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Caution: This post-game rant is going to be a sprawling, rambling mess, so seat yourselves comfortably. And once again, here are the links to the spoiler-laden chapter recaps for the latecomers:
Book I: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. (with a Halftime Report)
Book II: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

I have a dog whom we didn't train very well as a puppy. She's a great companion, but she won't fetch, she snarls at not only strangers but people who shouldn't be strangers anymore, and does all kinds of ridiculous things to the sofa pillows. But the one thing that confuses me above all is what she does when you point to something, because she'd rather look at your finger than the place where the finger's pointing.

That in a nutshell is one of the insurmountable issues I had with Waters That Pass Away. Nannie Winston is my dog and she wrote a 300+ page story about my finger.

To illustrate, let's go back for a moment to Book 1, Chapter 7, which focuses on the disgraceful deeds of Andrew Tompson. When I approached this chapter in the play-by-play, I mentioned the modern critic's favorite mantra: show, don't tell. With those words in mind, I want you to have a look at what's going on at the very end of this chapter, especially in light of what came immediately before.

We have just burnt several pages, with prose so deeply purple it might as well have been navy blue, dealing with the white hot passion Tompson holds for Helen Galbraith. Everything we've learned about the man so far is (once again) spelled out in big bold letters. We've read maybe the second or third redundant account of his overheated emotions and how she will bend to his will...oh yes, she will (arches eyebrow). We've been told, flatly and rather artlessly, what we're expected to think of him, rather than just letting his creepy, stalkerly actions speak for themselves. But when it comes time for something to actually happen, for the man to act decisively for once in his life...well, you tell me...

With this purpose clearly defined in his mind, Tompson walked on at an unprecedented pace, heeding no one who passed him by. Reaching Madison Square he still walked on, down Fifth Avenue. At Eighteenth Street he paused a moment, looked about at the numbers of the houses in that vicinity, then facing towards the east, crossed over to Broadway, and continuing east from this point he finally disappeared into a house which appeared to possess the double character of a residence and place of business.

It is useless, and would be degrading, even if not uninteresting, to follow Andrew Tompson into this house, and to listen to the exact conversation which he held there with one who should not, under any conditions, never have touched his life. It is sufficient to say that when, at an early hour of the morning, Tompson turned into his own home, he was perfectly aware that he had been guilty of a dastardly act. He had placed the matter of Helen Galbraith and Mr. Westmore into the hands of a skilled detective! The truth he must have. The events of the future must come within his knowledge, so that he could deal with them according to his own purposes. This was his excuse, and so entirely had he yielded to the promptings of his lower nature, that he honestly felt himself justified in adopting any course which might realize the end he had in view. (pp. 147-8, my emphasis)

So to summarize, we've been told in excruciating detail the state of mind that led him to the decision to hire a private detective, complete with extensive editorializing. We've been shown what he was doing in the hours immediately before his fateful decision. We've been told of the immediate aftermath of the detective decision. We're even given a turn-by-turn Google Maps-esque narrative of the moments before he entered the man's office. The only thing we're not privy to is the actual meeting this case, we're not even given a frustratingly vague summary from the narrator. In fact, we're told it's not even worth talking about. Don't give it another thought.

The whole episode is infuriating, all the more so because it happens over and over again. We're told the sad story of Marie Levier and her bastard child through a third party, which is followed by a “what is to be done” debate by Mrs. Elliott's League of Busybodies, but Helen's visit to the girl, which we're assured was long and exhausting, is dismissed in one desultory sentence, and the whole episode is never mentioned again. Forget about showing adultery (seriously, that was too much to ask), it's hard to accept Helen as a woman being befouled when the author can't even bring herself to use the word “adultery.” Even worse, Westmore vanishes from the story for the entire length of their affair. After the initial “darling” at the end of Book 1, he only shows up again once it's time to dismantle the evil that he's done, and not a second sooner.

The whole narrative is maddening like that, circling around key events from an extreme distance without actually landing on them. I understand that the author was probably a genuinely pious woman, and didn't set out to write anything other than a sincere corrective, but if you're going to write a story about sin, you're going to have to write about the sin at some point. That's not what we get.

