I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
The title character of Marcy Dermansky’s tantalizing second novel Bad Marie is a quintessentially modern anti-hero. A smoker, a drinker, an adulterer. She curses in the company of small children. She gets a little drunk at work. Marie is the guilty pleasure personified, a trickster set loose on bourgeois morality and tact.
An attractive young woman who often touts her breasts as her most prominent if not best feature, Marie constantly calculates how other women measure up to her. She’s also a convicted felon. (She aided and abetted a bank robber named Juan José, who was her lover at the time.) Released from prison on her thirtieth birthday, she quickly reconnects with a childhood friend, Ellen, who hires Marie to serve as nanny to her “precocious” two year-old daughter, Caitlin. We’re told from the start that the arrangement “would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.” Don’t believe it, though. Marie’s ambitions are just more devious than those of most people. Conversely, her friend Ellen is a successful New York lawyer. She has an amazing apartment, a refrigerator stocked with tempting food, an angelic daughter, an exotic French novelist husband name Benoît Doniel. It’s via Ellen’s life that Marie gains access to most of her guilty pleasures—chocolate, whiskey, inane cable movies, long baths, the seduction of a married man. Marie is the type of person who can’t help but give in to guttural desire in ways that would shame most people beyond words.
The trouble starts early, when Marie is discovered passed out in the bathtub with Caitlin. Even while Ellen berates her, the seduction of Benoît Doniel begins. Naked in the tub, Marie opens her legs “not a lot, just enough” and locks eyes with him. Before the week is over, Benoît joins Marie and Caitlin for long daytime baths—a precursor to the rendezvous with Benoît in his and Ellen’s bed while Caitlin naps. Marie falls in love with Benoît, or she falls in love with the idea of him, a man she sees as “the world’s most attractive, underappreciated living French author.” Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before Marie and Benoît rush onto a flight to Paris, running off with Caitlin secretly, illegally, Ellen’s credit cards footing the bill. Marie convinces herself that Ellen’s sense of entitlement makes it okay to do these things. “Ellen really thought she had it all: happiness, a family, security.” But this was all before Marie arrived to take her down a peg.
Marie believes she’s found a kindred soul in Benoît. Unfortunately for her, she has. He’s just as bad, if not worse, than she is. It’s this twist that forces her to grow up. She starts off feeling very adult on the airplane. After all, she’s packed “juice cups and diapers, organic string cheese” for a toddler. She doesn’t yet know about the hundred things Caitlin will need in Paris that she forgot in New York. Benoît even admits that “this will all end badly” when they’re on the plane. But he does nothing to stop it. His ennui seems romantic at the time, and Benoît a prisoner of fate. However, even before they make it across the Atlantic, Marie begins to learn that his acquiescence is not an endearing symptom of their love, but an albatross. Their tryst in Paris is quickly undercut by the responsibility of caring for a small child. It’s all id, for both the adults and the child, and it can’t last long like that.
Dermansky offers a satisfying portrayal in Bad Marie of what it’s like to be blissfully at the whims of a toddler—to win by losing, by giving in. Marie is only really happy when she’s with Caitlin, strolling in the park, bathing, napping, eating mac n’ cheese. There’s so much real affection between Marie and Caitlin, as they struggle and grow together like real families do, that one almost forgets how ineffably wrong it is what Marie’s doing. In many ways, it’s the fulfillment of the life she imagined for herself before her life with the bank robber turned terribly wrong, before prison. Her life with Caitlin, though, isn’t sustainable either. Marie doesn’t have enough money to keep going for long. And, of course, Caitlin isn’t actually her daughter.
There’s something about Marie that drives her to places where she doesn’t speak the language, where she’s baffled by the culture, and this says a lot about her. She’s lost, sure. But she had a chance at a future once too, she’d done well-enough in college, before she became irreversibly bad, before she fell in love with Juan José. Marie can’t help herself, and that’s compelling and endearing. Above all else, it’s tragically human. Even when she doesn’t want to—especially then—she flees from safety, the angel-haired Caitlin on her hip. We know she’s doing wrong. That’s the obvious part. But we also see the denied potential in Marie, the unrequited love. She’s been shit on her whole life, so it’s kind of satisfying to see her fight back, even if she does so via the reckless endangerment of a small child.
