What’s for Dinner?
In this quietly scarifying, very funny, and wonderfully compassionate novel, the poet James Schuyler invents over-lapping scenes describing middle-class suburban Americans leading some of them “normal” and apparently healthy lives and others lives which are “mentally disturbed.” The action alternates between “homes”—those of the Taylor family, the widow Mag Carpenter, and the consciously eccentric Trompers—and the ward of a hospital where patients are receiving treatment for mental breakdowns of various kinds. Normal and disturbed gather in the “family group” therapeutic sessions which take place in a wing of the large general neighborhood hospital, where all discuss their “problems,” under the guidance of Dr. Kearney, “a young man with red hair” who, as he explains, is there “just to audit and put in my oar now and then.”
The figure connecting the normal with the mentally disturbed is Charlotte (or Lottie) Taylor, who combines in herself both. The book opens with her and Norris her husband entertaining their friends and neighbors the Delehanteys, whom Lottie has invited without remembering to inform her husband that she has done so. The Delehantey family consists of the old Mrs. Delehantey—a mine of family memories—her overweight daughter-in-law Maureen, who manages—very adroitly—her husband Bryan, a carping and bullying father to their twin sons Michael and Patrick.
Mr. Schuyler’s characters speak exactly as one would expect them to do in “real life,” except that what they say seems to have been edited, cut, and selected with the wit of a Ronald Firbank who has slanted his art toward naturalism. Maureen Delehantey’s “robust frame appeared freshly back from the upholsterer.” The characters express themselves in clichés, often appearing as self-description. Mrs. Tromper says: “I’m afraid we Trompers have a reputation for rather free and easy ways.” Mag Carpenter describes herself as “a creature of impulse.”
Of the Delehanteys Mr. Schuyler writes:
When they saw in what the appetite-whetters were served, the conversation turned naturally to the subject of collecting. Spoons, salt and peppers, towels stolen from distant athletic clubs with matching ash tray; then Biddy put in her two cents worth.
“Do you know what I collect, boys? Happiness, that’s what I collect.”
Charlotte Taylor, preparing to leave for the clinic, quizzes her husband about his far from unpredictable behavior in her absence: “I wonder what you’ll do when I’m gone? Are you planning to remarry?” To which he responds, “What’s for dinner?” She: “I suppose you’ll go on some sort of trip and meet somebody so it’s no good trying to figure out who you’ll pick. Meat loaf.”
Norris is telephoned, almost immediately after Lottie’s departure, by the Taylors’ recently widowed neighbor, Mag Carpenter, who, after only the most cursory preliminaries, asks him whether he will come over and spend the night with her. His answer reflects the received tolerance of unshockable psychoanalysis: “I’m flattered that you should ask me that. It’s a real compliment. But I think …