No Down Payment (1957, with the 1960 cover shown here) was John McPartland’s breakthrough novel. Previously stuck in the 'wilds' of the Gold Medal jungle, No Down Payment, a fictional expose of the new suburban lifestyle, proved a top seller and was made into a movie featuring Joanne Woodward.
In 1957, the idea of suburban living was still something new. And, if the fiction is to be believed, the 'burbs were weird places. In their favor, the suburbs were crammed to the gills with the New People: the Up and Comers, the Success Stories.In Mr. McParland’s book, there’s a sort of desperate repetition of the “oh, aren’t we so lucky?” mantra.
Every Saturday the shops sell out of charcoal because every family cooks a perfect steak in the perfect weather on BBQ behind their perfect home. This is the age of easy credit and electric conveniences and all sorts of home wizardry. One man charmingly counts the motors in his home as a way of marking success – he grew up with none, now he has 15 (17, once he remembers the ones in the BBQ and rotisserie). [We could now do the same with computers, I suspect.]
And isn’t this comfort all deserved? As Mr. McPartland points out, this is the generation of the men-who-fought and the women-that-worked (until marriage, then they’re the women-who-do-committees). These cushy surroundings are the result of the GI Bill, the triumphant over-production of the post-war period and an admirable cultural respect for education. Scientists, Mr. McPartland posits, are the success story of the 1950s – just as businessmen were the paragons of the 1920 and industrialists the champions of the century before.
With this foundation – the back patting and the self-indulgence and the celebration – the author only echoes the advertising (and even the newspapers) of the time. The suburbs are little islands of modern perfection, escapes from the [non-white] dirty cities. Liberated by the affordable motorcar, this is the new generation’s chance to create tiny capitalist utopias in the foothills.
This premise is ripe for cynical exploitation and, with the setting established, the author bounds to it with glee. Beautiful on the outside, and furnished with every convenience, the suburbs are Petri dishes of degeneracy and perversion. With luxury comes decadence; with decadence corruption. On the wholly prurient end, publishers like Midwood Publishing loved the suburban setting – Bucks Country Report (‘lays bare the sex frustrations of the suburban citadel with savage frankness’) and Without Shame (‘she lived in a nether-world of sensual pleasure’). For the working class (urban) readership, there were both smug and sensationalist pleasures in thinking of the suburbs as packed with deviants and over-sexed (yet still frustrated) perverts.
Although a step above the Midwood publications, Mr. McPartland uses four families to highlight (and exaggerate) various perceived aspects of suburban living. For the primary couple, David and Jean Martin, the issue is one of identity. The two are both – seemingly – alpha types. They’re the best looking couple on the block and, financially, the most successful. They both – David especially – deeply emotionally engage with their surroundings. “We’re doing well, really well,” muses David at the start of the book (6).
But for both, there’s something missing. They have no children, so Jean is unfulfilled as a mother. Even her committees are sub-par. The ‘real’ power is with organisations like the PTA, but as she’s not a parent, this world is barred to her. As an aspiring mother, she can’t even get a job – not only would no one hire her (she’s never worked), Jean believes it would be a waste to start a career only to quit it when she finally, inevitably gets pregnant. So until that happens, she bides her time by looking good, keeping the house clean and joining second-tier organisations.
David is also incomplete because he lacks the aggression it takes to make him a true success. This is a mixed blessing. David is a very deliberate, very moral man and the finer details of corporate and social politics elude him. His is the first conflict in the book – he catches Jean being (gasp) catty and, when he calls her on it, he gets a long dressing down about his lack of 'killer instinct'. The world – their world - is no place for the genial second-best. There’s always a bigger prize, be it “to have a $35,000 house in Hillsborough rather than a $15,000 house in Sunrise Hills… to have two cars instead of one… [or to have] fifty motors in his house right now.” (77) Good things don’t come to those who wait; they come to the ruthless ones who grab for them right now. The suburbs, Mr. McPartland suggests, are only for the cutthroat – the ones with the clear priorities.
A second couple, Herman and Betty Kreitzer, are facing a different challenge. Occupationally and maternally, the two are fulfilled. Herman has a good (not great) job that he enjoys. Betty has two good (not great) children that allow her a certain place of pride over the other women of the neighborhood. Their problem (mostly Betty’s) is ungodliness – Herman no longer goes to church.
This boils down to the motors in the house. Herman, although not well educated, has a drive to learn that leads him to tinker, play, and, eventually, order in magazines like Popular Science. It isn’t long before he questions the Great Scheme of things, much to the chagrin of Betty, a die-hard, old-fashioned Lutheran. The author very carefully does not pass judgement on either of the two. Rather, Mr. McPartland emphasises their concern for their children and the lack of a traditional support structure within the suburbs. In Betty or Herman’s childhood, agnosticism would have been impossible. The sheer social pressure of one’s family would have nipped it in the bud. In the isolation of the suburbs, they are left alone with their thoughts. Herman, bored, experiments with heresy. Betty, alone, becomes more conservative – she sees her church (with the pastor she doesn’t know) as the last remaining link to an older time.
