Foreword: Behind the Curtain
One of the exemplary roles of art is to seek the truth—or some reasonable version of it—in the multiplex of illusions that surrounds humans. It can be sought in ways that are realistic, absurd and every way in between. Two of the most famous literary characters who go astray in their efforts to find out what’s really happening are Othello and Hamlet. “Of a free and open nature,” Othello is naïve enough that he can “as tenderly be led by th’ nose/ As asses are” by Iago. Young Prince Hamlet is so vividly aware of the mendacity in his world that he becomes an eloquent metaphysical seeker but scarcely able to act. Most of the other characters at the Castle of Elsinore are just as lost in its haze of dissemblance, making Hamlet’s father’s ghost, though vengeful and obsessed, one of the clearest voices there. Melville’s Moby Dick is another epic tragedy of deception and of human beings becoming enrolled in an insane, destructive quest—in this case the crew members of “the rushing Pequod” bending to the will of the megalomaniacal and bitter Captain Ahab and “plunging into that blackness of darkness” to eradicate the imagined evil that he projects onto the blank screen of the white whale’s forehead.
In this issue’s story “An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile,” Rick Bass’s unemployed logger tries desperately to evade the results of bad luck and bad choices. Recently injured and unable to find a job, with a wife who’s left him, he decides to have one last good experience with his two nearly grown daughters by taking them on a trip to South America. With a logger’s bravado, he has always managed before but now is brought to a crisis that he will have to face if he’s going to survive. “A Visit” by Kevin Wilson tells the story of Missy, a working mother who’s about to reach a moment of reckoning as definitive as Bass’s logger’s. She lives in Atlanta but makes a visit to her hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, where her mother’s house has been broken into and her mother assaulted and robbed. The trip becomes a catalyst for Missy to admit and acknowledge the limitations of her life, as well as her own self-delusions. She goes from a less than idyllic dalliance with the unlikeliest of men to fantasizing about how to escape from her own choices.
Faith Shearin’s “Transformations” is an evocative look at the ways children learn about their parents and at how homes and the people who have lived in them are mythologized. The parents of two daughters are forever restless about where they live and have developed the habit of looking at real estate. The daughters observe the mother, and both share in her curiosity, especially about one house that is the source of a local myth. Shearin wonders about the origin of such myths, and in this case whether they might partly arise from the things that children sense but don’t fully understand about their own parents. Fred Leebron’s “The Youth of North America” is also about youth and age, this time from the point of view of an older man who for many years has been the leader of workshops abroad. This trip is to Barcelona, a city he knows quite well. His experience distances him from the younger people in the group, and one night he goes out drinking with two of them, only to discover the fallacy in his illusion of control and seasoned invulnerability.
“The Salted Leg” by Gary Lee Miller is a tale about a young Union soldier, Joshua Clantz, who fought in the Army of the Potomac with his friend and comrade Private Orland MacDonald. They “battled and blundered through the whole gory spectacle, killing and cowering, chawing woody chunks of biscuit and rotten beef, burying bloated heaps of the dead and marching awake and asleep. “ They are taunted by the older men in the regiment, which only serves to unite them in a pact: “if one died in battle, the other would carry a last letter home to the dead man’s loved ones.” Orland is shot and, in his dying wish, asks his friend to carry his leg back to his fiancée at her parents’ home in Vermont. What follows is an extravagant and also oddly realistic romance of a war-weary man who leaves a world of extremity and sudden death to face the trivial deceptions, prejudices, and vanity of civilian life.
The poems in this issue by Jeffrey Bean speak of the myriad worldly things that a little child sees—rail tracks, maples blazing in October, the first rain of November. By pointing at and naming them, the father-poet discovers with renewed wonderment the inexhaustible details of the world along with his child. Sandra Gilbert’s poems look at paintings that depict culinary scenes—Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters, Grandma Moses’ Thanksgiving Scene, and Rivera’s Tortilla Maker—and see what’s not readily visible on the surface. Through her gaze, eating becomes far more than a neutral activity of everyday living; it’s also a setting where intricate human relationships are played out. David Lee’s two narrative poems are funny and replete with the craziness of real life. In “Globe Mallow,” a place of wild flowers that strike many as extraordinarily beautiful is quite lost on a man who is more interested in dollars. In “Etymology/Diction,” a small town librarian lets a self-deceiving politician know her view of him by means of a rather harsh etymology lesson.
