Do not look for last year’s best novel piled high in a fancy stack at the Books-A-Million or B. Dalton, with the belles lettres of Tom Clancy or John Grisham, because the best novel of 2002 was written 48 years ago. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (recently deceased), hit the shelves in 1955. A small, progressive outfit in New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, has reissued the book, once the literary lodestar for the counterculture that bloomed in the late 50’s. The title has been part of the American argot ever since, and for good reason: It’s catchy. In three words—gray, flannel, suit—it summarizes what the counterculture wanted us to believe about ourselves: The American male was a conforming, drab automaton, enslaved by the American corporation.
Such might have been a warranted evaluation of our culture in the 1950’s, but that isn’t the book’s theme. Rather, the motif of Gray Flannel is a man’s struggle with honesty about himself and his past and the question of whether, by telling the truth, he can build a career within a giant corporation while—more importantly—keeping his wife.
The gray-flannel man is Tom Rath, a writer for a philanthropic foundation. He applies for a job at the United Broadcasting Company and lands one running a mental-health campaign for its president, Ralph Hopkins. At work, Rath faces his first temptation to shade the truth. With some difficulty, he is drafting a speech for Hopkins, an intelligent, gregarious, generous boss. Rath cannot get it quite right, but when Hopkins and another assistant, an unctuous jackass named Ogden, craft their own oratory, Hopkins seeks Rath’s opinion. The speech is execrable. Rath fears speaking candidly, however, from fear that Hopkins might fire him. Rath’s wife, Betsy, a dutiful if nearly shrewish woman, sets him straight. Early in the book, she tells her husband, “You’ve got no guts.” That isn’t true: During World War II, Rath killed 17 men, some in hand-to-hand combat. When Rath explains how he will criticize the speech without really criticizing it, however, he does seem to have lost his nerve.
“I think that’s a little sickening,” Betsy declares. “What do you really think of that speech?”
“I think it’s terrible,” Rath replies.
“I don’t care what you tell him,” his wife says, “but I don’t like the idea of you becoming a cheap cynical yes-man.” Later, she adds, “You can’t imagine being honest and getting a raise for it.”
No, Rath cannot. As a paratrooper, he faced death in the war, yet now he fears telling the truth about a speech. He knows what happens to men who tell the emperor about his clothes. The penalty, it seems, is worse than death.
Rath’s second temptation to lie occurs when he must unbosom an even more distasteful confession to his wife. During World War II in Italy, he shacked up with a winsome girl, who bore him a son after Rath shipped out for the Pacific. Rath left the girl and the war behind him, but, ten years later, he learns the woman and his bastard child need help. He shoulders the paternal duty to support his illegitimate son, while understanding that he can not send a check on a regular basis to Italy and hide the fact from his wife.
None of this sounds like a “damning account of the inhumanity of big business,” as the publisher’s overheated press release puts it. That is because The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is not a “damning account” of anything, except, perhaps, dishonesty. Nor is the novel an indictment of “conformity”—an erroneous if popular misconception. Granted, Rath must “conform” in some sense to succeed at UBC. But he learns that Hopkins paid dearly for his own success. At the beginning of the book, Rath asks himself: “What did a man have to be like to make so damn much money?” And he finds out. Hopkins is estranged from his wife. His teenage daughter is an irresponsible butterfly on the Manhattan cocktail circuit. He barely knew his son, who was killed in the war. Hopkins has wrecked his personal life, and, to justify this, he erupts in a testy spiel about the kind of men who build a corporate colossus like UBC. They are not men like Tom Rath, who trundle home to a wife and a passel of noisy brats at 5 P.M. Rath understands that, and, in the novel’s ultimate moment of truth, he tells Hopkins, in so many words, “I will not become you.”
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a regular guy who, after serving his country, triumphs over the temptation to shirk his obligations and to lie. Simple decency and manly courage inspire him to do what is right by his boss, while rectifying and atoning for the sins of his past. These victories, in turn, enable him to face the future like a man.
[The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows) 276 pp., $13.95]