The Outward Room

The Outward Room
Millen Brand
NYRB Classics, 304pp, $14.95

Eighty years on from their Depression-era heyday, most of the titans of the interwar American novel have fallen off the library shelf. The proof of their influence rests on the number of other writers - real and imaginary - who tried to emulate them. So Bob, the literary-minded barman of Patrick Hamilton's The Midnight Bell (1929), aspires to write a novel that will put him "in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy and Dreiser". Theodore Dreiser, that is, author of An American Tragedy (1925), a hulking masterpiece from the time of the Calvin Coolidge presidency, and as unlikely a template for the modern creative writing student as it is possible to conceive.

With its worm's-eye view of machine-age New York, Millen Brand's first novel (originally published in 1937) looks like an obvious candidate for Dreiser's seal of approval. And sure enough, the back cover carries a top-line encomium from the master ("Unsparing and honest, and at the same time refreshing and lovely"). However, one must point out that Brand's naturalism is not Dreiser's. There are no loving exercises in determinism, no grotesque strokes of fate with the capacity to seal a character's destiny for all time. What connects them is an undeviating procedural line, the feeling of material being worked out on its own terms, sentiment that is never sentimentality and, above all, the sense of a whole world quietly unfurling itself beyond the rooms in which most of the action takes place.

In strict narrative terms, not a great deal happens in The Outward Room. Harriet Demuth, the palely sensitive heroine, has spent several years in an asylum, traumatised by the death of a much-loved brother and not helped especially by a Freudian therapist obsessed with the idea of father substitutes. Lured by an unlocked door and a design fault in the security fence, she breaks out, hitches a ride and is eventually set down, friendless and penniless, in the big city. Then, with destitution looming, she falls in with a man named Kohler who invites her to live with him (chastely) in his rented room. Here, amid the sound of the upstairs lodger's dog diving for hambones on the stair and the chatter of the Italian children in the yard, romance blossoms.

This being 1930s New York, the scenes of psychological introspection in which Brand specialises are gradually undercut by straightforward social "issues". Kohler and his colleagues from the engineering shop are scheming to start a union. Meanwhile, his younger brother has taken extra pay to work in a dangerous coal mine in Ohio that looks as if it will bury him alive.

What most distinguishes The Outward Room is its distinctiveness of style: a kind of bedrock realism, forever struggling to portray things as they supposedly are, which achieves most of its effects by way of the impressionist flourish. When Harriet visits a Polish girl named Anna in the shabby apartment where her family lives, the heroine's thoughts come scrambled with the room's various conversations: "Cheapness, poverty. Unknown before, the living in tenements, Airshaft, El. In how many rooms of how many cities? Talking 'they're tearing down the building on a Hundred Seventh' saw the at least clean rooms, corridors of the hospital, 'was back again today, wants to buy clothes' here freedom broke the body, the mind . . ."

If this all sounds rather like the John Dos Passos of Manhattan Transfer (1925) and USA (1930-36), Brand's novel also answers a question in which Dos Passos, and Dreiser before him, would have taken some kind of interest. Why is the American novel of the 1930s - bleak, edgy and determinist - so very different from its cosy transatlantic cousin? Why do the Americans have Dreiser, Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair, Studs Lonigan and the ground-down Joads barrelling down Route 66 on their flight to California, and we have to make do with Hugh Walpole and J B Priestley?

The answer, a trawl through the classics of US naturalism suggests, is less to do with geographical extremity, or even aesthetic conviction, than with the lack of a social security system. Brand's characters, like Steinbeck's, are aware that, without money, they will very probably die, and that losing your job means not, as in England, a humiliating trip to the labour exchange, but starvation.

Brand (1906-80) was a one-hit wonder. His later attempts to write a Proustian octet could never match the half-million copy sales of his debut. There was a McCarthy-era appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, details of which are provided in Peter Cameron's useful afterword, and a 20-year editorial stint at Crown Publishers. The New York Review Books re­issues are always worth reading, but this one is inspired.

D J Taylor's latest novel, "Derby Day" (Chatto & Windus, £17.99), has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.