by Merle Miller
Published by Harper & Row
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
Merle Miller (1919–86) was born in Montour, Iowa. He grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa, and attended the University of Iowa and the London School of Economics.
I don’t know if his last novel, What Happened (1972), is his best. I know that the best-selling one was his first, the 1948 WWII-veteran novel That Winter. And he is best-known for his Harry Truman oral history, Plain Speaking, and for coming out in the New York Times Magazine on January 17, 1971, “What It Means to Be a Homosexual” (what it was like being homosexual in the pre-gay-liberation era.)
The narrator of What Happened has only a taste of ashes left, and most everyone in the novel has come to a pathetic end, yet the novel is exhilarating and the narrator emerges at the end to deal with his spiritual son.
There is a lot of technical skill in this book, with no failure to imagine full worlds. It strains belief that four contemporaries from a small Iowa town all made it big in the great world, but the fall of the small town’s elite family is almost a cliché. So too is the artistic mother going crazy in the small-minded town.
One striking feature is four allusions to J. Edgar Hoover as homosexual and (I think in two) liking drag. He may have been dead by the time the book appeared (both occurred in 1972), but was not when it was written.
©1995, 2016, Stephen O. Murray
1 May 1995