John Nelson’s essay “I Saw What I Saw: Witnesses to Birds and Crimes” describes from firsthand experience the tendency of birders, including himself, to misreport and misidentify birds even though they’ve observed them, taken notes on field markings and compared them with known information about birds’ habitats and behaviors. Nelson tells engaging stories of bird misidentifications, some intentional but most not, drawing an analogy between birders’ unreliability and that of witness testimony in criminal trials. Eyewitness testimony was the gold standard in evidence until the advent of DNA evidence—which in recent years has famously overturned convictions based on supposedly solid witnesses. Whether with bird identity or criminal witness, our preconceptions and imaginations can prevent us from accurately seeing. Dawn Davies’ pensively comic essay “King of the World” is also partly about birds—as well as pet hamsters and rats and other small creatures—which her family’s Cairn terrier Rocky manages to kill over his long and natural lifetime. Despite the elaborate safety systems set up to protect these little creatures, Rocky is so proficient at killing them that he sometimes seems to possess magic powers.
The subject of Kristine Somerville’s visual feature is a tribute to the New York photographer Weegee. Born in Austrian Galicia (now Ukraine), immigrant Arthur Fellig wanted to get as far from his humble beginnings as he could. He succeeded through the creation of a working persona, Weegee, a tough, street-scene photographer. With his porkpie hat and ever-present cigar he took tabloid crime and human-interest photos. During much of his career, Weegee hardly thought of himself as an artist but increasingly became one, as he caught his fellow New Yorkers in intimate, unguarded moments. This issue’s Curio Cabinet, “Jean Cocteau: Master of Disguise,” offers up rare pastel drawings from an artist who spent much of his early career working to cover his shyness by becoming a public extrovert and one of the most graceful and charming talkers in France. Much about Cocteau’s art was in fact an act of concealment. He would become both “the most unknown and the most famous poet,” with an immensely varied oeuvre that included novels, essays, ballets, plays, films and drawings. Despite his acclaim in several different media—including film, with his classic Beauty and the Beast—Cocteau was a private loner whose fame is as much tied to the legend of the man as to any single achievement from his over-60-year career.
Poetry Feature: Sandra M. Gilbert
Featuring the poems:
- Leonardo Da Vinci’s Ultima Cena
- Jan Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters
- Grandma Moses’ Thanksgiving Scene
- Geometry Salad
- Rivera’s Tortilla Maker
An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile
He didn’t need to drink. He liked it, but he didn’t need it. He knew that was the stance of someone who did need to drink, but he was different. Well, actually, he needed it, but he could go a little bit without it. Beer was safe. He was drinking too much but he could stop. He would stop, he promised himself, for the trip.
This story is not currently available online.
King of the World
You are being romanced by William Wallace, the real one, not the blue-faced, thick-fingered, pre-nutjob Mel Gibson version, while you lie sleeping next to your snoring husband in real life. That kilt, those thick, dirty thighs, all that bushy chest hair, the crust of Scottish sweat dried over older layers of Scottish sweat, smelling of bog moss and political passion. He grabs you by the hair and stretches your neck taut and you wake up at civil dawn, the boulders of the Highlands disappearing into Ikea curtains and coordinated wall art from Marshalls Home Goods, Your seven-year-old is standing at the side of your bed with paths of tears coursing down her cheeks and a mutilated hamster in her soft, cupped hands.
This essay is not currently available online.
The Novella: Four New Collections
Liliane’s Balcony: A Novel of Falling Water by Kelcey Parker. Rose Metal Press, 208 pp., $14.95 (paper).
