What I’m Going to Do, I Think
A Nest of Ninnies
Leonard Michaels is a gut-writer. The paradigm of his fiction is simple: two people, locked in violence. The stories are set in “the city’s dark going places,” New York for instance, but the setting is not crucial, any city will answer. The people themselves hardly matter, except as conductors of violence; they are good for intensity and shock, nothing else. We are not required to care for them, but rather to be afflicted by the venom they secrete. The characters come in pairs, couples, Phillip and Veronica, Sarah Nilsin and Myron Bronsky, Melanie and Harry, Phillip and Cecily, Miller and Mildred. Their violence is the kind that couples engender: birth and copulation and then death. Sometimes the hero has a twin, as Phillip has his secret sharer, Henry; and then the girl, the stuttering Marjorie, provides the occasion, the incitement. Of Henry, Phillip says:
A nose, eyes, a curious mouth, a face, my own felt face behind my eyes, an aspect of my mind, a habit of my thought—my friend, Henry.
But when the two people remain two, the reader feels that if the violence were to be stilled, as by divine intervention, the characters would cease to exist. Beyond the violence, they are nothing. So they tend to collapse, at any moment, into an undifferentiated medium, a vortex of feeling. The words on the page barely differentiate one mode of violence from another. Mechanically, the stories might be reduced to anecdotes, if the exacerbation were omitted, but the anecdotes count for less than the exacerbation, the grip of claw. In “Going Places” the story concerns Beckman, a taxi-driver, mugged. Out of hospital, he finds a job as assistant to a paint contractor. So much for the facts; but plot does not define the events within, the grinding of moment upon moment, until the last terror. In “Crossbones” Myron and Sarah dance various figures in their apartment until, finally, with the bones crossed, the bodies are consumed.
To do so much with words, Mr. Michaels drives his language hard. He writes in a high rush, the sentences tormenting each other, like the couples, as if nothing short of annihilation could suffice, the feeling being what it is. In several stories I was reminded of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, an essay in modern Gothic which perhaps marked for Mr. Michaels the possibilities of the genre. But he is more than a promising pupil. Going Places contains thirteen short stories; four or five of them are impeccable. The title story, then “Sticks and Stones,” “The Deal,” “Intimations,” and “Finn” are the high places, but Mr. Michaels is a powerful writer even when his story wavers. When the balance fails and the story goes awry, there is an impression of inserted horror: the rhetoric strains beyond itself, and the story, self-regarding in its violence, becomes a Gothic conceit. The weaker stories die of their own excess: often because nothing is allowed to rebuke the fiction, no sense of fact is allowed to intervene. In “Making Changes” the Gothic excess is predictable and the story merely proves that, in such fiction, nearly anything is possible while nothing is necessary. The composition is arbitrary, a matter of will. “Fingers and Toes” is decadent in this way, a grotesque translation of “Sticks and Stones”; it bears about the same relation to Mr. Michaels’s best work as, say, in Nathanael West, The Dream Life of Balso Snell bears to The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts. The proof is that the passages beyond the coupling violence are pastiche, dead matter, the fiction has congealed into stereotype.
But the best work is superb, and Going Places, one story with another, is a brilliant book. For me, the most powerful thing in the book is “The Deal.” A girl, Abbe Carlyle, drops her glove: one of twenty boys, jammed together on the stoop, picks it up. Abbe asks for its return. The story proceeds, disclosing all the violence concealed in its first appearances. Mr. Michaels’s special context is “the abuse of a thousand streets,” and as he sends Abbe walking across this street to the grocery to buy cigarettes, the ordinary detail gradually admits the monster, the dog beneath the skin. Forty monstrous eyes tear Abbe to pieces: “the monster, watching, saw the glove fall away.”
What is remarkable in the story, and unusual in Mr. Michaels’s fiction, is the allowance given to common things. Usually, they do not count, but here in the form of pigeons whirling between buildings, a ten-wheel truck, and water running against the curb, they are allowed to press against the barbaric rush, one common force against another only less common, until at last the monster breaks loose. The story earns its extreme reach by allowing for everything in life which, extreme at the end, is ordinary till then. The characters are not, to begin with, sinister. Nor is Abbe. But in the sunshine Abbe, teasing herself, plays with the twenty-headed thing, and soon the play loses all form and ritual to become pure spirit, and pure will, pure violence. Normally, Mr. Michaels is content with the official possibilities of his genre; content, too, with its limitations. But in this story, as in “Going Places,” he forces the genre to accommodate itself to more stringent demands than those traditionally acknowledged in Gothic fiction. The turbulence of the story is not, then, arbitrary or wanton; it is certified, tested against the corresponding force of order in the form itself.
