Monday, October 30, 2006

Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott

I know that most of you passionate readers will understand when I say there some books that are just too lovely to talk about, just no way of getting at what they have to offer short of plunging into them, or in this case, licking them, savoring them. Alice McDermott’s new novel Child of My Heart is just such a book, and I’m hoping to get you to pick it up by saying very little. If I could I would dangle it like a sweet, red lollipop in front of you, just as on the paperback version there is a tree strung with orange and red and yellow lollipops, the rare fruits of imagination. And who says you can’t judge a book by its cover anyway? Certainly, it was the cover of this little book that grabbed me, although it was the name of the author that cemented the purchase.

I have been one of those readers fortunate enough to have large swatches of time laid out before me to read—sometimes whole summers full of nothing but sun and books. That means that when I find an author whom I really like, one that seems to be teaching me as well as enchanting me, I have often been able to read up their life’s work in a few days, a few weeks at most. I still find it a wonderful way to read. Not surprising then that just a few weeks ago I talked to you about one of McDermott’s earlier novels, Charming Billy, and today I feel that I must tell you about this newer one.

The setting is Long Island, sometime in the 90s, and the heroine is a fifteen year old girl who is the only child of aging American-Irish parents who did not have her until they were in their forties. They move to Long Island to, in their minds, assure her future.
Being who they were—children of immigrants, well-read but undereducated—my parents saw my future only in terms of how I would marry, and they saw my opportunities narrowed by Jewish/Irish/Polish/Italian kids who swarmed the city and the close-in neighborhoods where they could afford to buy a home. They moved way out on Long Island because they knew rich people lived way out on Long Island, even if only for the summer months, and putting me in a place where I might be spotted by some of them was their equivalent of offering me every opportunity.
This urge to put their daughter, Theresa, in the paths of the rich also accounts at least partly for their not only allowing her to baby-sit for families from the time she is only ten years old, but actively encouraging her to take on more and more charges as the summers roll by, to visit more and more of the big summer homes that her parents can only admire from afar. And Theresa is from the beginning a star at what she does. A beautiful, dark girl who is wise far beyond her years, but who also strangely innocent and unworldly.
I must have fit right into the pretty summer dreams those pretty young mothers had back on Fifth Avenue in March….Pretty, intelligent, mature in speech although undeveloped physically (another plus), well immersed in my parents’ old-fashioned Irish Catholic manners (inherited from their parents, who had spent their careers in service to this very breed of American rich), and, best of all, beloved by children and pets.

I don’t know how to account for it, my way with small creatures. Nor did it ever occur to me to try. Because I was a child myself when I began to take care of other children, I saw them from the start as only a part of my realm, and saw my ascendance as a simple matter of hierarchy—I was the oldest (if only by a year or two) among them, and as such, I would naturally be worshipped and glorified. I really thought nor more of it than that. And when they clung to me and petted me, when the boys, lovesick, put their heads into my lap and the girls begged to wear my rings or comb my hair, I simply took it as my due. I was Titania among her fairies…..and the dogs and cats and bunnies and gerbils that seemed to follow their young owners in their affection were only doing what nature, in our little realm, prescribed. ……If there was any trick, any knack, to my success as a minder of children, it was, I suppose, the fact that I was as delighted with my charges as they were with me.
This entire little book is simply the unfolding of a few days in Theresa’s life. For one family she merely walks their dog, Red Rover, and occasionally tends their children on a weekend. For another, she comes by every morning to walk two Scotty dogs. Yet another family has her tending three cats while they are in the city, babysitting both their children and their cats on the weekends. And finally, she cares daily for a young girl, Flora, whose father is a famous old painter and whose mother, decades younger, feels imprisoned on Long Island and escapes often to the city. The insights Theresa has as she goes from house to house, child to child, animal to animal, are charming and yet somehow alarming in their profundity. Added to her paid duties, she also supplies daily care and attention for a handful of dirty kids who live next door and who love her, adore her, hang on her at every chance. The pied-piper of Long Island who finds it quite natural to be followed and adored. And finally, for the few days that this novel covers, a young girl cousin, Daisy Mae, joins Theresa on her daily rounds, invited by Theresa so that the shy and frail Daisy can escape for a time from the city, her seven siblings and her overworked, cranky parents.