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates. Alfred A. Knopf, 314 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)
Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway. Sarabande, 232 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III. W. W. Norton, 292 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)
Though the novella can loosely be defined as some sixty to one hundred and thirty pages of prose fiction, length is only one part of the equation and cannot speak to the magic of the form. The novella’s effect, unlike that of the short story, is cumulative rather than immediate. The novella allows for a subplot or two, though plot need not be at the heart of the form. In “Some Notes on the Novella” (The New Yorker; October 29, 2012), Ian McEwan stresses the need for an economy that requires the writer to “bring off [his] effects with unusual intensity.”
As a frame for discussing the novellas under review here, I found myself immediately drawn to two additional statements by McEwan, whose novella, On Chisel Beach, had the rare honor of being shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. First, in addition to sparing us the novel’s “swollen mid-section,” McEwan emphasizes the novella’s “architecture” as one of its “immediate pleasures.” The statement is valuable for its emphasis on structure and craftsmanship—for studying the novella as a made thing.
Two of the novellas under review here focus directly on architecture and architects. The first is Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, a multi-voiced work set at Fallingwater, the fabled house Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1936 for Liliane Kaufmann and her husband, Etgar, first cousins and department-store magnates from Pittsburgh. Parker herself has served as a volunteer Ask-Me Guide on the grounds, and her experience of the place and of the couple who lived there inspired her to dig more deeply into their story. Etgar Kaufmann was notoriously unfaithful, and the beautiful and cultured Liliane weathered his infidelities. On September 7, 1952, however, she fatally overdosed on sleeping pills at Fallingwater, and Etgar was the one to find her. Liliane’s trials in marriage and her suicide are at the center of Liliane’s Balcony, a syncopated narrative which captures the rhythms and inflections of a multiplicity of voices. The novella alternates between Liliane’s story—with strategically placed “chapters” spoken by Etgar and other members of their circle—and the narrative of a single house tour from the point of view of four present-day visitors. In her Author’s Note, Parker describes the novella’s structure in architectural language:
The multiple voices and hybrid structure emerged in the earliest draft, and I came to see the form as analogous to that of Fallingwater. Just as Fallingwater’s stone chimney serves as the structural vertical core, rising from the rock foundation and supporting the rest of the house, Liliane’s story serves as the book’s core. The other characters’ sections extend forth like multiple cantilevered balconies. I also knew very early on that the book would be a novella—that Fallingwater is, to my mind, a novella-sized house.
With a very few exceptions, each chapter bears a character’s name, and it is through the immediacy of Liliane’s sensory experience that the reader enters the novella’s Prologue:
Liliane strains to hear the falling water. She closes her eyes to open her ears to hear the water falling, for that is the point of the house, the architect had explained, to live with the waterfall. It was too plain merely to see the waterfall. One had to live with it, hear its voice, feel its pulse. But Liliane, in her bed, in early September, with the terrace door open despite the threat and scream of late-summer insects, cannot.
Not until the chapter’s end does the reader understand that Liliane is in the midst of committing suicide:
She hears a bullfrog, but no answer, no waterfall. It is the contrast between inside and outside that she can no longer abide. Her inside, her outside. Outside, she is the proud Mrs. K—, who owns a department store, travels the world, patronizes the arts, and rules over the famous house. Inside she is withered, neglected, scorned. . . .
You will live with the waterfall, the architect had said.
At last, at last—as if someone has switched on the amplifiers—she hears its familiar voice cry out to her.
And die with me, the waterfall says.
The novella, then, will explore the history that has brought Liliane to this breaking point.
From the Prologue, the reader moves to Part One, set in the present day of the tour and spoken by four characters, three of them women and the other a man named Josiah Quimby. The chapters spoken by characters other than Liliane are really fragments, incomplete and impressionistic, what one might expect from spending a few hours with strangers and speculating about their lives.The novella would not work were it made up solely of these voices of the present-day tourists. It works because it spans the arc of Liliane’s adult life, through her engagement to Etgar, her brief happiness, his infidelities and her ultimate death. Liliane makes her final appearance at the opening of the tenth and final section which returns the reader to the moments before her suicide.
