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A Not-So-Simple Heart

A Servant’s Tale

by Paula Fox
North Point Press, 321 pp., $16.50

The freakishness of innocence gives the pessimism of Paula Fox’s domestic plots an unexpected ambiguity. Poor George (1967) is the story of a schoolteacher who brings about the collapse of his marriage by taking a sullen youth under his wing. Desperate Characters (1970) depicts a childless, middle-aged couple fending off the destabilization strategies of friends and strangers: The Western Coast (1972) chronicles an unprotected girl’s forced march toward experience during World War II. The Widow’s Children (1976) relates the efforts of a spinsterish daughter to shake loose from her oppressive family. Fox’s main characters are oddballs, restless without being rebellious, and appear somewhat culpable in their unhappy discoveries of what makes others tick. They miss crucial pieces of the puzzle and yet are not altogether blameless for the shabby luck that awaits them behind every wrong door.

Though Desperate Characters was something of a success, the others seem to have fallen like the philosophical tree with no human ear around in the forest. These novels are very accomplished, tightly constructed, sometimes hard to the point of cold. One feels they come from a precise intention that prevents any relaxation in the prose. Setting and character are firmly in place but their fine Easter clothes, clenched fists. The sense of the suppressed gives a biting quality to Fox’s dialogue, and what may begin as an examination of familiar American themes ends as something a little different because her characters have been merely passing for normal.

Fox’s work is in many ways a portrait of New York, where she was born in 1923 of half-Cuban parentage. Her novels have the native’s savvy for which detail to choose from the metropolis of potential data overload. Even The Western Coast, with its Party members and writers exiled from the East, is Manhattan not Hollywood in tone. Hers is the New York of neither the highest nor the lowest. Husbands and single women report to work and get by in the spirit of treading water. Divorcées look upon alimony checks as booby-trapped tokens of remembrance. Family trees are likely to hold tales of alcoholism, of capital unwisely spent, of inheritances that do not help matters much. No one has roots in the immediate society or is much at home in the present, and yet there is little nostalgia typical of those who have come down in the world.

Fox’s city dwellers worry about money not in the newfangled sense of it as a means of expression or liberation, but in the old-fashioned way, as a measure of security, as so many sandbags against the unknown. Middle-aged couples wake up to find that the neighborhood has gone downhill, that the summer house has been burgled, and that the loud-mouthed hippies, the blacks with blaring radios on the corner, are up to no good. Disaster comes from outside the home, out of the urban night, out of another class, and is presented as a temptation to test their received assumptions of ordinary life. Perhaps this wariness of the accidents lurking in a more open society is what denies Fox’s novels a contemporary atmosphere. Her work belongs to a tradition in which realism is a more than inadvertent method of social inquiry.

A Servant’s Tale seems at first a shift from Fox’s previous novels. If the characters in her other books come to suspect that their promises to themselves or their contracts with others have something of the swindle about them, then Luisa Sanchez, a cleaning woman, has taken on in her life heavy obligations which she struggles to keep, but she is cheated anyway. The third-person speculative interior of the earlier novels, complete with instructions to the jury, has here been replaced by a controlled, first-person laying out of evidence. Unlike the New York of Fox’s earlier work, the city in A Servant’s Tale is seen from the underside, while the displaced, troubled characters to whom Fox is drawn are looked at from a distance, from Luisa’s point of view. Although Fox’s dual background has always been present—all her characters are foreign in some way, fear isolation, take little about America for granted—this novel makes direct use of it.

Luisa is a daughter of the plantation economy, articulate about the migration from her island, San Pedro, to the railroad flats of the big city where she will work for years as a maid. But her story is different from other books about immigrant life, of fighting to make it, or of becoming American. Luisa’s is a history of refusal and this premise serves as a device to set up a tale about a wholly unprotected soul. Fox’s portrait of San Pedro, Luisa’s lost idyll, is schematic, dour, laid on rather thick, piece by lacquered piece. Luisa’s childhood there is remembered through the sifting intelligence of the stoical adult. It is an imagined place, presented as a real country, but it emerges as a fantasy, a picturesque invention. San Pedro is where Luisa is from, and coming from someplace else is the condition that defines her working life. That Luisa has such unexplained romantic longings for a gloomy paradise adds to the sense one has of her as a deeply peculiar creation. Nothing she does conforms to our expectations.

Life on the plantation, Malagita, where Luisa was born in 1926, is filled with lore, not incident. Everything has already happened in this depressed, insular place—the conquest of the Indians, the importation of slaves, the Spanish–American War, the rise of the sugar latifundio. The last act was the ruin of the small farmers, and at a young age Luisa knows, like catechism, the story of how her maternal grandfather left a note, abandoned his family, and, while searching for new land, died in a swamp.

