Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Home at Last!



It’s been a whirlwind past month.  This is a place card -- an idiosyncratic summary -- to be elaborated on in the future, when I finally download the majority of my photographs.  The tale of people and sights seen are best told by them.

Ann and I just returned from an overseas trip, a long overdue stay in one of our favorite cities, London, for a full week and then our fifth (and probably last) transatlantic crossing on a cruise ship, with numerous stops along the way.

Towards the end of last month, we packed for two distinct trips, belongings we needed to return to Florida, and two large suitcases plus carry-ons for our flight to London and our nearly three week cruise across the Atlantic.  The former was left on the boat for our son, Jonathan, to deliver to us with our car upon our arrival at the Brooklyn Cruise Pier on Sept 22, and then we’d immediately begin our drive back home in Florida.  That was the plan.

We left JFK on Aug 28, an AA flight around 6.00 pm which was constantly delayed because they couldn’t cool the plane down (it was as hot that day in the Northeast as most of the summer – why leave Florida anymore?).  What was the hang-up cooling the plane?  Images of a number of nubile Amazonians with large peacock feather fans danced in our heads.  Finally they allowed us to board, a full 777, and still the temperature was at least 90 degrees inside the plane.  After taking off, the air conditioning kicked in, and as if they had no control over it, it just got colder and colder.  Ann took my blanket as well as her own, leaving me in a thin windbreaker. Brrrr!

But we made it unscathed and practically on time and emerged at Heathrow to be met by a driver thoughtfully provided by Michael Geelan who runs Eurospan, the company that sold and distributed our books in Europe for nearly 40 years.  We were deeply grateful, particularly anticipating that Monday morning traffic into London would be challenging.  But it was a bank holiday, and we breezed in to begin our week in London.

The objectives in London were to see old friends, theatre, and museums, not to mention sampling some of London’s fine restaurants.  I was also looking forward to getting around on the underground.  Having grown up in New York City, I know a thing or two about traveling subways, but London’s underground is incomparable: it’s clean, well organized, orderly (just cue up, no cutting in), and London’s Visitor Oyster card makes it a pleasure.  That’s how we travelled around London most of the time, although we also engaged a few Uber cars and traditional London cabs as well.

Theatre is always special there.  We were able to see In The Heights, an early very successful musical experimentation by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the immigrant experience, his precursor to Hamilton
with moving pastiches reminiscent of West Side Story and Sondheimian lyrics.  We had seats on the stage, the theatre being set in traverse with seating banks on either side.  Like Hamilton, the production is intoxicating high energy.

The following night we saw The Go Between.  This is a memory musical, a vehicle for Michael Crawford, beloved British star of the musical theatre.  But when we arrived, the theatre was abuzz – and refunds were being offered, or exchange tickets, as Crawford could not perform and his understudy Julian Forsyth was filling in.  Ironically this was the second time we had tickets to see a Michael Crawford musical in London when he couldn’t sing.  The first time some 25 or more years ago he stepped out onto the stage for a performance of Barnum, and announced he had bad news and good news.  He said he had laryngitis and therefore could not sing, but, happily, his understudy would sing off stage and he would perform, Crawford mouthing the songs in sync, which he did successfully.  His voice was never a strong one, so this worked well and his understudy in The Go Between had a very fine voice and was an excellent actor and therefore I felt sorry for those who turned in their tickets.  This is a haunting, albeit dark musical, strangely (to me) a little reminiscent of A Little Night Music (Sondheim again!)  Doubtful it would ever come to Broadway, but well worth seeing. 

Another night we saw The Truth by Florian Zeller.  This is very much in the style of Alan Ayckbourn in its conceit, a hoot with verity. One of the leads was played by a very sultry Frances O’Conner who also played Mrs. Selfridge in the British TV drama, Mr. Selfridge.  With a little tweaking for a US audience, The Truth could be successfully brought here.

The following day we spent the late morning and afternoon at the Victoria and Albert Museum being enthralled as ever by the massive collections and wonderful art as well as enjoying a typical English Scones and Tea break.  Some of my photos will tell that tale better than narrating it here. 