The rewards of Liliane’s Balcony are not immediate. The novella is pleasurable, but its meaning only becomes apparent with rereading and ultimately with a little sleuthing into the circumstances of the Kaufmanns’ marriage, the centrality of Fallingwater in their lives, and especially into Liliane’s troubling death. More than any of the other novellas considered here, the architecture of Liliane’s Balcony—its intricately crafted form—is an intrinsic and highly self-conscious part of the work.
David Gates’s “Banishment” is the other novella to emphasize architecture, though here it is more about plotting, since the unnamed main character’s aging, second husband is “a once-almost-famous architect.” Like Gates, who covered music and popular culture for magazines such as Newsweek and The Rolling Stone, the narrator is a journalist. She meets her second husband when her editor sends her out to interview him in the posh, old-money town of Rhinebeck, New York, where he lives. “Banishment,” like the other stories in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, is scathingly bleak. Gates writes about affluent, highly educated, disillusioned men and women. All his characters seem to attend or have attended private Eastern colleges, though they are not necessarily ambitious, successful or even committed to social change or “making a difference” on even the smallest scale. In their world, infidelity is the status quo, as are drugs and alcohol, and people expect frighteningly little of each other. For all these reasons, despite the accomplishments of Gates’s well-crafted prose, the reader must really connect with his voice and/or be able to derive some value from the experience of his characters if she’s to stay with his ninety-page novella, as opposed to one of his stories which requires less of a commitment.
The narrator of “Banishment” is the collection’s only female protagonist. In this way, Gates said in an interview with the Reading Room, he made up for the collection’s lightness on leading women. That said, the narrator is not believable; always her male creator’s presence lurks in the background. This brings distance to the reading, especially since “Banishment’s” narrator talks a little too much and too frequently about her privileged upbringing, her gender and her affiliation with or difference from archetypal literary heroines:
I was thirty when I’d married my first husband, whom I’d met while we were both
working for a Gannett paper in the Hudson Valley—not much of a job for a gal with a degree from Yale, but we can’t all be Naomi Wolf. (She was in my year, and I suppose I have to admit to some envy.)
I see that I’ve been painting myself as the little creepmouse-victim wife in a gothic novel—the house really did have a mansard roof: Was I not supposed to notice?—what with the attic room, the sad little plastic storage box and so on, the overwhelming older husband.
I’d been to Rio, Amsterdam, St. Kitts and wherever else a snotty Yale girl goes, as well as France and Peru with my first husband, but I’d never seen what you call America: just New York, L.A., San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg.
“Banishment’s” sarcastic, highly self-aware tone brings me to another of Ian McEwan’s statements about the novella:
To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie. In fact, there’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty odd thousand words) and the novella, both operating within the same useful constraints of economy—space for a subplot (two at a stretch), characters to be established with quick strokes but allowed enough room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull. The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist.
This passage speaks directly to the performative or theatrical elements of “Banishment.” Gates’s characters perform their lines more than they speak to each other, and his presence saturates the text. “Banishment’s” narrator is presumably attractive, given the immediate sexual attraction of the once-almost-famous architect. Although she is not haunted by aging—the novella spans some ten years of their marriage—she is painfully aware of, even debilitated by her lack of success as a writer, which forms one of the subplots or secondary threads, the novella’s primary focus being her marriage to the architect (a marriage that in no way seems to change or challenge the selfishness and self-absorption of either husband or wife) and their ultimate divorce.
The narrator continually tells the reader of her attempts to write something, initially at the architect’s house in Rhinebeck, New York, and later in their house at Montana, a house that her husband designs and builds only after they marry, and one in which he presumes they will spend his final years. While the architect paints in his artist studio, turning out mediocre pastiches of well-known modern and contemporary artists, the narrator struggles to write the book that will redeem her, only to wind up with “a computer infested with miscarried books—they never made it to stillborn—a husband whose body was beginning to bother me and whose mind was running out of fascinations. . . .”
