For three years in a row, from 1907, Harold MacGrath had a novel on the best-seller list. Then he was heard from no more. The first is titled Half a Rogue. Written in a jaunty prose, heavy on the dialogue, it's driven by a relentless plot in which the reader's never in doubt as to whom to root for. It says much about its time, in both a literary and a political sense.
The hero is Richard "Dick" Warrington, a successful New York playwright. He is the eponymous half a rogue. He bears a strong resemblance, at first, to a certain whole rogue: Dorian Gray. Wilde's scandalous novel had appeared sixteen years earlier. Here's the domesticated version, Wilde Lite. Dick is a young man who "drank from the cup of dissipation," and it left no mark on his face or on his moral character. We also find in these pages preposterous old women with silly names, as well as a Wildean worship of youth, youth!—there is nothing in the world but youth!—and many second-rate epigrams. One begins, "Women are like extinct volcanoes," and another says: "Mediocrity's teeth are sharp only for those who fear them." Whatever that means.
But it's a long book, and MacGrath soon abandons his homage to Wilde. Other influences become apparent. There's much Dickensian sentimentality, particularly in the simplistic moral arithmetic of the story. Also, men say "Pshaw!" and "Humph!" a lot. At moments of stress their jaws harden. A terrible romantic misunderstanding arises.
The plot moves from Broadway to a bustling upstate city called Herculaneum. The influence shifts with it. We feel different shades at work, the likes of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane. MacGrath becomes a dirty realist, in a wholesome sort of a way: a clean dirty realist. There's seedy backroom politics, union busting, hard-drinking newspapermen, and dogfights. There's a powerful vision of rugged, manly capitalism. John Bennington is friends with Dick Warrington, and you could easily confuse them. John owns a steelworks upstate. Faced with wily, unscrupulous union organizers, at the climax of the novel he tells his workforce: Call off the strike or I'll tear down the factory! The workers don't believe him. They stage a walkout. But John is made of stern Republican stuff. He mans up and follows through.
Simultaneously, romantic misunderstandings are straightened out.
It could have been written yesterday.
Patrick McGrath's last novel is Trauma (Knopf, 2008).