That night we had tickets (which I booked well before leaving) to see The Entertainer produced by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, starring none other than Kenneth Branagh, who plays the iconic, self-loathing, Archie Rice, a Brit comedian, singer, dancer, raconteur in the dying tradition of the old Music Hall, a metaphor for the post imperial British Empire. Among the other actors were John Hurt who had been absent from the London stage for a decade playing the legendary patriarch Billy Rice and Sophie McShera as Jean Rice – McShera played Daisy in our all time favorite Downton Abbey.  This is a powerful almost absurdist drama by John Osborne, well known for Look Back in Anger.  

I was intrigued by this play and its premise, my only problem being the very difficult British accents, so difficult for an American that I found myself trying to piece together what was being said.  Consequently, I bought the play on my way out of the theatre and read it.  Now I understand and can say unequivocally that this is great theatre.  Would love to see it produced here with a more moderate accent and a guide to British Popular culture.

Friday night was special.  Probably the main reason we were visiting London.  More important than theatre are the friends we’ve made over our lifetimes.  The Geelans and the Mahers are two families in the UK who are connected to us by Michael Geelan and Danny Maher being principals in Eurospan, Michael still running the operation.  Friday night Michael had booked a restaurant for all of us to meet up, with a stop first at 3 Henrietta Street in Covent Garden, their office and my second overseas home for decades.  It was moving and memorable and I’m glad I took a photo of the group with my iPhone so I can include it here (missing is Mhara, Michael’s daughter, who took the photo and Danny’s wife Pat who was just recovering from surgery).

Saturday we decided to go to Oxford Street, visit one of Ann’s long time favorite stores for nighties, Marks and Spencer, and walk through Selfridges, the latter being very impressive: Harry would be proud.  That Saturday night we had tickets for the BIG theatre event, one very much anticipated by us both, the Open Air Theatre’s production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the famous Regent’s Park.  This is outdoors and preceded by dinner on the grounds at candlelight.  The web site made it so inviting.
The one big variable for an outdoor dinner and show in London is weather of course.  Well after a week of downright hot weather in London, and sunny each day, the forecast for that evening was threatening – a chilly drizzle and wind.  After emerging from the underground, thinking the theatre was right nearby, we couldn’t find the Regents Park entrance for the theatre and there was no indication where that might be.  Well a few English ladies emerged from the underground and one had been to the theatre so we followed them.  It began to rain and we walked and walked.  Miles!!! We finally arrived and the rain abated (they do not cancel shows in advance no matter what the weather). 

We had our dinner with the occasional pitter patter of rain on the tin roof covering our table.  Ann had multiple layers and a genuine raincoat on.  I had my windbreaker and a light jacket, nothing to cover my legs so I bought a thin plastic poncho just in case.  The performance began in light mist and about midway it began to rain.  Hard.  The stage manager finally emerged with the news that they were taking a break to see whether the rain would stop.  What a disappointment.  While most locals were content to hang around in the bar, waiting, we looked at each other, happy that we at least saw a portion of the play, all the principals, and of course we knew where the story was going, so we left and got an Uber back to the hotel without having to fight crowds.  As it was, Uber was doing surge pricing because of the rain.  Thus our fifth and final theatre performance ended with a whimper.

Sunday was a big day.  Normally, we would be going to Danny and Pat’s for a typical English afternoon dinner, but Pat had just had an operation and Danny as well for a very severe torn rotator cuff and thus their daughters Lisa and Claire were preparing the meal at Lisa’s home.  In spite of their surgeries, both Pat and Danny looked well.  Danny thoughtfully provided the transportation to and from our hotel via a driver as Lisa lives half way to Oxford.  It was remarkable to see Lisa, meet her husband (Matt) and see their two adorable sons, (Daniel and Harry) and Claire, the “girls” now all grown up, quite a contrast to our being with them in 1979, pictured here,

and another in 1982 when we brought Lisa and Claire some of the first Cabbage Patch Dolls which were the rage at the time (and they still have them!).
 