Near the novella’s end the narrator confesses, “I don’t know what all this is supposed to add up to: it seems about damaged and selfish people. . . .” That’s exactly what “Banishment” is about. It’s an effect that begs the following question: why did Gates push what could have been a short story into a novella? In answering this question I’m returned to the fact that the effect of the novella is cumulative rather than instantaneous. In living with the narrator for nearly ninety pages, the reader understands why she is so disillusioned and bored. “What goes by the name of life is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland,” she says, quoting Samuel Beckett. This enervated attitude, one without any real promise of redemption, is what abides long after the performance has ended.
The performative elements of Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s “Elegy on Kinderklavier,” the title novella in his 2015 PEN/Hemingway Award-winning short story collection, are worth noting here as well, though the effect of this novella, also narrated in the first person, by a man whose small son is dying of a brain tumor and whose bipolar wife keeps leaving rather than face their child’s terrifying death, is radically different.
Given its subject matter alone, “Elegy on Kinderklavier” could have been an intensely bleak piece. Although the descriptions of the child’s physical state border on the macabre at times, the novella is not depressing, in part because Bontemps Hemenway, like Joan Didion in her extraordinary The Year of Magical Thinking, creates a structure that invites the reader to focus on the mysteries surrounding the protagonist and his small family. In an interview with Sarabande Books, which published the book, Hemenway stated that the novella came together “when the story of a family’s struggle with a particular kind of pediatric brain tumor combined with the story of a woman leaving her husband while their child was sick.” The joining of these two stories, and the compelling ways in which Hemenway voyages increasingly deeper into each via the narrator’s associative musings, is central to the novella’s cumulative power.
In the opening pages, the narrator calls attention to the ways in which narrative eludes both time and closure, letting the reader know that “Elegy on Kinderklavier” is simultaneously about the linked journeys of memory and grief:
These things don’t have a beginning, not really. I’ve reached now the age of narrative, and it’s important to remember that this structure is false, an imposed will, a quirk of myself as a thirty-four-year-old man, of an age (reached perhaps a decade or so prematurely) when I have begun to be concerned with the story of what’s happened to me.
The passage invokes Didion’s much-quoted “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” from The White Album. Indeed, this could be the novella’s epigraph.
“Elegy on Kinderklavier” avoids becoming maudlin and melodramatic because of the ways in which the narrative freezes various moments—seemingly disparate images—from both the narrator’s present and past. Initially the primary focus seems to be the son’s dying and the unstable history with the narrator’s wife, while the story of her leaving is the secondary story. But the reader very quickly realizes that the two stories are interdependent. It is the spaciousness of the novella that gives the author room to really explore the interrelationship between past and present and the way in which memory works. Had “Elegy on Kinderklavier” opened up into a novel, Hemenway would have run the risk of that “swollen midsection,” dwarfing or burying what works so well here.
“Elegy on Kinderklavier” opens with a universal statement that is every parent’s worst nightmare:
A child is sick. A child is sick. You open the door to the room, or you look up, or you wake up and there is your son, sick, changed, and even with the scaled-down hospital bed they use in the pediatric oncology unit, even though he’s been there for months, there is still a micromoment of near panic, of your reptilian brain sending up the signal, running the sentence through every level of your mental processes. A child is sick. A child is sick. You want to tell someone. Though, of course, they already know.
Part of the pleasure of this beginning and of Hemenway’s writing in general, is the rhythms of his sentences and the ways in which such rhythms shape and enable the reader’s growing understanding.
