Heartwood 3:4 – The Big Money

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The Big Money
by John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

Sometimes a writer only gets one chance to hit it off with a reader. For many long years that was all I gave John Dos Passos, based on an excerpt from one of his books (I’ve forgotten which one) I’d read in an English class. This past April I finally decided to give him another go when I saw that his book The Big Money was going to be discussed in the Library’s ongoing series, “Books You’ve Always Meant to Read.”

Dos Passos made a strong impression the second time around. I found myself immersed, intrigued, and entertained by this book, the third volume in his U.S.A. trilogy, set in the years spanning World War I and the Great Depression. It goes to show, our tastes, moods, and interests are variable – and exposure to a single, brief example of writing is probably not enough to form a judgment.

As the title indicates, money is a major concern for the many characters in the book, especially the lure of easy money, hitting it big. And as in our own recession, big money is there to be made, but mostly what we see is people struggling to get ahead in whatever ways they can, while living within social and economic systems that seem designed to crush them despite their best efforts. These characters are also looking for personal and emotional connection, but their relations with others are often marred by poor choices and the primacy of self-interest.

Dos Passos uses four modes in structuring the book. First and most substantial are the character-focused chapters which are completely engaging and enthralling. Interspersed among these chapters are other, somewhat shorter ones that feature fascinating and creatively told biographical sketches of such figures as Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, William Randolph Hearst, and dancer Isadora Duncan. The sections with Newsreel headings are brief collages composed of headlines, snippets from news stories, advertising slogans, and fragments of popular songs. The brief Camera Eye chapters are largely unpunctuated and experimental in nature – I found them a bit of a slog at times, though the second-to-last one grabbed me by the throat with its devastating and despairing account of the power of money in American life.

The heart of the book is found in the long chapters named after the various characters. They are perceptively told with crisp descriptions, tons of what-happens-next momentum, and just-right character development that illuminates the hopes and suffering the various characters face.

Though the book was written over 75 years ago, the social and economic scenarios it presents are completely relevant to life in our own Great Recession. In fact, the U.S.A. trilogy has provided the model for George Packer’s new non-fiction book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Why not read them both?

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