Book review: “The Company of Glory” by Edgar Pangborn

Edgar Pangborn’s science-fiction novel “The Company of Glory” was initially serialized in three parts in Galaxy magazine in the latter half of 1974. It was published in 1975.

Pangborn died on February 1, 1976, at the age of 66.

I mention this because “The Company of Glory” is the story of Demetrios, a storyteller in the early stages of a post-apocalyptic world who is in his early 60s and in failing health.

Is it in some way the story of storyteller Pangborn who, I would guess, was in failing health as he was writing this, his final novel?

Pangborn didn’t turn out a great number of sci-fi novels. He wrote and published many short stories, and he had a talent for well-observed, almost poetic tales. The concentrated structure of a short story seemed to fit him.

The sprawl of a novel

As a writer, he seemed uncomfortable with the sprawl of a full-length novel.

Of those I’ve read, his 1964 book “Davy” works best. It’s a picaresque tale that follows Davy, the son of a prostitute, through his life in the same devastated world in which Demetrios lives.

Demetrios, though, belongs to an earlier era — Year 47, which is 47 years after the Twenty-Minute War of 1993. That’s a couple centuries before Davy appears on the world stage. Both men are residents of a much-transformed New England region.

As a novel, “Davy” works, I suspect, because it tells of events throughout Davy’s life, and each of these can be narrated with the economy and focus of a short story.

That isn’t the case with Pangborn’s first futuristic novel, “West of the Sun,” published in 1953. He does an interesting job in the book of creating a planet being investigated by human explorers and the two human-like life-forms they find.

Yet, much of the book is devoted to huffing and puffing by its characters about religion (bad) and communism (good) and free love (even better).

When Pangborn allows his imagination to sketch out a different sort of world and way of existence, he is a compelling writer. When he uses his characters to spout off about social and political issues, he’s a blowhard.

“A familiar fear”

The same is true in “The Company of Glory.”

The first two-thirds deals with what life after a nuclear war might be like and how it might evolve. That’s a world with grit and substance.

Here Pangborn displays a psychologist’s insight (or maybe simply the insight of a fellow storyteller) when he describes Demetrios’ inner dialogue as he is about to start telling a tale:

Demetrios sat in the shade and rested his hands on the knob of his walnut stick, and shut his eyes a summoning while, watching the midnight ocean of memory and reflection for whatever cargo might seek the industrious wharves and warehouses of his mind.

He knew a familiar fear, that on this day no ships had sailed: such days do arrive to afflict us.

“A green sadness”

Pangborn also shows here and there an interesting turn of phrase:

The lockup was a one-story lump of mortised stone at the end of an alley from which a path wriggled up into the Meadows. Oak trees spread green sadness over lesser growth by the little jail, over its yard with one bench, one upright post.

Toward the end of the novel, Demetrios is talking to his friend Angus and says, “Love is for individuals. Whoever claims to love humanity is a hypocrite or self-deceiver. We love men and women and children, not abstractions.”

Yet, that’s what the final third of the book is taken up with — abstractions.

Making a case

Pangborn makes the case for free love, for community without jealousy or greed, without nosiness, without theft, without competition. He writes as if these are possible.

By this point, his characters have become simply stick figures with some minor quirks who act like no man, woman or child I’ve ever known.

I suspect Pangborn went this route because he realized his time was running out and he wanted to get in his last word.

Alas, novelists shouldn’t make cases. Leave that to the lawyers.

Patrick T. Reardon

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