THE RULES OF THE GAME by Georges Simenon
Nobody writes a better review than Deb
(Review by Deb)
If you handed this book to someone without telling them it was written by Georges Simenon, I think they would guess it was written by John O'Hara or John Marquand or one of the other mid-century American writers who focused on the interior lives of middle-class men reaching roadblocks in their attempts to navigate the social structures of their suburban worlds. Certainly, a reader would not guess that this book was written by the creator of that quintessential Frenchman, Inspector Maigret.
Published in 1955 and written during a period when Simenon lived (and wrote several books set) in America, THE RULES OF THE GAME concerns a few pivotal days in the life of Walter Higgins, the manager of a large grocery store in Williamson, a prosperous Connecticut suburb. For the second year in a row, Walter has applied to join the local country club. The previous year, he was black-balled; this year, assures the friend who sponsors him, he is a shoo-in for membership. To Walter, membership in the country club means he has arrived, that he is part of the group that runs things in Williamson, that his Little League coaching, regular church attendance, membership in the Rotary Club and VFW (he served in WWII), and volunteer work with the school board has been noticed and rewarded. It also means he can let go of the memories of his difficult childhood in the rough, working-class town of Old Bridge.
But again Walter is black-balled and this time his life comes tumbling down with the imploding of his expectations. Despite the support of his wife and perceptive oldest daughter, Walter cannot adjust to the notion that people who control the admissions process do not think he is "worthy" of country club membership. The scales have fallen from his eyes and at last he sees the social strata of Williamson and his place in it. He realizes that everyone plays a game in this social interaction, but that he has failed to understand the rules (or even be aware that a game is being played).
This new awareness leads Walter to a brave act: Supporting a proposal to raise local property taxes in order to build a new school that will accommodate the town's growing population. There are some remarkably timely exchanges at the school board meeting (or perhaps it's just a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same") where the town's wealthiest citizens (and their proxies) complain that the increase in taxes will hurt them the most, even though they have recently been willing to pay much more to erect a new building at the country club; while people on the other side of the issue claim that the new schools are necessary to produce the sort of educated workforce needed by the wealthy to run their factories and other enterprises.
Worried that his support of a tax increase will cause upper-class customers to stop patronizing his supermarket, Walter spends a morning at work in a state of near paranoia, fretting over every person who does (and does not) come in to shop. Then a phone call summoning him back to Old Bridge leads Walter to confront his past and experience a "dark night of the soul." The ending is, paradoxically, both happier and more cynical than we would expect from an American writer covering the same material. We have a sense that Walter will now be better able to function in the society he has chosen, but we do not know what the price of playing the game will be for him and his family.