Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 288 pages; 2005.
Sloan Wilson, who died in 2003 aged 83, wrote 15 novels, but his most famous was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, first published in 1955.
I picked this book up several years ago, attracted more by the black and white photograph of Gregory Peck on the cover and the lovely silver spine that is the trademark of a Penguin Modern Classic than the name of the author. Indeed, I had never heard of Sloan Wilson, whom, it seems, had become one of those neglected writers recently championed by the modern literary elite — in this case, Jonathan Franzen, who writes a brief but very good introduction to this edition. (Franzen did something similar for Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters a few years back, which makes me wonder whether that might explain his lack of recent fiction: he’s too busy writing introductions for long-forgotten authors than concentrating on his own literary career.)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is described as the quintessential 1950s novel, mainly because that’s the era in which it is set and written, but putting aside the sexism and the “traditional” family life — man goes to work, woman stays at home and looks after the children — depicted within its pages, it is still highly relevant and tackles themes and issues that are pertinent today. For instance, at what point does one acknowledge that it is more important to enjoy one’s work than it is to make as much money as possible from something you detest? When do you stop worrying about the future and start enjoying the present? Should you tell people the truth or tell them what they want to hear? Is rampant consumerism the path to happiness?
The book follows Tom Rath, a veteran of the Second World War, who is married to Betsy. They have three young children and live in suburban Connecticut, but are desperate to move up in the world, to “afford a bigger house and a better brand of gin”.
When Tom leaves his dull but secure Manhattan job and applies for something slightly different — a PR man for the United Broadcasting Company (UBC) — Betsy is surprised. “I’ve never thought of you as a public-relations man,” she says to him. “Would you like it?” “I’d like the money,” is his reply.
By a large stroke of luck, Tom walks into a challenging but cushy job as the right-hand man of Mr Hopkins, the president of UBC, who plans to form a national committee on mental health. It’s not a particularly well paid job, but the opportunities for promotion are immense.
Still, despite the promise of a bright future, Tom is plagued by doubts — he simply does not think he is good enough for the job and he struggles to work out where he fits in.
His life is further complicated by the death of his elderly grandmother. She leaves him a large, crumbling estate, which could potentially be the answer to all his financial woes, but her hired help creates turmoil by contesting the will. And then there’s problems with the local community which could scupper his plans to subdivide the land for extra profit.
All these complications lead Tom — and Betsy too — into a kind of stressed existence, where all they do is work and worry, following a set routine that leaves neither of them content. “There’s something that seems to be hanging over us,” Betsy says one morning. “Something that makes it hard to be happy.”
That cloud hanging over them is Tom’s inability to talk about his war experience, not because he is troubled by the people he killed, but because he had an affair with an Italian women with whom he suspects he has fathered a child. This scene, as Tom and Betsy lie in bed one night, is as good as any at conveying the strain within their marriage:
‘Did you ever kill anyone?
‘I mean, did you personally ever kill anyone? You’ve never talked to me about it.’
‘Right now I’m too tired. I want to go to sleep.’
He stirred restlessly and shut his eyes. In the dim light from the window Betsy lay looking at his big hands lying quietly folded on top of the covers. ‘I cannot imagine you killing anyone,’ she said.
There was no answer. Betsy lay looking at him for several minutes before trying to go to sleep. How strange, she thought, to know so little about one’s husband.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a wonderful story about juggling the work / life balance while still being able to provide for your family. The blurb of this particular edition calls it “a testament to the enduring power of family love” but I’d argue it’s more about being true to yourself, about being courageous and living the life you want to lead, not the life you are expected to lead.
But what I liked about it most, aside from the very human tale told within its pages, is the lightness of touch Wilson brings to the narrative. There’s a cast of well-rounded, occasionally comical characters, with walk-on roles that bring a smile to the face. And he’s very adept at making conversations sound ludicrous but totally believable by turns.
The strength of the narrative also lies in its many threads. While Tom is the main protagonist, we also get to experience other view points — namely Mr Hopkins and the probate judge considering the disputed will. And Tom’s back story, that as a paratrooper in the war, is nicely fleshed out using a series of regular flashbacks woven seamlessly into the main storyline.
I found little, if anything, to fault in this highly entertaining novel. The author has been criticised for the sappy ending, but personally I didn’t mind it, and I’m now keen to seek out the 1956 film version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit starring Gregory Peck. And I’ll probably go hunt out his other novels, which all seem to be out of print; if they are as good as this one it will be worth the effort.