Here’s Claire and Lisa with yours truly at the reunion dinner a few weeks ago. 

Just a wonderful afternoon with good friends, we think of them as family, and then the return to our hotel to pack for the next day pick up by a driver again thoughtfully provided by Michael, for our journey to Southampton to catch our ship.

So we began a trip of some 5,700 statute miles to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Bergen and Flam in Norway, a scheduled stop in the Shetland Islands, Lerwick (which we were unable to visit because of rough seas, a great disappointment), and then three stops in Iceland ( one of our favorite destinations), Akureyri, Isafjordur, and finally Reykjavik.  The leg from Akureyri to Isafjordur was rough, a head sea of up to 27 feet, with a 40 MPH head wind.  The ship’s bow would come off of one of the crests and plunge into the trough.  It was so rough forward (we were more aft) that staterooms were in disarray from flying drawers and loose objects and some passengers even put on their life jackets and tried to sleep in lounges near muster stations.  Also, in the bad weather department during the cruise, we were pinned to the dock in Reykjavic by high winds for 18 hours beyond our departure time and therefore the ship had to make up time for the next 2,301 nautical mile leg to Boston.  The seas to Boston were benign.  I could have crossed it in my own boat (had there been enough fuel!). 

That crossing took five days and we settled into a routine, my attending daily enrichment lectures in the morning, one on astronomy and the other on writing historical fiction, both up my alley.  Ann meanwhile had organized a morning AND afternoon Mah Jongg game, we meeting for lunch.  This left me free in the afternoon to first go to the gym and walk off some of the calories and then to settle down to catch up on my reading, perhaps my favorite activity during days at sea.

Luckily I had two books on my Kindle app and I thought I’d go to the ship’s library in case they didn’t last.  I found the library threadbare, empty shelves, the few books disheveled and uninteresting.  It’s one of my biggest criticisms of the Caribbean Princess along with it being too large a ship (3,500 passengers, the largest we’ve ever been on) and the lack of detailed navigation information which, as a boater, appeals to me.  A library on a cross Atlantic crossing should be well stocked and managed.

Thinking that two books would not last, I panicked and went to a store on board where they had a rack of paperbacks for sale.  Mostly potboilers and romance novels, nothing that would appeal to me, but luckily they had one copy of a book recently made into a film (which I haven’t seen), by an author who I admire, Dave Eggers: A Hologram for a King. I snapped it up and was confident I was set.

My first read (and my very first electronic book that I’ve read as I’m from the “old school” and love the printed page – after all, that was my business) was White Noise by Don DeLillo, a dystopian work of post modern fiction., the underlying theme of which I can summarize from a quote in the novel: “That’s what it all comes down to in the end,” he said. “A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?” “What if death is nothing but sound?” “Electrical noise.” “You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.” “Uniform, white.”

It’s dark, a chemical cloud consuming the main characters.  Yet there are some funny, laugh out loud passages, such as this quote from the aging father saying goodbye to his daughter, probably for the last time, as he drives off: “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “The little limp means nothing. People my age limp. A limp is a natural thing at a certain age. Forget the cough. It’s healthy to cough. You move the stuff around. The stuff can’t harm you as long as it doesn’t settle in one spot and stay there for years. So the cough’s all right. So is the insomnia. The insomnia’s all right. What do I gain by sleeping? You reach an age when every minute of sleep is one less minute to do useful things. To cough or limp. Never mind the women. The women are all right. We rent a cassette and have some sex. It pumps blood to the heart. Forget the cigarettes. I like to tell myself I’m getting away with something. Let the Mormons quit smoking. They’ll die of something just as bad. The money’s no problem. I’m all set incomewise. Zero pensions, zero savings, zero stocks and bonds. So you don’t have to worry about that. That’s all taken care of. Never mind the teeth. The teeth are all right. The looser they are, the more you can wobble them with your tongue. It gives the tongue something to do. Don’t worry about the shakes. Everybody gets the shakes now and then. It’s only the left hand anyway. The way to enjoy the shakes is pretend it’s somebody else’s hand. Never mind the sudden and unexplained weight loss. There’s no point eating what you can’t see. Don’t worry about the eyes. The eyes can’t get any worse than they are now. Forget the mind completely. The mind goes before the body. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. So don’t worry about the mind. The mind is all right.”  Just a little guilt trip!