I simply cannot describe how lovely the relationship is between Daisy and Theresa—two minds who can together spin magic out of the air. Slowly, the reader discovers (along with Theresa), that Daisy is quite ill—bruises on her body that do not heal, a tiredness that will not go away even in the sun and sea-breezes. I cannot but think that this novel is deeply autobiographical. The precociousness of Theresa, her deep understanding of her own parents and of all the adults around her seems more remembered than made up. And despite her girlish thinness, she is well aware of the new looks she gets from older men, their unapologetic appraisal of her pretty face, her budding body. If anything, she is even calmer than they in her appraisal of their appraisal, already wiser than they. Interested in their attention, but not really alarmed, she realizes a power she has with them, understands more about them than they about her. She also understands on a deep level that she is already wiser than her parents, has already stepped away from their world, careful not to tell them more than they need to know, protecting them even as they see themselves as protecting her. As she listens through the thin walls of their little cottage to the calm, constant river of their voices, she understands that she is as much caregiver now as cared for.

Whenever reviewers strive to find authors with whom to compare McDermott the name Jane Austin invariably arises, and it easy to see why. Her novels begin in very small worlds, usually in a family or two, more novels of families and customs than of worlds and wars. One reviewer talks of how beautifully written her novels are and how quietly unsettling. Yes indeed. Wrenchingly beautiful and unsettling due to their wisdom, the acuteness of the observing eye. I was in the middle of two other novels when I started this one; those two remain unfinished. McDermott must be read.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin

Suppose that you believe “our world is an ungodly mess. That we live in a society overwhelmed by its own poisonous excesses. That people who don’t see the truth of this are blind or stupid or both.” What do you do? How do you act? Camus says that simply comprehending the world we live in entails action, but unfortunately does not tell us which action. As a reader, I am intrigued by authors who are committed to wondering and worrying about how to act in the world we find ourselves in, and Alix Ohlin is certainly such a writer. In her debut novel, The Missing Person, she takes us to the Southwest and to a group of modern-day activists who resemble in so many ways the monkey-wrench gang of Edward Albee. She lets us plan and work with them, wonder and worry with them, and manages while doing so to tell quite an interesting story with almost believable characters.

During the 60s and 70s there was a lot of heated debate over the question of revolution by example. A lot of young people left the big cities to return to the countryside, form communes, and live simpler and intensely cooperative lives. An even greater number who couldn’t literally leave formed inner city communes and tried to show others a different and better way to live. All well and good, the question being, “Does such action have any large-scale effect? Does it bring us closer to a better, more egalitarian world? Can you have revolution by example?” I suppose that Alix Ohlin is asking a similar question in this book, “Can you create revolution by symbolic gesture?”

To set the scene for you a bit without giving away too much of the plot, Lynn Fleming, the lead character, is a graduate student in art history in New York City. But other than carrying on a typical and not very interesting affair with her dissertation advisor, she is not doing much towards getting her degree. She is in New York because she has escaped from Albuquerque and a domineering mother, both the mother and the landscape arid and irritating to her. But the mother who simply will not go away, will not be neatly shelved into a past well left behind, continues to call and alternately plead and demand that Lynn return ‘home’ to find and re-civilize her younger brother, Wylie, who is hanging out with a bunch of unwashed radicals who, insists his mother, do nothing at all or worse.

