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 …