After discovering Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety last year and being utterly entranced by it from start to finish, I decided to once more tackle his most famous work, Angle of Repose. Twenty years ago I’d been unable to make much headway in a book that had been described to me as the greatest novel of the American West ever written. I was delighted to find that this time I had no trouble falling under Stegner’s narrative spell, different as it was to that of Crossing to Safety. But in the end I came away still dissatisfied in at least one important way.
Angle of Repose tells two stories, one framing the other. The outer frame concerns Lyman Ward, a former college professor living in the home he has inherited from his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward. Lyman has had one of his legs amputated, and is suffering from a degenerative skeletal disease that leaves him partially paralyzed, mostly confined to a motorized wheelchair, unable to move his head from side to side and forced to stare straight ahead. He is cared for by a married couple who live on the property and their hapless daughter, a temporary refugee from the Berkeley counterculture of 1970, when the story is set.
Lyman is organizing family papers with the intent of discovering and writing his grandmother Susan’s life story. Susan is a cultured, snobbish, romantic but also pragmatic daughter of New York’s Hudson River Valley in the years after the Civil War. Her hopes for marriage to Thomas, a literary editor and friend to the likes of Henry James and Grover Cleveland, are dashed when he chooses her best friend Augusta for his wife. Instead, Susan marries Oliver, a geologist and mining engineer, and travels west to a succession of unsuccessful ventures on the frontier. Lyman tells her story based on letters written back East to Augusta and on stories and drawings that Thomas publishes, bringing modest fame and some fortune to her; with a novelist’s turn of mind, he creates the rest of the story from the empty spaces in his mother’s narrative.
Loyal to her loving if taciturn and long-suffering husband, Susan struggles to raise a family, ever hoping for the material success that will bring real wealth and a return to the civilized society of the East. She also struggles with her feelings of disloyalty to Oliver’s dreams, with her frustrations at his passivity in the face of disappointment, and with her nagging snobbery about Oliver’s rough career; she admires him for laying the foundations of what will be a new civilization in the American West, but can’t escape the feeling that it never rises to the level of true gentility that she has left behind.
The stories of the Ward’s adventures in California, Colorado, Mexico, and Idaho over a period of nearly twenty years form the greater part of Stegner’s novel, and they are told with a vividness that is utterly absorbing. Even though much of the action is circumscribed by the proprieties of behavior imposed on a genteel woman in a society that is often crude and dangerous, Stegner evokes in masterful prose and with deep emotional insight the sense of being on the verge of a grand new world, of trembling in the face of great beauty and great challenges.
In geological engineering the angle of repose is “the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of a particulate loose material is stable.” The sense of loose, particulate matter sliding downwards until it stops moving neatly captures the downward trend of Susan’s dreams through the course of her life; Stegner manages, even early in the novel, to suggest that Susan’s life will be one of instability, that disappointments ever greater will dog his characters. For Lyman, in his cynicism and fear, the final angle of repose is horizontal, the one a body finds in the grave. He knows from the start what the end of the story will be, for he has grown up with his grandparents in the decades well after the close of the nineteenth century during which the action of Susan’s story plays out.
That story ultimately turns into tragedy. Frustrated by Oliver’s failures, Susan at last succumbs to at least an emotional infidelity in the face of the lifelong love offered her by Oliver’s best friend Frank. When all hope fails at last on an irrigation scheme in Boise, Frank openly declares his love and offers to take Susan away to begin a new life. Susan realizes that this is impossible but as the two are making their farewells, her youngest daughter slips into the canal that is all that remains of the irrigation reject and drowns: the canal’s bank forms the ironic angle of repose in Susan’s story. Frank shoots his brains out the day after the girl’s funeral, and Susan and Oliver spend the next half century in a silent standoff.
About two-thirds of the way through the novel, as Lyman’s story increasingly slips into the background, I began to wonder what the purpose of the framing narrative was. There seemed little connection, other than the obvious genealogical one, between the fates of the two generations, and two say that both were affected by forms of paralysis didn’t seem a satisfying interpretation.
The final section of the novel takes place in time present, after Lyman has related the tragedy that effectively ended the life of his grandparents’ marriage. Increasingly worried about his growing debility, about his son’s desire to pack him off to an assisted-living facility, and tormented by what he sees as the collapse (there’s that metaphor again) of social contracts in countercultural California of the late 1960s, Lyman seems to have reached the end of two stories, his grandmother’s and his own.
An apocalypse looms when Lyman’s estranged wife, who left him for the doctor who amputated his leg, returns to take charge of his care, driving off the ill-assorted friends who have been Lyman’s bulwark against dependence. What comes across as a fevered, baroque nightmare turns out to be just that: a dream. Waking in fear, Lyman tries to reconcile himself to impending dependence and futility. The parallel may be neat, but my disappointment couldn’t have been greater. To spurn the sense of realism upon which the story’s success has been fashioned, to trick me into accepting a meager resolution of the grand themes of the book, still feels unforgivable. I could accept a failure of courage on Susan’s part, and on Lyman’s as well. What strikes me as a failure of courage on Stegner’s part is harder to swallow.