|Illustration from the first edition|
“Strange as this tale may be, my readers, do not consider it the weak wanderings of a disordered brain, nor yet as a fiction formed to please alone, but, looking deeper still, perceive the truth. The truth—what a word is that to conjure with, and yet how difficult it is for a mere man to penetrate the cloak of conventionality and custom, and behold it in all its bright nakedness!
“When you have done this, you have looked into the eyes of God.” – From the author’s introduction.
The Spirit of the Town (1912) is today an all but forgotten novel by an all but forgotten author. Spirit is Robbins’ second novel, but it was published the same year as his first, Mysterious Martin.
The novel centers on Jim, a young aspiring author, who leaves his small hometown to seek his fortune in Manhattan. Jim has recently heard from an old friend, George, who had been living there and offered to let him stay at his apartment until Jim could get a start. It sounds very promising.
Almost immediately upon arriving in the Big Apple, Jim encounters the reality of life there when a man jumps out a high-rise window to his death. To Jim’s surprise, no one so much as bats an eyelash at the sight. Jim feels nauseous and begins to faint. Enter the charismatic Mr. Noman, who, after staring at the dead man, sweeps in to offer Jim a helping hand. Mr. Noman escorts him into a nearby pub and buys Jim a drink. We later discover via George that Mr. Noman is the man to know, and if you want to make it, you need to go through him.
After some time in the City, Jim comes to realize its true nature. Mr. Noman offers Jim everything he could ever want, but at what cost? Jim must choose between being a famous sellout or a true, but likely poor, poet.
While it is not overtly displayed, Mr. Noman exhibits vampiric tendencies. He doesn’t drink blood, but he does feed off of the life-force of the young and hopeful that arrive in Manhattan and naïvely fall under his influence. Once he’s done with them, he tosses them to the wind without a moment’s hesitation. He is, after all, the spirit of the town, and the town is the ultimate vampire. It is no coincidence that we first meet Mr. Noman standing over the dead body of the man who jumped out of the window—another victim drained.
Early on in the novel, we meet two charming transients who give the young author his first taste of the Big City. Will and John, or The Merry Old Gentleman and The Clergyman as Jim names them, make a few appearances throughout the novel and are actually more intrinsic to the story than they ever appear. Although they appear as nothing more than conmen, they are used as archetypes to show how modern values destroy men who, in another time, would have been noble men.
Robbins, true to form, works in a brief subplot involving a deranged murderer. This one isn’t outwardly deformed, but is still an outsider. Robbins does an excellent job of subtly working the man into the background of the storyline, only to reveal his true purpose—as well as the imminent danger the main characters were in—midway into the novel.
We are even privy to the killer’s diary, which I suspect to be inspired by a short story of Guy de Maupassant. “The diary of a Madman” reads very similarly to the diary of the madman used in Robbins’ novel. It is a known fact that Robbins was a Francophile and loved French literature, and Maupassant, especially during Robbins’ time, was one of France’s most widely read authors. Perhaps a young Robbins read in the papers of Maupassant’s descent into madness and his eventual death in a Parisian insane asylum. Tod Robbins had much in common with Maupassant—they were both intrigued with insanity, both wrote in a variety of genres, and both were writers of weird fiction—so it would not be surprising to find that Maupassant was an early influence over Robbins.
This book is more than just a social commentary; it is Robbins’ honest look into American greed and our vulture capitalist culture. The dead eyes of the denizens shuffling down busy-yet-empty streets of New York City, each wrapped up in their own world and completely oblivious to everyone else, may as well be the lifeless eyes of zombies. While it is true that Robbins grew up in the bosom of New York’s elite, it is clear that he never identified with them, and it is not surprising that he would leave the U.S. for France within ten years of the publication of this novel.