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Book review: “Safekeeping” by Gregory McDonald

When Bill Sikes is introduced in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes him thusly:

“The man who growled out these words, was a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings which enclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves—the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days’ growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.”

In that first sentence, Dickens makes clear that Bill Sikes, called Mr. Sikes by the boy Oliver Twist throughout the novel, has the appearance of someone who belongs in chains, hence, the legs looking incomplete “without a set of fetters to garnish them.”

In other words, Bill Sikes is a bad one.  And not a comic bad one, either, as Dickens spells out on page after page whenever this stoutly-built fellow appears, such as later when the house-breaker/murderer has taken charge of Oliver Twist:

“The preliminaries adjusted, Mr. Sikes proceeded to drink brandy at a furious rate; and to flourish the crow-bar in an alarming manner; yelling forth, at the same time, most unmusical snatches of song, mingled with wild execrations. At length, in a fit of professional enthusiasm, he insisted upon producing his box of housebreaking tools; which he had no sooner stumbled in with, and opened for the purpose of explaining the nature and properties of the various implements it contained, and the peculiar beauties of their construction: than he fell over it upon the floor, and went to sleep where he fell.”

A drunken rant, complete with a crow-bar.  Not a nice man.  Not a funny man.  In a novel with its share of humor, from an author known for his wit, Bill Sikes is a splash — or, better yet, a punch — of violence in the face of the reader.

There are times when the story of Oliver Twist can seem like high adventure — but not when Mr. Sikes is present.

“They were all singing”

Yet, why open a review of Gregory McDonald’s Safekeeping, published in 1985, with two longish quotes from an 1839 Dickens novel?  Because McDonald asked for it.

Not in so many words.  However, in writing a novel that tells a story very much like the Oliver Twist and David Copperfield novels of Dickens, McDonald is setting off echoes in the memory of any reader, familiar with those stories. 

And not just the novels, but the movies made from those novels as well, such as the 1968 musical Oliver!

Consider this scene in which McDonald’s little eight-year-old orphan Robby Burnes — an English Duke although that doesn’t seem to mean much —is pulled by the hand through a sea of pushcarts in 1940s New York City:

“Everywhere there were pushcarts.  In each pushcart was an oversized sign saying 23 cents or 12 cents or 9 cents or 32 cents.  Behind most pushcarts stood men with long white aprons over their overcoats, hats pushed back on their heads.  Women at the pushcarts wore bulky sweaters and thick shoes and kerchiefs.  They were all singing about potatoes a nickel, oranges a dime.  More properly dressed people, men and women, snaked among the pushcarts, testing a tomato here, a melon there….And on the pushcarts were oranges and apples and bananas and melons and potatoes and tomatoes and heads of lettuce and cabbages and sausages and hams and pudent [humble] chickens and many foods Robby had never seen before and whose names he did not know.”

“The unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures”

Not a bad scene. 

And it recalls one of the most stirring scenes and songs (“Who will buy?”) in the Oliver! musical.  Take a look on Youtube.

So, in this case, you’re reading Safekeeping, but also thinking about Oliver Twist — at least, the musical version.

There is a very similar scene in the novel with two distinct differences.  First, the peddlers aren’t singing.  Second, Dickens being Dickens, it’s much better written than what McDonald offers the reader. 

Skeptical?  Look at these three (yes, just three) sentences:

“It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; and a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area: and as many temporary ones as could be crowded into the vacant space: were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping, and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.”

The scene from Safekeeping, as well as from Oliver!, is quaint.  This ain’t quaint.  It is gritty with “filth and mire” and “the reeking bodies of the cattle.”

But there’s an energy to these words from Dickens, a wonder, a humanity, a full-body experience in which the reader smells, hears, touches and sees it all — “stunning and bewildering.”

“He seemed absolutely still”

It’s too bad that Safekeeping is afflicted with the shadows of Oliver Twist (although, of course, it was McDonald’s decision to write such a story).

It is a sweet, amiable novel, entertaining in its quiet way.

It’s probably too amiable for its own good.  Few of the characters have much edge.  They seem to be in the book for McDonald to make fun of certain American types, such as newspaper feature writers and Irish cops and greedy rich people.

One who is more engaging that most of the rest is Tony Savallo.

“Even when Tony moved he seemed absolutely still.  Standing directly before Robby, Tony settled the weight of his body on his right hip.  His right pant-leg brushed Robby’s knee.  Tony cupped Robby’s left jawbone in his right hand and turned Robby’s face fully toward his own.  Robby smelled from him the smell of lead pencils.  The skin of Tony’s face was clear and tight.  His eyes were wide-set and black.  The immobility of Tony’s face appeared to come from its skin having been stretched too tightly over his skull.”

That wasn’t the reason for the immobility of Tony’s face.  It was his inability to feel anything.  That lead-pencil smell?  The aroma of expended bullets. 

Tony was a murderer.  And, a few pages later, Robby sees him shoot someone, twice to make sure.  And then try to shoot Robby.

Tony is an interesting character, but he’s no Mr. Sikes.

“In the lap of America”

My favorite character in Safekeeping — probably the favorite of anyone who has read or will ever read the novel — is Mrs. Clearwater in Harlem who has taken in nine orphaned, abandoned or uncared-for preteen black children and who, nonetheless, is willing to take in the orphaned, abandoned and uncared-for Robby when he follows her and the children back to their one-room apartment.

A tired, fearful Robby sits on her lap, on the edge of tears, and tells her about being stuck outside alone in the snow and tries to explain, “You see, I was sent to America…”  To which Mrs. Clearwater responds:

“You’re here, li’l bo’ weevil.  I’m America.  Lordy Lord, I got black blood in me, and white blood, and yellow blood, and red-Indian blood, all in me.

“You’re in the lap of America, bo’ weevil.  You go ahead and cry.  I’m America; there ain’t no mo’…”

It’s enough to make you stand up and cheer, Dickens be damned.

Patrick T. Reardon

9.18.19

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