Philip Roth – When She Was Good

From May, 2007…

The year was 1967. In America, Roe vs. Wade and Title IX were still five years away, and a proliferation of the saucy-cum-insouciant heroine was unimaginable. A few women were dumping their bras in the trash, or even burning them, and yes, Philip Roth was writing. The title When She Was Good is reminiscent of 60s and 70s aftershave commercials where a sports hero might receive a facial massage from the sleekly scratching hands of a woman being, to his mind, very, very good. The notion of women being better when they are badly behaved is nothing new. But this is Philip Roth, and Roth’s idea of bad-as-good means “watch out”. Thinking of Lucy Nelson as a protagonist is difficult as there is nothing favorable about her. She’s born angry, vindictive, moralistic, and incurable. Only she doesn’t know it. In fact, she never has an inkling of insight and says, over and over, “but I’m good.”

Roth leads us into a sort of mixed sympathy for Lucy. She’s the daughter of a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and his passive wife. Her childhood is marred by the ousting of her father from the home after a drunken bout. But it is Lucy who does the ousting, Lucy who dials the police and breathes the sigh of relief when he is taken away. From that point, she wages war with men, chief among them her hapless husband, Roy, a WWII vet who loves her in a disheveled manner that she just can’t forgive. Philip Roth brings the reader into that mixed atmosphere of sympathy and frustration with Lucy, sympathy for her unplanned pregnancy and a waffling Roy, frustration with her blind spots, and finally an all out rivet as Lucy’s need to control wreaks havoc upon her family and self.

When She Was Good meanders through half the story; then, in Roth’s inimitable way, he strips the veneer and exposes the wolf. Written in realistic style and without any of his trademark humor, Roth struggles to find Lucy’s voice and motivation in much of the novel. She is somewhat weakly written until she begins to unravel, but then what an affair that is! The last third of the book holds fast and will not let go. As Lucy tries harder to get the square peg into the hole, her defenses smack of all their futility and uselessness. Her husband flees from her rages, taking their child and precipitating her shrieking downfall as she continues to demand their very lives. Only when she discovers that her father has been writing her mother all along, for years, is Lucy mortally undone. These simple lines shared by her imperfect parents place the final crack in her brittle casing, and she’s finished.

As years go by–with accelerated speed,
We find with us, an ever growing need
To recall to mind, and a wish to live,
In that glorious past–to re-have and re-give.

We bring to mind–the mistakes we made,
The aches and hurts–that we’ve caused, I’m afraid
Are brought in distinctly–with increasing pain
Till we wish, with all heart–to re-do it again.

Only to do it better–so that the pain is gone,
And make them all the good things, all along.
At least the great wish that would be really mine,
That I could just once more–be your Valentine.

No one does it gooder.

The Observations – Jane Harris

More thoughts from 2007:

The Observations by Jane Harris is many things, funny, gripping, tender and an overall delight. Beneath the skillful use of clever, vernacular dialogue and mysterious goings on are shades of complex relationships and a twinship of longing and belonging.

Bessy Buckley is a worldly fifteen year old, running from a sickly unsavory family member who drives her from 19th century Glasgow into the countryside where she happens upon a run down mansion with a mistress in want of a lady’s maid. She enlists and discovers that her employer, Arabella, is a writer- of sorts. Arabella’s literary secrets and the unknowns surrounding them form the top layer of the novel. This alone makes for an enjoyable read. But there’s more than meets the eye in every way for readers of The Observations. The friendship between Arabella and her young maid carries a whiff of sexual infatuation and the mix of chemistries that can only be awakened when women become close. Jealousies, slights, outright confrontations and misunderstandings pervade the relationship between Arabella and Bessy while they shape the household concoctions of both women.

My fondness for Bessy began as she goes to bed hungry on her first night at Castle Haivers, a handful of parma violets from her pocket meager repast as she falls asleep. She is both child and woman, her shortcomings equally charming as her strengths. Bessy and Arabella become ghost hunters, each searching for a loved friend, Bessy amidst the living and Arabella the dead. The supernatural slice – if it can be called such- of The Observations is more a peek into the power of longing as it casts about for someone who can’t be found, an apparition that might be recognizable to anyone. The device is written lightly and adds an exotic dimension to the story without derailing it. This novel brings to mind two other reads, Alias Grace and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Harris’ use of Glaswegian dialect brings Bessy to life with a cache of humor and dignity. And a knapsack of sorrow which she keeps hidden and only slowly reveals to the reader.

