Monday, January 06, 2003

The Boy on the Green Bicycle by Margaret Diehl

I want to talk to you this morning about an achingly beautiful little book by Margaret Diehl entitled The Boy on the Green Bicycle. You may have read one of Diehl’s other books, Men or Me And You. I thought both were rather brave explorations of contemporary women questioning and experimenting with female-male relationships, but I can’t really remember much about either of them, and certainly neither prepared me for the soul-searching honesty of this memoir.

I readily admit to being a spoiled reader; even beautiful writing without serious content is insufficient, and I have to confess that serious social and political content is not enough unless written by a genuine word-weaver. Having said that, you may be surprised as you begin to read The Boy on the Green Bicycle, for it is the story of what most of us could only regard as a rich and privileged family, self-exiled from the south to a huge house in New Jersey. Although a large family by today’s standards, four children, three cats and a dog rambling in a huge old home, a devoted stay-home mother with ample funds for food and paid help creates what seem in the early pages of the book to be a culturally rich and stable home. The children range in age from six to fourteen, and the family seems to revolve around the oldest fourteen year old boy. Margaret is the next to youngest at seven as the story begins, and she remembers clearly (and seemingly without resentment) that Jimmy is the favorite not only of the other three children, but of her mother as well. Wise and compassionate beyond his years, he does not bully or dominate his younger siblings, but instead allows them into his world. Popular with other children as well, both boys and girls, the younger children seem quite content to hang suspended in his halo.

As you know, I hate giving away stories, but you would be unable to read any of the little jacket blurbs on this book without gleaning that Jimmy is the boy on the green bicycle, and that it is his death which is the compass point of the story. One reviewer is quoted on the cover as saying that this book is almost dangerously beautiful, and as odd as that comment seems, I soon came to see its accuracy. The events of the book are not happy, nor is the life of either the young Margaret or the shadow of the adult Margaret hinted at but not described in the book. Still, the writing, page by page, is stunning, and one can easily see the budding artistic genius of the author. Even tragedy is transformed into incandescent beauty through the word magic of this writer.

Indeed, in the early chapters of the book, one easily forgets the ominous warnings on the book-jacket and simply enters into the charmed life that Jimmy seems able to provide for himself and his siblings. If there is a shadow lurking over these pages, it is that of the father—a book publisher in New York who brings back from the city a fast-paced and anxious self-absorption that daily interrupts the smooth flow of family life. Around him, Margaret cannot but feel in the way, ungainly, ugly. At best, she is invisible when he is in the house, but even her invisibility is tenuous, and in spite of her fear of displeasing him, without quite knowing why, she desperately wants his attention. She lurks and spies, listening in on the conversations of her parents, afraid of being caught, but coveting the world they have together.

Let me allow Margaret to speak for herself of her father:
When he entered the house he was vibrating. His broad shoulders, big boxy head, the whole square picture of him, enhanced by square black glasses, square briefcase, and coat and hat, was in jerky motion beyond what was necessary to cover ground. He used too much force shutting the door, called out loudly for my mother, set down his briefcase, and let his hands free to shake for awhile.

Those hands! Thrust out in front of him as if he were desperate to get rid of them, two inches of slender wrist exposed. This was not a tremble. This was like something out of the movies, like propeller blades, back and forth, churning the air. I didn’t think of them as signaling an illness. What I thought was that they were bewitched, they had power.

When he could manage it, he lit a cigarette, a Lucky Strike, from the red-and-white package. After a few inhales, he’d look through his mail. Mostly long white envelopes addressed to A.C. Diehl. I had already investigated them. Bills. It surprised me that the world was not afraid of him ... Daddy’s arrival set the house into a glassy panic, which lasted all evening--yet the roar of his car, the shaking of his hands! Of course I can’t speak for the others, but I know they felt it. The engine of his sensual life. The fury and sobbing of a machine that is not being used properly, whose wheels will mount the curb as in all your favorite movies. What if he caught me spying? would he kill me? Sometimes he chased us, enraged, bellowing—took off his belt to whip us.
She speaks of her conviction that her father wants the children to disappear, wants her mother for himself alone, though none of this surprises her five and six and seven year old self; she supposes this is as it must me, simply the way fathers are.
He was there in the doorway, exuding that bewildered fury that was his most characteristic response to us. What was it like to be him, coming blinking into a room where his children saw him as the enemy? In my case, an enemy I secretly loved, felt so tender toward, protecting, yet no less scared or angry. I wanted him, but at a distance, not right next to me. I couldn’t stand it. His force field, the inverted nine-tenths of his rage, melted me inside, my ordered self fusing so I could barely think or know, so that I would be, for the length of the dinner, insane.
But if she fears and loves her father, she loves and trusts and wants to be swallowed up by her beautiful and calm, order-peace-making mother. All of the children vie to sit by the mother at table, where it is safe. If her descriptions of her father are frightening, and made more frightening by her acceptance of his indifference or rage as the norm, her descriptions of her mother are a lovely and soothing counterpoint. Her mother brings books and crystal and beauty into the home, and if she has a husband who frightens her children (and even her), she has a son who loves and adores her and supplies the loving attention lacking from her steam-engine husband. Indeed, Jimmy is the hope, the solace, the salvation for all of them—until he is struck down on his green bicycle, taken from them, leaving them to shatter and scatter into pieces.

And from Jimmy’s death on, this is a sad little book—a meticulous description of the effect of his death on her parents, of her father’s madness, precipitated if not caused by Jimmy’s death. I won’t tell you any more of the story, except to warn you that it is, indeed, sad, though the sheer beauty of the writing and the creative spirit of the little girl growing into the exquisite weaver of words that she becomes makes the reading worthwhile.

This is not, I think, a profound book, nor does it have much to tell us about world politics or important social issues. And yet, it is one that I could not put down once I started it, and I feel oddly enriched for having read it. When I think back over it, I think of precious stones, of words strung together to form gems, and you can be sure that I will read anything else that she writes.

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