Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
I must’ve been terribly annoying when I was twenty.Infuriating and insufferable, I was so sure I knew all I needed to know about music and literature. One could document my tunnel-vision with loads of examples, but two stand out in my mind. The first was musical. At the time, my knowledge of The Kinks was minimal, a handful of hits that everyone knew, and which I liked, but which really didn’t even hint at the genius of Ray Davies’ songwriting. Then my friend Doug, presumably fed up with my hesitation, forced some tapes on me, and then patiently waited. Within days I was hooked, searching high and low for LPs about village greens, the British empire, the record-industry money-go-round, and Muswell Hill, along with collections of glorious and sad singles and B-sides, especially from those magical mid 60s to early 70s. The Kinks quickly became my favorite band. My early resistance is incomprehensible to me now, years later – a lifetime removed from those heady college days – as The Kinks remain on top of a very select list. And I find it baffling and more than a little irritating that more people haven’t caught on. People who should know better; people who…So, yes, books. Right. I was getting to the books part. The other instance of my youthful intransigence was literary. My reading at the time consisted of two or three authors. Great ones, to be sure, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway topping the list. But I was closed to everything else. Then – the ambush. I was in Toronto, riding the subway with a friend, (Doug, again) likely in one of my if-it’s-not-Kurt-Vonnegut-then-I’m-not-interested moods, when he pounced. I didn’t see it coming. He took out a paperback and pushed it into my hand, pointed to a passage and commanded me to read. Smart really, I tend to shrink from public confrontation, especially with someone seven inches taller than me, so a crowded subway would mean I wouldn’t, couldn’t put up a fight. Plus… you know… witnesses. Before I knew it I was reading colorful, vibrant narration and dialogue so explosively funny and sarcastic and bawdy that I couldn’t put it down.That writer was J.P. Donleavy, and his novel, The Onion Eaters, was the first time I heard his unique voice. I soon lapped up the first dozen of his books – novels, mostly, but also a short story collection and some other oddities.Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised, the Irish-American James Patrick Donleavy wound up studying the sciences in Dublin and, except for some time in England, he pretty much remained in Ireland ever since. An accomplished painter and a trained boxer, his first novel, The Ginger Man, was an audacious debut. Published fifty years ago, this comic romp tells the story of Sebastian Dangerfield, rogue and scholar, an American studying at Trinity College, Dublin, and modeled loosely on one of Donleavy’s fellow expat American chums. Dangerfield has a wife and child, a friend, Kenneth, who shares his love of drink, debts piling up and an insatiable appetite for life.There’s a wonderful 45-minute audio interview from 1988 with Donleavy looking back on his work, and in particular to the remarkable back-story of The Ginger Man’s publication that resulted in a 25-year lawsuit. Turned down by 45 publishers, The Ginger Man finally found a home at the Paris-based Olympia Press, publisher of equally edgy Jean Genet and Henry Miller. But, rather than treating Donleavy as one of their genuine authors, Olympia Press published The Ginger Man as if it were the work of one of their pseudonymous porno-writers, of which they had many. When Donleavy subsequently accepted proper publication elsewhere and became noted, the writs were served. Twenty five years later it was settled. Donleavy won, and… wait for it… wound up taking ownership of Olympia Press!The Ginger Man is probably the best starting point for the neophyte, but once you’ve finished that, and if the ribald tale hasn’t offended your sensibilities, I highly recommend the woefully overlooked A Fairy Tale Of New York, probably my favorite Donleavy novel.Meet Cornelius Christian, orphan, Brooklyn-born and Bronx-raised, returning to New York as he closes in on thirty, after a decade of cultivation and education overseas. He arrives by ship, but, sadly, his wife died during the voyage. It’s at this point that the story begins. Cornelius is bereaved, penniless and in debt to the Vine funeral home. The stuff of comedy, no? Well, indeed, this is one of the funniest comic novels I’ve read. Vine takes a shine to Cornelius and offers him a job. Cornelius, the returning American, erudite, sophisticated, polite, gratefully accepts. This is a pattern that develops – Cornelius, taken under the wing of an American success; though he himself is never as convinced of his own future as his mentor seems to be. It happens again, later, when a captain of industry, impressed by Cornelius’ breeding and forthrightness, hires him as a sort of ideas-brainstormer. Cornelius, however, is never quite what others presumed that he would be.The women in his world also cling to some preconceived notion of what this man is all about, and when his true nature comes out, they accuse him of failing to meet their expectations. He’s no saint – a terrible drunk, a reluctant fighter who nevertheless has fists-at-the ready, his honesty which endeared him to others when sober, offends them when he’s drunk.A Fairy Tale of New York began as a play in the early 60s, then Donleavy recast it as a novel a dozen years later. It doesn’t feel theatrical or stagy, though. If anything, there’s a cinematic sweep to the narrative. Many