The long road from street gangs to success…
Wilton Latso is seventy two years old and a grandfather. In the middle of a heated argument with his adult daughter Abbie, Wilton realizes that she has no idea of who he is, where he came from, and why he did the things he did when he was bringing her up. Spontaneously Wilton starts remembering and soon he decides to write down the story of his life. Wilton came from a poor family living in a poor suburb of St. Louis, Missouri in the late 1940’s / early 1950s. In this era of street gangs Wilton is soon introduced to a world of violence, ego and selfishness. Wilton’s parents are staunch Pentecostal Christians, but Wilton doubts that faith from the start. The trouble is that he can see all too clearly his parent’s hypocrisy, particularly his mother’s. Throughout his life Wilton will continue to observe people, noting many to be hollow, offering friendship, espousing beliefs but proving to be fakes.
Donnell Wilson’s Hypocrites In His Midst: A Story About Flawed Human Beings is a fictional autobiography spanning seven decades. It is a story of “redemption” (Ch. 8) in a secular sense. This is a book about trying to “do the right thing” (Ch. 3), though the “right thing” (Ch. 2) is not always obvious or easy to achieve. Wilson’s novel, especially in the first three Parts, is broadly comparable to Nicky Cruz’s real life autobiography Run Baby Run (Logos, 1972), though that book is firmly Christian, while this book is firmly agnostic (Ch. 31). Most of all, this book is about how a person can growing to maturity (or avoid it).
The novel is a first person narrative and as a result we hear much of the main characters thoughts and opinions and much less of the perspective of other people. This is very much a central character novel, partly because of the narrator’s self-confessed ignorance of and difficulty with “relationships” (Ch. 1). Other people are a mystery. For example Evelyn, Willy’s teenage bride (Ch. 2), remains in many ways a mystery throughout the whole book though she is ‘present’ for twenty one chapters. Also, throughout much of his life Willy has unstable job circumstances and as a result the story has many minor characters that come and go without Wil or the reader really getting to know them. It is indeed Willy’s frequent complaint that this happens (Ch. 1 and following). As it can be seen the book could have benefited from more dramatized conversations and events that illustrated the perspective of other characters, especially the main characters, and perhaps some of the minor characters could have been left out. The novel works very well, however, as an exploration of one man’s character and by the end of the story we feel as though we really know and understand Willy and have learned what life can be like for someone quite different to ourselves. Wil is very much from a lower class background, a regular frequenter of bars, and the narrative has the chatty ethos of a reminiscing story told by a friend, perhaps at a party or a pub. There is frequent foul language, sex is openly described and discussed and violence is openly depicted. This is certainly justified and in keeping with the ‘underworld’ ethos of the book, but conservative people may be offended. There are occasional “Oh my gosh!” moments and scenes of high tension which are well written. The marijuana trip and LSD trip in Chapter 13 very much capture the ‘Hey man! Cool!’ atmosphere of the sixties giving the reader an off-beat, fun, but dangerous, slightly “paranoid” (Ch. 13) feeling. In passages like this Wilson reveals his true skill as an author. Early in the story Wil’s friends take up calling him “Willy Lost Soul” and indeed the name Latso can be seen as a play on the words ‘lost soul’. Wil is a lost soul in the criminal underworld, but also a soul seeking personal ‘redemption’, albeit in an unconventional secular sense.