It was a striking change to then turn to Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool, his long anticipated sequel to Nobody’s Fool which I read in the early 90s and later saw the movie version with Paul Newman playing the iconic Sully. It is a rollicking multiple plot tragic comedy. It too is dark in some ways and Russo falls a little short of the natural humor of another earlier work of his, Straight Man.   To me, it was sad to witness Sully and friends in their twilight years. But this is a writer who loves his characters and imparts that love to the reader.  Everyone in the novel is a fool one way or another.  I couldn’t help but see Paul Newman in my mind’s eye as I read this sequel. He lived in my former home town, Westport, CT, and I used to see him around from time to time.  But Sully’s story is only one in the novel and Russo uses his story to tie together others, particularly that of Douglas Raymer, the chief of police who was only a minor character in the prior novel, but a major one here. At one point he wonders: Where were fools supposed to go? Was there someplace known for welcoming them, where he might blend in with others of his ilk? A place inhabited by middle-aged men who found it impossible to put their deceased wives’ infidelities behind them? Who fell in love again in the manner of teenage boys, too self-conscious and clueless to figure out whether their affections were returned? Was there such a place anywhere in the world?

A Hologram for a King by Dave Eggers in some respects reminded me of Camus' The Stranger written in a Hemingway style about the modern dilemma and the existential threat of globalism and its effect on jobs. Like The Stranger it has a strong absurdist quality to it as well as being set in the Middle East (in Saudi Arabia vs French Algiers).  It is very carefully constructed with simple prose, with profound meanings running beneath.

Alan Clay is a 54 year old “consultant,” hired by a major telecommunications company to sell an IT system to King Abdullah who is creating a city in the white sands outside Jeddah, the King Abdullah Economic City.  Will it ever happen though?  Will the King ever show up so Alan and his team of three young techies can demonstrate the power of their system, the only one that can create a Hologram of a person speaking from another part of the world?

Alan was a seasoned executive with Schwinn Bicycles before the company slowly imploded from a combination of poor business decisions and globalism.  He’s in debt and is obsessed with trying to explain to his daughter, Kit, why he might not be able to afford her next semester’s college tuition unless this sale goes through.  But every attempt to set up a firm appointment with the King seems impossible.  Days turn into weeks as Alan becomes unglued. 

He wonders where meaningful work has gone.  He once built a stone wall at his home, remembering the satisfaction of working with his hands.  Sure, it was crooked, not very attractive, but he did this.  With his own hands.  Nonetheless his town made him remove it as he did not have a permit and it did not meet code.  But where was work satisfaction today?  -- that was the more important question.

Alan’s team is ensconced in a tent.  It’s hot.  The Wifi doesn’t work.  He supposedly has a contact, a Mr. al-Ahrnad who is to meet him at the main building, the “Black Box,” but his repeated attempt to contact him there is rebuffed by the receptionist, Maha. And there is no getting to the King without settling issues first with Mr. al-Ahrnad.  Eggers dialogue does not employ quotation marks, but it is clear as to what is description and what is dialogue.  This is just a sample of the absurdist loop that Alan finds draining and bewildering, a man from the old school thrust into the modern dilemma:

Alan left the tent and walked up to the Black Box. He was soaked when he arrived, and again he was greeted by Maha.
-Hello Mr. Clay.
-Hello Maha. Any chance of seeing Mr. al-Ahrnad today?
-I wish I could say yes. But he is in Riyadh today.
-Yesterday you said he'd be here all day.
-I know. But his plans changed last night. I'm so sorry.
-Let me ask you something, Maha. Are you absolutely sure that we shouldn't be meeting with anyone else here?
-Anyone else?
-Anyone else who might be able to help us with the wi-fi, and might be able to give us some prognosis about what will happen in terms of the King, our presentation?
-I'm afraid not, Mr. Clay. Mr. al-Ahrnad really is your primary contact. I'm sure he's very anxious to meet you, but has been unavoidably delayed. He will be back tomorrow. He has guaranteed it.

