I am glad I read The Good Earth because that novel sparked an interest in reading more works by Pearl S. Buck. God’s Men is the third Buck title I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a lengthy story, which I always like to absorb myself into, told over 391 pages set in a minuscule font. Paperback reprints from the 1960’s and 70’s tend to be reset into the smallest possible fonts. I have read many a 35¢ paperback with the smallest print and thinnest pages imaginable. This makes the book economical to produce and thus cheap to purchase, yet it can be murder on my middle-aged eyes.
God’s Men tells the story of one young man, William, and a boy, Clem, who are both from missionary families in China. The two meet while on the streets of Peking, where William breaks up a fight involving Clem and a young Chinese boy. William is from a rich family while Clem (the name is unfortunately country-hick stereotypical) is from a family which survives solely on begging which they delude themselves into believing as living on faith alone. While in China they each develop a passionate ambition which preoccupies their lives. Over the course of their lives their paths intersect as they crisscross the globe fulfilling their lifelong quests.
William becomes a newspaper magnate who has complete control over the content in his papers. He oversees every story and photo published and in so doing wants to dominate the market, and later the English-speaking world, with only his opinions. He is like a Big Brother figure of news media. As radio develops at the turn of the last century, William wants to dominate that media outlet as well. To illustrate his megalomania, when William argues with an editor over the changing state of affairs in China, the editor tells him that the country is no longer the way William remembers it in his youth. William instructs him to find stories that suit his version of the truth. In other words, if you don’t like the news you see, then go out and find the news you want to print instead.
Clem on the other hand believes that no one in the world should have to starve and with food surpluses rotting in storage facilities, an international network should be set up to redistribute food to the needy. He takes on this superhuman ambition all by himself, and ignores the state of his own health, which suffers as he fixes his eyes on his single focus.
William and Clem return to the United States where they marry and set their ideas in motion. William’s Hearst-like ambition is more believable than Clem’s, who has Gandhi-like qualities. Clem quotes from Malthusianism yet seems naïve in the ways of the world to know which way is up. Clem and his chemist wife Henrietta work ceaselessly towards developing a food substitute in addition to coordinating an international network of food distribution and a monitoring of the state of worldwide crops, surpluses and storage facilities. Clem and William both are portrayed as Supermen, but I don’t believe that one can be superhuman without having a brain between your ears like Clem.
Within God’s Men Buck has written a story which also traces Chinese history from the end of the 1800’s to the formation of the People’s Republic. Although both William and Clem live their adult lives in the United States, they both return to China to visit friends and relatives. Clem, more than William, seems to have China in his blood and he reminisces fondly over his childhood and the delicacies of his country of birth. I can plunge totally absorbed in Buck’s narrative and while I was recently on holiday I often lost myself for hours reading this story. One of the many reasons I enjoyed “…And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer is that it was a long story that takes place over many generations. Such is the case with God’s Men, as we learn about the lives of William’s sons (Clem remains childless).
Buck wrote about China so well because she lived there. Her observations were genuine and specific by experience; there are no descriptions that seem overwrought or clichéd. Buck however overdoes it in the references to “shadows”. Henrietta, Clem’s unattractive wife with a massive inferiority complex, is always compared to a shadow or a shadowy presence. It became a recurring joke as I read, yet again, how shadowy Henrietta sank back into a corner into her own pathetic delusions of unworthiness.
This edition of God’s Men was published by Pocket Books, the same publisher of the last Buck novel I read, The Angry Wife. For some mysterious reason, the cover art on both editions bears only passing relevance to the storyline. Sure, the two men on the cover of God’s Men could be William and Clem. William could be the man standing alone holding a newspaper, while Clem could be crouching feeding two hungry children (who wouldn’t be his own since he was childless). Yet the attractive woman standing over him couldn’t be his ugly brunette wife Henrietta, and starving children wouldn’t be dressed and groomed so neatly. The fashions, especially Clem’s pterodactyl-wing collar, are right out of the 1970’s, when this paperback edition was produced.