That being said, it isn’t hard to imagine a narrative counter to Marie’s, one from Ellen’s perspective. Something you might see on Dateline or 20/20. A successful woman robbed of her child by an envious girlhood friend, the babysitter, and a dusky, adulterous foreign husband with an overly indulgent name. Ellen is a teary, rueful presence that shadows Bad Marie. For as much as Marie needs Caitlin, it’s still Ellen the girl begs for, not Marie. Time and again throughout the novel, Marie is forced to realize this. She fantasizes about Ellen’s pain, Ellen jealousy. She wants to make Ellen hurt, but she can’t do this without also hurting Caitlin.
A film critic, in addition to being an engaging and witty prose stylist, Marcy Dermansky has confirmed the heavy influence of film on her work—stating in the endnotes that Bad Marie was her “attempt at writing a French movie.” The echoes of characters and plotlines are clear. Bad Marie can easily be pictured as French New Wave without the saccharine music, or a more contemporary French thriller like Tell No One or Right Now. We have pseudo-artists, stylish, artful, uncompromising, unutilitarian; an obsession with how people take on and transform identity at will, and how they suffer the consequences of metamorphosis; the juxtaposition of wealthy Paris celebrities with suburban mediocrity and obscurity. The stylized smoking, the promiscuity, the junk food. Bad Marie is satisfyingly familiar in these ways. What’s even more interesting is that Dermansky has never really spent much time in Paris, a “long weekend” she mentions in the endnotes. One of the reasons that this Paris is so familiar to a fan of French cinema is that it was written from the memory of a connoisseur of French cinema. And as such, Dermansky doesn’t exactly offer a sycophantic view of Paris. It’s gritty, it’s dangerous, it’s sometimes boring—the city, not the book.
In the novel, Marie is disappointed by this realness. She wants a Champs-Elysées from an advertisement, not the genuine article. “You think that if you ever go to Paris,” she explains to Caitlin, “that [going to the Eiffel Tower] is one thing that you have to do, and then when you get there, boom, you don’t want to. The appeal is all gone. You’re left with your own taste of bitter disappointment.” It’s when Marie moves past the disenchantment of her life that she shows real growth. Some maturity is salvaged from the ashes of regret. This is also why Caitlin is the most important supporting character of this pleasurably dark novel. If it wasn’t for the little girl who Marie has to care for, then she could just leave. She could cut her losses and take off. With Caitlin counting on her, with a child’s very survival in her hands, Marie has to gird herself and find a way to make things work.
Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle:
My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me.
“What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me.
I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.”
They’re speaking lines from “The Stranger,” a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society.
The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy’s being carried along in his father’s strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development.
In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen.
Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale.
The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.
The King and Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft.
This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen.
Who will you become? It’s an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in “Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery:
At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in.
A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn’t been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked.
Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding.
By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson’s remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.
A mother of two used to dance at a Tampa-area club called Mermaids. She orgasmed while getting her lower back tattooed, she believes in the Illuminati, and claims to have been abducted by aliens. She believes the earth is hollow. She believes in psychics. You know her as Florida Woman, Florida Man’s less frequently but no less gleefully derided counterpart. To you and many others, these superficial details are not only funny, but further proof of Florida’s endemic, statewide wackiness. From a comfortable remove, you extrapolate. You link headlines into a constellation:
Two Jailed in Tampon-Tossing Melee in Port St. Lucie
Naked Man Accused of Home Break-In Just Wanted “Sesame Seeds For His Hamburger”
Belching Shirtless Woman Says Deputy is “Sexiest Thing”
Hubby Drove with Wife ON ROOF OF Sport Utility Vehicle
Instead of Orion immortalized for his hunting prowess, this constellation forms a fisherman shooting himself in the junk. As the police blotter rolls, the headlines stack, and now the national conversation around the Punchline State is more roast than dialogue. These days, only West Virginians can relate to the plight of Floridians. In the rest of the nation’s eyes, the welcome signs on both state lines might as well read, Abandon all class, ye who enter here.
But this cruel elision robs people of their humanity, and it ignores the conditions in which they exist. What’s funny about addiction, about spousal abuse? What is it about the addition of palm trees that makes misery comical? It’s telling that the butts of most “Florida Man” (or “Woman”) jokes are working class, strung out, or mentally ill, and that they’re set in a place ranked among the bottom half of all states in education, poverty rate, and mental health services. Sadness overcomes sunshine. Behind every failure lies a murdered dream.
