Sloan Wilson's 1955 best-seller is saturated with alcohol. Nary a character can carry on a conversation without first mixing a highball, a scotch, a manhattan, or a batch of martinis. "Let's have a drink" is the lubricant without which the novel couldn't proceed. In The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the characters not only drink like fishes but they also smoke like chimneys. There's not a social interaction that isn't punctuated with lighting up, puffing, flicking, extinguishing. But the use of alcohol and tobacco do not pose moral challenges; they're just there, like food and water, and do not become issues for either the characters or the author. Were the Fifties so rich in nicotine? I think they must have been: our house, like everyone else's, was a thick blue haze. Between my mother's cigarettes and my father's pipes and cigars, I must have inhaled many lifetimes worth of second-hand smoke during my childhood. On the other hand, we departed from the norm in that we were not spiritous. While there was always a bottle of something or other on hand to offer to the very occasional guest, I never once noticed either of my parents drink liquor, or beer or wine for that matter, unprompted. Omnipresent alcohol, or rather the manners that surround its consumption, dates The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Right there, in the middle of the Beat Generation, is an old-fashioned Bourbon Generation novel.
The "gray flannel" of the title refers to the ubiquitous Fifties costume of the upwardly mobile. I re-read the novel, which I remembered more from the Gregory Peck-Jennifer Jones epic than from the book, with the expectation that it would be another Marquand-like story of conformity and thwarted rebellion among the aspiring execs. In truth there is some of that, for Tom Rath, the central figure, is for a while caught up in corporate climbing. But the button-down world is not as vividly realized as is the prevailing suburban angst. Basically, the novel is a story of a marriage that's lost its juice. Tom Rath, a good man but one who's become extremely cautious and tightly-wound, had been a paratrooper who dropped behind enemy lines in Europe and in the Pacific. He's killed seventeen men, most with his bare hands-- one an eighteen-year-old, and one (accidentally) his best friend -- but he's never been able to tell his wife Betsy about the war and about the way the war altered his values. In the last chapter he finally breaks through the barrier, but only because he has to admit to Betsy that, while waiting to be shipped from the European to the Pacific theatre, he lived with and fathered a child with a Roman "soldier's girl." Rath asks a very good question -- why is it that he's not ashamed to have killed, but he is ashamed to have loved. Rath's revelations are the heart of the novel, but they're given curiously short shrift (as though Sloan Wilson unconsciously allies himself Tom Rath's impulse to suppress the truth).
I think the book was so popular because it must have helped to purge some of the psychological traumas of the war. It's a moderately good story written in moderately bad prose.
It was sad to read Sloan Wilson's obituary (he died in 2002) and discover that he was a serious alcoholic for much of his life.