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October 5, 2016

Irwin Shaw in Vermont

Sometime last year I came across a used hardcover copy of “The Top of the Hill” by Irwin Shaw in Now & Then Books in Bennington. Swayed by the dust jacket image (a pair of skis and poles planted upright in the snow) and a recollection that the author had been a guilty-pleasure favorite of my grandfather’s, I bought the volume for a reasonable price, forgot about it, and then picked it up off the shelf this week and read it in two sittings.
I mention this because—although the dust jacket’s synopsis neglects to mention it—half of Shaw’s out-of-print novel takes place in a ski town in Vermont, a made-up place called Green Hollow. Did Shaw write the definitive fictional treatment of the Vermont skiing life? I’m not sure there are any others.
The protagonist of “The Top of the Hill” is a high-powered Manhattan consultant named Michael Storrs. Sharp, dashing, and devastatingly handsome, Michael has a successful career and a gorgeous wife, but the city life isn’t for him. An outdoorsman by nature, he finds himself fleeing the stifling confines of his office more and more often to participate in action sports like skydiving, surfing, and skiing—not to mention adultery. Taking risks is the only way for Michael to feel alive, but when his cautious wife, believing that he’s taken his daredevil antics too far, eventually leaves him, he struggles to find his bearings, finally packing up and moving to Vermont, where he once spent a post-college gap year—the happiest of his life—as a ski instructor in Green Hollow.
The most striking aspect of the novel, read today, is its unambiguously male-oriented nature. Shaw, a WWII veteran like his (slightly younger) contemporaries James Jones and Norman Mailer, wrote in a time when men—real men—were actually expected occasionally to sit down after work, with a loosened tie and a glass of whiskey, to read the latest in popular literary fiction: spare, serious, Hemingwayesque books of war, sex, history, ennui, and adventure.
This audience no longer exists, and without a credulously sexist reader on the other end, Shaw’s boyish self-regard and misogyny are almost too transparent, at times, to endure.
“The Top of the Hill” is primarily a story of escaping the oppressive civilizing influence of women, who want to take away all our fun. Ostensibly a psychological portrait of a self-destructive man, the novel finds every opportunity to rationalize and glamorize Michael’s aggression and derring-do: he is, of course, the worst kind of out-of-control idiot skier, the worst kind of driver in his high-speed Porsche, and the worst kind of husband, but again and again he’s ennobled by scenes of unexpected, external danger (a woman threatened by a knife-wielding rapist, a pal lost in a snowstorm) in which his fearlessness saves the day.
In Vermont, Michael finds redemption by befriending a sickly hotelkeeper whose life, at the insistence of his sinister Austrian wife, has been consumed by doctors, medicines, and hospital stays. At Michael’s suggestion, the hotelkeeper takes up skiing for the first time in years, forgoing his treatments; his imprudence enrages his wife, and the two soon split—another victory in Shaw’s war against the tyranny of sensible women.
Believe it or not, this is perhaps the best section of the book: there is something irresistible in stories of big-city people gradually becoming enmeshed in the quiet workings of small-town country life, and that holds true even here, where the majority of Michael’s interactions involve women who—naturally—want desperately to sleep with him. It’s a fantasy, written (though the book came out in 1979, late in Shaw’s career) in the solemnly unadorned style of mainstream mid-20th-century fiction, which is its own laughable kind of maleness.
Still, I sort of gave in, finally. It’s October now, and the idea of another ski season is just starting to seem real. In the novel, Shaw allows Michael to arrive in Vermont just before the start of winter, in order to let some anticipation build. There isn’t enough snow, at first, for the local resort to open; then, one evening, a foot of powder falls from the sky.
When the precipitation begins, Michael is standing beside the hotelkeeper’s wife, with whom he’s having an affair (her cruelty, and the hotelkeeper’s goodness, have not yet been discovered). Here is Shaw: “The snow was wet and cold on their faces and was like a benediction on the evening and Eva said, her bare hand with his in the pocket of his big sheepskin coat, ‘Snow at last. There will be joy all over town in the morning and visions of thousands of cars discharging skiers this weekend and of mortgages being paid off by spring. We are like the peasants in India, waiting for the monsoon rains. No matter how many gadgets and snow-making machines we have, without our mountain monsoons we face starvation—or at least the banks, which amounts to the same thing. In the old days we would have blood sacrifices at the winter solstice.’”
The following morning, Michael and a friend get the first tracks of the season. “They rose steadily upward,” Shaw writes, “through the swath cut in the forest for the chair lift, the branches of the pines still laden with snow in the below zero sunshine. A deer looked up at them inquiringly but without fear from a spot under a spreading tree where there was still some dried grass showing. There was a slight whirr from the cable but otherwise the silence was absolute and both men understood that to break it would mar that particular moment of the morning of their first ascent of the year to the mountain. Here and there below them, too, there were rabbit tracks and a track that Michael thought was that of a fox. New York, he thought, was continents, ages away.”
This, too, is a fantasy, hard right now to believe in, but every year it comes true, more or less.

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