chapters begin with an overhead shot of New York, then through a succession of descriptive fragments, pull down to the neighborhood, to the room, to Cornelius. And then, like a camera panning over the scene, we read:Vine guiding Christian by the arm. Past the chapel’s open gothic arched door. Four candles burning inside the blue glassed golden topped tabernacle on the altar.Behind it all is New York – a booming, post-war New York. But Cornelius is running at a different speed. He’s searching for “someone with faith in his nobility.” But everyone else has his own agenda. You might be wonderful, they tell him, but can you sell it? A disappointment to others, he himself grows weary of the rat race: “No one will ever give you two indifferent minutes out of their lives to save twenty five million desperate ones in your own.”An optimist at the outset, his optimism is being steadily chipped away, and he can’t shake feeling like an interloper. An American seeing America with fresh overseas eyes, he’s looked upon with suspicion. He’s a lightning rod, attracting America’s mid-century fears and attitudes, constantly met with “you’re not a subversive, are you” as he goes about politely tending to his affairs.Like most of Donleavy’s work, the language, especially the first-person ruminations and the dialogue that weave with the narration, is ribald, lusty, profane. But scathingly honest.So if you like a cracking good tale of an educated rascal with an appetite for life, intertwined with social satire, do yourself a favor and delve into Donleavy. Yes, I suppose I’m still as sure of myself as I ever was. The only difference is that when I was twenty, I only thought I was right. Whereas now, well, I really am right! And I might just have to ambush you on a subway or show up at your doorstep and force you, with gunpoint guerilla tactics, to take that first step.There are new rumors of a film version of The Ginger Man with Johnny Depp as Sebastian Dangerfield. And Donleavy recently shared a drink with, and was serenaded by, the great Shane MacGowan, who you may have guessed by now is a Donleavy fan. It’s no accident that the wonderful Pogues song is called “A Fairytale of New York.”Donleavy celebrated his 80th birthday this year, on April 23 – a birthday, incidentally, that he shares with those two pillars of literature: William Shakespeare and… well… me.J.P. Donleavy remains one of the overlooked heroes of twentieth century literature, still going strong. Lord of the manor of his sprawling Irish estate, he’s still writing and still in fighting shape. The country gentleman with the mean left hook.
So, I’m back again after a week in New York. We move to Chicago in three weeks, and after a summer living out of suitcases, an apartment all our own will be a relief. Over the past few weeks I’ve read four books. I read them on the beach, in cafes, in cars, subways, and airplanes, and in halflit, air-conditioned rooms over the course of long, languid afternoons. This has been some serious summer reading. I plan to get to all of them this week, beginning today with the modern classic and winner of the National Book Award in 1962, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had never heard of this book before I started working at the book store, and it seems to be one of those books that is half-remembered and dimly loved by those who read it decades ago. The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a successful businessman and a member of a prominent and eccentric New Orleans family. He is unmarried and enjoys the escape that going to the movies provides. He is unable to keep himself from dating his secretaries, and he is constantly trying to hold “despair” at bay. It is an existential novel of the American suburbs where Binx tries to find meaning or hope in the midst of mundanity. But it isn’t preachy or didactic, it meanders and searches, and one begins to wonder if Binx is a madman and not just a lonely bachelor. In this sense it has a lot more depth than some other books of middle-aged male suburban angst that I’ve read over the years, The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford and Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers to name a few, and Binx seems far more ethereal than Frank Bascombe or Joe Hackett. It’s short and cleverly written, and I recommend the book to anyone with a taste for the internal monologues of a Southern thinker.I added Adam Langer’s much-praised debut, Crossing California to the reading queue, and I’m about to start reading part one of Peter Guralnick’s two-part biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. More soon!
The caress of your hair, soft silver
On my cheek how I fain would feel,
And from lips that are soft as roses,
A sweet kiss I would like to steal.
This poem, the full version of which was published in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 1918, was written by an American soldier on the field of war not to his girlfriend or wife, but to his mother. Nearly half a century later, Raymond Shaw and his mother steal a kiss in The Manchurian Candidate. Though similar, these shows of affection were received in radically different ways. In the early part of the century, such deeply felt mother-son expressions were earnest and admirable. But in 1962, the display was considered not simply inappropriate but incestuous and intensely disturbing. What caused attitudes about a mother’s love to change so dramatically? This is the central question in Rebecca Jo Plant’s Mom, which traces the complex social and political transformation of middle-class motherhood in American and the ways in which women conceived of that role.
