are great (though mostly horrible), the descriptions are meticulous and vivid, and the story is gripping. However, it is also highly depressing. It takes a long time to bring things all down, and there is really no doubt the whole time where things are going.

I really don’t want to say too much more than that. I know McTeague is an older book so many people may already know everything that happens even if they hadn’t read it, but I want to be sure. I hadn’t heard of it before.

Regardless, it’s a finely written book…but a heck of a downer. Don’t read McTeague when you’re depressed.

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