The Last of Philip Banter (John Franklin Bardin)

Posted: November 27, 2014 in fiction
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John Franklin Bardin wrote mystery novels in the 1940s and ’50s. If The Last of Philip Banter is any indication, he wrote very good mystery novels. One of the nice things about Banter is the way that Bardin breaks with tradition; the murder comes at the end instead of the beginning. The primary mystery is something quite different.

The first few pages feel like we’ve dropped in on Mad Men: Philip Banter is a womanizing alcoholic advertising executive in 1945. All the office girls are susceptible to his charms except his own secretary, Miss Grey, who is in love with Tom, a guy in a different department who wants Philip’s job. However, today, when Philip gets to his office, he finds a manuscript titled Confession that he himself seems to have signed. It recounts events that are meant to happen tonight. Philip is a little freaked by finding an apparently time-traveling confession, or a prediction written in the past tense, or whatever this thing is. He’s especially derailed by this because he’s been getting blackout drunk (and hearing voices) with increasing frequency, so he can’t actually remember what he did last night. He really could have written this thing himself.

That night, Philip and his wife Dorothy host their old friend Jeremy and his new girl Brent. The confession predicts this, but it represents him suavely seducing Brent, which in reality becomes a complete failure. Philip is probably thrown off a bit by having seen Dorothy and Jeremy making out; he can philander all he wants, but this is her first minor infidelity, and he’s really uncomfortable with the idea that she could treat him the way that he treats her.

On Day Two there’s another installment of the confession, predicting Dorothy breaking up with Philip over lunch. So of course he doesn’t meet her. She does run off with Jeremy for a little bit, but it’s unsatisfactory for both of them.

It was very inappropriate, too, they both realized, for what they were doing in actuality was endeavoring to escape the cage of the present by admiring and reconstructing the bars that had made the cages of the past.

Even though they had both spent the entire length of Dorothy’s marriage to Philip wondering what would have happened if she had married Jeremy instead, that moment has passed. They’re in love with other people now, and not even running off together for averagely-good sex can help them live up to/live out their what-if fantasies.

The detective in all this is a psychiatrist friend of Philip’s. He doesn’t figure out what’s going on until after someone dies, and he never figures out the creepily Oedipal thing going on with Dorothy and her father, but at least he admits

Even psychiatrists sometimes make mistakes.

which is an impressive confession for a fictonal psychiatrist, I think. I don’t know enough of the real ones to say whether they fit the I-am-the-voice-of-God stereotype.

The psychiatrist gives the author the opportunity to talk explicitly about the main emotional drive of the novel: inadequacy. As in his conversation with Philip:

The young boy who has never experienced sex and the old man who doubts that he will ever experience it again share common feelings of guilt and inadequacy. They both spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about exploits they don’t have the courage or opportunity to make real. Sometimes this happens to a man in his maturity, and then his fears are often false. They are only symptomatic of a deeper wound, a hidden conflict. Some men never get over adolescent feelings of inadequacy and guilt, and with such men, every time they have a new relation it is a fresh trial of their ever-doubted prowess – you might call them sexual athletes since they are always trying to break their own records. These men often become psychically impotent prematurely. They day-dream compulsively – you do it on paper! – about imagined triumphs and then force themselves to make them real.

I don’t know if I feel guilt exactly, but I spend most of my life convinced of my own inadequacy. Being a teacher tends to feed these feelings. No matter what I do, my students are never going to speak or write perfectly. Teaching is like seeing a leak in a dam that prevents your hometown from flooding. You stick your finger in the hole. Then there’s another one, so you stick another finger there. If the leaks are close enough, you may be able to reach a third. Then you look around and realize that all your neighbors are sticking their fingers in leaks too. We know that someone needs to repave the dam, and sometimes we get very angry about that. But we just keep sticking fingers in the holes and wait for someone else to fix the systemic problems. There’s never any question of success; we just try to fail the least. Most of the time I think I’m good at what I do, but I’m never free of the uncertainty. Educational supervisors tend to work on the assumption that if nothing’s wrong, they don’t need to say anything, so in most teaching situations I’ve tended to feel isolated and underappreciated. The job where I have felt the best about my work was at The Home Depot. I worked in freight, so there was some paperwork in receiving and some forklift operating and a lot of taking things out of boxes and putting them on shelves; it satisfied the same need for order that tempts me toward library work. But my supervisor worked with me for a night every few weeks, and he always told me I did a good job, and every night he thanked the entire team for the work we did. I know that many people (like Deborah Tannen) say that women are better at giving praise, but in my workplaces I’ve found that not to be the case.

OccMan, you’re drifting. Bardin wasn’t writing about professional inadequacy; it’s pretty clear that he meant sexual inadequacy. Yes that’s true, but I don’t believe the two are so easily separable. Those people who have a proven record of romantic success tend to have the confidence and ambition necessary to succeed professionally; they’re used to a world that says Yes to them, so they go after everything they want in whichever area of life that might be. That’s why so few ugly people become rich. Then there are people like me, who have been taught their whole lives that they can’t have anything worth having, so it’s hard for me to try hard to get either a good job or a good boyfriend, because deep down I don’t think I deserve one or the other. Failure in one area of life leads to failure in the others because I feel Failure like a label printed on my skin.

Philip Banter is a good representative of this idea. He’s married to a woman he cares about, but has a number of one-night stands on the side. It looks like he has success, but he’s a shit husband, and he sees the hookups as failures rather than conquests. He’s looking for a feeling of strength, power, desirableness, puissance, but he only ends up feeling guilty, so he drinks until he can’t remember, his hands start shaking, and he has periodic blackouts. His job is similar: he has a great job as an ad writer, but he doesn’t put in the work to be good at it. He writes terrible repetitive copy, losing client after client, until his boss/father-in-law fires him and tells his wife to divorce him. There are a number of episodes of the Twilight Zone that fit this schema as well (including all of those featuring bachelors who fail at business).

One of the striking things about this novel is the structure. I don’t mean that it’s divided into three installments, one for each section of the predictive confession (which are also days); I mean the precise moment that the last chapter ends and the epilogue begins. You’re familiar with the final scene from Dashiell Hammett pictures: Nick Charles or Sam Spade gathers all the suspects and victims into one room, goes on explaining how each of them could have done it, dismissing each suspect in turn until someone does something stupid, like confessing. In the last chapter, Philip has everyone gathered in like fashion, he starts his detective monologue, but then he gets interrupted, he runs out, and someone kills him (not a spoiler; read the title again). The book proper ends with Philip’s death, and the audience still doesn’t know who the killer is. While most detective novels are about the successful search for the truth, Banter reminds us how inadequate we are to discover it. Even the psychiatrist can’t figure it out in time to save his friend’s life. Nothing gets wrapped up until the epilogue, when we have to repeat the detective monologue scene, getting it a little more right this time. Bardin hits us with it again in the last line of the book:

But there was nothing he could do about that . . .

Ending on the ellipsis, as if even the writer, who stands in the place of God, can’t bring about a satisfactory conclusion. There’s nothing the characters can do to right some of the wrongs of the world. Lives have been ended, others destroyed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In the end, in some way, we are all inadequate.

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