John Crowley is probably best known for his speculative fiction — I think Little, Big may be the best American fantasy novel ever published, and his Aegypt tetralogy has a cult following for a very good reason. But Four Freedoms (like The Translator, one of the best novels I’ve read in the past several years) is rooted in the knowable past. It takes place during the second World War, in Ponca City, OK (a real place), at the impossibly massive Van Damme Aero factory (invented.) This is where the Van Damme brothers are manufacturing the Pax, a gargantuan bomber that will, they believe, be so unstoppable that it will eventually bring peace to the troubled world.
These enormous bombers require an equally enormous work force. The Van Damme brothers create an entire city around the factory, with its own railroad spur, and everything workers could need: housing, clothing, food, bars, movie theaters, a small press, nurseries and schools for the children, bowling alleys, and on and on. But most of the usual “skilled workers” — the white, young, able-bodied men — are off at war. Who will populate this small utopia, where everyone can do useful work, where everyone has what they need, where everyone is valued, valuable, free?
In fact, it is those who in the larger society have been discarded as useless, suspect, or worthless in one way or another. Crowley is playing with disability here — or what society sees as disability; the factory is staffed with hundreds of women, for instance, along with what one Van Damme executive bluntly calls “the coloreds, the oldsters, the defectives, the handicaps,” who have come to do their share. There are Communists, there are Native Americans, there are Latinas, there are little people. At first, some people won’t work with the African-Americans. Later, they shrug and think, What do I care? Who would have thought I’d be doing this either? Acceptance comes through a common cause: they are all working to protect the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear). This, of course, is a concept dreamed up by President Roosevelt, a kind of tutelary spirit in his own wheelchair.
The novel’s main character is Prosper Olander, a young man with a “ski-jump spine and marionette’s legs” who has come to work for the factory. Prosper, a sweet-tempered and deeply empathetic ladies’ man, listens to the women who lie in his arms — some married to absent servicemen, some single, almost all surprised that he is capable of love. We hear their stories, and Prospero’s own. In this way, Crowley’s big ideas about capitalism, work, gender, ability, and societal expectations are shown, not told: all lives enmeshed with each other, bright and dark.
John Crowley is one of my favorite authors. I’ve said in others of my reviews of his work that his language and structure are always beautiful: bright, soft threads like a tapestry, pulling through so you can see first one theme, then another. In one of his books (Engine Summer, the one I abandoned reviewing last year because I just couldn’t catch up on my backlog), he talks about a labyrinthine commune, a place to live where you spend your whole childhood learning your path to your living place in the warren. Along the path, there are “snake’s hands,” digressions where you can step off and play a game with someone, or have a conversation, or spend a few days, and then get back on the path that is both life and destiny. All Crowley’s books are like this: a main stream of plot, but with digressions and diversions and back-stories where you can spend time, and then get back to the main story. It’s a structure of path-and-snake’s-hands that I find intensely appealing.
This is, in fact, the last of Crowley’s fiction that I have to read, and I feel a bit bereft. It was a wonderful book, rich and deep. I recommend anything by Crowley, anything at all, but this would probably be a very good place to begin.