Sunday, November 14, 2010

Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place

If you’re one of those people (like myself) with a deep and abiding love for trash culture than Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place is certainly a book you must read.

Metalious was born in New Hampshire, and that’s where her first and most famous novel is set. But this is not exactly a love letter to the place of her birth. It’s a merciless expose of hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, viciousness, sexual repression, corruption and general all-round nastiness. Peyton Place is a picturesque little town, but behind the neatly curtained windows you’ll find murder, incest, abortion, rape, bizarre sexual deviance, alcoholism and all the other joys of small-town life.

If there are two things the residents of Peyton Place fear more than anything else those things are scandal and facing the truth. Constance Mackenzie is more afraid than most. She isn’t really a widow raising a daughter on her own. She was never married, and her daughter Allison was the result of a liaison with a married man. Evelyn Page’s fear is sex, especially in regard to her teenage son Norman. She deals with this by giving him constant enemas, this being the only pleasure the two of them get out of life. Yes, this is fairly outrageous stuff for a novel published in 1957.

Leslie Harrington’s fear is that his dictatorial power over the town may one day be loosened. His son Rodney’s fear is that one day people will realise he’s not merely a bully but a coward as well. Selena Cross’s fear is her stepfather, who gets her pregnant at the age of 14. The town’s loveable doctor Matt Swain is afraid of the shack-dwellers. The novel begins in the late 1930s, and the shack-dwellers living in filth and squalor on the outskirts of town are a legacy of the Depression, but they’re also a result of inbreeding, alcoholism and ignorance. Doc Swain regards them with with horror and loathing, apart from Selena Cross. Selena has brains and ambition, she has a chance to escape, but being a teenage mother will destroy that chance forever. Doc Swain performs an illegal abortion on her, which gives him one more thing to torture himself about.

The town is also trying to adapt to the presence of the high school’s new headmaster. He’s an object of suspicion for three reasons - he’s from New York, he has a Greek name, and he’s an intellectual. He’s particularly disturbing to Constance Mackenzie, awakening sexual desires that she’d successfully repressed for almost two decades. She won’t marry him, because that might cause talk, but she’s willing to share her bed with him.On the other hand she’s determined that if she’s going to sleep with him at least she’ll make sure she doesn’t enjoy it.

In 1957 this book had something to offend just about everybody. And it wasn’t just the content. It was the gloriously trashy style of the writing. There was no way of excusing this book as Serious Literature, but there was also no way of keeping it from becoming a massive bestseller. The combination of sex, sin and trash was much too seductive. For better or worse, this book changed the face of American publishing. It sold eight million copies, and it taught American publishers that sex and scandal sells.

It was made into a delightfully campy film in the late 50s, but the movie is a very very sanitised version of the novel. The novel is not just more sleazy, it’s also much more cynical. It’s even cynical about war heroes, which was pretty daring in 1957. Peyton Place’s only actual war hero is a fake, but that’s conveniently covered up. It also tackles the issues of wartime profiteering and and the town elite using their control of the draft board to make sure that their sons don’t have to go off to war.

While it might not have a great deal of literary merit it did have something that American readers at the time were craving. It was honest about sex. Not sex as part of a romantic ideal of married love, but down-and-dirty lust. And it was honest in dealing with female lust, and with the reality that teenagers are interested in sex and no amount of denial is going to change that.

This novel is trash culture at its finest. I Ioved it.

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