Of course he doesn’t show again.

Meanwhile, Alan has befriended Yousef, a young man who is his driver at times, and who introduces him to a different world, the one below the fa├žade of a city which may never be built.  In so doing, Alan comes to terms with his human frailties, and even love and patience in a world over which he is but a meaningless cog.  Highly recommended and I guess I’ll have to see the film.

A footnote to the foregoing.  I’ve never had an author, and I’ve worked with thousands as a publisher, take the time in the acknowledgements to thank by name the entire staff of the printer of the book as Eggers does here (Thomson-Shore in Dexter, Michigan -- printers of the hardcover edition).  I met with Ned Thomson and Harry Shore when they founded the company in 1972 in Michigan and my company was among their first customers, if not their first.  It’s just a serendipitous tangential connection between this novel and my distant past.

In Boston we saw our son, Chris, who had taken the day off from work to be with us and we had a lovely day, lunch and walked around Boston on another unseasonably warm day.  Wonderful to see him, happy in his job (how many can say that?) and living in the seaport section of Boston, a beautiful urban oasis within a great city. Two days later we landed in Brooklyn where, as planned, we were met by our son, Jonathan, with our car already burdened by other suitcases from the boat, adding the ones from our cruise, and we dropped him off at the subway and began our 1,200 mile drive home.  I had hoped to make it to Florence, SC but heavy rain late in the day forced us off the road in Roanoke Rapids, NC, almost 800 miles from home.  I was hell bent to get home without another overnight so we drove 10 plus hours, averaging 74 miles an hour, including a few brief bathroom and gas stops, and picking up a Subway sandwich which Ann fed to me while I drove.  Home at last at 6.45 PM.

It’s always seems to be a miracle to make it home in one piece, particularly recently as we saw cars weaving, their drivers with their heads partially down towards their laps, obviously texting while driving at 70 plus miles an hour.  When is software going to be developed which prevents this?  It is now the single most dangerous factor other than, perhaps, drunk driving.  Probably drunk drivers have better control over their vehicles than texters.

I conclude with this entry with a sickening feeling regarding the upcoming election.  On board the ship we spoke to a good number of non-Americans, mostly Canadians and Australians all of whom are bewildered as to how a major political party could have nominated a Donald Trump.  All seem to be frightened by the potential crisis of having such a person as the leader of the free world.  Not as much as we, though, I found myself explaining.  The entire drawn out process of pre-election posturing has the feeling of a slow motion train wreck.

Nonetheless, good to be home!


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Another Goodbye



Our summer on the boat is already drawing to a close.  Hard to believe, the seasons, the years, kaleidoscopically flying by.  This is an unusual year for us, a late arrival and now an early departure as we are flying to London to visit old homes, haunts (mainly theaters and museums) and friends. I call it my London farewell tour. We’ll be there for a week and then board a ship in Southampton for an Atlantic crossing, our fifth and our last such crossing as well.  The cruise makes several stops including, Rotterdam, two in Norway, the Shetland Islands, and three in Iceland, Boston where we’ll have a day with our son, Chris, ultimately arriving at the Brooklyn pier (Brooklyn figures prominently in my life).  Jonathan will meet us there with our car packed and from there we’ll begin our drive back home.

It will be some time before we return home; meanwhile my blog will go into “quiet mode” as it is impossible to update while traveling.

Wistfully, I post some pictures to mark our departure:

 Pecks Ledge Lighthouse in the background, a shot from the cockpit as the boat returns to port.

 A sunset scene back at the dock, a sailboat languorously passing by the homes on the east shore of the Norwalk River where we used to live.

 Perhaps the original house in Shorefront Park where I walk in the mornings, built in 1870, set high on a hill, one time overlooking the river but now with the entire area fully developed, homes blocking the view.


The Thunderbird of my teenage dreams as exhibited on “Cruisin’ Night” at our Club.

 Another sunset overlooking the bow of our boat.


And finally, a moonrise on the Norwalk River.

Hope to return next year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Crow Fair and Desperate Characters



One of the pleasures on the boat is having some time to read.   Thomas McGuane’s short story collection, Crow Fair impressed me, reading one short story each evening to completion.  He is a gifted writer and although Montana is his focus and thus the western experience of writers such as Wallace Stegner and Raymond Carver encroach, there are also palettes of Updike and Cheever.  His characters are universal, flawed, sometimes funny, but fundamentally ones you identify or sympathize with, real people in stories that are so natural the denouement suddenly seizes you.  Above all, survival, emotionally as well as physically, is a leitmotif threaded in these stories.  Now I fully understand his close friendship with Jim Harrison.

His story Hubcaps has an exposition that is reminiscent of a Cheever story….By late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having their first cocktails.  His mother gave hers some thought, looking upon it as a special treat, while his father served himself a ‘stiff one’ in a more matter-of-fact way, his every movement expressing a conviction that he had a right to this stuff, no matter how disagreeable or lugubrious or romantic it might soon make him….Owen’s mother held her drink between the tips of her fingers; his father held it in his fist.  Owen could see solemnity descend on his father’s brow with the first sip, while his mother often looked apprehensive about the possible hysteria to come.

On a Dirt Road is particularly Carver-like. Ann and the protagonist “need new friends.” A couple moves in a home down the dirt road street where two cars cannot pass, so they see their new neighbors in such a mode neither acknowledging the other. Ann wants to have dinner with the Clearys, old friends, of which our protagonist has tired. Ann says she'll go alone with them to a local pizza joint. Off she goes and our protagonist decides to go meet the new neighbors who turn out to have “issues.”  Nonetheless on the spur of the moment he invites them to go to the pizza place to surprise his wife and the Clearys. The surprise is on him.

In A Long View to the West a man is caring for his dying father who is in the habit of telling or I should say retelling the same stories.  Clay asks his father how he feels about dying, the reply being ‘How should I know? I've never done it before.’  This is when he realizes that he is more frightened than his Dad, also realizing that he needs those stories.

Motherlode is about a “cattle geneticist” who gets caught up in a dangerous scam, way beyond his level of expertise, and he pays the consequences.  The suspense is so carefully built by McGuane that the reader is caught unawares at the end of the story.

Prairie Girl is about a woman who rises from “Butt Hut,” a brothel to bank president, by marrying a gay man from the banking family, having a child by him, and raising the boy as the true love of her life. Peter always wonders about his Mom, never realizing the truth.

River Camp incorporates all the writer’s themes, the role of nature in our insignificant lives, dysfunctional relationships, and the danger that lurks just below the surface because of something which is greater than ourselves.  Two old friends, sometimes adversaries, book a strange guide to lead them on a camping trip in the wilderness, learning more about each, their wives, and then the brutal truth about the guide and what nature has in store for them.

The title story Crow Fair concerns two brothers who learn that their dying mother, suffering from dementia, had a long affair with a Crow Chief who they set out to find. In so doing, the brothers go their separate ways.

Idiosyncratic, funny and sad at the same time, and beautifully written, McGuane tugs at the reader’s heart with simple truths about life.  I’ve mentioned only a few of the stories.  These stories, like Cheever’s and Carver’s deserve to be reread.

Now on to an outstanding novel. Thanks to Jonathan Franzen’s unremitting praise of a “forgotten novel,” I picked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters before leaving for the boat.  Here is yet another American classic I could put in the same class as John Williams’ Stoner which was written only five years earlier (Stoner 1965; Desperate Characters 1970).  Those were turbulent years and each novel deals with the turmoil in subtle ways, but mostly through relationships.  Each is written in absolutely exquisite, compact prose. 