Herman is also socially liberal. Having worked his own way up from nothing, he has great empathy for others trying to do the same – even (gasp) if they’re a minority. In his position as a store manager, Herman fought to hire his branch’s first African-American clerk, Jim Noon. Then, further bucking the hierarchy, he promoted Jim Noon to a salesman – someone working in the front of the store, face to face with the region’s entirely white clientele. Herman is exceptionally proud of this, but when Jim comes to him and asks for his help in moving to Herman’s suburb, he finds a limit. Or, more precisely, Herman sees a limit. He is tormented throughout the book by his indecision. Herman wants to champion Jim – not just because he likes Jim but also because it is exactly the sort of activity that defines Herman’s self-worth. But Herman also fears losing his own position in the community.
Isbel and Jerry Martin are more stereotypical members of the neighborhood – neither would be out of place in a Midwood title. Jerry’s a sleazy used-car dealer with all the scruples of a mink in mating season. Isbel’s a wicked gossip who has repaid her husband’s infidelities with her own and matches his excesses drink for drink. The two have a young son, Michael, who is well on the path to becoming a sociopath.
Isbel and Jerry are the epitome of the superficial and the depraved – alcoholic adulterers with no decency at all. They’ve gravitated to the suburbs because Mr. McPartland accuses them of wanting to belong. Even if they’re sarcastic and destructive, deep down, they flutter to the light. The two circle the other couples, ostensibly looking for weaknesses, but deep down, looking for strengths. In the great scheme of things, their problems are no less lavishly described than those of the other couples, but they are less interesting, as it has been done before.
The final couple, Tony and Leola, are remarkable because they don’t 'belong' in the suburbs at all. Tony works at a service station. He’s a war hero but is completely lost in peacetime. His attempts to better himself have failed. At the start of the book, Tony’s application for the city’s new police force has been rejected. Despite his military record, he lacks the necessary college degree. Tony considers himself a throwback to a different place and time, which is an overreaction: he simply doesn’t belong in the suburbs. A life of inane corporate gossip, television shows and social hierarchies doesn’t appeal to him and he doesn’t know how to feign belonging. To Tony, something either means something or it doesn’t, and he’s surrounded by behaviours and priorities that he finds utterly devoid of value.
His young wife, Leola, is little better. She’s young, dumb and a bit of a slob. Like Tony, she’s the cruelly exaggerated archetype of ‘working class’ flaws. If Tony is filled with savage pride and a lack of respect for ‘modern’ social priorities, Leola is about naïveté and misplaced loyalty. These are all, at best, old-fashioned virtues. In the setting of the modern suburbs, they are cardinal sins. Leola can’t ‘play’ with the other ladies – she doesn’t know how to dress and doesn’t care. She wears cheap and provocative clothes, not because she wants to tease, but because she doesn’t know any better. Her very presence is an affront to the other women who try so hard. Leola’s presence in the suburbs is an affront – these people fled to the suburbs to escape her.
Tony’s frustrations grow and grow until he finally snaps, providing the book’s pivotal conflict. Mr. McPartland carefully sets up a series of character studies and then throws in a moment of horrible violence. From there, he shows how the community reacts. Despite their claims, the neighborhood isn’t a really a family – it is a granfalloon; a group of strangers thrown together united only through geographical affiliation. David and Jean Martin might think things are going “really, really well”, but when true problems arise, the structure of their society falls apart. Suburbs, Mr. McPartland suggests, are positive feedback loops. Success breeds success. There’s no mechanism in place to handle failure and, once derailed, the system collapses entirely.
No Down Payment feels like it was written for a future generation (I suppose that’d be us). It diligently examines a phenomenon of its own time, pedantically explaining all the relevant factors. The characters are never characters in and of themselves, they’re detailed pen-portraits, carefully filled in by the omniscient narrator. Nor is the plot dramatic (or traumatic). Although it involves shocking violence, there’s no empathy. Mr. McPartland describes every scenario like he’s documenting a psychological experiment or trivial historical episode. That may even be his point. The prose is turgid and meandering and despite the cast consisting of the thousand masks of the everyman, there’s no real believability to it.
Still, even if No Down Payment isn’t conventional (or particularly enjoyable) literature, it is a fascinating social narrative. Over fifty years later, the suburbs are no less weird or fetishized today. Mr. McPartland is an early example of this surprisingly long tradition.