My read of The Observations coincided with a trip escorting my mother to homecoming at our shared alma mater. I was in the last pages by the time we crossed into memory land, and I’ll always associate that weekend with the book and its theme of friends loved and lost. At my mother’s class banquet, the salads contained dandelion greens and pansies; I thought of Bessy’s parma violets as I ate the flowers and watched my mother basking in the company of her friends. The next day I stepped from the warm October sunshine into the cool of the old college dormitory, emptied by a late afternoon football game. Standing in the silent hallway before the door to my old room, number 123, I listened for voices from the past, yearning for laughter that would dispel the years and gather old friends close by once more. Their ghosts were all around. Like Bessy and her mistress, I struggled to make them stay.

Willa Cather – My Antonia

A few thoughts from 2009…

Some years ago, there was a gangly young woman living in Kansas City, careening towards marriage to a sophisticated young man. Only, the young woman was really in love with reading, with the vast prairie, with the lowly redwing blackbird and scrub flowers.On a warm weekend in June, the man gathered his bachelor brethren for a large party at a local residence inn. Here they would drink, cavort with some topless women, and break each other’s ribs (!) in making merry for the man to marry.

The woman (thinking it possible she had not yet truly met her match) fled to Willa Cather’s home town, Red Cloud, Nebraska, for a bachelorette weekend of her own. She basked in the dry prairie grass, dusty gravel, and a greater sense of not knowing exactly where she was going or if she would make it there. She was struggling to pioneer her own life, coming to the middle of nowhere a bit as the Europeans who subdued the Midwest came, knowing only that, for some, striking out for the unknown is bred in the bone.

Of course this is not the story, and yet it is. My Ántonia is a novel of remembrance and great spirit, the recollection of a man who loves a woman he can possess only in the memory of their shared childhood. It’s a story of settlers and hardship, leaving and homesickness, sprinkled with glory, written in a spare, youthful tone. It is all about reaching out for the cherished unknown. This much I can tell you. But I’m unable to go further as I’ve absorbed this work so that it runs in my pulse, and to display it further would feel akin to opening a vein.

My Ántonia is more lovely, sweeter, and wilder than any novel I’ve read. It’s the story I think about on those occasions when I hop an outbound plane, knowing that I’m never more American than when setting out, leaving the familiar for adventures and points which can only be reckoned on some internal compass.

Self indulgent thoughts? Yeah, baby.

I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.


Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory

It’s been a long, sad spring, made even worse by a stupid cyber attack against the web address I love to visit more than any other, the home of my online book group. I’m going to work at bringing some of my short reviews here in case the worst happens and the site goes down. These thoughts are from Nov, 2007…

Graham Greene’s 1939 novel begins with fragments of lives placed disparately and sketchily in the first pages. We meet, among others, a dentist, an old man and his wife, a military man, and a stranger. Each thread brushes its neighbor only slightly, and reading this for the first time, I wondered if the novel would ever fasten these elements. The word ‘postmodern’ flitted through my head. And then the mule sat down.

In the chapters following, an astounding character flourishes and agonizes, lives boldly and cravenly, and confronts death with equal parts trembling and equanimity. He’s a nameless priest, on the run from Red Shirts who’ve placed a bounty on him and are determined to eradicate the Church from their state. The man is many things- alcoholic, full of sin and mercy, an inappropriate giggler, and the father of a young girl.

Initially en route to visit his daughter and her mother in tense and unwelcome circumstances, the priest journeys into a series of heartbreaking attachments and artery pounding escapes. A firing squad awaits any who might harbor him, and his visit to the tiniest remote Indian village brings both the chill of danger and the relief of absolution. For in a tattered briefcase, this man carries the Host and offers communion and confession to villagers who revere the mysteries of Catholicism and who cling to their faith in spite of the government’s efforts to obliterate it.
Five years ago he had given way to despair–the unforgivable sin–and he was going back now to the scene of his despair with a curious lightening of the heart. For he had got over despair too. He was a bad priest, he knew it: they had a word for his kind–a whisky priest–but every failure dropped out of sight and out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret–the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.
The Power and the Glory is a study in contrasts. Humor, pathos, irony, earnestness, and endless possibilities for theological spring boarding are here for the taking. As the little whisky priest is pursued by his legalistic tormentor, the doors into his faith open and slam repeatedly, bringing him in only to shut him out.
He had heard men talk of the unfairness of a deathbed repentance–as if it was an easy thing to break the habit of a life whether to do good or evil. One suspected the good of the life that ended badly–or the viciousness that ended well. He made another desperate attempt. He said: “You believed once. Try and understand–this is your chance. At the last moment. Like the thief. You have murdered men–children perhaps,” he added…”But that need not be so important. It only belongs to this life, a few years–it’s over already. You can drop it all here, in this hut, and go on for ever…” He felt sadness and longing at the vaguest idea of a life he couldn’t lead himself…words like peace, glory, love.