Gerald Howard (Tin House #52)

“There must be something hanging over us, something that makes it hard to be happy.”
- Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

When the weather and the traffic permit, and there is no overtestosteroned bond trader-driven Porsche or Audi ten feet from your rear bumper, a drive through Connecticut on the leafy Merritt Parkway offers some of the pleasantest highway motoring on the East Coast. Built from 1934 through 1940 in the depths of the Depression, this handsomely landscaped thirty-seven-mile road features a succession of battlement-like overpasses that whiz by like the slide show for a survey course in architectural styles from classical, Gothic, and Romanesque to Beaux Arts, Art Deco and Moderne, and Machine Age designs. The Merritt winds its tree-lined way through Fairfield County and several of the most prosperous, desirable, and envied suburban towns in the country: Greenwich, a haven for billionaires where the leaves and field stones don’t seem so much cared for as curated; Darien, whose name is synonymous with upper-class, lacrosse-playing privilege; the rather too allegorically named but equally flush New Canaan; and Westport, the spiritual home of the six o’clock martini and Mad Men–era ad execs. Even Stamford, a sizable city of office parks and buildings, is tony enough to have served as the home of conservative icon William F. Buckley and his legendarily social wife, Pat. If there is a stretch of territory that can be said to deliver definitively, in Herbert Croly’s resonant phrase, “the Promise of American Life,” it is the gilded towns of this Gold Coast. Here, the children really are all above average (or had better be) and can regard as their birthright early admission to Stanford, Duke, or Princeton, followed by fantastically well-compensated employment at the country’s most prestigious financial institutions. Or so the mythology goes.

I have spent hundreds of hours on the Merritt, driving to and from Cape Cod from and to our home in New York for almost three decades. But as I try to imagine the lives of the people dwelling in those handsome houses behind the stone walls and hedgerows, it is not happiness and prosperity that come to mind, but rather well-appointed misery and a peculiarly American form of spiritual squalor. Sordid adulteries. Social climbing and status anxiety. Decaying marriages. Bitter divorces. Municipal strife. Parents baffled by their children and children contemptuous of their parents. The corrosive despair of alcoholism. Class and ethnic prejudice. The thousand worries of real estate. And many other leading indicators of domestic toxicity. Where would I get such ideas? From the fiction of Fairfield County, of course, a distinct and fascinating subset of the literature of suburbia that I have come to call “the Merritt Parkway Novel.”

I am hardly the first person to have noticed that the fiction of postwar suburban Connecticut constitutes almost a genre unto itself. Jonathan Franzen, our designated literary scourge of the upper-middle class, states in his introduction to the current edition of the ur-Fairfield County novel, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: “One of the classic settings in fiction, a little world as reassuring as imperial St. Petersburg or Victorian London, is suburban Connecticut in the 1950s.” He points out that Wilson’s demiclassic has become, along with the nonfiction works of social criticism The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man, “a watchword of fifties conformity,” offering the contemporary reader “a pure fifties fix,” as indeed it does. What is truly fascinating, though, is to trace how the themes and conflicts that Wilson so presciently grappled with—broadly stated, the problem of living a meaningful and authentic life in the midst of postwar American prosperity and rapidly shifting values—have morphed and shape-shifted over five decades of American fiction. The evidence, at least as presented by today’s novelists, is that happiness on “the crabgrass frontier” remains elusive and that our ever-increasing freedoms have not availed us in that quest.

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