In these initial pages, too, the reader learns of the wife/mother’s, Charlie’s, absence, though the reasons for her staying away are introduced slowly. And again, her absence is delivered in deeply satisfying sentences that employ a repetition which feels all too true given the distraught state of the narrator:
I don’t know where Charlie is. I don’t know if she’s on one of her jags, in which case she is probably wrapped up in the covers of our bed or cocooned on our couch in front of the TV, paralyzed by depression; I don’t know if she’s not left the flat for days, if she’s eaten this week. Or she could be gone, vanished during one of her different periods, wandering any of the tourist sites of our little island country, as she calls it.
The dying child, Haim, always asks where Charlie is, having stopped referring to her as his mother when she stopped coming to the hospital regularly. It is up to the narrator either to remain silent or to create a fiction for the boy. Both father and son are aware that the story, or a part of it anyway, is a lie, and perhaps a very necessary one. For the larger fiction here, as the narrator makes explicit, is “the game we’re all playing, pretending he might get better.”
Through it all, the narrator is a constant at his eight-year-old son’s bedside, and he recounts the gruesome interventions. All of this could become unbearable and maudlin, but the narrative is liberated from grimness by the questions about story and meaning and identity that he asks, questions that propel him—and the reader—ever further into the past, all the while bringing his son closer to that unthinkable absence that lies ahead: death. Yes, death will bring relief, but death will also eradicate all evidence of the child’s existence and with it, for this narrator at least—and I should mention here that the narrator is also an unsuccessful fiction writer—all meaning.
Counteracting the agony of the child’s circumstances is the narrator’s emphasis on the terrifying pleasure he takes in thinking about how his wife will react to her son’s disfigurement, for Haim is unrecognizable from the child he once was. After all, this is a novella both about a child’s dying and the dissolution of a marriage which brings with it cruelties between husband and wife, cruelties that become all the more chilling and simultaneously believable given the unbearable situation of their child:
If I am to be brutally honest, I admit to taking some pleasure in her difficulty, her struggle in the moment. I wanted him to be foreign to her in the wake of her desertion, un-recognizable. For Charlie, for lack of better words, to understand that he was now more mine than hers.
I also wanted her to see what was the cruelest bodily insult of all, which was that instead of the wan, rail-thin body of the child with cancer nearing death, we had been given the opposite: a robust, bloated, outsized child, an embarrassment of flesh. I wanted her to get that we would not even have the small mercy of watching our own kid live and fade; that, instead, we would only have the queer neutrality of watching this Other, this boy whom some persons else had allowed to grow so fat, to become so lost in his own body. Of not even being able to recognize him, really.
You can’t see him as he once was…. You only see what’s before you. The foreign body, the sickness. It’s impossible to see what you’ve already lost.
As a novella about an archetypal, primal fear, “Elegy” succeeds precisely because of the way the narrative becomes about looking within oneself—in this case within the narrator’s self in which the reader inevitably could see herself, given the right or the most unthinkable circumstances.
And along the way, the narrator also comes to some profound discoveries about the relationship between literature and life:
The great authors in their twilight produce books that grow shorter and shorter, and nobody has much to say about a child with a terminal brain tumor watching the first snow of the year collect on his windowsill. The story refuses to assemble itself. Dying defeats all plot. What would I possibly have had to say to Charlie, even if we did talk?
Hemenway is only twenty-eight, and this is remarkable given one of the narrator’s final discoveries: “There may have been a time when we were not yet the people we are now, but we certainly always contained them.”
Like “Elegy on Kinderklavier,” bestselling author Andre Dubus III’s quartet of novellas, Dirty Love, is concerned with the psyche’s “dirtiness” and the many ways in which moral damage plays out in intimate relationships. For Dubus, there remains the possibility of redemption, and always, as in the case of Hemenway, compassion. His novellas are linked in terms of geography as well as tone, set in the coastal mill towns near the Massachusetts–New Hampshire border, fertile terrain that Dubus explored in his coming of age memoir, Townie.
