The Coast of Folly Explores the “Compulsion of Failure”

Jelly fish washed up on sandy beach
“Directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

Coningsby Dawson’s The Coast of Folly explores a real but rarely discussed individual and social problem: the extent to which individuals are responsible not only for their behavior but for the impression their behavior is likely to give others.

Dawson sets the story when America was reeling from the social upheavals caused by World War I and drowning its disillusionment in bootleg liquor.

All summer, unattached Joyce Gathway’s too-rich-to-work friends have paired her with Larry Fay whose wife has begun divorce proceedings against him. Their relationship has remained open and friendly, but both know it could easily descend into a sexual affair.

When a gossip columnist suggests Joyce will be named as co-respondent in the divorce, she is forced to acknowledge that the appearance of immorality is destructive even among her peers who speak of conventional morality with disdain.  Her grandfather says people like Joyce aren’t deliberately wicked, “merely directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

The novel follows Joy’s attempts to see whether her behavior was wrong and how to repair the damage she’s done. Dawson calls this  “the compulsion of failure.”

Although The Coast of Folly is dated in many ways and the plot overtly contrived, the questions Joyce has to answer are questions all young adults need to answer for themselves.

The Coast of Folly
By Coningsby Dawson
Grossett & Dunlap, 1924
341 pages
1924 bestseller #8
My grade: B+

Still photos from the 1925 movie version of the novel here suggest some of the ways the novel appears dated today.

Photo credit: “Jelly Fish” by Liessel

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wallace’s The Man Is as Trenchant as Today’s News


The title character of The Man is a U.S. Senator horrified along with the rest of the nation to realize he has become American’s first black president.

Douglass Dilman has never made waves politically; he’s never felt secure enough to attempt to do so. He’s not even been able to get up courage to propose to the woman he’s loved for five years.

His party’s elite think Dilman will fall into line as US President as he did as Senate President, but just in case, they draft a bill that prohibits the executive from firing a Cabinet member without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

Dilman lets the bill become law without his signature; it’s his first, tiny act of personal political responsibility, and one that will lead to his impeachment.

Irving Wallace didn’t imagine Dilman as an elected black president, but that’s one of the few details of the story that don’t read like news from the post-LBJ years: Tussles between the US and Russia over fledgling African democracies, threats of presidential impeachment, blacks’ resentment of a black president who doesn’t support them over whites.

Everything Wallace gets right in the novel, points out everything that’s still wrong in America.

And that’s why, beyond its marvelously well-told story, The Man is worth reading once more.

The Man
By Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1964
766 pages
1964 bestseller #5
My grade: A-

Photo credit: White House, Washington, DC, November 2006 by t

© 2014 Linda Gorton Araagoni

Of Mice and Men: Mouse-size novel probes man-size theme

Of Mice and Men is a perennial on high school reading lists; it is short, easy reading, well-plotted, and gruesome. It’s theme, however, is anything but adolescent.

George Milton and Lennie Small are itinerant farm laborers. George does the thinking for both of them. Unaware of his own strength, big, dumb Lennie has to be be watched constantly or his fondness for soft, silky things gets him and George into trouble.

The pair arrives at a remote ranch for harvest. The boss’s son has recently married a good-looking slut with a wandering eye. Her presence has everyone in the bunkhouse wishing for something to call his own. They see that George cares for Lennie as if he were family. Before long the other hands are asking George if they can’t join him and Lennie on the place they plan to buy where they can “live on the fatta the lan’ and have rabbits.”

The story’s climax is both shocking and inevitable.

John Steinbeck’s characterization rings true as well. The bunkhouse crew are losers. As individuals, they are totally forgettable.

When you close the covers of the novel, all you’re left with is the knowledge that sometimes love carries an awful responsibility.

Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
#8 on the 1937 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni