It's understandable that the tag line for a rediscovered classic, printed on the cover of this new edition of Betty Smith's second novel, "Tomorrow Will Be Better," should stir up skepticism. There's usually a reason the forgotten work of a prominent author has been forgotten. Need I do more than mention Philip Roth's 1972 "Kafka-esque" novel, "The Breast," in which the male protagonist becomes transformed into a giant mammary gland?
The indisputable classic for which Smith is revered, of course, is "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," her 1943 semi-autobiographical novel about young Francie Nolan growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early years of the 20th century. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to call ourselves native New Yorkers, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is our very own outer-bororough epic.
Generations of readers — whatever their origins — have rightly regarded the novel as a paean to working-class grit and the vitality of the city. Perhaps the greatest testament to the novel's reach is the fact that during World War II, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was one of the most requested of the Armed Services Editions — specially printed books that were distributed to American servicemen and POWs.
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was Smith's debut; she wrote three more novels that evaporated into the ether. But "Tomorrow Will Be Better," which was published in 1948, turns out to be one of those rare cases of a forgotten novel that really does deserve to be recovered. The very things that made it an awkward follow-up to its revered predecessor — its cynicism about the American dream; its innate feminism; its depiction of sexual dissatisfaction in marriage — make it a more intriguing novel now.
As a novelist, Smith, who died in 1972, was never a sentimentalist. Alcoholism, overwork, poverty and the dangers of the street (including sexual assault and death) are part of the everyday facts of life in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." But that novel highlights Francie's youthful resilience and ends with a vision of her limited world opening up to college and beyond.
"Tomorrow Will Be Better," as its title suggests, also dangles the possibility of wider opportunities for its characters, particularly its go-getter heroine, Margy Shannon. By the end of this novel, however, Margy — unlike the much younger Francie — has been around the block a few too many times and she knows that odds are good she may well be stuck where she started.
When the story begins, 17-year-old Margy is walking around by herself on a cold Saturday night in 1920s Brooklyn because she doesn't want to go back to the dreary apartment she shares with her unhappy parents. With two years of high school behind her, Margy has started a job at a mail-order catalog, answering complaint letters. Each day she sets out to work near the Brooklyn docks and so she's earned the independence to wander on her own. Margy is hoping that a boy she knew from school, Frankie Malone, might happen to step out of his tenement. Eventually he does; but, after quickly greeting her with a, "What do you say, Marge?" Frankie hustles away to the corner candy store. Margy thinks to herself that: "Frankie wasn't much … but he was better than nobody. He would have served until a real boyfriend came along." Alas, that "real boyfriend" never materializes and, eventually, Margy and Frankie settle for each other.
Among Smith's many gifts was her ability to deliver clear-eyed chronicles of marriages under the stress of poverty. In this ahead-of-its-time novel, that familiar stressor is augmented by sexual incompatibility: In a halting confrontation scene near the end, Margy comes to understand that Frankie is "mixed up about certain things." Given that there's barely any language available in the 1920s (or, indeed, in the 1940s when Smith was writing the novel) for these deeply conventional working-class characters to discuss such matters makes "Tomorrow Will Be Better" a singular literary depiction of sexual sadness.
The life that's lacking in the Malones' marriage, though, is to be found on the Brooklyn sidewalks and in Margy's workplace. "Tomorrow Will Be Better" is a wonderful depiction of everyday life in '20s New York City beyond the familiar images of flappers and speakeasies. Just as the Ashcan School of artists captured the beauty of the metropolitan mundane in their brush strokes, Smith does so in her inexhaustible descriptions of what urban activist Jane Jacobs immortally called "the ballet of the streets": kids playing a game of "Stachers!" on the pavement; neighbors across the alley yelling at Margy's arguing parents: "Shut your windows or shut your traps!"
And, in the catalog house where Margy works before her marriage, there's this vibrant scene at quitting time: "the small washroom was filled with girls … [who] stood before the mirrors, powdering, outlining their lips in moist, gleaming reds, and running ten-cent combs through their hair. … They watched the flash of their teeth when they smiled; rolled their eyes so's not to lose sight of themselves as they turned their heads sideways."
The collective energy of the city in these and so many other scenes pushes back against the individual disappointments and even tragedies that Smith's characters endure. So, is "Tomorrow Will Be Better" indeed a "rediscovered classic?" In the Brooklynese of Smith's characters, I'd say "Nyah." Classics are the product of slow time and circumstance. "Tomorrow Will Be Better" is something every bit as good: a rediscovered treasure.
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for the NPR program Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Tomorrow Will Be Better
By: Betty Smith.
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 306 pages, $16.99.