My Son Is A Splendid Driver: William Inge on the Church and Alcoholics Anonymous

William Inge was an American playwright who wrote successful plays (and movies), such as Picnic, […]

Mockingbird / 6.8.11

William Inge was an American playwright who wrote successful plays (and movies), such as Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Splendor in the Grass. He was influenced by the Christianity of his childhood, and kept hoping it would ‘work’ for him. It didn’t quite, but he understood what the Church ought to be saying and what it wasn’t saying.

His late novel My Son Is a Splendid Driver (1971) tells the story of a most respectable 62-year old woman who has, to her complete consternation, caught a sexually transmitted disease from her husband. It is small-town Kansas during the Great Depression:

“Every morning on the front porch we would see Mrs. Holt leave her house and start for the Catholic church, on her way to mass.

‘She doesn’t miss a day,’ Mother observed. There was a dedication about the woman that always gave us pause. ‘I wish I had a God to pray to now,’ Mother sometimes said, ‘but I don’t seem able to find Him.’

Mother had stopped going to church. ‘Church isn’t the place to go with your troubles. Church is just a place to go when you’re feeling good and have a new hat to wear.’ There was a little bitterness in what she said, a little self-pity, but there was also truth. Our minister would have been the last person in the world she could have talked to, to have lifted the curse she felt upon her and save her from feeling damned. She would have embarrassed the man into speechlessness had she gone to him with her story. He would have been unable to look at her or my father without coloring.

Most of our morality, I was beginning to think, was based on a refusal to recognize sin. Our entire religious heritage, it seemed to me, was one of refusal to deal with it.” (pp. 152-153)

In Chapter 15, Inge’s character in the book, Joey, who is really himself, meets an old friend while browsing in a bookshop in Kansas City. She tells him she has become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here is an excerpt from the account she gives of herself, together with Inge’s response (William Inge became a member of A.A. in 1948):

“After a moment, she said, ‘You know something, Joey? We never learn what life is all about until we fail.’

I asked her to explain.

‘Well, it’s as though I had wanted all the time to become an actress just to have my own way about something, and I really don’t know what the something was. But I was ambitious in the wrong way. It’s almost as though I wanted to be a brilliant success in the theater in order to have vengeance on someone… I don’t know who. Maybe the world. So I missed. I know I had talent, but I was using it in the wrong way. It was I who messed up my chances. I alone. I had to give up my conception of what my life was going to be, do you see? My will had to be overcome. I had to learn that there’s a stronger will that works behind the entire universe that sometimes stops us in our headstrong way and says No. And then you have to surrender to a real life, Joey. The life that’s really yours…. Understand what I mean? Or am I being too metaphysical, or something?’

‘I think I understand something of what you mean, Betsy. I think I do.’ After lunch, we parted. All the rest of the day, I thought of Betsy, feeling somehow I had witnessed one of Christ’s miracles.” (213-214)