`Island' reveals truth of one man's fall and rise
WILLIAMS Contributing Reviewer
"Charles Abbott" died in 1992, the author of several award-winning nonfiction books. This, his only novel, has been published posthumously and anonymously, his literary legacy in fiction.
Island is the story of Frederick Fay, who grows up in a loveless New England home, son of an impoverished minister and a mother who despises their poverty. Fay attends Princeton, graduates in the mid-1920s and manages to pull himself up to a position on Madison Avenue.
He has finally entered the "Old Boy" network. But his life thus far has been a hollow triumph. He now knows how to dress correctly, how to choose the "right" clubs, will sacrifice a meal for a proper shirt and is painfully aware that his blood will never be blue enough.
Fay meets Julia, who is the embodiment of all he aspires to: She comes from a wealthy family, is in the Social Register and has the position he has thirsted for all his life. But it is a mysteriously passionless union, and Fay finally discovers why, as his Fool's Paradise comes crashing down around him.
This we learn in flashbacks, as Fay explains to Dr. Hennerkop, his analyst, how his drinking has destroyed his life. It is when Hennerkop finally helps Fay to see that he is not an alcoholic (alcoholics don't keep half-empty bottles in their closets and forget to drink them) that Fay decides to take his remaining cash and purchase a small island on the New England coast that is the only happy place he can remember in his life.
This is when Island truly begins to shine. Fay passes through isolation, illness and back into the society of his birth: working people, people with dirt under their fingernails.
The writing rings true here. Perhaps this is why "Charles Abbott" wrote this book under a pen name. The honesty of a man's fall and his fight back from the ashes is utterly naked. Fay's predicament is written in a voice that can only come from experience.
This is, in a sense, an "old-fashioned" novel. Fay makes moral choices, or, more exactly, ethical choices, that forge the path of his life. In the first half, he makes the choices which isolate him from the world; in the second half, he uses that knowledge to choose how to return to the world of men.
Whoever "Abbott" was, he was a writer, and the sense of detail, the pacing, the story all merge into a seamless whole. It is a pity that this is the only novel we will get from him, but what we have been left with is more than we could have asked for.
Hart Williams is a free-lance writer.
© 1994 Hart Williams