The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

First published in 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was the debut novel by the American writer and reporter Sloan Wilson. The novel performed very well on its release and was promptly adapted for the screen with Gregory Peck as the central character, Tom Rath. Even though the book may have fallen out of fashion since then, its title – The Man in the Gray Suit – remains symbolic of certain kind of middle-class conformity in 1950s America, namely the need for a man to submit to the rat race in pursuit of the American Dream. Fans of the series Mad Men and the work of Richard Yates will find much to appreciate in Gray Flannel – and yet Wilson’s protagonist is more humane than Don Draper, more likeable and fairer in his dealings with others.

The novel revolves around Tom Rath, a thirtysomething former paratrooper, who finds himself trapped in a life which seems to hold little meaning for him. With a wife, Betsy, and three children to support, Tom feels the weight of society’s expectations very deeply. The family live in the midst of suburban Connecticut, where they divide their responsibilities along very traditional lines – Betsy remains at home to manage the household, while Tom commutes to his mindless office job in the city.

Betsy in particular dreams of bigger and better things for the family; more money, a larger house and a life of opportunities and rewards. Like many of the residents of Greentree Avenue, she views the family’s current position as temporary, a mere stepping-stone on the way to a more comfortable lifestyle in the future.

Almost all the houses were occupied by couples with young children, and few people considered Greentree Avenue a permanent stop—the place was just a crossroads where families waited until they could afford to move on to something better. The finances of almost every household were an open book. Budgets were frankly discussed, and the public celebration of increases in salary was common. The biggest parties of all were moving-out parties, given by those who finally were able to buy a bigger house. Of course there were a few men in the area who had given up hope of rising in the world, and a few who had moved from worse surroundings and considered Greentree Avenue a desirable end of the road, but they and their families suffered a kind of social ostracism. On Greentree Avenue, contentment was an object of contempt. (p. 109)

Tom, on the other hand, is more troubled, burdened as he is by difficulties from the past as well as those in the present. In essence, Tom remains marked by his experiences in WW2 where he was responsible for the deaths of seventeen men, including that of his closest buddy in the forces, Hank Mahoney – the latter as a result of a terrible accident with a hand grenade. Then there is the memory of the weeks spent with Maria, the sensitive Italian girl Tom encountered while stationed in Rome in 1944. The pair lived together in an innocent dream world of their own, hoping to make the most of their time together before Tom’s departure for the Pacific War – a thread somewhat reminiscent of Alfred Hayes’ striking novella, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

As far as Tom’s current problems are concerned, there’s the constant pressure to be moving ahead, driven by the aspirations of middle-class suburban life. While Tom is cautious and conservative, Betsy is more optimistic, willing to take risks to keep up with the Joneses. Add to this the difficulties posed by an elderly grandmother and the complexities of her estate, no wonder Tom is finding it challenging to reconcile the various aspects of his life.

There were really four completely unrelated worlds in which he lived, Tom reflected as he drove the old Ford back to Westport. There was the crazy, ghost-ridden world of his grandmother and his dead parents. There was the isolated, best-not-remembered world in which he had been a paratrooper. There was the matter-of-fact, opaque-glass-brick-partitioned world of places like the United Broadcasting Company and the Schanenhauser Foundation. And there was the entirely separate world populated by Betsy and Janey and Barbara and Pete, the only one of the four worlds worth a damn. There must be some way in which the four worlds were related, he thought, but it was easier to think of them as entirely divorced from one another. (p. 22)

Things start looking up for Tom when he is offered a new job, assisting the head of the United Broadcasting Company with a new committee on the importance of mental health. While Tom dithers over the pros and cons of risky job move, Betsy views the role as a major opportunity, encouraging her husband to make the leap. For a start, it will mean additional money in their pockets, and the project itself may lead to other more lucrative things.

Once in the role, Tom finds the internal politics of UBC rather wearying to deal with. The scenes in which Tom is driven mad by the conflicting views of his two bosses – the firm’s President, Mr Hopkins, and his right-hand man, Mr Ogden – are wonderfully amusing. While Hopkins praises draft and draft of a speech Tom has penned for him, Ogden tears each one to pieces, much to Tom’s frustration. The whole episode ends with Ogden drafting his own version of the speech, a laborious and repetitive missive containing nothing but statements of motherhood.

