Tuesday, September 1, 2015

When She Was Good – and Roth is Great

The time had come to leave our boat and return to Florida.  We wanted to beat the weather for a safe drive.  Ann needed to see her surgeon because of an arthritic flare up in her knee and as much as we love being in Connecticut, seeing friends and family, living on our boat at our Club, there comes a time when the confines of the boat simply get to you and we long for the spaciousness of our home.  It’s the earliest that we’ve ever returned from our 15 years of bifurcated home/boat living, just in time for what we thought might become a Category 1 Hurricane, Erika, which thankfully disintegrated into remnants with only brief heavy rain and an eerie sunrise the day after.

Right before leaving the boat I picked up a novel I had brought (again, avoiding short stories for the time being), this time Philip Roth’s When She Was Good.  I’ve read a lot of Roth, and think his American Pastoral is one of the more important novels of my time.  I wasn’t expecting much from this novel, one often not discussed, but I was curious about it as to my knowledge Roth’s only novel with a woman (Lucy Nelson / Bassart) as the protagonist, particularly given the accusations over the years of Roth being a misogynist.  Furthermore, as Stanley Elkin’s brief blurb on the cover states, When She Was Good could be compared to Theodore Dreiser’s work ( I've read practically all his work in college and can count him among my favorite American writers), particularly in my mind his American Tragedy.

What mesmerized me is Roth’s lapidary characterization of Lucy.  This is a character, like the one in Dreiser’s other great novel, Sister Carrie, who you are unlikely to forget and it is Roth’s characterizations and dialogue which sets this novel apart. .  It reminded me of my own mother’s struggles in a man’s world.  There are two edges to this sword, though, Lucy as standing for and rationalizing what she considers “the truth” and then where her expectations stemming from” the truth” almost borders on mental illness.  Although she is described as a “ball buster” at one point, I think Roth is clearly rooting for Lucy in a world that does not reward her stalwart individualism.  Like Anita Shreve’s Olympia in Fortune’s Rocks, Lucy is a woman before her time. And like Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, this is a multigenerational novel, but with a darker view. 

Willard Carroll is from a dysfunctional family but as a young man he finds the American Dream waiting for him in “Liberty Center:”

     So at the sight of Liberty Center, its quiet beauty, its serene order, its gentle summery calm, all that had been held in check in him, all that tenderness of heart that had been for eighteen years his secret burden, even at times his shame, came streaming forth. If ever there was a place where life could be less bleak and harsh and cruel than the life he had known as a boy, if ever there was a place where a man did not have to live like a brute, where he did not have to be reminded at every turn that something in the world either did not like mankind, or did not even know of its existence, it was here. Liberty Center! Oh, sweet name! At least for him, for he was indeed free at last of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature.

     He found a room; then he found a job-he took an examination and scored high enough to become postal clerk; then he found a wife, a strong-minded and respectable girl from a proper family; and then he had a child; and then one day-the fulfillment, he discovered, of a very deep desire-he bought a house of his own, with a front porch and a backyard: downstairs a parlor, a dining room, a kitchen and a bedroom; upstairs two bedrooms more and the bath. A back bathroom was built downstairs in 1915, six years after the birth of his daughter, and following his promotion to assistant postmaster of the town.

That daughter, Myra, becomes the mother to Lucy, Willard’s grandchild.  But Myra married a man with a drinking problem and as a young girl Lucy calls the police as her mother was hit by her drunken husband, Whitey, blackening her eye.  The shame of having the police involved, and their name the subject of gossip, seems worse to Lucy’s grandparents, and even her mother, than the act itself.  It is from this action that the novel finds its themes and its energy, Lucy condemning her father, totally ostracizing him, and men in general, unless they tell the “truth” and abide by her expectations of how a man should behave, taking responsibility, doing the right thing.

These “blue threads” of shame and anger and expectations culminate in her savage condemnation of her malleable husband, Roy, with whom they now have a child, the fourth generation in the novel.  These very words could have been spoken by my own mother during the height of her own unhappy marriage to my father:

     "You worm! Don't you have any guts at all? Can't you stand on your own two feet, ever? You sponge! You leech! You weak, hopeless, spineless, coward! You'll never change- you don't even want to change! You don't even know what I mean by change! You stand there with your dumb mouth open! Because you have no backbone! None!" She grabbed the other cushion from behind her and heaved it toward his head. "Since the day we met!" ….
     She charged off the sofa. "And no courage!" she cried. "And no determination! And no will of your own! If I didn't tell you what to do, if I were to turn my back-if I didn't every single rotten day of this rotten life ... Oh, you're not a man, and you never will be, and you don't even care!" She was trying to hammer at his chest; first he pushed her hands down, then he protected himself with his forearms and elbows; then he just moved back, a step at a time.

This tirade is in front of family and in front of their child.  It is a novel that resonates with me for personal reasons.   I’ll leave it to the reader as to whether Lucy is a “ball buster” or just a person living in a world that has turned on her because “of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature” -- as experienced by her own grandfather before he fled to “Liberty Center.”

I’ll miss Roth (who has vowed to write no more) as I’ve missed Updike.  To hear from them no longer is like losing close friends.