The Golden Spur

Jonathan Jaimison is a wide-eyed, fresh-faced Ohioan, straight from Silver City. He’s headed for New York on a voyage of self-discovery: a family friend has just informed him that the man he grew up with all his life is not his father. Years ago, his mother (now deceased) spent her own time in the big city, and had her own adventures. She came back to Silver City pregnant, and Jaimison, Sr. married her without a whisper. Now the young, naive Jonathan sets forth, fraught with possibilities: is his father the disillusioned, bestselling novelist Alvine Harshawe? The modern painter Hugow? The successful legal eagle George Terrence? The raffish professor Walter Kellsey?

In Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur, Jonathan meets the big city like a man doing a belly-flop into a warm pool. He’s both shocked by what he sees and determined to love it. Everything must be good if it’s the custom in New York, and everything he notices must be customary, no matter how outrageous. So when two girls he meets in a bar invite him home that afternoon to live with them, he accepts, marveling at how friendly people are in New York.

Jonathan goes to one possible father after another, showing each a picture of his mother, painting a picture of possibility. Almost all the men — none of whom have sons — pounce on the idea eagerly. Who wouldn’t want a fine, upstanding, healthy young man as a son, especially without the trouble of raising him? It’s Jonathan who gets cold feet as he sees each man’s flaws: Kellsey is weakly trapped between a wife and a mistress; Terrence is a closeted homosexual; Harshawe is a has-been, out of material. Which, if any, does he want to imitate?

All this action takes place in the slightly squalid, slightly louche, but living and exciting atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. The Golden Spur is the name of the neighborhood bar (as well as the spur of ambition that drives Jonathan and some of the other artists and writers that populate the book.) If you’re beloved at the Golden Spur, you can use it as an accomodation address, you can run a tab, you’re known, you’re in. If not, then you’re shunned. The round of hotels and bars and offices and galleries and apartments is light, superficial, comic, but it gives a vital sense of place.

The novel is light satire. The characters are types, and are mostly fairly flat, the way you find them in, say, Candide. The writing is dry and funny, and I chuckled as I observed, but I was never deeply engaged. I’ve heard really great things about Dawn Powell — heard her compared to Evelyn Waugh, for instance. Though I enjoyed what I read, I wouldn’t say that this was my experience with The Golden Spur. I am ready to hear, though, that I didn’t read her best novel. Would you recommend that I try another one, or have I got her basic charm?

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6 Responses to The Golden Spur

  1. Jenny says:

    Hm. Sounds like Breakfast on Pluto but with the other parent and no Doctor Who references. I have tried Dawn Powell, after hearing a zillion glowing recommendations from various people in my life, and if there is a book that showcases her charm to the extent it makes me love her, I haven’t yet found it. :/

    • Jenny says:

      After the glowing references, I was all set to be wowed! But I wasn’t. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t want to marry it, you know? But I’m always willing to give someone a second shot if, like, I read their worst book or something.

  2. Deb says:

    I would recommend trying Powell’s THE WICKED PAVILLION about the lives of a group of artists in 1940s New York–in particular two who begin forging the works of an artist presumed dead. If you don’t care for it, well it may be time to give up and move on to another writer–not every writer appeals to every taste and no one can like everything.

    I think in some ways Powell is more interesting to read about than to actually read. Tim Page wrote a very good biography of her (along with editing her letters and diaries). She’s very much the classic New York mid-century writer–including unhappy marriage, financial troubles, and heavy drinking, but nothing stopped her from writing.

    • Jenny says:

      Deb, what a great insight. I think this is true of some people, that their lives outstrip their art (at least in some opinions!) I once read a great biography of Gerald and Sarah Murphy (titled Everybody Was So Young) that highlighted them as incredible hosts, encouragers of art, people who knew everyone but had no real talent themselves. Really interesting!

  3. anokatony says:

    Favorite novel of Dawn Powell? “The Golden Spur” along with just about every other one. You might want to try “My Home is Far Away”, because it is not a New York novel but about here childhood and family in Ohio. I guess what I most like about Dawn Powell is her sharp humor, yet her novels hold together well as novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendation! I’ll try her again, because I’ve heard such good things about her. I did like The Golden Spur, I just didn’t fall in love with it, so I’m willing to try again.

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