The first half of the novel is undoubtedly the strongest, peppered as it is with flashbacks to Tom’s time as a member of the US forces in WW2 – the scenes of military action are tense and vivid, almost certainly inspired by Wilson’s own experiences of the war. The tenderness and fragility of the relationship between Tom and Maria are also beautifully conveyed – feelings heightened by Tom’s belief that he might die at the hands of the Japanese during the next phase of the campaign. With Betsy far and away in Connecticut, Tom’s home life seems very remote, a mere memory from the dim and distant past – so he seizes the opportunity of the weeks with Maria, a little warmth and affection amidst ravages of war.

By contrast, the second half feels looser as Betsy’s and Hopkins’ backstories are explored in some detail. Hopkins himself has his own troubles, a failing marriage and a wayward daughter, almost certainly exacerbated by his workaholic nature. While interesting to a certain extent, these diversions prove to be somewhat distracting, diluting the central focus on Tom and his angst-ridden existence.

As the novel reaches its denouement, Tom’s past finally threatens to catch up with him. In a conclusion that could easily have gone in one of two ways, Tom and Betsy manage to bridge the gulf in their lives, successfully addressing the inherent difficulties of the past few years. At long last, Betsy gains an insight into the pain and suffering Tom experienced during the war, things he has never spoken about before. Tom, for his part, seems more at ease with himself – a man content to be true to his own values, no longer a slave to the whims of others. While some readers might find the ending a little too sentimental or neatly resolved, it does give a sense of closure in a way that feels heartening and uplifting. A little Hollywood in style, perhaps, but I’m not going to quibble over that.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Tom, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this hugely enjoyable book, which still feels pretty relevant to the pressures of today.

“…I was my own disappointment, I really don’t know what I was looking for when I got back from the war, but it seemed as though all I could see was a lot of bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere. They seemed to me to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness—they were pursuing a routine…” (p. 272)

This is my first contribution to Stu’s Penguin Classics month, which started yesterday – I’m hoping this Modern Classic will qualify!

46 thoughts on “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

  1. kimbofo

    This is one of my favourite novels so pleased to see you review it here, Jacqui. Ever since reading it I’ve been on the search for something similiar but have never quite found it. I do like these American novels set in the 1950s.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed it so much Kim. It’s such an interesting period in society, this post-war era of change and disillusionment. The nearest I can think of in terms of a comparison is something like Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, although the tone of that novel is somewhat different to the humorous sections of Gray Flannel. You’ll have to let me know if you ever find anything like it in the future!

      Reply
      1. kimbofo

        Yates’ Cold Spring Harbour, which I read earlier in the year, is in a similar vein but is focused on two families rather than a single marriage. His novel Disturbing the Peace, which I’ve not read, sounds close in theme/period too.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I really want to read Cold Spring Harbour, hopefully later this year, as it sounds like one of Yates’ best. I love the way he captures those feelings of loneliness and disappointment, the sense of frustration that permeates the lives of his characters.

          Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    I love the sound of this Jacqui (and Gregory Peck on the cover is no bad thing either ;-) ) and it still sounds so relevant to today. The line ‘contentment was an object of contempt’ particularly resonated. I was just talking with a friend this weekend about how contentment seems to be looked down on – I guess because the you’re likely buy less stuff!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a very telling line, isn’t it? Almost akin to saying that it’s unacceptable for an employee to feel happy in their current role, creating an expectation that everyone should have the desire to progress upwards irrespective of their current position. Being happy with your lot in life is a much underrated thing!

      Reply
  3. Radz Pandit

    Great review as ever Jacqui! I loved Mad Men and all of Yates’ work I have read so far so this one has certainly piqued my interest. I am also reminded of the book ‘A Meaningful Life’ by L.J. Davis, which explores similar themes of existential angst, but is more of a black comedy. It has been published by NYRB Classics and remains one of my favourites (a list which keeps increasing) from their catalogue.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Radhika. I think there’s a good chance you would like this, especially given your fondness for Yates and Mad Men. It definitely has that kind of flavour and style. Many thanks for recommending A Meaningful Life – that’s a new one on me, but if it’s published by NYRB Classics then it’s got to be good! I’ll look it up.

      On the subject of urban angst, have you read Natsume Soseki’s The Gate, also in NYRB? If not, you might enjoy it. The context and setting are different to that portrayed here, but the idea of suburban alienation is a common theme.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for members of the forces back then. How can you ever adjust to *normal* life again after an experience like that without any counselling or support? Such a desperately hard thing to try to do…

      Reply
  4. bookbii

    Not a novel I’ve ever encountered but one that definitely seems worth looking up, though I might find the grey flannel existence a little too sadly close to home. Lovely & thoughtful review, as always, Jacque.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can well understand that. Thankfully I’m no longer part of that stifling corporate environment, but Tom’s frustrations with the internal politics in UBC definitely rang a bell with me!

