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!