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Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell

The Locusts Have No Kingis one of the more famous novels of Dawn Powell, an author who, despite much critical acclaim, is not well known; indeed, most of her works were out-of-print by the time of her death, and have only recently been republished.  I first learned about her, and this particular novel, from the wonderful book chat Michael Dirda used to run for the Washington Post.

And it is a shame Powell is not more well known, because her writing is sharp and brutally satirical. So brutal, in fact, that I had to take it in small doses.  The Locusts Have No King is set in New York City in 1948, and relates the dissolution of a longstanding affair between an impoverished academic and a successful, unhappily married playwright.  Powell is unflinching in depicting the self-deceptions, disillusionments, casual cruelties, and heartbreak Frederick and Lyle inflict on themselves and each other.  And the secondary characters fare even worse, as Powell skewers every vanity and sin, every bit of idiocy they engage in.

What keeps this satire from being too much to bear is how true it manages to be.  Powell is able to see right to the heart of every character, to the very real wants and fears each has.  This makes the novel timeless, despite its setting -- give the characters smart phones, and they'd fit right into a certain segment of New York today.  The trappings change, but humanity doesn't.

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