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Design for Living

Natural History

by Maureen Howard
Norton, 393 pp., $22.95

Anyone who loves natural history museums knows that the first moment we enter one, particularly as children, we understand that the collections are not the main point; they are for soberer minds. The point is the dioramas, those magical windows opening on times and places we will never actually visit. And the best dioramas, for our purposes, include not just simulacra of animals and plants but also the human forms posed among them, as if delicately alluding to the human artifice that puts dioramas in natural history museums. We are looking to see not so much nature and its history as ourselves in nature and history, and the nearer the figures come to “life size” the better they please.

Natural History, which includes Maureen Howard’s reflections on dioramas and the American past, first shows us particular human figures in a particular time and place: Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1980s, though this “present” is deeply shaded by the past. Bridgeport is where Howard’s main characters, a brother and sister named James and Catherine Bray, happened to grow up. Much of the novel consists of their memories, of themselves when young and of their often difficult and now dead parents. But as it proceeds, the city itself moves more and more to the foreground, while the Brays, though still very much in the picture, seem less conspicuous individually.

The known history of James and Catherine begins during World War II. Their father, Billy Bray, short and balding, like Jiggs in the comic strip, is the “one and only” detective in the local state’s attorney’s office. A strict, moralistic Irish Catholic, Billy is puzzled and angered by his bright and rebellious son’s devotion not to “normal” pleasures like sports but to magic tricks and movies. Nell, their mother, the daughter of a prosperous cement manufacturer who built the fine house she and her family now live in, worries obsessively about James’s physical safety, takes Catherine less seriously, and admires but also fears her husband’s competence in his dangerous job. Catherine, the younger child, is devout, hard-working, not pretty, a Girl Scout soberly intent on acquiring merit badges.

In 1943 something happens that will deeply affect James and Catherine’s adult lives. Their father is called to investigate a death in North Stamford, where a young war bride from Texas, whose husband, an army major, is serving in Italy, has shot and killed a soldier in the kitchen of her mock-Tudor house. The circumstances are suspicious: Mrs. Poole claims that Private Litwak followed her home uninvited from a local tavern, prowled through the shrubbery, and abused her verbally and physically; yet she evidently had the time to fetch her husband’s gun from upstairs and shoot Litwak four times at close range. From her speech and manner, Billy Bray judges her to be a floozie, but there are no witnesses or evidence and her husband is from a socially prominent family. The press makes much of her case; and on Billy’s recommendation she is indicted for second-degree murder. But her trial is a fiasco and she goes free.

The book moves on to the subsequent lives of the Bray children. We gradually learn that James, a charming boy, dropped out of Yale to become an actor in New York, and finally went to Hollywood, where in the antiheroic 1960s his offbeat handsomeness won him moderate celebrity. The less favored Catherine, after leaving Marymount, worked in New York as a fact-checker for Time, had affairs with men who treated her like the “second lead, the tough comedienne” in a musical, and occasionally flirted with suicide. She has returned to Bridgeport, where in 1984, helped by a modest inheritance from her mother, she shares a suburban ranch house with an attractive former nun turned social worker, spinning and dyeing fine wool to sell to the “crafties,” as she calls the home weavers of New England. At fifty, she makes out of order and work a monastic kind of life, though not a cheerless one.

But Howard is less interested in the details of these lives than in the continuous self-imagining that any life entails. The Brays are treated as historical “objects” only in the book’s first and last sections; between lie eight sections called “Museum Pieces,” which, from various points of view, suggest the ways in which an imagination may offer not the external “truth” about a life but some idea of the inner self that enables it to continue and to change.