The plot is divided into five parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 6) covers Wil’s childhood, gang membership and street life, teenage marriage and first jobs. Wilson then describes Willy’s first major attempt to exit his ‘underworld’ style of living by attending trade school and then working as a car body man and painter. The section ends in a major climax that moves Wil to new territory in an unexpected way. In Part II: A New Beginning (Ch. 7 – 10) Wil’s family moves to a new suburb and a partially better life. This section concentrates on Darwin, Wil’s younger brother who is perhaps in some ways even more lost than him. Wil attempts to help Darwin. He also gains his GED school qualification and begins a writing course in order to see if he can fulfil his childhood dream of being a writer. Once again events come to a crisis, though this time not so unforseen. Part III: Farewell Party (Ch. 11 – 21) sees Wil’s family Move to Boulder, Colorado where Wil meets and befriends Merlin an ‘out-there’ character who is deep into drug culture. This part depicts the late 1960’s / early1970’s Counterculture very well. The reader feels both an amusement and frustration with Wil as he seems to repeat his teenage mistakes all be it in a new way. Wil is never quite a ‘drop-out’ and he develops a bond with Merlin in a way he has never had with anyone else. Part III comes to a peak of a different kind, then there are two final chapters and the plot peaks again. Part IV: Learning the Three R’s – Rita, Reba, and Rachel (Ch. 22 – 33) covers love relationships with the title women. Rita receives six chapters, but Reba and Rachel are only allotted three each. Once again the reader is interested by these more unusual women but frustrated by Wil as he seems never to overcome his problem with human relationships. Once more there is a final unexpected crisis which propels Wil into a new life. Part V: Pain, Love, Redemption, and Success (Ch. 34 – 41) introduces us to Katie a nurse who becomes Wil’s final love interest. In this section Wil finally gains more maturity forming a more happy relationship, more enjoyable career and financial success. Wil observes, however, that in some ways people are the same wherever you are. As can be seen the book involves a certain amount of reputation on a theme, though each part is quite different from the last. As the book progresses Wil earns and so it is important to point out that the novel is not quite as repetitive as this very bare outline may make it seem.
Wilton Latso is a very flawed, but likable character. “Moxie” (Ch. 1 and following) is a characteristic he likes in his friends and is perhaps his own central trait. Wil is very determined and always fights back. He wants to do what is right, but right by his standard. He repeatedly says that he basically wants to be “left alone” (Ch. 1 and following), but finds that this is just what interfering people will not allow. On the down side Wil’s independence leads him into trouble and his individuality has a selfish side. He is ignorant of people and this compounds his selfishness. His early life has made him violent (psychologically and physically) and he repeatedly uses aggression rather than his creative intelligence to solve problems. Wil is in many ways like the ‘tough guy hood’ we all secretly admired in high school, who gave teachers grief, won fights and took flak from nobody. But while we later grew away from these things, though we never forgot them, Wil does not do this until much later (and in some ways not at all). We both like and dislike this very individual man, and his dynamo character certainly carries us through the book keeping us interested, if not always in an admiring way. We care enough about will to want things to go right for him.
Merlin is an important main character and the reader feels, as they do with Wil, both attraction and disapproval. Merlin is very easy-going and affable, also in a boyish way. He laughs a lot and is trustworthy as a friend. He is adventurous, but this is also his failing quality, as is his boyishness, as it leads him into an extreme life far from tried and tested ‘normality’. Like Willy we care for him and are carried along by him, caught up in his adventures and misadventures.
Rita, Reba and Rachel are all in their individual ways escapees from ‘normality’, each intriguing, but each having pronounced failings. Rita is very much an ‘out-there, zany lady,’ a product of the Counterculture. Not so long ago she was very much in into the drug scene, particularly LSD, and she still suffers from “flashbacks and hallucinations” (Ch. 25). She is sexually free and adventurous, and generally a free spirit who in many ways we like, particularly at first. Like many in the 1960s, however, Rita is adrift, lacking a centre, and even more than Wil she wants things and is willing to grab them in whatever way she can. If Rita is sexually adventurous, Reba is the ‘sex queen’. She and her partner Chuck have an ‘open relationship’ and are very ‘happening’ people. Reba also wants things, but seems unsure of the details. She doesn’t really know her mind. Rachel wants most of all to be loved and to be with a man that shows that love, but she holds herself aloof or even worse is aggressive. These failings partly prevent her from entering into the very love relationship she desires, and in depression, and perhaps desperation, she turns to drink. Rachel, too, is sexually adventurous, but in her dissatisfaction in life this makes her shifting rather than solid. All of these women, in their individual ways, promise love, but all are characterized by emptiness at their core. They are intriguing without being necessarily ‘good’ characters.
