How Like a God by Rex Stout (1929)
Rex Stout began his writing career in 1910, publishing three poems in The Smart Set magazine. From 1912 through 1918 he published some 40 stories in the pulp magazines, including five serialized novels which would not begin to appear in book form until nearly seven decades later -- all of which are light but readable fare. Then Stout got tired of writing just for money. To solve that problem, he retired from writing and invented the school banking system (I remember participating when I was in elementary school) and lived well on the royalties. He returned to writing with How Like a God, which was published by Vanguard Press, a publishing house he helped to start. Ironically, it was published the same year the Depression began, in which Stout lost most of his money.
How Like a God was the first of five psychological novels, which was then followed by the anonymously published The President Vanishes, a pioneering political thriller -- all before the first Nero Wolfe mystery novel in 1934.
The book was published to great acclaim. Clifton Fadiman wrote, "Real and exciting. It is an unusual book." And the New York Herald Tribune called it, "a fascinating piece of work...he is a fluent master of his art." My copy, the 1961 Pyramid paperback edition which had been sitting on my shelf for more than half a decade, has these words taking up two-thirds of the book's cover: AN EXTRAORDINARY BRILLIANT NOVEL ABOUT A SEXUAL PSYCHOTIC -- HIS STRANGE MARRIAGE, ABNORMAL OBSESSIONS AND DARK DESIRES. Oh, and there's a picture of a naked woman in the lower right corner.
How Like a God is a fascinating psychological portrait about a weak man subsumed by sex, told in a straight-forward manner without titillation, eroticism, or graphic detail. It is about the effect a warped view of sex can have on an immature psyche. The novel is told in the second person, almost as though the main character is introspectively trying to explain himself to himself. This is not really the case though: the narration is far more knowing of the protagonist's nature than the protagonist himself is.
Each chapter opens with a few paragraphs showing Bill Sidney, 41, climbing the stairs of an old apartment building, gun in his pocket. He is slowly going up to kill a woman. We then dissolve to a series of flashbacks, taken in seemingly random order, focusing on the life of this torured man.
Stanley is rich and successful, more because of coincidence than talent. He is the second child and first son of a Cleveland pharmacist, raised in a solidly middle-class family. Throughout his life, there have been five women who have formed him.
The first was his sister Jane, older by two years. Jane was the competent one and the one who acted as a surrogate mother to Bill. Bill has always been in love with Jane, seldom realizing that his love verged on the sexual. When he was ten, he saw his his sister naked; her twelve-year-old nonchalnace affected him throughout his life. As he got older, Bill could not imagine his sister having a sex life and grew extremely jealous of her husband.
When Bill was about fifteen, he was seduced by his married Sunday School teacher who was twice his age, entering into a relationship that lasted for two years, until her husband found out. This was not a great love, or even a great sexual adventure. It happened and it continued merely because Bill was compliant. Bill always thought of her and referred to her as Mrs. Davis, never by her first name. After the affair was discovered by her husband, the couple moved away and Bill did not see her again for more than twenty years, which was when he discovered that she had had a son by him.
In college, he became fascinated with Millicent, a ten-year-old girl in the neighborhood. He would buy her candy and she would sit on his lap. His unacknowleged sexual feelings for this child confused him. He would have fantasies about her, not realizing what they actually were. He also never realized that Millicent was just a bit younger than his sister Jane was when he saw her naked. For her part, Millicent soon began (perhaps innocently) hinting that the relationship was sexual, which caused a scene between Millicent's mother and Bill's father. When it turned out that nothing physical had happened, Millicent's mother, perhaps embarrassed, moved them away.
In his mid-twenties he met Lucy, a nineteen-year-old aspiring musician. Lucy was beautiful, charming, and sexually repressed. Bill fell in love with her and wanted to marry her but could not get the courage to ask her. Their entire physical relationship consisted of one brief kiss on the lips and one short moment of skinny-dipping (sans touiching). She admitted to Bill that he was the only man she ever liked and trusted. He finally proposed to her the day before she was to leave for Europe to study music. She turned him down, saying that she probably would have married him the year before if he had asked her then. Then she was gone.
Then there was Erma, the sister of his best friend and employer. She was beautiful and sexually amoral, calculating and cruel, and fabulously rich in her own right. She was also the same age as Jane. Erma toyed with Bill and at one time, it was tacitly assumed they would get married, but she went off to Europe on a lark, got married, and was away for several years. When she returned, divorced, she began to take up with Bill again. Eventually they did get married and lived an unconventional life in which he tolerated her nymphomania and infidelities, as well as her often dismissive attitude toward him. Somehow, in his imagination, he would conflate Jane, Lucy, and Erma with the ten-year-old Millicent.
Now approaching forty, Bill accidently meets a grown-up Millicent at the theater. She is rather plain and cheaply dressed, a dull and unimaginative woman. Realizing all this, Bill takes her on as a lover, never exactly understanding why he did. Millicent is as compliant to Bill as Bill is to everyone else. She also has an amoral streak and takes on lovers without Bill's knowledge. When he finds out, Bill is enraged. Millicent was the one thing he could claim for his own. And the apartment he had set up for was something he also considered his own; it contained furniture that he could claim to be his own -- never before had he had a bed or even a chair he could call his own. Catching one of Millicent's lovers in his bed, sitting in his chair, using his mistress was all just too much.
And so, Bill is walking slowly up the stairs to Millicent's apartment, gun in his pocket...
A great introspecive novel, perhaps a bit old-fashioned for modern tastes, but a fascinating portrait of a tortured man -- a psychotic formed by his relationships with women. Bill Stanley is not a person the reader can easily identify with, but he is one that is not easily forgotten.
Rex Stout's many fans should be aware that this is a long way from Nero Wolfe.