In the opening novella, “Listen Carefully as Our Options May Have Changed,” the reader meets Mark Welch, a fifty-six-year-old man whose wife, Laura, is having an affair. Mark has pried into his wife’s correspondence and rifled through her private things; he’s even hired a private investigator to film Laura with her lover, and he’s forced her to watch the video. Armed with a lead pipe, Mark eventually drives across town to her lover’s house to confront him, only to discover, belatedly, that he’s accidentally confronted the lover’s son.
One of Dubus’s strengths is his ability to render the self in extremis. Here the novella form allows room for Mark to revisit his long history with his wife—they have a grown daughter—and to realize the ways in which his compulsive need for order and control damaged and diminished her and their marriage. In the process, Mark must really look at himself, and in the end, he is allowed a measure of hope.
Spanning only forty pages, the second novella, “Marla,” introduces an idealistic, overweight young bank teller who initially believes that a romantic relationship will somehow complete her. When Marla becomes involved with Dennis, a fat, lethargic sound engineer who works for the local radio station, her co-workers encourage her to believe that Dennis is her destiny. A particular fan of the relationship and a powerful influence is pretty, middle-aged Nancy, who lives in a customized house on the lake and hosts themed couples parties. Though Marla tries to believe in the idea of a shared future, little by little doubt seeps in, inevitable given Dennis’s competitiveness, his compulsive cleanliness and his inability to compromise or yield on anything. One of the most poignant scenes centers on Dennis and Marla’s double date with Nancy and her husband. While the other couples dance around them, Marla waits for Dennis to invite her to join them. She’s patient for a while but finally confronts him. Later, Dennis proves equally fixed on the subject of having children:
She took a deep breath. “Think we’ll ever have a baby, Denny?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Marla felt slapped. . . . She felt like crying, not because of what he’d said
but how he’d said it, his voice adamant and final. Then his big hand was on her knee and she wanted to push it away.
Confused and disillusioned, Marla would probably end the relationship, were it not for Nancy, whose form of pressure proves truly chilling:
“I’m afraid you’re expecting too much from him and you’ll give up too
soon. Which wouldn’t be fair to Dennis, by the way.”
“Is it fair to pretend around him?”
“There are worse things than pretending, Marla.”
Like Mark Welch, Nancy tries to control those close to her, and Dubus is particularly good at rendering the subtly damaging or “dirtying” impact. “Marla,” even more than the first novella, is a testament to how efficiently character can be established; and character is one of Dubus’s greatest strengths. His people step forward fully formed, so the reader believes in them instantly.
In “The Bartender,” the third novella, twenty-something Robert Doucette wants to be a poet; in reality he’s a hard-drinking bartender at a seaside resort who cheats on his patient, very pregnant wife. Dubus’s characters may inflict damage, but they’re still allowed to hope, even if that redemption is far-fetched or unlikely, as is the case with Robert, who longs to change after his daughter’s premature birth. Dubus feels compassion towards Robert, and via the last six or so pages of close description set in the hospital at the novella’s close, he kindles that compassion in the reader.
The title novella, also the longest at nearly one hundred and thirty pages, follows eighteen-year-old Devon and her eighty-year-old great uncle Francis, with the narrative alternating between their two viewpoints. We’ve met Devon before. In “The Bartender,” she was a waitress at the restaurant where Robert tended bar, but she disappeared almost as quickly as she was introduced, a point which illuminates yet another quality of these novellas. In this geographically-linked collection, the reader feels she’s met many of the characters before, and in several cases that’s true. Nancy, from “Marla,” reappears in “Dirty Love” as the mother of one of the boys responsible for the creation of “Dirty Devon,” an Internet identity that haunts Devon and leads to her dropping out of high school. (Meanwhile Nancy’s son is going to Dartmouth.)
Shamed and alienated by the sexual act that her friends posted to the Internet, a clip that her father eventually watches, Devon’s only real connection by the time her story opens is with the music constantly streaming through her headphones and with a traumatized Iraq vet in Texas, whom she meets on the Internet. This lost girl is all too real; her enthrallment to cyberspace, a terrifying testament to our age. But her great uncle, Francis, is alienated, too. This complicates the narrative beautifully and makes the novella even more interesting. Traumatized by the memory of the massacre he witnessed while serving in Korea, Francis, a beloved, retired high school teacher, has given Devon a place to live since her estrangement from her adulterous, alcoholic father.
