This 1899 novel can be described best as a saga of greed and murder. McTeague is a large, slow-witted man who has escaped a mine worker’s life by learning dentistry from a traveling charlatan. Setting up his practice in San Francisco, he goes quietly about his business until a drinking companion named Marcus introduces him to his cousin Trina. Following courtship and a promising marriage, human foibles bring destruction upon all three.
The title character is something of an automaton, emotionally inexperienced until love plunges him into confusion. One could almost describe him as a big baby or, in modern terms, a computer waiting to be programmed.
Though the author leaves a few unanswered questions, he does a masterful job of sketching life in old San Francisco and its environs. His characters are well developed, particularly two shy old people who live in adjoining flats and carry on an unspoken but poignant courtship between the walls. They contrast sharply with others whose obsessions lead to their downfall.
I ran across McTeague in a list of recommended novels. Unfamiliar with Frank Norris, I did a bit of research and discovered him to be a Chicago native, educated at Berkeley and employed as a San Francisco newspaperman, among other things. He died in 1902 at age thirty-two, three years after McTeague was published. He left behind a legacy of other novels, short stories, articles, and a reputation for antisemitism that appears in this story.
Despite some minor shortcomings, the novel is entertaining and filled with colorful discourse and detail. Readers who enjoy interesting characters will find it worthwhile.