Katie, Wil’s final love, is “naïve, affectionate, very intelligent, warm, and pretty” (Ch. 35). She is a nurse and this reflects her helping nature. She is centred in others, rather than herself. While naïve she has the ability to learn to ‘get tough’ and that is exactly what she does. We like Katie because she is nice, but has her own style of “moxie” (Ch. 35). Katie also has a solid base that the other major women characters in the book do not have.
All these characters interest us and move us forward in the plot, though we do not completely ‘like’ most of them. What captures us about most is that they are quite different from the ‘normal’. These are people from the ‘wild’ side of life.
As the title suggests Wilson’s novel has hypocrisy as a major theme. People very much like to put up a front of ‘respectability’, but then say and do things that are far from this public persona. Even more, under the guise of ‘uprightness’ people like to interfere in the affairs of others, telling them what to do, but they themselves prove to be distant from ‘goodness’. Organisations, such as the church, government and business, can be particularly guilty of this, and those who participate in them tend to follow suit. But then even ‘drop-outs’ can prove to be less than ‘happening’. Self-hypocrisy is perhaps something that we are all victims of. We say to ourselves that we are one thing, want one thing, believe one thing, but really we are fooling ourselves.
The other side of hypocrisy is true values and ethics, what could be called secular spirituality. Wil believes that relationships should be based on “respect” (Ch. 1), but not the fake kind implied by class or money. We should “do unto others” (Ch. 2) as we ourselves would like to be treated. We should not break our word (Ch. 4). Wil sees the idea of eternal punishment “for sinning seventy years” as anything but “fair” (Ch. 2): balanced justice is important to him. He sees that we should be basically free to live our own lives, as long as we do no real harm, and be free of “accusation” (Ch. 3), and of course we should not accuse others. Beyond this, going deeper into spirituality, Willy has his own non-conventional kind of spirituality. He is mildly interested in astrology. He espouses views similar to the Unitarian faith (Ch. 6 & 31), particularly the idea that we are all on a journey up a mountain, though we are climbing it from different sides (i.e. different faiths). A car accident makes him very aware of the reality of death (Ch. 10) and later he experiences a ‘vision’ of someone he knew who is dead (Ch. 21) while friends of his experience strange occurrences at the exact time of the death of another (Ch. 37).
The theme of success is very strong in the novel. We often say that riches are hollow, but living without money, and perhaps worse, without a sense of achieving something is very difficult. Perhaps only those who come from poor backgrounds truly understand this. But does owning property, such as a house, assure us of success, and isn’t true success more than money?
Closely allied to the theme of success is the idea of maturation / search for the self. Wilson’s novel is very much about personal change: going from unhappiness to happiness, healing hurts. We are all hurt, but some of us are hurt more than others. Is it possible to lift ourselves out of the circumstances we are born into? What must we sacrifice along the way? Is change sometimes thrust upon us?
The first part of the novel very much depicts the 1950’s biased view of women. A classic example of this is the notion that men have affairs, while women, being ‘good little women’ do not (Ch. 3). In the character of Evelyn women’s dissatisfaction under the restrictions of this era is very much depicted. Feminist criticisms of society and solutions, however, are only hinted at. Evelyn wants to ‘find herself’, but never seems to really achieve this, though she does take charge of her life and gain a new kind of positive confidence. The 1960’s version of Feminism is hinted at in the character of Rachel (Ch. 31), but this character is certainly not depicted sympathetically. The freedom of the 60s, including freedom for women, seems to ring false in the three characters of Rita, Reba and Rachel. It is 1980’s that we come upon a more mature version of womanhood in the character of Katie. In this character we have a depiction of a woman closer to Betty Friedan’s ideas (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 90-94), that is both successful in her career and her family life, without betraying her femininity or becoming false.
