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Frank Norris
by [?]

A new and a great book has been written. The name of it is “McTeague, a Story of San Francisco,” and the man who wrote it is Mr. Frank Norris. The great presses of the country go on year after year grinding out commonplace books, just as each generation goes on busily reproducing its own mediocrity. When in this enormous output of ink and paper, these thousands of volumes that are yearly rushed upon the shelves of the book stores, one appears which contains both power and promise, the reader may be pardoned some enthusiasm. Excellence always surprises: we are never quite prepared for it. In the case of “McTeague, a Story of San Francisco,” it is even more surprising than usual. In the first place the title is not alluring, and not until you have read the book, can you know that there is an admirable consistency in the stiff, uncompromising commonplaceness of that title. In the second place the name of the author is as yet comparatively unfamiliar, and finally the book is dedicated to a member of the Harvard faculty, suggesting that whether it be a story of San Francisco or Dawson City, it must necessarily be vaporous, introspective and chiefly concerned with “literary” impressions. Mr. Norris is, indeed, a “Harvard man,” but that he is a good many other kinds of a man is self-evident. His book is, in the language of Mr. Norman Hapgood, the work of “a large human being, with a firm stomach, who knows and loves the people.”

In a novel of such high merit as this, the subject matter is the least important consideration. Every newspaper contains the essential material for another “Comedie Humaine.” In this case “McTeague,” the central figure, happens to be a dentist practicing in a little side street of San Francisco. The novel opens with this description of him:

“It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day,
McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car
conductor’s coffee joint on Polk street. He had a thick,
gray soup, heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate;
two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of
strong butter and sugar. Once in his office, or, as he
called it on his sign-board, ‘Dental Parlors,’ he took off
his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed
his little stove with coke, he lay back in his operating
chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking steam
beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food
digested; crop-full, stupid and warm.”

McTeague had grown up in a mining camp in the mountains. He remembered the years he had spent there trundling heavy cars of ore in and out of the tunnel under the direction of his father. For thirteen days out of each fortnight his father was a steady, hard-working shift-boss of the mine. Every other Sunday he became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazed with alcohol. His mother cooked for the miners. Her one ambition was that her son should enter a profession. He was apprenticed to a traveling quack dentist and after a fashion, learned the business.

“Then one day at San Francisco had come the news of his
mother’s death; she had left him some money–not much, but
enough to set him up in business; so he had cut loose from
the charlatan and had opened his ‘Dental Parlors’ on Polk
street, an ‘accommodation street’ of small shops in the
residence quarter of the town. Here he had slowly collected
a clientele of butcher boys, shop girls, drug clerks and car
conductors. He made but few acquaintances. Polk street
called him the ‘doctor’ and spoke of his enormous strength.
For McTeague was a young giant, carrying his huge shock of
blonde hair six feet three inches from the ground; moving
his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscle, slowly,
ponderously. His hands were enormous, red, and covered with
a fell of stiff yellow hair; they were as hard as wooden
mallets, strong as vices, the hands of the old-time car boy.
Often he dispensed with forceps and extracted a refractory
tooth with his thumb and finger. His head was square-cut,
angular; the jaw salient: like that of the carnivora.