Although written before The Spectator Bird, I think the events in this novel take place after that one. We see Joseph Allston and his wife Ruth living in the hills south of San Francisco where they retired after the death of their difficult son Curtis. We know it isn’t a book likely to end happily when the opening pages have Joe wrangling with growing old: “I was pondering the vanity of human wishes and the desperation of human hope, the tooth of time, the vulnerability of good and the unseen omnipresence of evil, and the frailty and passion of life.” (p7) and “I drift from grief to anger and from anger to a sense of personal failure that blackens whole days and nights; and from that all too familiar agenbit of inwyt I circle back to the bitter aftertaste of loss.” (p10)
Joseph reacts to two main foils. Jim Peck is a long-haired, anti-establishment dropout to whom Joe reluctantly gives permission to camp on part of his land. Jim reminds Joe of his lost son who was belligerent; even a few years after his death Joe has a hard time bending and forgiving “I can’t separate love and respect. Curt demanded what I couldn’t give, I insisted on what he wouldn’t accept. Never never never never never.” (p188) Similarly Jim will not give Joe the respect he demands; he simply wants to do what he wants without question or interference. Joe feels trapped and “half suspected that the irresponsibility of his search for freedom forced me to be more conservative than I wanted to be.” (p110) This aspect of the novel is straight out of the late 1960’s with the culture clash between young and old.
Joe’s other foil is Marian Caitlin – a lover of all the likes “little live things” (p 59). She first comes upon Joe when he kills a gopher who is tearing up his lovely plants in his well tended garden. They argue about good and evil. Marian favors letting nature take its course whereas Joe is an inveterate gardner – “improving” things by bringing order.
But Marian is so full of love and joy that Joe and Ruth are completely taken over by her: “…we caught Marian’s affectionateness as if it had bee a communicable disease: she was the Typhoid Mary of love.” (p 93). She was the loving daughter they never had. “She is one of the old Willie Yeat’s glimmering girls, with apple blossom in her hair, and I admit to a pang. God knows what it is – maybe envy that someone is lucky enough to have such a daughter.” (p58)
Joe is trapped in the person he is: demanding respect for its own sake. But rather than moving the points of the novel through action, the weak point of the story is that arguments between the characters go on and on; at one point in a long letter Joe writes but never sends to Marian.
There is a motif of roads; it is difficult to travel on the unpaved roads in this exurbia. There are two bridges that play important parts in the action; both are extremely difficult to cross. This motif of difficultly traveled roads played a part in the other novel of the pair, The Spectator Birds, where the road to their place was muddy and people needed help getting through.
There is enough clever writing, deft descriptions of people interacting, and beautiful descriptions of nature to pull this book from the ditch. When waiting for an important phone call Joseph tells us “the ring was explosive, something toward which fire had come on a long fuse.” (p319).
All in all this is a good book, not a great one. I loved the first three Stegner novels I read: Crossing to Safety, Angle of Repose, and The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I suggest you read those three novels if you are starting out and leave The Spectator Bird and All The Little Live Things to round out your collection.