cover image The Ballad of Peckham Rye

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Muriel Spark. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $11.95 (143pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1408-7

Touched with a Satanic glamour and a manner so disarming that grown men dissolve in tears at his slightest provocation, the Pied Piper of Spark's charming 1960 satire captivates the residents of Peckham, a small London suburb. Dougal Douglas is, like Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), a Scot. He comes to Peckham hoping to conduct ""research"" for an autobiography he's ghostwriting about an aging stage star, and succeeds in convincing the managers of two competing companies that he is researching worker productivity on their behalf. While he claims his investigation into the psychology of Peckham's hoi polloi will lead to lower rates of absenteeism, in fact Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal, or Mr. Dougal-Douglas, as he variously calls himself) frolics around suggesting to the typists and engineers he chats up that they take every Monday off. In Peckham there are ""classes within classes,"" and Spark's sharp portraits needle at the members of the ""upper-working"" and the ""lower-middle"" classes alike. There is prim Dixie, who practices an unattractive thrift with an eye toward furnishing her new bungalow when she gets married. Humphrey Place, Dixie's fianc , repeats union boilerplate with the conviction of an idiot. Miss Coverdale, the head of the typing pool, maintains her grim affair with her married employer because he gives her an allowance to keep up her flat. Douglas comes to have a great deal of influence in the town and his strange ways and antics earn him friends and foes in equal numbers. The drama of the novel--which most properly lies in the brilliant accuracy of Spark's spoofing--reaches its peak when Douglas is blackmailed by Dixie's 13-year-old stepbrother and the rumors of Douglas's identity (is he a spy? a police informant? the Devil himself?) lead to murderous hysteria. Witty and quite perfect in its construction, this light and mock-folkloric novel is the work of an inspired satirist. (May)