The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
In spite of Richardson, Emily Brontë, or Lawrence, you would hardly know from reading most Anglo-American fiction that it’s love that makes the world go round. For the Protestant imagination, passionate sexual desire needs to be satirized, sentimentalized, or domesticated, as if it were some severe but exotic disease which, properly isolated, needn’t interfere with important concerns like money, politics, manly adventure, or social education. Now, even in a more lenient moral climate, we get lots of sexual performance but not much love. Most of the great love stories are still imports.
Scott Spencer’s Endless Love, a serious novel of wholehearted desire, thus seems odd and intriguing. In the summer of 1967, while David Axelrod, a bright but apparently innocuous middle-class Chicago teenager, waits to go off to college at Berkeley, he is temporarily banished from his girlfriend’s house by her parents, who think they may need a little cooling off. Unable to stand this separation, David sets fire to their house, hoping vaguely to regain favor by pretending to rescue them from a danger he’s just happened to discover while passing through the neighborhood. But the fire takes hold faster than he expected, and the domestic Saturday night he’s yearningly observed through their windows owes its tranquillity to an unanticipated cause—the Butterfields are tripping together on LSD, and poor David has the devil’s time getting them out uncooked.
You can read such sad stories in a newspaper, though this one is enlivened by Spencer’s knack for small touches—when David tries to rouse the family he yells not “Fire!” but “Let me in!”; with touching hopefulness he tells them “We‘re on fire”; one of his sweetheart’s brothers reports that “the porch is burning like crazy.” In other hands this neatly symbolic beginning might lead to a familiar kind of comedy of despair, but Spencer plays it straight. David is neither a teenage monster nor a victim of an absurd social system, he’s just an intelligent and sensitive boy in love.
His extreme passion does of course have a background. His own parents are earnest Jewish ex-communists who give their emotions to important public causes but aren’t very good at private love. He is drawn to Jade Butterfield (a name, as I’m sure Spencer knows, that seems to have leaped out of a Harlequin Romance) because her family so clearly represents liberated feeling. Her two brothers are talented, peculiar, free to be interesting. Her father, Hugh, an unconventional physician, and his wife Ann, who once published a couple of stories in The New Yorker, are shabbily elegant in a Waspish way, seem (unlike David’s parents) to be still in love, and take easy views of drugs and sex—David often stays the night and her folks buy Jade a double bed so they can be more comfortable.
But Spencer knows the difference between conditions and causes. David doesn’t love Jade because he’s an …