Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Howie Balaban: Book Review -- Marley

Marley - Jon Clinch
Atria Books
304 Pages

Perhaps there is no bigger staple in modern Christmas celebrations than some mention – at the very least – of the timeless tale of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. That story begins with the line, “Marley was dead to begin with.” And readers are captivated by Marley’s ghost appearing to Scrooge late in Chapter One, which takes place on Christmas Eve. What follows is a tale that has become told, retold, and retold again and again, with varying degrees of success.

Marley, by Jon Clinch, is most definitely not A Christmas Carol. In some way, you could say it is the polar opposite of the very story it precedes. In this book, the titular character is arguably more underhanded, vile, and in a few cases even scarier than one could have possibly imagined if one ever wondered just exactly how Scrooge and Marley got to be the Scrooge and Marley we are introduced to in the Dickens story.

(Note, for the rest of this review, all characters except Ebenezer Scrooge will be referred to by their first name. This includes Jacob Marley, so as not to confuse the character with the book title.)
At some point throughout Marley, we meet every significant character from A Christmas Carol, save the spirits. Jacob’s story is the one that takes centerstage, with Scrooge playing more of a supporting role. Scrooge’s former flame, Belle, and his sister, Fan, play prominent parts in helping to create quite a world.

Whereas in the Dickens story we learn quickly that the firm of Scrooge and Marley is a fairly successful counting house, and that Scrooge himself is a man of wealth, we are taken back almost 50 years to the start of the partnership in the opening chapters of Marley. And perhaps it should be noted that Clinch managed to channel Dickens by creating great names for both places and characters. Dickens, for instance, authored a book titled, “Bleak House.” Thanks to Clinch, we now know that Jacob met his eventual business when both were students at Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys. The name itself is something any student would have to overcome.

Jacob is quickly portrayed as a cunning man with a sharp mind toward business and, in a more general sense, the way of things. Of course, this does not mean his methods are honest. Early on we are treated to a few different manners in which he can be a master of forgery in both penmanship and persona. As the story progresses, we begin to understand in ways both subtle and obvious just exactly what Dickens was talking about with the chains that were part of Jacob’s ghost. Each link was more or less a sin against humanity, and in Marley we learn just how many Jacob committed. In the first half of the book, readers who are fans of A Christmas Carol will most definitely pick up on the whole theme of “mankind” being Jacob’s business, as he screamed to Scrooge.

As more details are revealed about Jacob’s dealings, Clinch manages to treat the reader with some truly excellent names. Partnerships of Plummer & Snagsby, Barnacle & Sons, Bildad & Peleg, Krook & Flite, Squeers & Trotter, Nemo & Hawdon, and a handful of others all could seemingly have shown up in tales written by Dickens himself. As for the nature of these partnerships, to explain exactly what they are would be to spoil too much, but to say that even Andy Dufresne would be impressed is to give one a hint.

While we are most definitely consumed by learning about Jacob throughout this book, finding out more about how and why Scrooge became so miserly is another treat. Sure, the sign on their counting house door said Scrooge & Marley, but by the end of Marley there is nary a hint of a friendship between the two. Scrooge, for most of the story found on the pages of this book, is actually portrayed as a common, decent man, who like many of us, has recognizable flaws. He and Belle dream of a shared future together, but in many ways Marley illustrates that it is because of Jacob that Scrooge and Belle do not work out in the end.

Furthermore, Scrooge’s sister, Fan, and her ultimate demise are proven to also be the indirect work of Jacob, which just adds to the negative way Scrooge comes to view Jacob before his time comes.
And when Jacob’s time does come, we learn how and why it came when it did, why he has a white handkerchief on his head when he visits Scrooge, and perhaps most poignant, we learn that Jacob’s realization of what truly matters in life came far too late.

It is one of the main ideals hammered home in A Christmas Carol – peace on earth, good will toward man. Jacob’s visit to Scrooge in that story, followed by the three spirits, caused Scrooge to change his ways. However, if you read Marley, you’ll learn quickly that Scrooge did not necessarily change his ways. One could argue that he reverted to his old ways and enhanced all the best parts of them. He learned that all the wealth in the world cannot stop certain things from happening, and in the end, you can’t take it with you.

Jacob’s story in Marley has a similar end, but by the time that end comes, he has no time to change his ways. He has regrets. And while all the wealth he acquired from his business of mankind remains behind, those regrets follow him to his grave and he dies a broken, defeated man.

Seeing what Jon Clinch was able to do with Marley, and the story he was able to craft from one of my personal favorites, I now must seek out Finn. That book, also by Clinch, focuses on the father of Huck Finn, who is the title character in another of my favorite books. As soon as libraries reopen, it will be at the top of my list.

Howie Balaban likes to read and he appears to be in another groove.