Fox’s novel has a special familiarity to me as it is set in Brooklyn, near Brooklyn Heights in the late 1960s, my last years in the exact same place.  Her descriptions of the decadence of New York City are real as it was written at the time when it was experienced.  This is juxtaposed to the decay of the inner lives of the two main characters, Sophie and Otto Bentwood.  They are a childless couple, in their early 40s, living in the slowly gentrified neighborhood bordering Brooklyn Heights.  They also have a Mercedes and a house on Long Island with a barn.  They should be happy, right?

Early in the novel, to Otto’s displeasure, Sophie feeds a feral cat who suddenly lashes out at Sophie, sinking its teeth in her hand.  The incident is the undercurrent of the entire novel as the reader is left wondering whether her decision to not immediately seek medical attention will have serious consequences.  In this regard it is a novel of suspense.  Otto advises that she do so, although, interestingly, he is not absolutely insistent. 

Otto is breaking up with his law partner, Charlie Russel, who has his own marriage difficulties. However these partners, friends from college have gone their separate ways professionally.  But the plot is secondary to the lapidary writing, sentences, paragraphs you just find yourself dwelling over.

When the cat first appears, ramming its head against the glass door, Otto explains “’Ugly Bastard!’ The cat looked at him, then its eyes flicked away.  The house felt powerfully solid to him; the sense of that solidity was like a hand placed firmly in the small of his back.  Across the yard, past the cat’s agitated movements, he saw the rear windows of the houses on the slum street.  Some windows had rags tacked across them, other, sheets of transparent plastic.  From the sill of one, a blue blanket dangled.

When Otto is out of sight, Sophie defies him by feeding the cat, even petting the cat as she serves up some milk.  The cat’s back rose convulsively to press against her hand.  She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.

What struck me was that “friendly human touch” is absent from her marriage and that she suppressed her cry because of Otto being nearby.  Here is a marriage in crisis.

Fox is one of these rare writers who can capture the essence of a person in few words.  Here is her description of one of their friends, a psychiatrist, Myron Holstein who caters to writers and painters:  He didn’t know a thing about her, not even after ten years, but she loved the air of knowingness; the flattery that didn’t obligate her.  And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close-fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume.  He wasn’t a seducer.  He was remote.  He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.

That last sentence reminds me of Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns or George Barker’s poem To My Mother: “She is a procession no one can follow after / But be like a little dog following a brass band.”

It’s a stalemate relationship between Otto and Sophie.  He refuses to answer the telephone.  She asks, why? “Because I never hear anything on it that I want to hear any more.”  They were both standing rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom.  Then he asked her directly why she was angry.  She said she wasn’t angry at all; it was just so tiresome of him to indulge himself about the telephone, to stand there so stupidly while it rang, to force her to do it.  How many of us have played the same tug of war with our spouses?

As a woman in her early 40’s, Sophie’s body is changing.  It comes somewhat as a shock to her:  Her body was not her own any more, but had taken off in some direction of its own.  In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end, of some pleasure.  She could not eat and drink the way she once had.  Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible.  She had only realized that one was old for a long time.  Old for a long time, how familiar!  Brilliant writing!

As a student I once spent a long time in the emergency room waiting area of the Brooklyn Hospital.  Note how Fox’s sense of realism conjures up such a room in the late 1960s.  Her writing brings alive an experience I had more than 50 years ago: It was like a bus station, an abandoned lot, the aisles in the coaches of the old B & O trains, subway platforms, police stations. It combined the transient quality, the disheveled atmosphere of a public terminal with the immediately apprehended terror of a way station to disaster.  It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined three walls.  It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays.  On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef.  There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes – cleaning fluids embedded in fabric and blooming horridly in the warm sweetish air, picking at the nostrils like thorns – all the exudations of human flesh, a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind.

Yet the heart of the novel is a philosophical question as “desperate characters” seek meaning in a hostile universe, a snapshot of New York City when it reached its nadir in the late 1960s.  As Franzen asks in his introduction: “What is the point of meaning – especially literary meaning – in a rabid modern world?  Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed?”  Striving for the answer, Franzen has read and taught the novel many times.

John Williams’ Stoner has been called “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is in the same league.