Never mind that it is a bit hard for the reader to believe that Lynn would succumb to her mother’s demands. Her choice seems to be between meeting her married Professor in Paris for a bit of extra work, screwing her way closer to her degree, or going to hated, summer-scorched Albuquerque to find her little brother. She soon discovers that the band of environmentalists her brother has taken up with are not dummies; they understand a lot of the harsh realities of market economies, the worldwide disparity between rich and poor, and especially the increasing demand for water around the world. Because she is Wylie’s brother, she is allowed to sit in on the planning and discussions of the group as they talk
about water: the dearth of if around the globe, our reckless overindulgence in it as consumers, its diversion by financial interests. The government encouraged individual citizens to reduce their residential water use while giving tax breaks to corporations whose water use was massive in comparison. We were groundwater overdrafting, taking more out of our water account than we had. In China the water table was dropping by a meter a year. The Nile Valley was drying up. The Athabasca Glacier was receding. The Aral Sea was gone. The Ogallala Aquifer that extended through the West had been overpumped for decades. Half the world’s wetlands had been destroyed in the last century. The Yangtze, Ganges, and Colorado rivers rarely flowed all the way to the sea because of upstream withdrawals. Pollution was decimating freshwater fish species, twenty percent of which were endangered or extinct, and causing at least five million human deaths a year from disease. The world was rife with appalling scarcity, and people unwilling to face it.
Lynn, along with the readers of the book, gets a quick education about the water problems of the world, and the desert they live in gives them an ideal microcosm of just how the scarcity of water is addressed. Rich neighborhoods with gigantic swimming pools in each yard. New and ever bigger, water-sucking golf courses springing up everywhere as the sprawl of Albuquerque spreads its tentacles into the desert. What to do, what to do? Well, you could siphon the water out of the pools, spill the chemically treated, chlorinated water onto the manicured lawns, and in one fell-swoop empty the pools and kill the lawns. That should show them. Oh, and go to the new golf courses, cut the sprinkler-heads off of the pipes feeding the huge courses, that will surely give a day or two pause in the construction and call attention to the travesty of wasted water.

I don’t intend to give away all of the more-or-less carefully planned pranks of this new brand of monkey-wrench gang. Instead, I want to question the efficacy of such actions in bringing about significant change. We live in desperate times. Certainly we must do something; comprehension does entail action. Perhaps Wylie, the lost brother, the missing person, sums up best what Ohlin wants the reader to ask:
We cannot return to the elemental things. There is no way to go back. But how to move forward when so much has been lost? How can we even think about the future when we are burdened by such an oppressive past and pessimistic present?
I have to admit that I’m not sure what conclusions Ohlin wants us to draw from this little book. Certainly she wants us to think again and to think hard about how our culture wastes, about how the have-nots of the world are affected by the gluttonous behavior of the haves. She seems sometimes to laugh at the pranks of her unwashed brother and his friends, at other times to be drawn not only to their perceptive analyses of market economies, but to their solutions. Unfortunately, the book is not believable. Lynn, this usually careful and thoughtful graduate student goes along with this band of pranksters without being told what they are about to do or what the risks are. Arrest and jail-time are only the most obvious of the risks, since we know very well that the guards and security personnel rich people hire for their golf courses and homes are quite willing to shoot those who trespass and destroy. The author needs Lynn to go along, to be at the scene, in order to tell us, her readers, the story, but she does not create for us a character who we believe would actually be there, especially without being told even in broad outline what is up. Indeed, in the final gesture of the book, there are two women along for the ride. Both are kept in the dark about where they are going or what they are going to do. Women can act as drivers, as lookouts, as hangers-on, but certainly cannot be counted on for action, and cannot really be trusted with plans the guys have made. Certainly, none of the women I know on the Left would be content to go along with whatever the boys say, would not risk their freedom and perhaps their lives without understanding and being committed to the actions and goals of the group. While I’m not naïve enough to think that sexism is forever gone from the Left, Ohlin paints a picture of naïve women and blind, sexist men that I hope is hyperbolic.

In short, I loved the questions posed by this book. As Wylie says, “what does it mean to have beliefs if you don’t act on them? Doesn’t every single moment of our lives come with a choice attached?” But while I may not know what to do, I know that just doing something, anything, is not very helpful. Perhaps a bit more comprehension would also somewhat clarify what actions are to be done.