In “Closet Drama” and “Screenplays,” we observe James recalling and fantasizing about the events of his life. Now fifty-two, he lives comfortably at his California ranch with his second wife, Lilah, and their teen-age daughter, Jen. His film career is at a standstill, and his agent is urging him to accept the lead in a new TV series. But James, who would never call movies “art” yet takes them seriously, wants to direct his own black-and-white picture on the Poole-Litwak case, with himself playing Billy Bray. In cinematic episodes reminiscent of the Nighttown section of Ulysses, James raptly watches old film noir classics in his private screening room and mixes into them memories and fantasy reconstructions of events in his and others’ lives: his first meeting with the beautiful but rather inscrutable Lilah while acting in a low-budget movie; the New Jersey boyhood of Morty Ziff, the coarse and brutal studio money man with whom his career has long been involved; Lilah’s own impoverished beginnings in rural California, her brief career as a rodeo queen and then anthropology major, her fascination with horses and Indian artifacts, her determination “to be natural, to remove herself from human accommodations,” even those offered by her husband and daughter. In all of this re-creation James is at once the director, an actor “doing” the various characters, and the audience of the show within his mind.

The “Museum Pieces” show a character or an authorial voice revising stories as new material becomes available. Some of the revisions are peripheral to the Brays themselves. For example, the life of Private Litwak’s inarticulate brother, who intends to kill Billy Bray for letting Mrs. Poole go free, is unexpectedly diverted when he meets at a baseball game a Puerto Rican girl whom he marries; he becomes the owner of a prosperous tool-and-die company. Other figures in Howard’s museum stand closer to the story of the Brays. Mary Boyle, with whom Catherine shares her house, has exchanged convent life for social work in a rough housing project, where she looks after Peaches, the abandoned black child of a hooker. The lonely child uses found materials to make astonishing effigies of her mother and her mother’s clients, and has surrounded herself with photographs of her kid brothers, now wards of the state, taped to the TV screen so as to lend them an aura of life and glamour.

Peaches is a natural artist whose work is “an ongoing narrative” she can freely revise as momentary needs or whims dictate. She inspires a kind of creative passion in Mary herself—to rescue Peaches from the welfare system, to delouse and feed and clothe and love her, and make her part of the dream of performing sanctified works that, in another form, directs Catherine’s dedication to her craft.

But Mary Boyle is “a good girl not fulfilled by goodness.” When James returns to Bridgeport in 1984 to plan his movie, he meets her and, in a scene the aspiring director has not pre-imagined, she impulsively seduces him in his hotel room. This lapse, as much James’s fault as Mary’s, estranges her from Catherine and Peaches; it also causes James to decide that his picture about lust and crime is not worth making.

Catherine has opposed the movie project since first hearing about it. After the Litwak killing, when she was nine years old, she accidentally came upon evidence that Billy, the uncorruptible investigator, had allowed himself to be seduced by Mrs. Poole, and that he helped her to beat a murder conviction. Now, in 1984, hoping to discourage James from making the movie, Catherine is on the brink of telling him of their father’s secret “fall from grace.” But after learning of James’s own fall with Mary Boyle and hearing him declare his own change of heart about the movie (“Too straight,” he calls it, “the fancy woman and the soldier”), she decides to tell him that no one really knows what happened forty years earlier. She is then astonished to recognize that this is true. The case against her father, which she has believed for so long and which has helped to turn her against men, was flimsy from the start, something she had wanted to believe because “it was after all my story, the story of a foolish life.”

But all survive their painful experience. James and Lilah have a new baby, and James is a hit in the TV series he has accepted after all, in which he plays a cop with something like Billy’s gravel voice and swagger. Mary Boyle watches the show approvingly in Pittsburgh, where she is looking after her failing parents while contemplating good works yet to be done in Central America or Asia. Jen, James’s rebellious daughter, enters Yale as her rebellious father did; she has genuine intellectual possibilities, and enjoys being near her Aunt Catherine, who is now well known in the crafts world. Even Peaches at least gets her mother back.

With the serenity of the novel’s close, Howard preserves its mood of high romance. Yet the characters themselves, interesting and unexpected as they are, are not the book’s primary concern. In “Double Entry,” the longest and most demanding of the “Museum Pieces,” Howard reveals ambitions that go well beyond the realistic and personal. “Double Entry” is something like a split-screen movie in print, almost eighty pages in which two separate narratives proceed side by side on facing pages. On the right we read the story of James Bray searching through his native city for the “essence of old Bridgeport” in order to flavor his picture; he encounters Mary Boyle and abandons his project. Meanwhile, on the left side, a voice we can call the author’s, someone who knows what’s happening across the book’s center fold but takes no part in it, assembles a full account, with pictures, of what Bridgeport and other places used to be, the “essence” that James had vainly hoped to capture and exploit.