By comparison with Mr. Michaels, Miss Warner plays her stories pianissimo. She is concerned with disorder and early sorrow; fathers and mothers, divorced; dreams, dissolving; siblings; brief encounters; homing instincts; cities; summer islands. These concerns are never less than interesting, and often poignant especially when the friction of feeling is her theme. Many of her stories employ a favorite structure: into a group, often a family, technically united, she introduces an innocent alien, perhaps a repair-man, a cabinet-maker, a Chinese friend, a house-hunting couple, an uncle, a dead father, a child. At once, the relationships are tried, analyzed, clarified in that strong light. The process is the story.
It is a good plan, indeed one of the classic ways of doing a short story, but it would be useless by itself. But Miss Warner has, in addition, a fine sense of the equivocal nature of feeling, and the odd conditions in which it releases itself. In one story, a wife bakes a cake “to fill the house with domestic smells” and, hopefully, to coax her husband to love her. Another story ends, “Jenny would rather be loved than known,” and this old classic feeling, too, is beautifully understood. Miss Warner is very good with such moments, good at leaving the rest unsaid, knowing that everything is there in the cadence of feeling, given or implied. She never goes too far, never loses her head, never trips. She does not reach as far as Mr. Michaels, she does not take his risks, but she is moving steadily in her own direction.
Along the way, she has developed a personal symbolism. Houses are important to her in this way; rooms, doors, gardens, spaces. She is particularly vivid in presenting feelings as things that hide in rooms; hide, if they are lucky. Normally, houses are either too big or too small. In “How Sweet My Daughter,” feelings are constricted, like the city apartment: husband and wife “had no other room in which to hide their anger.” In “The Minor Repairs of Life” the child has “too many unfurnished rooms for her to hide her little body in.” To have space for anger is good, even if the anger is not; as in the same story, “voices fly off into a summer wind, into the autumn stillness, and Christy has room….” In another story, the heroine, Tess, ponders a dead father:
Bloodless, boneless, until she had seen the coffin in the Florida funeral parlor: black with a purple shroud, how small a man he must have been to take up so little space in a box. So that time too he had come alive, a small man, bones to lie in a box: that much room he occupied in his skin.
Gradually, from one story to another, the idiom of space begins to establish itself, and we see that feelings are defined, according to Miss Warner’s symbolism, by the places in which they are found; hard places, impenetrable landscapes, vacant lots filled by dreams, glass bowls inhabited by fishy women. Her chief terms of reference are mobility and constriction.
There are ten stories, none of them dull, but Miss Warner keeps her best work for the end, a touching fable called “Melissa Savage.” Here, indeed, we are meant to care about poor Melissa, the lost woman and her son; a careless reader is disqualified. The truth of this story is to be found in the grocery store, or in Lishe Young’s rented house, the kitchen; or in town, where Melissa talks to old Tinker Arey; or in the field where the island girl Beatie discovers Melissa, her hands pressed on her ears, shutting out sound. Santayana says, in The Last Puritan, that “the truth cannot help triumphing at the last judgment; perhaps it cannot triumph before: perhaps, while life lasts, in order to reconcile mankind with reality, fiction in some directions may be more needful than truth.” I am not sure that it would be easy to square Mr. Michaels’s fiction with this purpose, but the formula will serve Miss Warner. She has an interest in reconciliation, and devotes her talent to that direction.
Mr. Woiwode would reconcile, too, if he could. But his characters are determined to make the going hard. Chris is married to Ellen, and they bring their troubles to an old ramshackle house in the country. Ellen is pregnant, difficult. Chris meets another girl, Sue, on the bus to Madison. At the farm, he talks to Anna and her brother-in-law Orin. He buys a gun, his one certain thing. Much of the novel is given to the marriage, its brittle surface, the unanswerable questions, the questionable answers, one day and then another. There is a splendid chapter, an interlude, when Chris goes to work for Orin, baling hay. Up to that point the writing has been relentless, the detail bearing down upon the reader lest he escape. But in this chapter the strain is eased, although the reader guesses that the hay-making day is merely a postponement of disaster: Ellen is still Ellen, Chris still has the gun, the marriage is still the same burden.
But the limitations of the book are severe, mainly because of Chris. Mr. Woiwode does the best he can for him, but Chris is really not worth the bother. If a character is disclosed in his actions, Chris is blood brother to Paul Newman in Hud, rugged, potent, but thick; so there is no use in making him sound, occasionally, like Lambert Strether. No silk purse may be made from this sow’s ear. A whore with a heart of gold is one thing; believe her, or not. But Chris is a moral thug, so there is no point in giving him cadenzas of exquisite consciousness merely because he can’t get to sleep:
What had he decided about dreams? About his spirit? Where was his soul? At his center—in his mind, his medulla, his marrow? In his right auricle? Or was it square, resting behind his lungs like an X-ray plate, as the nuns used to depict it on the blackboard?
