Monday, September 17, 2012

17. Turn, Magic Wheel


By Dawn Powell 

Dawn Powell was a prolific and talented New York writer during the first half of the 20th century who had never really received the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.  Nevertheless, she was part of the literary “in” crowd, a beloved friend and drinking companion of many luminaries of her time.  By the time she died, almost all her novels were out of print and she languished in obscurity until some contemporary authors brought about a revival during the 1990’s and some of her novels were reprinted.

I had only recently heard of Powell when I came across a Goodreads article in which author Kate Christensen named Powell as one of her favourite writers:  “Her sharp insight into human nature is never moralistic or sentimental. She shows people as they are, not as she wishes they were or thinks they ought to be—she is never judgmental, but her eyes are gimlet and her tongue is razor sharp."

Powell’s 1936 novel Turn, Magic Wheel, a social satire about the New York literary scene, became the first work that received both critical acclaim and reasonable commercial success.  Dennis Orphen is a young writer whose debut novel is a thinly veiled satire of the relationship between a Hemingway-like writer (Andrew Callingham) and Callingham’s first wife, Effie.  Dennis’ main motive for befriending Effie Callingham (nee Thorne) was to provide fodder for his writing material, but becomes conflicted when his novel is about to be released, as he realizes how much he has come to actually value his unique relationship with Effie Thorne.

Though it took me a little while to get into the novel at first, I ended up very much enjoying Turn, Magic Wheel.  There were some wonderfully brilliant moments of insight and there were times I felt like I was a part of that whole scene.  Take for example, the skewering of a rich but stingy patroness who loves to throw parties for “the freshest of public names”:

He recalled rumors that Mrs. Meigs prided herself on a perfectly delicious punch made of pure alcohol and grape juice, which she declared fooled everyone, and enabled her to entertain at very little expense. The result of this shrewd fooling was that guests were always prowling about the basement in a game she had never thought to invent but which was the life of her parties, namely the Scotch Hunt.  There was invariably some old family friend or an intuitive type who knew the hiding place and since her private stock was very good indeed little groups of guests were always clustered in the laundry leaning over the electric mangle or in the coal cellar or the cook’s bedroom, contentedly sharing a glass with no gaily embossed red rooster on its rim at all but more likely the plainest jelly glass or even a half-pint cream bottle.

Here is a wonderfully written 1936 NYT review of Turn, Magic Wheel:

...a barbed and immensely entertaining satire on a certain phase of New York's literary life. Read about the young publisher who discovered the possibilities of proletarian literature; read Miss Powell's analysis of how to write quaint little prosies for the "Manhattanite"; read her deliciously comic descriptions of night-club binges and literary teas. Miss Powell's wit, if somewhat overexuberant, has a peculiarly sharp and ruthless edge. She has some deadly things to say about the cormorant aspects of the intelligentsia, and though her actual story--despite its moving moments--is a little synthetic, her book as a whole rings savagely true.

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