Similar to women and Feminism, the novel very much shows men in their 1950’s guise, before the liberation of Gender Studies. Wil must be the ‘tough guy’ full of bluster and fight. He is indeed afraid to be afraid (Ch. 1). Wil is afraid of emotions and sees them, if anything as weakness. Crying is certainly something men don’t do (Ch. 4). For Wil relationships are difficult, if not a complete mystery (Ch. 1 & 2). In a marriage “the man is supposed to be in charge, not the woman” (Ch. 4). A man’s job in a relationship is seen as not much more than working to provide an income. But the whole novel depicts an evolution away from this situation as the story progresses. Indeed, right from the start Wil sees the caring nature of his father and grandfather as something to be admired (Ch. 1 & Ch. 36). Along the way, however, Wil must first give up his view of ‘the strong working father’ and then learn to express his love. This is for him a very long drawn out process, and even at the end of the book we wonder if he, despite all his intentions, has completely broken free of his 1950’s masculine conditioning.
While this is a mainly heterosexual novel, LGBTIQ relations are occasionally touched on. Wil has a dream which makes him aware of a grain of homosexuality in himself (Ch. 19). He is not afraid of this, or does not feel bad as a result. When Wil’s work colleague Mel discovers that his son is gay Wil gives very positive advice about accepting and loving this young man (Ch. 34). The kind of bigotry that LGBTIQ people face is depicted in a disapproving way (Ch. 39). The picture is not all naively positive though. As a boy Wil was pressured by a gay paedophile (Ch. 25) and as an adult he receives too familiar a treatment from a male boss (Ch. 9), although it is not fully clear that this man is gay. Lesbians receive a brief sympathetic mention, though they are not depicted (Ch. 40).
The often ignored group of the aged are also depicted to a small extent. Wil’s grandfather, though an absent character, is spoken of positively. Late in the story Wil’s mother and father are depicted as old people. In the case of his father we see a positive representation, but in the case of his mother the circumstances are very negative. Of course people do not become miraculously wise and kind simply because they have aged.
Minorities, another classification of ignored groups, are frequently mentioned and depicted in small ways. Wil often expresses positive views of people of various races, declaring that colour does not matter to him. Racial bigotry is also often depicted in a disapproving way. Junior, a work colleague of Wil’s, receives fullest representation (Ch. 5 & Ch. 7). He is depicted as an affable man who receives bigotry with very good grace. Wil himself is of partial American Indian descent and characters of this descent pop up as minor characters. Some of these incidents dramatize the bigotry they face (Ch. 38). People of Mexican descent similarly regularly pop up in cameo appearances (Ch. 12 & following), and the bigotry they face is also portrayed and condemned (Ch. 18). Finally there is one rabid Jew hater depicted, who is certainly disapproved of (Ch. 13).
Wilson’s novel takes an interesting position in the Capitalism / Socialism debate as it takes the middle-ground, third way of Liberalism. As has been noted, Wil is no friend of interfering government. Maximum freedom of the individual is really his central point. Willy is a “liberal, progressive Democrat” (Ch. 32). None the less he certainly disapproves of rich “fat cats” (Ch. 9), noting for example their “rudeness” (Ch. 9), however, he is continually aware of his family’s “need [… for …] more money” and pursuit of finance is his central occupation. Partially this is a ‘poor man makes rich’ story and as such is firmly in the ‘great American Capitalist ideal’. Wil finally owns “a half-million dollar house on a waterway” (Ch. 1). None the less Willy describes himself as having “leanings of socialism from seeing inequities in society” (Ch. 9), and to be fair equality is very much an important issue to him. Class struggle and the unethical way the rich gain their wealth are also important issues to him (Ch. 26). These are certainly Socialist ideas and not surprising from a man of poor background.