That Mermaids dancer, for instance, was once Sarah Gerard’s closest friend. She’s the subject of “BFF,” the first essay in Gerard’s outstanding new collection, Sunshine State. In a series of short, remembered vignettes, Gerard catalogs the times they shared – both good and bad – and how their lives collided, intertwined, and ultimately diverged. “You were the closest thing I had to a sister,” Gerard writes, recalling their intimacy the way an amputee might remember a lost limb.
There’s a sustained ache throughout, a sincere frustration with childhood naiveté, personal limitations and betrayal. “There was so much I didn’t know about you,” Gerard confesses, “and I’m angry with you for thinking that I did. I’m angry with myself for failing to see it.” Memories of her friend’s youthful quirkiness give way over time to Gerard’s recognition of the scars that shaped them. Recalling the friend’s unpredictability and mistakes, Gerard searches for cause, asking, “Were you mad at your father, who choked your mother while you watched when you were three?”
Or your then-boyfriend, who once swung the broad side of his shovel into your pelvis; who came home drunk one night and peed on you while you slept; who dragged you across your apartment by your hair; who, you once explained, you find sexy because he’s primal?
“BFF” sets a tone for the seven other essays in the collection, which work together to subvert the most common tropes about Florida’s antic madness. Instead they focus on humanizing the state’s inhabitants – inhabitants with hopes and dreams, who cope with systemic and visceral issues all too frequently omitted from national headlines. As the one who got away from the state when her friend could not, Gerard feels guilty. “You haunt me in my everyday,” she writes, simultaneously addressing her one-time friend, but perhaps also addressing her home state itself.
Gerard’s writing has been described as “unflinching,” but perhaps the better terms are “generous” and “patient.” Her patience is what gets her close enough to her subjects that she can round them out, exhibit their complexities, and her generosity is what keeps her from mocking them. “I searched for the proper way to respond,” Gerard writes at one point, in the midst of a conversation with a good-hearted man who’s nevertheless unwell, criminal, or some combination of the two. In Gerard’s hands, the people who would ordinarily be flattened into condescending headlines are given space to take fuller shape, and she’s able to pick at the scabs to probe the scars beneath.
In Sunshine State’s eight essays, Gerard covers her family’s years in the New Thought movement (“Mother-Father God”), her father’s interest in Amway (“Going Diamond”), her grandparents’s twilight years (“Rabbit”), and her drug-addled adolescence (“Records”). She embeds with a recovering addict working to help the homeless (“The Mayor of Williams Park”). She investigates allegations of grift in a bird sanctuary (“Sunshine State”), and she reflects on her life’s journey (“Before: An Inventory”). In that last one, built out of quick, diary-like observations written about the places she’s traveled, readers can tell Gerard’s getting close to Florida when the descriptions of lizards grow more frequent.
Throughout, Gerard’s essays traverse a complete spectrum of themes familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Florida – drugs, teenage boredom, nature, fraud, faith, and homelessness – but they also ground these themes within Florida quite subtly. Gerard’s focus is on the people, less so the place. Better still, her focus is on their states of mind, less explicitly on their state of residence. Those looking for beach walks, zaniness, and neon hijinks ought to look elsewhere, because in Sunshine State, Florida is cast in relief: she’s the recurrent rain in the essay on homelessness; the radiant sun scarring spots into the conservationist’s face; the memory of spurs stuck in a child’s heels; the “lizards on the porch (looking weathered).”
The conceit is powerful. Florida is a state in constant flux, at once being reclaimed by the sea as humans remake her in their own image. She shapes her inhabitants in ways they don’t consciously recognize, and only after leaving do they realize what’s happened. Awakening to a thunderstorm, Gerard writes that morning storms in Florida are “a special kind of sign, a reminder that you’re trespassing on Mother Nature’s turf–that everything you know could be washed away in an instant.” Later, in “Mother-Father God,” Gerard remembers her father’s interest in New Thought literature, especially the work of Ernest Holmes, who taught that “people are at all times engaged in their own transformations.” At the start of “Records,” a pitch-perfect rendering of intense, suburban teenage boredom, Gerard refers to the whole period as her “year of living dangerously.” It’s a nod to the risks she takes, but it’s also acknowledgment that the year ended, that a transformation took place – that it’s been taking place the whole time.
Sunshine State is a welcome addition to the Florida canon, not only because it vivifies the state’s cartoonish image, but also because it demonstrates how continuous the act of transformation can be, and how being engaged with something is not the same as being happy about it.