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Paul Schapiro

Workers’ Bookshelf

Knock on Any Door

(5 January 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. XII No. 1, 5 January 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Knock on Any Door
by Willard Motley
D. Appleton-Century Company, 1947, 504 pp., $3.00.

When Nick Romano, the hero of Willard Motley’s remarkable first novel, was a child, he saw a crowd watching a cat playing with a mouse, allowing it to escape for a moment and then slapping it back to its corner. Filled with pity, he picked up the mouse and took it away safe in his pocket.

For the reader that scene acquires greater significance as the novel progresses. For it illustrates the humane impulses in Nick which his environment forces him to repress. Moreover, the reader soon sees that Nick himself is the victim of a cat-and-mouse game which capitalist society is playing with him.

An altar-boy at the age of twelve whose parents thought that he was destined to priesthood, Nick’s whole life changes when his father loses his little business during the depression. A sensitive, gentle child, he is suddenly deprived of security and affection when his family moves to a strange, tough neighborhood in the slums and his parents become absorbed in their struggle for a livelihood.

At school, the teachers, soured by their daily struggle to maintain order over unruly pupils in crowded classrooms, are vindictive and disagreeable. The understanding and sympathy which his stern, embittered father, his nagging, querulous mother and his spiteful teachers fail to give him, however, he finds in the companionship of Tony, the leader of the kids, from whom he learns to play hookey and to steal. The gang is now Nick’s home and school. He becomes successively a petty thief, mugger and hold-up nan until, at the age of twenty-one, he meets his pre-determined end at the electric chair.

On at least two occasions Nick tries to break away from the path along which he is being impelled. Each time, however, he is thrust back by forces beyond him.

Nick’s first attempt to alter the pattern of his existence is his resolution, after he is almost caught, to give up thieving. However, a stolen bicycle which he is keeping for Tony is found in his yard, and Nick, without informing on his friend, goes to reform school for a theft which he did not commit. The brutality of the reform-school authorities hardens him and makes him resolve not to submit to the law.

He leaves reform school, begins to frequent the pool halls and dives of West Madison Street in Chicago and thoroughly absorbs this way of life. At this time he meets and falls in love with Emma, a beautiful, sensitive girl who all her life has retreated from the squalor and poverty around her into a romantic dreamworld. This might be the chance for both of them to escape from the destruction which lies ahead of them, but it is too late for their marriage to be successful, and their destruction, instead of being averted, is accelerated. Nick has West Madison Street too much in his blood to get away from it. He is unable to work steadily at a job. Unwilling to be supported by Emma, he goes back to crime. In no way can he fulfill the duties of a husband. He, who since the age of sixteen had only known cheap prostitutes, is impotent with his wife. Emma, in despair at finding her dream, which she had thought realized in Nick, shattered, commits suicide.

Emma’s suicide drives Nick to desperation. His motto had always been “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” Now an inner restlessness causes him to recklessly court death, The inevitable which he invites happens. In a gun-battle he kills a vicious and sadistic cop, the terror of West Madison Street, who has always been for Nick, without Nick’s quite realizing it, the incarnation of the repressive forces of a society which has victimized him from an early age.

Nick’s capture, trial and execution furnish a terrific climax to the novel. Up to this point we have been watching in fascination how Nick’s character is being molded and his life is being shaped by his environment.

At the climatic finish, however, when Nick is caught like a cornered rat and his life becomes the prize of a tense legal game between the opposing attorneys, he becomes more than an object of psychological interest for us. We identify ourselves with him, as the twelve-year-old Nick Romano had identified himself with the mouse which adults were watching with detached curiosity till he could stand its torments no longer. We share the fright which inwardly grips him as he tries to maintain his tough-guy exterior. We accompany him to the electric chair in what is perhaps one of the great death scenes in literature and, when the current jolts through his body, it seems as if a part of us has died with him.

Nick went out of life, blindly defying the society which claimed that he was paying his debt to it by his death, but which never acknowledged a debt to him for what it had deprived him of all his life. This society, which executed Nick for a crime of murder, itself daily commits murder by condemning millions of human beings to half-lives robbing them of the full existence which their realized potentialities could give them. “Knock on any door down this street in this alley” of the city, says Motley, and you will find those whose personalities have been twisted, like Nick’s, or stifled or crushed, like his mother’s and his wife’s – and “the city is the world in microcosm.”

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