Underground Reading: Pageant by Lee E. Wells
Friday, March 04, 2011
Pageant (1966) is an epic of the American dream.
It is a tale of progress and tradition and those social forces that separate the two. It is a story of an Anytown that could be an Everytown; of people just like you and me, and their struggles to stand up. Be counted. To mean, rather than to seem. But - more than that - it is a tale of breasts.
Artesa is a city somewhere in California. It is old-ish but not particularly spectacular - a one traffic-light town. The town's old money is both extremely old and extremely moneyed, with the same names dominating Artesa's clubs, Chamber of Commerce and city council.
The book follows two young men: Lew Carey and Reid Barton. Lew is an accountant and the latest in a long line of Artesian Careys. He's a club-joining, council-member type with a busty girlfriend who puts out, but he still wants a little more out of life. At the start of the book, he's doing some emergency tax work for one of the idle super-rich types outside of town. This gives him a chance to wax poetic about his mixed feelings. He loves Artesa, but he's ready for some changes. As Lew speaks, his roving eye picks up everything in a skirt and/or swimsuit. It becomes readily apparent that he's looking for a few changes of his own.
Reid Barton is a relative newcomer and an ambitious young lawyer. He and his wife have been moving a lot recently. Partially because Barton overextends himself and makes enemies - partially because he overextends himself in other ways. His wife, Clea, is giving him one last chance to keep his head down and lay nice, but Barton promptly blows it.
Barton, see, has volunteered Artesa for a month-long pageant: wild west themes, historical plays, parades, the works. After a particularly close battle in the city council, he's even gotten Artesa to sign a contract with an entertainment company that does these sorts of things. Nothing like a bunch of Tombstone-style facades to put a city on the map! It can't fail!
Barton ropes Carey in to help out and to give the enterprise some sense of dignity, but it is doomed from the start. The old blood refuse to chip in their share of the cash, so Barton is caught between nasty locals and a nasty entertainment company. The pageant is going to be a financial disaster, but still, it's an excuse to drink too much and get laid - so why the hell not?
And they do get laid. Plenty.
While the plot travels like a rickety go-cart on the highway of disaster, all the characters are grabbing woman-flesh like it's going out of style. Neither protagonist can make it out of a room without plunging their eyes down the "swell of breasts", "the dark beginning of the valley between breasts" (!?), "full, white, tip-tilted breasts", "the outer curves of breasts", "the untanned swell of the upper curve of her breasts" and "the swelling curve of upper breasts", "gold-bordered curves", "full-rounded breasts", "water-plastered breasts" and a score of relatively-tactful "full-figures". (For the record, these phrases are all in the first three chapters.)
Barton, as the "bad guy" jumps on the bad girls - cheating on his wife repeatedly with his clients, his clients' wives and anyone else that crosses his path. At the end of the book he gets his just desserts. Clea leaves him (finally) and the police discover that one of his swelling-curved ladyfriends isn't quite 18 yet. Good thing Barton enjoyed the pageant - he won't be seeing the light of day for some time.
Carey is the "good guy". So although he still leers at everyone in a skirt, he only actually cheats on his fiancée with one of them. And that woman, one of the artists, is seen as a "good woman", in that she at least insists on a bit of conversation before giving in to his advances. True romance.
This sort of dedication to wooing is noteworthy in Artesa, where romance consists of:
a) promising to give a young woman a ride somewhere
b) driving her there
c) leering at her all evening
d) promising to drive her home
e) pulling off the road in the middle of nowhere and demanding sex
f) having sex
g) repeat until she's thirty and unappealing
Despite the artist's formidable "tension-tight nipples", Carey's girlfriend wins out in the end. She first tries talking - even a bit of threatening and anger - but to no avail. But eventually she comes to the sensible understanding that "how does a girl fight but with her body?". With that in mind, she proves that she can outshag that hippy artist! Carey, slightly the worse for wear, stops his straying. At the end of the book, the pageant is forgotten to him - he's happily settled back into being a respectable accountant in a respectable town. Progress, shmogress. He learns that a man doesn't need fancy dreams, he just needs a woman with a fine pair of upper breast curves.
There's something to the structure of the book - it seems that Mr. Wells had ambitions of writing about the price of progress and other such high-falutin' nonsense. When he's not dwelling in the dark valley of breast curves, he can turn a phrase - including a few delightfully barbed insights into small town life. But don't let those ambitions fool you. This is a novel about sex. Perfunctory, clumsy, fumbling sex. The back of the book claims that Pageant "isn't a pretty story - but it's real and important." And, bless the hard-working blurb-writer, it's right on one count.