One can say much in the first person, and during the last twenty years or so many American novelists have imagined they could say virtually anything. But the “I” presents problems, limits, unwonted consequences, too:
I was born right here in Clarion; I grew up in that big brown turreted house next to Percy’s Texaco. My mother was a fat lady who used to teach first grade. Her maiden name was Lacey Dabney.
This paragraph opens the second chapter of Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions, and it is very arch. What do I know about “that” house, or Clarion, or Percy, that I should be thus invited in; if I accept the invitation, what can I make of someone who calls her mother “a fat lady,” or who imagines, without seeming herself to care, that I need to know the fat lady’s maiden name? Nor do matters improve when she starts speaking of herself:
These were my two main worries when I was a child: one was that I was not their true daughter, and would be sent away. The other was that I was their true daughter and would never, ever manage to escape to the outside world.
Thus twelve years, or, as it turns out, thirty-five, of Charlotte Emory’s life are reduced to a cartoon, and by her own hand, the possible anguish is then lost.
If what Anne Tyler had intended were a cartoon, then all might be well; Thomas Berger works rather successfully with the first person and with such cartoon figures. But Tyler is not writing Who Is Teddy Villanova? or Portnoy’s Complaint or Why Are We in Vietnam? or other first-person extravaganzas. Earthly Possessions, at least in its best moments, is a straightforward realistic novel about Charlotte Emory’s abduction by Jake Simms, a pathetic young man who is trying to rob a bank just as Charlotte is standing in line to draw out her savings so she can at last leave home. The robbery fizzles, Simms takes Charlotte as hostage by bus to Baltimore and then by car to the South. All the coy parts of the novel, the writing that is at once glib and strained, come not in the story of the getaway but in alternating chapters which describe Charlotte’s past as one of the depressed and zany inmates of “that big brown turreted house.” To add to the awkwardness, Tyler won’t let Charlotte allude in the present to anything in her past until the retrospective chapters can explain the references.
We have had enough, perhaps, of titles like Earthly Possessions—Foreign Devils, Fear of Flying, End Zone—titles themselves arch, novels that even at their best deprive the private lives they describe of dignity with a nervous or cute prose. Tyler’s novel could have been called Charlotte and Jake, and, had it been, she might better have seen how much her patient and unhurried dialogue can reveal all we need to know about Charlotte’s past just by showing us the person she is. Since the best effects of the writing are cumulative, short quotations don’t work very well, but here are Charlotte and Jake, two days out from Clarion:
“Well, for goodness sake,” I said. I felt insulted. “Why would I do that? All I want is a little sleep. Lock the door, if you like.”
“No way of doing that.”
“Get another chain from somewhere.”
“What, and lock myself in too?”
“You could keep a key. Find one of those—“
“Lay off of me, Charlotte.”
I was quiet for a while. I studied snuff ads. Then I said, “You really ought to get over this thing about locks, you know.”
“Lay off, I said.”
I looked for a radio, but there wasn’t one. I opened the glove compartment to check the insides: road maps, a flashlight, cigarettes, boring things like that. I slammed it shut. I said, “Jake.”
“Where’re we going, anyway?”
He glanced over at me. “Now you ask,” he said. “I was starting to think you had something missing.”
A woman who was afraid as a child that she would never escape from home being taken just as she was about to leave; a young man who has insistently failed to make anything work in his life; the two not just becoming clear, but establishing some relationship with each other.
Jake thinks he is going somewhere. To Perth, Florida, where an old buddy now lives because his mother “never did think much of me, moved Oliver clean away from me”; first, though, he goes to Linex, Georgia, to pick up Mindy, seventeen and pregnant by him, at a home for unwed mothers:
“Well, at first I thought she was too young and besides I didn’t like her all that much but I couldn’t seem to shake her. She was forever hanging around and didn’t take offense when I sent her away but went off smiling, made me feel bad. Just a little gal, you know? It was summer and she wore those sandals like threads, real breakable-looking. Finally it just seemed like I might as well go on out with her.”
When she appears, Mindy doesn’t help much, she and Jake tangle, and Jake comes increasingly to rely on Charlotte’s blankness, which he gradually understands as her trust of him. Tyler is excellent at making this blankness expressive; at the beginning, for instance, it is unnerving that neither of them mentions sex, but slowly Tyler shows that this is the result of Charlotte’s being so absorbed in the trip that she seems in a cocoon, while Jake is too involved in his own determination to fail. Yet this sexlessness is what, at the end, brings them together, as Charlotte is about to leave:
“I’m leaving now,” I told him.