“Dirty Love” is a particularly satisfying narrative and definitely the tour-de-force of the collection, with Dubus moving seamlessly between the two characters and weaving in and out of their recurring memories and fears. And yes, the vision is bleak. Yet hope does emerges in small moments of grace or connection, as when Francis, a recovered alcoholic, remembers being pulled over for speeding—he was running away from his fear by pressing the gas pedal—by a cop who turns out to have been one of his most troubled students turned good. Francis may not able to move beyond his agonizing memories; he may not be able to help the great-niece he has always loved who, at the end, embarks on what will likely become a dangerous and painful journey. That danger, always shimmering beneath the surface, is part of “Dirty Love’s” power; and Dubus is able to sustain and develop it through the novella form. “Dirty Love,” like the other three novellas in this collection, brings into sharp focus themes of damage and hurt but also hope and love among characters who are all too flawed, yet utterly believable.
Ultimately, then, what the novella does so well is enable the writer to showcase his/her mastery of craft and to bring forth central thematic, formal and existential concerns, all the while giving the reader a knockout infusion of voice. While the short story is too tight a form to enable the writer to really wander, and the novel too big a thing, with its highly developed characters, its subplots and digressions, to showcase a writer’s mastery of form, the pressure of the novella does indeed suit it to a single powerful idea or, as Henry James has said, to “the idea happily developed” to its own perfect length.
The Salted Leg
And so it came to be that on the evening of July 24, 1865, Joshua Clantz, formerly of Kaskaskia, Illinois, and the Army of the Potomac, arrived at the Post Mills, Vermont, home of Mr. and Mrs. Emil Picard wearing the remains of his Union uniform and carrying a half-melted packet of Clark’s Maple Sugar Candies, seven forlorn oxeye daisies, a four-shot pepperbox revolver and the left leg of Private First Class Orlin MacDonald, sawed off just below the knee and coffined in a crate of white Liverpool salt.
This story is not currently available online.
The Youth of North America
Walter had just concluded the first week of a two-week adult program he was leading in Barcelona when he and his colleagues, a woman in her midthirties and a man in his late thirties, both junior to him in every sense of the word, decided to take themselves out on the town. It had been an exhausting seven days of complaints and demands, and they figured they’d earned a night away from their group. It wasn’t an easy job, this task of glorified tour guide, and while Walter had created the “immersion” itinerary of cultural seminars and field trips, he was grateful to leave it to Pete and Carina to enact the details, although sometimes he sensed that they wondered if they even needed him at all. Really, he just wanted to get out to a bar and drink without interruption. Also, he was interested in the France–Germany game.
This story is not currently available online.
Missy heard that her mom was in the hospital, had been assaulted in her own home, from a second cousin who had listened to the whole thing on her police scanner. “As soon as I heard the name June Weaver, I figured I should tell somebody. It sounds bad, Missy.”
This story is not currently available online.
Our mother, Ruth, went on a diet. She drank Tab from plastic cups that she covered with lipstick marks; she ate cottage cheese on wheat toast. She ordered a box of powdered milkshakes by calling the number on a late-night infomercial in which aging movie stars claimed to have been transformed. The box arrived on a Friday in spring, and my sister, Beth, and I helped her fill the pantry with the dainty packets of powder. At breakfast and lunch she was supposed to combine the packets with a thin, anemic milk she kept in the fridge. Then, according to the advertisement, she could eat a sensible dinner and lose weight. The powders came in flavors with bright, surreal colors: hot pink strawberry, red cherry, yellow pineapple.
This story is not currently available online.
Poetry Feature: David Lee
Featuring the poems:
- Globe Mallow
- Etymology/Diction or The Earthly Beatification of Miss Lilly McCree