Audiobook Review: An American Tragedy

I received this book for free from Audies in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Audiobook Review: An American TragedyAn American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Narrator: Dan John Miller
Length: 34 hrs, 16 mins
Published by Tantor Media on July 19, 2011
Genres: Classics, Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Source: Audies
Goodreads
three-stars

An American Tragedy is the story of Clyde Griffiths, who spends his life in the desperate pursuit of success. On a deeper, more profound level, it is the masterful portrayal of the society whose values both shape Clyde's ambitions and seal his fate; it is an unsurpassed depiction of the harsh realities of American life and of the dark side of the American dream. Extraordinary in scope and power, vivid in its sense of wholesale human waste, unceasing in its rich compassion, An American Tragedy stands as Theodore Dreiser's supreme achievement.

First published in 1925 and based on an actual criminal case, An American Tragedy was the inspiration for the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, which won six Academy Awards and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

Just a warning to my dear readers. I do not believe I can discuss this book without spoilers, given the fact that it is really long and most of the parts I want to write about come later in the novel. With that said, you may want to not read this review if you don’t want the book to be spoilered. The next couple paragraphs will be safe, since they will be a review of the audiobook version.

Confession: For many years, I have judged audiobook listeners as people unwilling to actually read a book. I don’t know why. Listening to a book takes way longer than reading it and certainly I would consider someone reading a book or play aloud to me as having ‘read’ it. I imagine my completely unfair prejudice stems from having disliked the first couple audiobooks I listened to (back in middle school when they were books on tape). After that, I didn’t listen to any more until graduate school.

What I would like to announce officially is that audiobooks can be really amazing and can, in point of fact, be better, for some books, than reading it the traditional way would have been. Not having read An American Tragedy, I am still fairly certain this is one such book. Dreiser writes in a style that imitates speech in many instances and that, thus, lends itself well to the audiobook format.

The narrator, Dan John Miller, has a voice that, although it took me a little bit to get used to, fits well with the time period (the 1920s). Apparently, Miller is from Detroit and sings in a gothic country garage band. He also acted in Walk the Line as Luther Perkins. He does a great job of making most of the main characters’ voices recognizable and speaks at a good pace. I heard a couple of weirdly pronounced words and some strange accents from some of the smaller characters. Otherwise, he did a great job, and I very much enjoyed his performance.

Now, to the novel itself. I feared that I would absolutely hate this novel, as the only thing I had ever heard about Dreiser was people talking about how completely terrible Sister Carrie is. Thankfully, when I started listening, I found myself really enjoying it, which is good, given that it’s a 32 hour audiobook. The novel is composed of four books, all of which are rather different. The first 3/4 of the novel, I really enjoyed, but the last 1/4 was really rough going.

The opening book discusses Clyde’s life in Kansas City, from his time with his parents street preaching through the tragic event that compelled him to leave (although he totally was not guilty of a crime in that case, so he should have gone to the police and explained and would have been fine). Learning about 1920s society was fun, such as work as a bell boy. I also really loved reading about how dumb Clyde was in his pursuit of a girl he was completely obsessed with. She didn’t like him so much as she liked his pocketbook, and constantly had him buy her things. Poor Clyde just is not very smart.

After fleeing Kansas City, Clyde spends book two trying to figure out what to make of himself. He adopts an alias while he works in Chicago. He escapes life in the hotel industry when he happens across his wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths, and is offered a position in his collar factory. Clyde is convinced this will be his chance to enter high society (as high as it gets in Lycurgas, NY) and to advance in his career. When he arrives, though, he finds that his hopes were to high. Although his Uncle did give him a position, he has to start at the very bottom of the totem pole, and he is given no leg up in society. Eventually, he gets a promotion to a management position in a department and, once again, hopes that he will be accepted into society. When this doesn’t follow, he begins an affair with one of the women he oversees, Roberta Alden, despite such behavior being strictly forbidden.

In book three (I think…the border between these two is less clear than the others), Clyde finally gets noticed by the upper glass girl he has had a crush on since he first saw her, during the one time he was invited to his Uncle’s house for dinner. This Sondra Finchley notices how much he adores her and how attractive he is, and decides to exert her influence to bring him into society, while falling to his charms, despite her parent’s warnings not to get too attached. Clyde begins deserting Roberta, now hoping to marry Sondra. About that time, Roberta informs him that she’s pregnant. He tries to get her out of it (pills to miscarry, then to find a doctor to perform an abortion), but cannot. Driven to desperation and still determined to marry Sondra, he refuses to marry Roberta, as she insists, and begins to plan to murder her. He does, or doesn’t, depending on your point of view (I’ll leave some mystery); either way, Roberta ends up drowned in a lake and Clyde is soon tracked down.

The last quarter of the novel covers Clyde’s trial, his time on death row (surprise!) and his death bed conversion to Christianity. Told you. Spoilers. But I really wanted to talk about this, because, while the most boring part of the novel, I suspect that this may be Dreiser’s ultimate message, one of the evils of capital punishment and the glories of God’s redemption. Also interesting was how he chose to end the novel, which is with a scene reminiscent of the beginning. Clyde’s parents, his elder sister and her illegitimate son preaching on the street just as they did when he was a child. Does this forebode ill for his nephew?

If you’re interested in reading this book, I definitely recommend the audiobook version!

 

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