What we do get—in spades—are a number of rambling conversations, apparently about whatever the the author was thinking about at the time and usually completely superfluous to the story. We're also given an exhaustive history of Alexander Galbraith, telling us—again, not showing us—how godlike and imposing he was when he was operating at full-power (and with all his limbs), but he doesn't actually do anything in the present-day story but stare out the window and slowly waste away. It's an amazing amount of space wasted on a character who was utterly incidental to the plot.

And so many Mary Sues! Would it have killed Ms. Winston to introduce a flawed but sympathetic character? The wrong decisions and the delusions were reserved almost solely for the selfish, evil antagonists. And yes, Helen Galbraith was a sinner, but you convince me that she was genuinely flawed. Her major grievous mistake had a lovingly crafted element of perfection, since she was coerced into a liason so she could keep the job that kept her husband from dying of starvation. Once you realize what type of characters the story has been populated with and where they line up on the moral axis (and none of that was left to guesswork, since it was spelled out at every juncture) nothing that happens (or nothing that you've been told just happened) really surprises you.

Did I mention that I couldn't stand this book? This is the one time I missed having a hard copy version so that I could have the joy of throwing it across the room after I finished the last page. That's not to say there's nothing you can take away from the book, since Pliny the Elder said that even a bad book can teach you something. The digressions give you a quick trip through the attitudes of the times, and the book itself is an extreme example of sentimental style of writing that, let's face it, just doesn't work today, but was deemed Quite Worthy in 1899. In that way, it's educational...just not particularly entertaining.

MVP Of The Book: I was very close to declaring myself the MVP, just for finishing it without pulling my hair or eyes out, but in the end I have to hand it to Sherman Elliott, so rugged and manly that his sweat smelled like Old Spice before anybody knew that was what Old Spice smelled like, for delivering in the final chapter the one monologue that felt like it had flesh and blood behind it, rather than reaching for the mechanical effects of leaden melodrama that dominate the text.

One of the many textual games I play to keep myself engaged is to find the messages that actually speak across the chasm to us, and the last paragraph of Mr. Elliott's homily seemed to be staring holes in The Way Things Are Now—both in 1899 and 2008. When he says “Those that crave great positions, rather than true greatness—those who undertake tremendous labor for the fame attached to it rather than for the sake of adding a finer and more enduring quality to human labor—these become often popular heroes—but also only for a time,” he might as well be talking to you, buddy. It also served to open up the whole “sit still and suffer” concept as more than a callous turn of phrase (although let's be honest, it strikes modern eyes in a very different way). You can tell this is where the author's real emotional investment lies, and she puts those words into the mouth of Sherman Elliott. It's a shame Ms. Winston didn't come through until the end was in sight, and even then was only able to hold it together for two pages.

Would you recommend it to a friend? Oh, God no. I can't think of anybody I've ever known who would appreciate this story as straight entertainment, and if they're looking for a so-called “problem novel,” they don't have to go here.

Is this (still) a summer book? Definitely not. The book was well enough regarded in its day—but not, as I found out, well enough regarded to avoid being retitled when it was reissued a few years later—but for modern audiences, it's the exact opposite of a light read. Waters That Pass Away is the type of book that the stereotypical view of 19th century popular reading was built around. It was an ordeal to finish (it took a whole frickin' month, want me to go faster on the penalty rounds, start paying me), and I've been told that even my recaps were rough sledding; that's only because I want you to hurt like I do. Unfortunately, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the list, since for a style to become a stereotype, there obviously has to be more than one book like this on the list. My heart is overcome with terror...

Before I let it drop, it's also worth mentioning that to go directly from The Hooligan Nights, where any morality was suggested by a character's actions but judgment was left to the reader, to Waters That Pass Away, where every page tells you at length what you're supposed to think, makes me realize what a vegetable feels like when it's being blanched.

No nagging question this time. Let's just get this over with...

Coming soon: The long-awaited Round 4! I've got an idea of my own, but as always, I'm open to suggestions.


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