Plant’s nuanced history is bookended by two screeds against the housewife-mother: Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942), which coined the term momism as a critique of the perverting powers of Victorian-era “mother love”; and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), an early feminist text that called for women’s liberation from their domestic shackles. Though these works would seem to fall at opposite ends of a spectrum—one is a misogynistic attack on the “deforming” effects of old-fashioned motherhood, the other set the stage for the women’s liberation movement later that decade—Plant argues that both books’ criticisms stem from the same poison tree: blaming mothers for the world’s ills.
When Wylie launched his attack, mothers had already found themselves under heavy fire. Victorian culture had idealized them as martyrs and moral repositories, capable of molding virtuous and noble children, and the sacrifice required by this “sacred estate” made them symbols of civic virtue, on par with the nation’s soldiers in the trenches of World War I. In the ’20s and ’30s, critics protested this sentimental construction, arguing that the authority it bestowed on mothers was politically coercive. Wylie’s assault came at a time that Plant describes as the zenith of mother-blaming, helped along by the rise of therapeutic culture and the growing influence of psychological experts. His aim was to show that these outmoded, yet still prevalent, ideas were irrational and that women’s moral dominance in social and political realms was not only cloying but a danger to the health of the nation. Freidan offers the best rundown of the litany of offenses that women found themselves saddled with in the postwar period:
In every case history of a troubled child; alcoholic, suicidal, schizophrenic, psychopathic, neurotic adult; impotent, homosexual male; frigid, promiscuous female; ulcerous, asthmatic, and otherwise disturbed American, could be found a mother. A frustrated, repressed, disturbed, martyred, never satisfied, unhappy woman. A demanding, nagging, shrewdish wife. A rejecting, overprotecting, dominating mother.
If this account seems hyperbolic, consider a journalist’s summation in 1935: “Iron-willed, frustrated, self-sacrificing mothers, trying to live a dream life through their progeny, have wrecked more lives than has syphilis.”
The “mass-produced sentimentalism”—such as the commercialization of Mother’s Day and radio soap operas—of the interwar era served, in the words of one Wylie fan, to turn the population into “a race of soft-brained guinea pigs” and was likened to fascist mind control. (Ironically, today a similar brand of emotional idealism is in vogue with conservative political commentators such as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Buchanan, who nostalgically evoke the past as a way of condemning the current administration’s policies. “Obama is literally ripping apart the foundation of the America that we knew and grew up in,” laments Sean Hannity.) Yet at the time of its publication, Wylie’s book could boast a certain progressive air, partly by hinging on the idea that women were stultified by their domestic identity. It’s here that Friedan’s account agrees with Wylie’s. In order to fight gender discrimination, Friedan found it necessary to employ the same demoralizing tactics against mother-homemakers. Yet by 1963, such attitudes were “nothing new.” This helps explain why both Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, who quoted approvingly from Wylie’s book in The Second Sex, saw Wylie’s critique “not as an attack on women per se but as an attack on women who defended paternalism and sexual inadequacy” —that is, not as a misogynist rant but as an argument for the psychological price of sexual and cultural inequality.
However, Plant is quick to discern an important difference between Wylie’s and Friedan’s use of mother-blaming. Although the former sought to banish women from their traditional roles as homemaker and mother, he proposed no alternative. Friedan, on the other hand, deduced “the logical implications of momism in a forceful and systematic way” and realized that to counter the pathological mother, women must pursue fulfilling work away from home and children. Plant’s study is most interesting in parsing the “fundamental division” among white, middle-class women that occurred alongside the publication of The Feminine Mystique: Though some women were liberated by their rejection of homemaking and motherhood roles as the only ones available to them, for others “those roles did not present oppression or constraint but rather the basis of a meaningful identity.” (Of course, as psychologist Anna Wolf argued in 1941, working women now had “two jobs in life, not one.”)
Plant’s examination of these reactions to Friedan’s book both enriches an understanding of second-wave feminism’s development and offers a valuable lens by which to consider the current discussion of women’s roles. In a large sense, the conversation has come full circle, and the work of equality for working women and respect for those who stay home is far from done. Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, details the social devaluation of stay-at-home moms and the financial penalty paid by women who choose caring for children over working. Crittenden’s book is hailed as The Feminine Mystique for the motherhood movement, yet it owes more to Friedan’s 1980 follow-up, The Second Stage, in which she that argues equality is only one part of the feminist argument; the other is diversity among gender roles. In addressing some of the backlash against The Feminine Mystique when it was published, Freidan admits that many women felt forced out of meaningful identities, and she emphasizes the need for an equal partnership in domestic chores and childrearing. “After fighting hard to win respect in the workplace,” Crittendon reasons, “women had yet to win respect for their work at home.”
“I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,” explains one woman in a recent New York Times profile of “femivores,” stay-at-home moms who turn their backyards into extensive kitchen gardens complete with chicken coops. In rejecting the either/or that has formed the basis of women’s lives for the past fifty years, these mothers have created a third option: infusing domesticity with new meaning and real economic worth.