Covering a life of seventy two years the novel is partially a social history. As has been noted, the first two Parts document the narrow views of the 1950’s social system, but from Chapter 11 onwards the plot enters the society of the Counterculture (late 1960s / early 1970s). “Hippies” (Ch. 11 & following), the anti-war movement (Ch. 12), the psychedelic movement (Ch. 13 & following) and “swingers” (Ch. 21) are all mentioned, and indeed drugs are an important part of the novel. This ear of freedom, though, does not go completely without critical analysis. The swingers seem to be simply looking for an excuse to abandon their partner, rather than being really open minded. Drugs, for all their excitement, propel the user into a narrow world where responsibility is easily lost. Don, a minor character, for example takes drugs all day while his pregnant girlfriend works (Ch. 19).
Most fiction is about ‘real’ people and so psychology, which aims to find the truth about individuals, is an important tool for an author. While Wilson’s book is not specifically ‘psychological’, it does touch on many issues related to that field of study. Wil himself may suffer from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (Ch. 1), his brother Darwin is diagnosed as bipolar (Ch. 1 & Ch. 36) and after a bad accident at works Wil suffers from “panic attacks” (Ch. 3). Wil and his wife Evelyn attend marriage “divorce counselling” (Ch. 22), and Willy attends long after the divorce because he finds it so personally helpful. “Emptiness” (Ch. 19) as a motivation for drug taking is noted, as is the inevitable “downer” (Ch. 19) that they bring. These points could have been ‘fleshed-out’ more with a little study of the psychological literature. The novel is most ‘psychological’ in its observations of the influence of parents and peer groups on long term behaviour. Both Evelyn and Wil lack parents who can teach them how to communicate with a partner (Ch. 2 & following) and Willy even imitates his mother in her blaming attitude, though this is a quality he hates in her (Ch. 6). Wil listens to his peer delinquent group because he “wanted to be liked” (Ch. 2). The effect of both parents and peer group haunt him for the rest of his life and the book documents his attempts to escape this influence.
Wilson’s novel does not really use imagery; however, there is one scene where a pet “boa constrictor” (Ch. 17) eats two mice, who the men at Wil’s work have become very attached to. This story is aptly ghastly and serves as a good symbol for the whole book. The natural world is cruel and we are trapped in it, dancing around the aggressor, or looking dubiously at him, a little like mice. We can use our imagination to make the world better, but we will never really escape the snake.
Many stories, being what they are, have some mythic qualities and this includes Hypocrites In His Midst. In the first half of the novel Wil is almost possessed by his desire to earn for his family, and around the middle of the book this peaks in the task of building a family home. This is his proverbial ‘castle’ or ‘ivory tower’ in which his family will live safely and all will be well. Drawing on the cultural mythology of the Tarot we can see that the card of The Tower Of Destruction very much represents his predicament at this point. Describing this card Sallie Nichols says that two people “are being thrown from a position of lofty security into one of exposure and confusion” and that a “tongue of lightning has knocked off the golden crown that serves as [… the tower’s …] roof” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980, p. 283). Wil’s house is not literally destroyed, but a destructive crisis does occur and Wil is thrown into a state of personal confusion, which he must work through in Part IV. Later speaking of his mental attitude Wil says “I was already building an emotional brick wall to hide behind and protect myself” (Ch. 29). His desires for financial security, and later his attitudes, are a mental construct, a tower he has built for protection, and yet a tower that constricts him and causes as much harm as good. Nichols, noting that the title of the card in French “carries the meaning of hospice”, writes, “the two sick souls [ … ] are being liberated from an enforced incarceration rather than cast forth from their true home” (Nichols, p. 285). The tower depicted in the card has no door. Both Wil and Evelyn are indeed trapped in a marriage which was meant to solve a bad situation (a pregnancy), but which has brought mostly pain. Crowley notes of the card that it also carries the meaning of “the destruction of the old-established Aeon by lightning, flames, engines of war” (Aleister Crowley. The Book Of Thoth: Samuel Weiser, 1974, p. 107). The events surrounding the building of Wil’s house come in the context of the end of 1950’s values and the beginning of the era initiated by the Counterculture, and the personal meaning of this is certainly acrimony and conflict between Wil and Evelyn.
