“I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 1955, when Lloyd Alexander published his first book, he didn’t seem poised to become a children’s writer. The back-cover blurb for And Let the Credit Go emphasizes his studies at the Sorbonne, notes his published translations of Éluard, Sartre, and other French writers, and mentions his gigs as a piano player and cartoonist. Drawing its title from Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, this brief memoir makes a promise on its dust-flap that even a skilled fantasist might struggle to fulfill: to explore “one of the most hilarious and heartbreaking of worlds: banking.”

And Let the Credit Go is neither hilarious nor heartbreaking, but it may interest Alexander fans who want to know more about the author’s teenage years. Forced by his practical father to get a job (“And some day you might even be head of a department”), Alexander doesn’t fondly recall his pre-college, pre-war stint as a Philadelphia bank messenger, but he does sketch memorable characters: misers in moth-bitten afghans wheeled into the lobby to make deposits; a trigger-happy security guard (“I don’t think he was fundamentally interested in banking”); an investment counselor who kills himself in the safe-deposit vault.

In time, Alexander midwifes the epistolary courtship between a personnel manager and a legal secretary, and he watches, bemused, as a deluded clerk proclaims his Nazi sympathies in song. There’s a French chef here, too, who’s too busy writing reports for bank management to do any cooking, and a frustrated accountant who blackmails his boss while devising a mathematical system for betting on horses, all because he dreams of buying a case of champagne.

Later, Alexander observes the pathetic love between two strange analysts who discover mutual interests in “vital fluids and magnetism, the strange forces of nature; and of course, the ten lost tribes.” If anything, And Let the Credit Go paints an eccentric picture of banking culture in 1939. “Belief in the occult was not uncommon in The Bank,” Alexander explains, in one of this book’s few real insights into banking. “I knew half a dozen clerks who consoled themselves with astrology; or some other mystical system which allowed them more authority in another world than they had in the present one.”

Some elements of 1939 office culture are drearily familiar: a joyless party (rented phonograph, potted plants, ham-and-cheese sandwiches); a wedding shower for a secretary nobody likes; a Secret Santa game (here called “Polly-Anna”); and subdued Yuletide murmurs in upstairs cubicles, “many furtive celebrations, rather like those of the Christians in the catacombs.” But then Alexander invites us to sample the strange, lost custom of “Milk Time”:

Most of The Bank’s employees were very young or very old, and to sustain them throughout the day The Bank supplied two free glasses of milk, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The milk was consumed in the company restaurant on the fifth floor. Waitresses brought the milk, unskimmed, warm and delicious and the clerks crowded around the trays. Monsieur Piquet, a genuine French chef in charge of the restaurant, watched to see that no one took more than one glass.

And Let the Credit Go is a gentle book by a famously gentle soul, but it does offer one real surprise for lifelong readers of Alexander: Unlike his books for children, this one is not entirely chaste.

When Alexander visits Atlantic City with his buddies, he puts on a British accent and tells girls he’s a banker, an misadventure that leads him to a brothel, where he implies the obvious through detail, elision, and self-deprecation:

Sandra was sitting on the edge of an unmade bed. She was completely unclothed. Somehow I hadn’t expected that.

“Hello, honey,” she said.

“Hello,” I said.

The light from the parlor shone through the curtain and gave it a grainy look. The curtain did not quite reach the floor and in the gap I could see the maid’s shoes and heavy ankles. I thought of my aunt’s lodger sitting out there.

From that point, I knew everything was impossible.

Later, in a chapter called “Dorothea,” Alexander dates a girl messenger who has been abandoned by her father, manipulated by her mother, and educated into droll boredom. When he lands in her boudoir, he faces a challenge worthy of a hero of Prydain:

“Would you marry me?” she asked again. “Or would you rather go to school. You don’t have to marry me, you know.”

I walked over to the piano and tapped the keys with one finger. Had she been sober and asked me that question, asked me to go to Algeria, insult Mr. Flathers or do any number of other insane things, I would have done it.

Dorothea giggled. I turned around.

She had taken off her white blouse and was trying to unhook her little brassiere. She gave me a silly grin.

“I can’t make it,” she said.

The brassiere ripped and fell. Dorothea started to laugh again. She was very pale and slight.

“Is there anything wrong with me?” she asked.

I looked at her green eyes, her thin shoulders and tiny breasts and I knew that whatever I did would be wrong.

“Dorothea,” which appeared in an anthology a year before the book was published, is by far the best story here. I wonder if Alexander and his agent used its strength to sell the publisher on the lengthier recollections of a bank messenger—and if so, what they thought of the strange book they received.

Alexander’s humane nature is evident throughout. When his friend falls in love with a girl at the beach, he says only that she “was pretty in the way girls are pretty at the seashore.” When he creeps into the mansion of the blind, ancient bank chairman, he lets the old man’s utterances—”They feed on me” and “I wish I was dead”—speak for themselves. There are short stories to be written here, not chapters that veer drearily back to banking, so And Let the Credit Go is a hodgepodge. The bank never becomes a microcosm, an allegory, or a source of moral and ethical insight; it’s as if Alexander dislikes the place too much to give it greater meaning.

Readers who want to see the adult(ish) side of Lloyd Alexander or catch a highly censored view of 1939 bank culture as glimpsed from its bottom rung may be intrigued by this book, but I’m glad Alexander moved on and allowed other places, and other experiences, to shape his writing. “Working in a bank,” he concedes, “does not encourage generosity.”

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