The Locusts Have No King
by Dawn Powell
1998 (originally published 1948) • 303 pages • Steerforth Press
I was introduced to Dawn Powell through her journal entries included in Teresa Carpenter’s sublime The New York Diaries. In those entries, she gives off the impression of being a hard-working woman leaning into the wind, a little in the vein of Dorothy Parker. She makes strong decisions about her next novel (always, given her prodigious output, on the horizon); she paints quick caricatures of character she meets; and she swoons over New York, bolstered by her dreams of the city during her early life in Ohio.
It’s that last one that gives Powell her power as sharp observer of life in New York City. Her 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King does technically have a plot, in the reversal of fortune between Mrs. Lyle Gaynor, the famous and successful playwright, and her lover Frederick, an intellectual but ignored writer whose latest book finds success. But Powell is far more interested in the nooks and crannies of New York than the internal lives of her much-mocked characters. She roams far and wide, dispensing the little details that make her New York come alive—roommates squabbling over the phone, foul weather friendships, and, as always, those damn hipsters taking away the real New York.
But as a novelist (at least in The Locusts Have No King), Powell is more interested in wit than humanity. The biggest bone of contention between Lyle and Frederick is Dodo, a straining social climber who attaches herself to Frederick and does not let go. Dodo, with her childish behavior, rawboned and heavy-handed sexuality, and total misunderstanding of social mores, is a particular target of Powell’s. While there’s a large cast of women along an entire spectrum of sexual appetites, they all frown upon Dodo. (Not that I terribly excuse Dodo’s behavior, but Powell seems to take great pleasure in mocking her for actively attracting and pursuing men, instead of being a pretty horrible human being.)
Handled much better is the friendship of Caroline and Lorna, two commercial artists that live in the same building as Frederick and keep tabs on him. They’re both successful professional women who value their friendship over men and are secretly disdainful of each other’s spheres of influence. Their brief subplot finds them falling out over something trivial and reuniting at a disastrous dinner party slash interview Caroline arranges to apologize to Lorna. Every detail is a delight, from Caroline’s “wide mouthful of strong white teeth that seemed capable of crunching the bones of her human obstacles” (122) to their mutual realization that “[n]aturally you couldn’t love anybody twenty-four hours a day; in fact it was during the periods of coolness that you appreciated your friend the most, and returned with all the more pleasure” (223). It’s the strongest and zippiest part of the novel.
Overall, The Locusts Have No King drags a bit, due to its loose, slightly affectionate, and slightly more mean perspective. It’s only at the end, when Lyle and Frederick reunite with the beginnings of the Cold War unrolling in the background, that it develops any deeper flavor. And while it’s largely a pleasure to read the novel and realize how little literari circles have changed in the intervening decades, it’s still a shock to find Powell toss off a mention that Lyle’s husband has raped someone. I think this will shine brighter in the setting of the rest of her work. Any recommendations, friends?
I’m writing and posting this on Captain Cinema’s laptop while mine is having its utterly wasted battery replaced on the knife’s edge of my warranty. Stray but a little, and I’ll have to actually pay for it.
I’ve been trying to be more personal in my writing since last I murdered a computer (Demora Pasha, we hardly knew ye), and I don’t want to let this review pass without mentioning the emotional distress of not having my laptop. Part of it is not having access to my primary writing tool and the vast majority of my coping mechanisms for my anxiety, but a larger part of it is said anxiety viciously and merrily screaming at me for being such a pathetic, technology-addicted Millennial, a fake writer, and a trash cyborg for being unable to do my life’s work—in all senses of the phrase—via the traditional and therefore morally superior pen and paper. (How I’m going to reconstruct a YouTube-based exercise program on pen and paper is beyond me.)
Of course, my anxiety likes pen and paper because it’s slow enough for my anxiety to catch me and convince me that anything I’m writing is stupid. I type as fast as I think, which has always been one of the most freeing things about writing for me: being able to surprise myself with me, rather than whatever bile my anxiety can projectile vomit into my brain. Being forced, through completely neutral circumstances, to slow down, let my anxiety overtake me, and not, as I told Captain Cinema on Monday, be able to carry out my primary function, has been, to put it lightly, rough. But it’s also been instructive. This year, I’m trying not to overexplain myself to others, because I end up apologizing for the mere act of wanting. And that, I’ve learned, includes my anxiety.
I don’t owe my anxiety anything.
All the same, I’ll feel much better when I’ve got Rory Eccleston back. Although “trash cyborg” certainly has potential as a turn of phrase or aesthetic.