Throughout the novel Wil notices “my own foolishness” (Ch. 3 and following) and we see many examples of his jokey, uproarious behaviour at parties. Following from this it can be seen that the Tarot card of The Fool applies to the whole book. Nichols describes this character as a “wanderer, energetic [… and …] ubiquitous” (p. 23) and indeed this is Wil ‘to a tee’. He moves from place to place and job to job, is always rushing to some new project and is in many ways an ‘everyman’. Nichols notes that “the word ‘fool’ is derived from the Latin follis, meaning, ‘a pair of bellows, a windbag’” (Nichols, p. 28). Wil frequently notes that he cannot “keep [… his …] mouth shut” (Ch. 2 & following). Again Nichols notes that the fool’s approach to life includes “the innocence of childhood” (Nichols, p. 26), and as has been said Willy in many ways remains the schoolboy ‘tough’. Nichols notes that the Fool, possessing secret wisdom, was often advisor to the king, being free to “criticise him and offer challenging suggestions” (Nichols, p. 29). As has been noted Wil often hands out advice to the governments of his day. Writing further Nichols notes that the fool’s cap was “originally conceived as a satire on the monk’s cowl, [… but …] nevertheless betrays a serious connection with the spirit” (Nichols, p. 27), and, once again as we have seen, Wil is both critical of the Christian church but personally concerned with ethics and ‘spiritual’ concerns. In a summing up passage Nichols writes:
“… the Fool’s spontaneous approach to life combines wisdom, madness, and folly. When he mixes these ingredients in the right proportions the results are miraculous, but when the mixture curdles, everything ends in a sticky mess” (Nichols, p. 24).
This could be written about Wil. Much more could be said about the relevance of The Fool to Hypocrites In His Midst, but space does not permit.
Wil becomes interested in astrology and this is another source of cultural mythology that has relevance to the novel. Wil is “Aries” (Ch. 23) and examining this sign reveals much about the book. Aries begins at the equinox when “light and dark are perfectly balanced” (Nicholas Campion. Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Alhambra House, c2000, p. 21) and it is interesting to see that Wil is an unusual mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Many would call him a simple criminal, yet he has an ethic of his own. He is interested in very earthy, practical solutions to problems, like building a house, yet he has ‘spiritual’ interests. Aries is characterized by “unlimited power and individuality” (Campion, p. 21) and Wil, as has been noted is very dynamic and quite a character. Aries is ruled by Mars (Campion, p. 22), the god of war, and Wil is never afraid to fight and indeed finds himself regularly in a battle. Aries has “drive and ambition” (Campion, p. 23), and Wil, more than most things, wants to get ahead. Aries can fall into “extremes” (Campion, p. 23), and during his psychedelic phase Wil does just that. Aries needs to learn the lesson that “other people have feelings and that they may be hurt by our words or actions” (Campion, p. 22) and this is indeed one of the main elements in Wilson’s novel. Once again, much more could be said about the relevance of this mythological sign, but space does not permit.
At 630 pages Hypocrites In His Midst is not really a quick weekend read. It really needs several weekends to take in the full extent of Wil’s seventy two years of living. This book needs to be thought about at least a bit. The characters are likable, but not exactly “good” people. The themes of hypocrisy, ethics, success and personal maturation reflect the more individual natures of the characters, certainly giving us something to think about. The changing role of women is looked at, though some Feminists may raise their eyebrows. The changing gender role of men is described in detail, though we wonder if Wil has completely freed himself of the 1950s perspective. LGBTIQ, the aged and racial minorities receive representation and sympathetic treatment. There is an interesting blend of Capitalism and Socialism, though as a Liberal work the main emphasis is Capitalist. Mythology can reveal much about the novel, though it does not specifically use imagery. Wilson’s novel could be read and enjoyed simply as the story of a ‘tough’, but it is really quite a bit more than that. The exploration of Wil’s seventy two years takes us at least briefly to many different ideas and aspects of life. I am happy to rate this book as 4.5 stars out of 5.
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