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.