Monday, September 01, 2003

Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy

I want to talk to you today about a not so new novel by Barbara Gowdy entitled Mr. Sandman. However, before I do that, let me say a few more words about Carol Shields whose new novel, Unless, I talked to you about last month. I had no idea as I reviewed her book and spoke of her as being at the very height of her wisdom and talent that she had died just a few weeks before, on July 16. She was only sixty-eight, which seems very young to me. All in all, she wrote ten novels, three volumes of poetry, three collections of stories, four plays, a biography of Jane Austin, a book of criticism, and co-authored several anthologies. I have read almost all of her novels, and would recommend to you especially The Stone Diaries, The Republic of Love, Happenstance, Larry's Party, and Unless. I think she was a fine author and an astute feminist and social critic. Do yourselves the favor of honoring her life by reading some of her books.

Turning now to the Barbara Gowdy book, I first discovered her years ago with a book that I have remembered quite well ever since entitled Falling Angels. Everyone who has responded to me after reading that volume has agreed that it is a powerful if somewhat disturbing book about coming of age and about dysfunctional families. I was so impressed with this book that I tried to use it almost immediately in a philosophy in literature course, though it was already out of print. (It has been reissued since, and I recommend it highly.) I picked up Mr. Sandman mostly because of the author, though I have to admit I was struck also by the cover and the title. As I began to read it and laugh, I thought it would be a funny and outrageous read, but I expected little else from it. The bit of cover reviews that I allowed myself to read concentrated on the comedic aspects of the book and praised it as a funny, outrageous book, bordering on lunacy.

I suppose that I read it simply as a lark for the first hundred pages or so. It certainly is outrageous and intentionally unbelievable, but I think Gowdy is doing much more with this book than simply trying to amuse us. For starters, this is one of the only books I can think of that tries to be honest about teenage sexuality. In my experience, the sexuality of teenagers is either denied completely, or exploited in the worst of ways by the sickness of pornography. I remember years ago when I read Jane Lazarre's On Loving Men, a memoir about growing up and growing into sexuality, being struck and humbled by her honesty in describing her own early sexuality as well as her powerful statement as a feminist defending her love of men. I also remember very clearly how in my own early teens my sexuality was ignored or cutified or outright denied by adults, all of which simply reinforced my suspicion about adults and their worldviews. So, in spite of the outrageous and often knee-slapping events described in Mr. Sandman, I found myself impressed by Gowdy's understanding of both the reality and semi-innocence of early sexuality.

Just this aspect of the book would have been enough to keep me reading, but an even more powerful theme began to emerge in the book. the book is ostensibly about a sort of idiot savant miracle child who does not talk at all, is considered mysteriously beautiful but brain-damaged, and yet sits down at a piano at six and begins to play Bach and sophisticated jazz riffs. And this child, Joan, continues to occupy an important role in the book. But I see her role as being primarily a hook to catch and even stun the reader, while the important social/political themes are being played out by other members of the family. Although a bit of a miss-description, I'll call the two main characters the parents of this girl. It takes the reader a bit of time to discover that both parents, Doris and Gordon, are in their deepest natures homosexual, though they have been living the lie that society has demanded of them for many, many years, each doing her/his best to hide this devastating fact from the other.

I remember many, many years ago querying a gay friend about why gay men behaved in what to me were such peculiar ways, and I meant by that sex with strangers, sex in steam rooms, in parks, etc.. He was so much wiser than I and so patient with me as he tried to explain that it was the dominant culture, the heterosexual culture, that determined (at least to a very large extent) the behavior of gays and lesbians. If I were called on to name the main plot in this little book of Gowdy's, I would say that it is an exploration of just this phenomenon. The guilt and the necessary hiding (especially in the past) of homosexuality is a direct consequence not of any perversion among them but, rather, on the sickness of the dominant culture.

In the end, peoples sexuality will out, though if it is repressed enough, hated enough, it may take some pretty bizarre and self-destructive courses. I don't want to give away much more of the book than I already have, but let me have Gowdy speak for herself by quoting a few passages from the book. The longer I think about it, the more clever and revealing I think the book is. If it is a comedy, it is certainly one with socially important punch lines.

Gordon, the homosexual husband worrying as usual about how he is damaging his wife and child muses:

He has been fretting that she is on to him. That everybody is on to him. He hasn't had a lover in over three years but the desire is like a compounding debt. Like owing the Mafia, there's no getting around it, cough up or die. Who can't see the cocks in his eyes is what Gordon would like to know.

Loving his wife and child as he truly does, he cannot let himself enter into a friendly, meaningful relationship with a man, so he tries to bottle the feelings, the drive, only to feel humiliated and shocked when they spill over in quite unfriendly and distorted ways.

In this mood, washrooms are where he lives. He masturbates non-stop, but his erection repels him. It should be shot. He studies his lips in mirrors for syphilis sores, he presses under his ears for swollen glands ... in this mood he believes himself to be a venereal sewer. He weeps for his daughters, because he's already dead—or ruined and behind bars—so that makes them orphans.

And of course as he worries and frets and hates himself both for what he does and what he doesn't do, his wife Doris is also steeped in guilt and regret for the laughably few times when she acts on her desires for women.
Oh who knows? 'You haven't touched me in over ten years" was what she intended to throw at Gordon if he ever found out, and you bet it was a good excuse but it wasn't the reason. Her yearning for Gordon and her yearning for women ran on two separate tracks. That much she had always felt, and occasionally she felt the delicacy and the imperiousness of the division, a bit like the reminder when you choke on food that you breathe from one place and swallow from another. The only thing she was sure of was that loving women was dangerous. Don't think she didn't fight it.
Always the lack, the sense of guilt, the shame, and then the choosing (or being chosen by) the wrong person, the wrong time. Anyone who simply laughs at this book, has, I think, missed the point. It is much more a tragedy than a comedy. Even if her critics don't see this, Gowdy does. She is funny, she is outrageous, and I'm convinced she has important things to tell us, especially those of us who are straight.

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