His mouth fell open.
“I can’t stay on forever, Jake. You knew I’d have to go sometime.”
“No, wait,” he said. His voice had turned harsh and raspy.
“Tell Mindy goodbye for me.”
“Charlotte, but…see, I can’t quite manage without you just yet. Understand? I’ve got this pregnant woman on my hands, got all these…Charlotte, it ain’t so bad if you’re with us, you see. You act like you take it all in stride, like this is the way life really does tend to turn out. You mostly wear this little smile. I mean, we know each other, Charlotte. Don’t we?”
“Yes,” I said.
Yet in the alternating chapters, even near the end of the novel, the characters are still habitually given to false summarizing. “It’s not me that you’ve fooled, it’s yourself,” and “I have spent my life at the Clarion P.T.A.” Knowledge comes slower and harder in the best of the novel, and there is no way to summarize it; I only wish Anne Tyler had retrieved Charlotte and Jake, the fine short novel that got lost in Earthly Possessions.
Who is Teddy Villanova? is first person and extravagant, not so much a parody of Hammett and Chandler as a confident, exceedingly literary adaptation of the form, Seventies cool rather than Forties bite. Here we are, private eye and secretary, in the early pages:
“Gawd, I’m still hungry,” she said with the same righteousness as that in which Zola penned the memorable J’accuse. “I couldn’t afford Blimpie’s Best. I had to take Number One, all roll.”
“I haven’t had the leisure for lunch, myself,” said I. “I was savaged by the gigantic hoodlum you nonchalantly admitted. I called for help, but—God’s blood!—you were already gone.”
“I don’t have to take that type language,” she asseverated in her fire-siren voice, her plump breasts bouncing. “My brother’d pound you to a pulp if he heard you.” I didn’t know to which brother she referred, the sanitation union functionary or the one who was a petty timeserver in Queens Borough Hall, sans power to fix a traffic ticket, or perhaps merely the inclination to exert it: earning him, at any rate, a deafening blow on the ear from an offended cousin at one of the Tumulty family’s Thanksgiving Donnybrooks.
This may be likable, but it is hard to imagine anyone liking a whole book of it. Chandler’s style was often ornate and self-conscious. To make that style only words calling attention to themselves seems more an occupation for a late-night competition among friends than for a novelist.
Some sections are tedious: an episode with cops named Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli; a yoga teacher in Greenwich Village; a Maltese Falcon, here called a Sforza figurine. But by the time I reached the figurine, late in the novel, I was unexpectedly enjoying myself, because the story is good enough to keep Berger himself interested in what he is doing. If you enjoy private-eye novels presumably you do so because you like the mode, but what distinguishes a good from a bad one is the way the story reveals materials that in some way are being savored rather than simply used. Berger’s story is nonsense. Cops and fake cops, dead bodies that reappear but were never dead, alliances that shift so frequently that at some moment everyone except the hero is or seems to be an ally or enemy of everyone else, and, governing all, Teddy Villanova, who may commit murders, or counterfeit money, or run brothels for fetishists, or sell office buildings, or deal in obscene art objects on classical themes—or, most likely, not exist at all, in which case the problem is who invented him.
What the story manages to express, however, far better than the comments on the subject made by Berger’s hero, is a view of New York. When a cop says “Did you cause that man to shuffle off his mortal coil?” I feel embarrassed, as much by its inanity as coming from New York’s police as by the limpness of the joke. But when the swirling tale leads the private eye from being saved from arrest by the Gay Assault Team, to sleeping all night in a Barca-Lounger left on a sidewalk in front of a brown-stone, to a gunning down in Union Square, to a high-rise where a stewardess who may be a Treasury agent lives, then the motion itself expresses a decadent, improbable, fascinating wilderness that is familiar enough to be plausible and distinctive, too. The hero is beyond conspiracy theories about the city, despite the countless possible conspiracies against him, because nothing, and no one, surely, could have thought up New York.
Someone, though, is plotting against our hero, and maybe, indeed, it is his landlord, who wants only to get him to move so he can sell the office building; it might take that much to get someone out whose rent is frozen and whose funds are low. Finally, in a good last series of scenes, the plot comes back, as it should, to the original situation of a man, his secretary, and an unredeemable office building on East Twenty-Third Street, expressing as it does so a piquant sense of what it takes for people to live, work, and make money in a city where everything moves but nothing works.