The interior monologue runs through highly dubious diagrams of sin, prayer, and Hell, until Chris wakes up with a headache.
Perhaps Henry James was right, in the Preface to The Princess Casamassima and elsewhere, when he defended the use of fools and yet insisted that the leading interest of any human hazard must be consigned to “a consciousness subject to fine intensification and wide enlargement.” The muddle of life is visible in its fools and thugs: what is visible in high intelligences may be even more obnoxious than muddle, but it is something for which muddle is an inadequate description. Mr. Woiwode’s Chris is muddle, force, and folly, so it is vain to try to make him something else or something more. The result is that he fails in what he is and there is no other character capable of enforcing the claims of intelligence or justice. Ellen is good in some ways, but not good enough for those purposes. At one point it seemed likely that Anna might help, but Mr. Woiwode let her drop. It is a pity. The novel is impressive at certain moments, it contains many fine pages, but it is incompletely realized, barely composed.
A Nest of Ninnies is a work of fancy, a funny book but not, I think, a comic masterpiece. The plan is: choose three or four lightweight couples, make them friends, and send them off on vacation to Florida, Paris, Palermo, anywhere. Give them little to do except to keep up the chatter, fall thinly in love, marry, set up shop. Add a parody of Zsa Zsa Gabor, called Claire Tosti, “no relation of the famous composer.” Shake the mixture and serve with choice lines. If more detailed instructions are required, make sure to insert the following sentences: “I love these pictures of New York, always in a state of becoming.” “The bluebells of Scotland are not a myth.” (If this one is hard to manage, start by having someone say something about roses in Picardy.) “If there’s one thing Alice likes more than a catch, it’s a glee.” “Dr. Bridgewater, I presume?” “I believe I read somewhere, perhaps in Anatole France, that the Paris weather is as fickle as a woman.” “Doesn’t this bateau ivre ever dock?” “Mrs. Kelso looked as though she had just pulled the name Boadicea out of a hat and was determined to see the thing through.” “I’ve always heard the Sicilians were a very clean people when given a chance.” “I don’t feel up to a tussle with Salvatore Giuliano this afternoon.” “No ristorante and no trattoria; more like a locanda—an osteria, if you prefer.”
These are good lines, and the men who wrote them can’t be all bad. It was possible to put the book down and to retain unsplit sides, but laughter was audible and therefore undeniable. Much of the humor depends upon the understanding that all foreign places are equally funny: the Roman Forum, a wet Paris, some place in Sicily. Foreign cuisine is funny. Unusual words are funny, especially these: kulak, skald, smite, emit, ululation, rutilant, kvetching, beldame, plied, disburdened, hirsute, keening, commensals, segue, and foehn. Names are funny, viz: Gaby Morlay, Elbert Hubbard, Bennington, Ernani (“Like the sound of the horn in Ernani, her words seemed to be the long-postponed but inevitable command.”), Paganini, Currier and Ives, Sarasate, Tartini, Lalique (“She treated him to a laugh like a Lalique wind chime which she had picked up at a revival of Le Postillon de Longjumeau.”), Carmel, CroMagnon, Irene Bordoni, Wallace Nutting, Atwater Kent, Maxfield Parrish, Inigo Jones, Louis Kahn, Harry Thurston, Kon-Tiki, Calliope (“Calliope is a stern taskmistress.”). Above all, words in foreign languages are funny: avanti, mon vieux, moue, cabinet particulier, boule de neige, finta giardiniera, come stai, les copains, Walpurgisnacht, bons offices, saluti a tutti, crise, and sprechstimme.
As to the distribution of the good lines, this is impartial. All the characters are, in the end, equally witty, urbane, gay, even the Gabor-type. Anyone is capable of remarking that some thought is to be found in “Descartes and Auguste Comte,” capable, too, of reciting a passage from Sesame and Lilies. Nothing happens in the book except that it rained in Paris and, during a fire in Kelton, the Sir Toby Belch Bar was destroyed. So the question of caring does not arise. I began to care for Alice, after a few pages, but she soon became like everybody else, and I decided that, with all those funny lines, she did not need my love. Some of the quips are wonderful, and, yes, I wish I had made them. Anyone can say, “Good grief,” but who would be ready to say it at the right time, when someone puts on a record of a Scottish lament? Answer: Marshall, or anyone else in A Nest of Ninnies.
The book has been compared to Lolita, but the difference is that A Nest of Ninnies is not about anything, really; it has nothing but its merry jests. A more apt comparison would link it to, say, The Dud Avocado, another book which is funny to read, once.