Reviewed in the United States on November 17, 2013
Many notable 20th century American authors--including Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote and Jane Bowles--wrote effectively about the the awkwardness of adolescence and young adulthood, but no writer addressed the subject as thoroughly as Shirley Jackson.
Williams and McCullers tended to sympathize with and sentimentalize their characters, while Salinger created the modern adolescent antihero in the passive-aggressive Holden Caulfield.
Shirley Jackson, who died at the age of forty-eight in 1965, made a short career of writing about troubled and troubling human beings, the preponderance of those being female children, teenage girls, or young women.
Unlike every other writer, Jackson approached her characters with a unique combination of grim objectivity, subtle cynicism about human nature, and something resembling profound psychological insight.
Courageously, especially when viewed from this era of political correctness, Jackson also wrote primarily about the genuine young misfit, the 'oddball,' the 'weirdo' who is socially rejected en masse at the age of puberty, if not before, and who will find no place near the center of adult society in the years to come. Today, even though slang terms like 'geek,' 'dork,' 'dweeb' 'nebbish,' and 'nerd' are common parlance, especially among the young, adolescents evidencing such qualities are often tested for autism, Asberger's Syndrome, emerging schizophrenia or sociopathy and other such maladies and 'personality disorders.'
Jackson typically didn't engage in the 'nature vs. nurture' debate, at least not on the page, despite the unpleasant home life of many of her characters; instead, her novels and short stories take a more existential approach, seemingly simply accepting that tens of thousands of children will be born each year that will be extremely shy, uncommunicative, awkward, graceless, isolated and found wanting all of their days.
Probably the most famous such character in literature is young orphan Mary Macgregor, "a silent lump whom everyone could blame" from Scottish novelist Muriel Spark's 1961 novel, 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' who is later, the omnipotent narrator tells the reader, burned alive in a hotel fire due to her general incompetence in all things. Another example is Camille Paglia's description of Andrea Dworkin as 'The Girl with the Eternal Cold,' "the pudgy, clumsy, whiny child at summer camp who is always spilling her milk, dropping her lollipop in the dirt, getting a cramp on the hike, a stone in her show, a bee in her hair."
'The Road Through the Wall,' Jackson's exceptional semi-autobiographical first novel, was little read or critically appreciated upon release in 1948.
As in her later novel 'The Sundial' (1958), 'The Road Through the Wall' has a large cast of characters; some, like obese adolescent and semi-protagonist Harriet Merriam, thirteen year-old male wallflower Tod Donald, and elderly shut-in Miss Fielding, are intended to stand out prominently from the rest of the cast, and do, but Jackson seems to have intended many of the lesser characters (such as Mary Byrne) to fade and blend into one another in the reader's mind, acting merely as a kind of muffled Greek chorus.
The plot--and 'The Road Through the Wall' is extremely plot-driven--recounts the events taking place over one summer on Pepper Street in the small California suburban town of Cabrillo.
Pepper Street is part of a 'middle middle class' neighborhood, but is bordered on its north side--unfortunately bordered, for some--by a much more exclusive housing development containing large estates, enormous swaths of lawn, wide, quiet streets and a tony country club.
'The Road Through the Wall' takes place in the kind of neighborhood classic American television comedies like 'Father Knows Best' (1954-1960) and 'Leave It To Beaver' (1957-1963) would later populate, though the novel's interpretation of life in such tranquil, civil small towns is radically different.
Interestingly, while many of the characters (like the upwardly mobile Mr. Desmond, the elegant Mrs. Ransom-Jones, or any of the housewives who meet weekly for a community sewing bee) see themselves in the same wholly positive manner that Ward and June Cleaver saw themselves, their lives, and their community on 'Leave It To Beaver,' author Jackson, as the omnipotent narrator, sees her cast as anything but.
Though the novel only skims issues of incest and homosexuality and addresses adultery, racism, and anti-Semitism only slightly more aggressively, the plain fact is that Jackson's characters, adolescent or adult, male or female, are almost all 'realistically' portrayed as insecure, fearful, superficial, snobbish, hypocritical, mean-spirited, coarse, cruel, domineering and aggressively competitive. Human goodness, in the book's pages, is not so much a quality in itself, but merely the absence of these and other negative human characteristics.
Though 'The Road Through the Wall' is in no way an analysis of mid-20th century Anglo-American mores and manners, Jackson appears so see such manners as little more than a deceptive veneer which barely conceals a far more archiac and vicious psychological reality beneath. Thus, it is no surprise that Jackson is also the author of one of the most unsettling and widely-read short stories of the 20th century, 'The Lottery,' in which the inhabitants of a small rural community annually stone to death a sacrificial fellow resident to insure a good harvest.
The forward momentum of 'The Road Through the Wall' accelerates when the stability of life on Pepper Street is oddly threatened by the demolition of an old wall which abuts the road. No longer slightly isolated in a cul-de-sac, Pepper Street itself will now act, at least in theory, as a thoroughfare. Residents from both the lesser and greater parts of Cabrillo will shortly be able to drive and walk through Pepper Street, a fairly troubling fact, though no Pepper Street resident can say exactly why.
To make matters worse, the shunned Pepper Street "rented house," formally occupied by the sexually precocious teenager Helen Williams and her family, is now rented out to the Terrells, a 'backward' family whose public face is the dull-witted teenager Frederica, who is, in turn, also in charge of monitoring her nine year-old sister Beverly, an apparent 'imbecile' who continually smiles, seldom speaks, and tends to wander off with the intent of buying ice cream.
The novel was closely patterned after Jackson's early life and upbringing in the affluent suburb of Burlingame, California. The Jackson family moved from San Francisco's Ashbury Park to a newly-built home on Burlingame's Forest View Avenue (not 'Pepper Street') when Shirley was six years old. Most of the characters in 'The Road Through the Wall' were based on young Shirley's neighbors, friends and acquaintances there, with Harriet Miriam clearly acting as the author's surrogate.
The complex, controlled and extremely suspenseful 'The Road Through the Wall,' though Jackson's first novel and lacking any supernatural element, is among her best. Though many readers prefer Jackson's first-person narratives, such as ''We Have Always Lived In the Castle' (1962), Jackson excelled at writing as the omnipotent narrator, as she does here.