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui. I’ve never heard of book or author but it sounds still very relevant. We may have moved on a bit since the emotionally buttoned-up and repressed 1950s, but we still seem happy to fall into roles and routines.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, I think you’re right. While the context is somewhat different now, many of the same pressures and challenges still exist. I guess that one of the reasons why I enjoy reading books from this era – they’re not just period pieces as some of the themes and issues remain very pertinent today.

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    Although I’ve not generally read the books you’ve been reviewing recently I have usually heard of them, but not this. Mention of Richard Yates (and Mad Men which I loved) has me very intrigued however!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m just trying to remember where I first heard about this book…possibly on Twitter or an online discussion of some description? Anyway, it came with a fairly promising recommendation. I think you’d enjoy this one, Grant, particularly given your fondness for Yates and Mad Men – they’re all in the same kind of ballpark (albeit with some interesting tonal/stylistic differences)!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great, Guy. Thanks for that – I’ll look it up! Nice to hear there’s more to this author than Gray Flannel. He doesn’t appear to be very well known over here.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I couldn’t find A Place in the Sun when I looked up Sloan Wilson on wiki, only A Summer Place. Is that the one you were thinking of, by any chance?

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    This isn’t a writer I have heard of. It sounds excellent and although I have only read one Richard Yates your reference to him makes me think I would like this too . Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t think he’s very well known over here. In fact I only came across the book via an online conversation at some point (possibly on Twitter, although I’m struggling to recall the exact details now). I think you’d like it. The similarities with Yates are there for sure, particularly in terms of Tom’s situation and backstory.

      Reply
  8. Richard

    This sounds really well done, Jacqui, and the parts where Tom’s humdrum existence post-WWII intersect with flashbacks of his war experiences sound particularly appealing for some reason. Thanks for reminding me of Stu’s Penguin Month while we’re at it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, you’re very welcome, Richard. I think Stu’s thing started off as a Penguin week, but he’s expanded it into May – so, there’s plenty of time to join in should you feel inclined. As for the Wilson, it’s a good book to have at hand, a very engaging read with a nice contrast between pathos and humour. I enjoyed it a great deal!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’ve added the film to my DVD rental list, so fingers crossed it will turn up fairly soon. It’ll be interesting to compare it with the book…

      Reply
  9. Izzy

    I haven’t seen Mad Men, shame on me, but I’m a huge fan of Yates. A Meaningful Life and The Gate are going straight to my whishlist too ! I wonder if Guy Savage meant “A Summer Place”, by Wilson, or the film “A Place in the Sun” based on “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser ?
    Anyway, I loved your review and I’m very happy when further suggestions appear in the comments which is something I sometimes do but tend to feel bad about !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you! I’m always pleased to receive suggestions of other books in a similar vein to something I’ve enjoyed, so no need for you to feel bad about it! Like you, I’ve been wondering about Guy’s comment as I couldn’t find anything by Sloan Wilson with that particular title. ‘A Summer Place’ sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it? I’ll have to check with Guy to make sure.

      P.S. I can definitely recommend Mad Men if you’re ever in the market for a new box set. It’s one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen, particularly in terms of characterisation and period detail.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this, Caroline. It’s more ‘generous’ than Yates, more humorous and sympathetic if that makes sense. I really enjoyed it in spite of the bagginess in the second half. There’s something very compelling and humane about these stories of ex-servicemen trying to adjust to life following the Second World War – they just show how difficult it must have been for these individuals, particularly given the lack of any proper counselling or support.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I’m always amazed at what seem to be obscure gems of books that you have an endless supply of, and then other readers will confirm their greatness, or like me, wonder how you find them, it’s like there is a little flag waver somewhere, drawing you towards these interesting literary, almost forgotten books, that you breathe new life into. Bravo. I love the final quote, so poignant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great quote, isn’t it? Very telling A frantic parade to nowhere…such an inspired description.

      I can’t quite remember where I first heard about this book, but it was definitely online somewhere, possibly in a Twitter conversation about Richard Yates? Anyway, I’m very glad I picked it up. It really does deserve to be much better known!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel. I think there’s every chance you’re going to love this book – it’s hugely enjoyable, in spite of the slight bagginess and dip in focus in the second half. Tom is such a humane character that it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for his plight.

      Reply
  12. lizipaulk

    I’ve heard of this title, and your review now gives me some background. It sounds right up my alley, so thanks for moving it to the top of my TBR.

    Reply

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