Luisa’s status as a bastard is also fixed, though her father, Orlando, younger son of the plantation owner, jilted his official fiancée to live with Fefita Sanchez when Luisa was four months old. Luisa’s maternal grandmother, Nana, does not speak to Fefita because Fefita “gave them the only thing she had a right to withhold.” Luisa finds Nana’s cabin on her own, and hears the gossip, the oral history of the village. Nana is her only companion. Luisa’s paternal grandmother, the widowed “La Señora,” has no more connection with her grandchild than “a hen with the egg it drops in the straw.” Luisa gazes with hate on her privileged cousins. “‘What’s mine?’ I asked. ‘Nothing!’ cried Nana fiercely.”

The men drink, fight, play pelota or the lottery when the fields and cane mill are “dead.” “There were many old men in our village who had little to do except find people to listen to them. But the women, even the oldest ones, tended the chickens and pigs and goats and their gardens.” Often the men are seen as idlers, almost irrelevant. Luisa’s father may be a de la Cueva but he is, like a woman, fallen, disinherited, marked by the misalliance. He cannot lift his woman and child out of their bohío. Fefita continues to work in the kitchen of La Señora’s vivienda, as if no union with a son of the house had taken place.

Who should I love better? God or you?” I once asked Papá.

I am the one who feeds you,” he had answered. “I am the one who is here.”

It was a lie. My mother fed me. I knew that from the beginning. But his lie pleased me, and I often repeated it to myself as though it had been a kindness, a kind touch on my hair.

On Luisa’s birthdays her mother recalls her labor, during which she thought the screams of a pig as its throat was cut were her own. Malagita has a graveyard full of babies; Luisa finds a worm in the belly of a rag doll.

Though La Señora owns the land, Malagita is not a matriarchy. Machismo asserts itself through the violence of powerlessness. Fefita sits on a stool near the cabin door in order to get out quickly when her husband goes into one of his “white-faced rages.” Prayer, witchcraft, and fetishistic post cards of the Sacred Heart are for women. Political matters belong to men, and take the form of following rumors from the capital. The revolution that forces Orlando to move his family north is, for Luisa, bewildering, like a Victrola or a moving picture, something brought in from the outside. “The United States was a great hole to the north which would swallow me.”

The New York barrio is also depressed, insular, but the vividness of Fox’s rendering of its claustrophobia and anxiety contrasts with her painstaking, worked-up portrait of San Pedro. When Luisa and her parents arrive in 1936 they have two boxes and at the time of their last move as a family in 1943 they have fourteen. This slow accumulation of sad belongings, “each a relic of struggle,” is as close as they will get to the American dream. They have, through Orlando’s father, citizenship, but it makes no difference. This, like Orlando’s refusal to desert Fefita, is another quirky adjustment Fox makes in a familiar outline.

Fefita is unable to learn English; they are treated with contempt by relatives who have scraped toward a measure of material comfort and cultural assimilation. Even the food from the bodega, the smell of which was once consoling, is reduced to what the Irish children call “spic grub.” Luisa remembers meals when there was scarcely enough.

The flat was a place I never wanted to be. Walking home from school, always hungry, always angry because I was hungry, I imagined the dark hallway, the blue painted walls, the swollen lumps of plaster, the narrow, stale, silent rooms.

The correlation between menial work and survival is not lost on Luisa when her father, after years of not working, finds a job as a street cleaner and they begin to eat meat. The division of labor within the family is unchanged until then: Fefita works for a time in a perfume factory, but Orlando, still the landowner’s son, takes in boarders whose defeat and terror are like an incurable viral strain. Luisa resents her father’s weaknesses and feels “an irritable pity” for her mother, who eventually wastes away from cancer.

When I watched Mamá ironing a shirt of Papá’s as she bent over the sheet-covered plank balanced on two straight-backed chairs that she used for an ironing board, her own dress unpressed, her lips moving as she talked to herself, I wanted to kick away the plank, its clumsiness and inadequacy proof that I would never be able to enter the world which I had begun to suspect lay beyond our barrio.

The news of La Señora’s death and that Orlando has inherited nothing is a turning point in Luisa’s inner life. “The death of a hope I’d not known I’d had, so nebulous, I couldn’t put a word to it, but knew it had been hope by the desolation which followed its loss, made me feel faint and ill.” Luisa takes an afternoon job at a variety store. “A tide was carrying me away from the life my parents had made…. I felt a joy that was nearly vengeful.” It is not a surge toward improvement, but an escape, a refusal to participate. This refusal takes the form of a life of drudgery.

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