David Edgerley Gates
Clancy Sigal died last month. He was a friend of friends, I didn't know him, although we had a flurry of Facebook posts and private e-mails back and forth in the last couple of years, and I relished them.
Clancy wasn't a household name, but that of course depends on your household. For those of us of a certain age, and a certain political persuasion, he was something of a heroic figure. He was an old-time Lefty, and proud of it, but I'm thinking of his 1961 novel, Going Away.
Going Away is a road novel. Subtitled 'a Report, a Memoir,' it reverses the usual convention, the westward journey, and travels West to East. At the end of the book, even, the narrator takes ship for Europe, the Old World. It's also generational, a voyage of recovery - not the twelve steps, but the recovery of memory, of history, and the ever-retreating past. It had an enormous influence on me. More than Catcher in the Rye or On the Road, or Bill Goldman's first novel, The Temple of Gold, all of which I'd devoured and attached myself to. What they had in common, both with each other and with Going Away, was a sense of yearning, a place just over the horizon. And larger than this, Going Away suggested that a life of engagement was not only possible, or worth seeking out, but necessary. In other words, that moral energy is nourishing.
Going Away is really about a legacy, and Clancy uses the word, or its first cousin. "We are the residual legatees," he says, of something good and even noble in American politics. The fight for social justice is no mean thing. We can argue about whether the Left was hijacked by the Communists, or how Organized Labor lost its way, and unions got mobbed up, but you have to admit that once upon a time there was maybe an ideal to live up to. Maybe that's in fact the problem, that the ideal is impossible to live up to, that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Going Away is a chronicle of disillusion, and loss. Our hopes held in trust, only to be sold off, a dime on the dollar.
There's a halfway famous remark Isaac Asimov once made, which I may have quoted before. He's asked, "When was the Golden Age of science fiction?" and he says, "Fifteen." You know where I'm going with this. We all too often have some terrific enthusiasm, at whatever age, and then we outgrow it. This is very true of books. Some of them just don't bear re-reading. There's a writer you couldn't get enough of, then, and now they leave you cold. It could be that we get more sophisticated, because the opposite happens - I could never have appreciated Trollope, for example, when I was in my teens or twenties, I had a hard enough time with Dickens. So with regard to Clancy, and Going Away, it's terrifically heartening for me to report that fifty years on, the book stands up just fine. It's still as much of a gas to read. I'd actually forgotten how funny it is. Clancy never took himself too seriously.
There's also a larger point to be made here, I think, about influences. I can say I never realized how much influence Kipling had on me, not until I read Puck of Pook's Hill years later. (My dad had read it aloud to me when I was five or six.) I could say the same about Walt Kelly and Pogo, or Carl Barks and the Disney duck comics. Then there are the conscious influences. Steinbeck, say. Hemingway. No apologies. Eudora Welty. John O'Hara. Mary Renault. You read more. You get older. You do get more supple, and more sophisticated. You pick up more tricks. Here's the thing. Clancy Sigal didn't influence me in terms of style, or method, a way of telling a story, or certainly not the way O'Hara did. Clancy influenced my life. He wrote a book that fundamentally changed the way I looked out at the world. He made me a participant.