We can’t of course read two texts at once, and the voice on the left-hand page gives this advice:

In the beautiful concept of double entry bookkeeping, the debit and credit must always agree; no inaccuracies or altered circumstances are admitted, no rambling daybook or mere journal will stand the check of the other side of the ledger. Dip in, flip back or simply read on. Read on—you are free to follow the story.

Readers who try to balance the account will notice some bridges between the texts. For example, P.T. Barnum, Bridgeport’s most famous resident and benefactor, appears on the right hand side in James’s Don Giovanni—like dream of being visited by Barnum’s statue, who compares James’s kind of show business unfavorably with his own. And the pseudonym James uses in Bridgeport, “Felix Young,” is, as the narrator explains to anyone needing help, the name of the cheerful youth in Henry James’s The Europeans, who brings presentiments of artistic and emotional freedom to a staid New England community. But the historical verso text is mostly intended to look past the dreadful urban blight James discovers in Bridgeport to a time when industrial America was productive, culturally vigorous, a fit scene for human effort.

This half of “Double Entry” reflects an impressive knowledge of local history and Americana, and it is full of striking details: that Bridgeport led the nation in corset-making around 1905; that it was governed between 1929 and 1952 by an Irish Socialist mayor who hated to expend public money; that Seaside Park, Barnum’s gift to his city, was one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s failures in urban design. But such historical details are meant as something much more than “background” to set off a “human” story. The background merges with the story and is central to it.

In a short section in “Double Entry,” “The Arcade,” the historian’s voice takes notice of Bridgeport’s only shopping arcade, a glass and steel fore-runner of our shopping malls. “Half block of wonders,” Howard remarks, speaking for the young Catherine,

which, as a girl, she did not notice, short cut to the bus that’s all no one to see you though in the eerie light Cath could see herself swimming through handbags and fedoras, wedding china, empty eye-glass frames; herself among the goods. The shop windows displaying, reflecting her….

The mixing of transparency and reflection in seeing oneself “among the goods” is an effective analogy for historical self-consciousness, identifying our forebears and ourselves as makers and users of objects that are not natural, as figures in particular cultures.

The analogy, in various mutated forms, is I think what impressively holds together a novel whose tendencies are often digressive and episodic. The arcade is at once an emporium, a museum, and a theater of dreams like the movies that would follow. Though its origins are European, it seems especially congenial to America, with its excited uncertainties about the difference between “high” and “popular” forms of culture and about what each may be worth. Starting from the arcade, with references to Lewis Mumford, Walter Benjamin, and others, Howard traces the changes in the way in which city culture meets people’s dreams. It is a fairly short step from arcades to “promenades,” those window-lined shopping streets, like New York’s Broadway or Bridgeport’s (and Disneyland’s) Main Street, which in industrial cities (Mumford suggested) serve as both Agora and Acropolis. From there we move to the movies or TV or the malls, to the fabulous boxes of Joseph Cornell or the dioramas of the natural history museum itself, while aware from the rest of the book, and particularly from the right hand pages, of the sad, depressed places that Bridgeport and cities like it have become.

The scenes and changes in public life Howard evokes usually offer us something of value—something salable or beautiful or interesting—through the values they reflect are decidedly mixed. When Howard juxtaposes Walter Benjamin and his Paris Arcades Project—with its suggestion that acquiring modern culture may be something like shopping or collecting—with Walt Disney and Walt Kelly (another Bridgeport native), one has a disturbing sense of our own unstable cultural values. For all its appearance of rational completeness, double-entry accounting, whose figures may or may not be accurate, is quite as susceptible to error and fraud as any other form of bookkeeping is. In fact, Howard’s “Double Entry” itself doesn’t balance—the verso text is longer than the recto narrative, which amusingly requires the inclusion of several blank pages to make up the difference, in the manner of Tristram Shandy.

But if at any given moment the true balance between past and present is undeterminable, since anything can be added or subtracted at any time, historical accounts can at least tell us something about the conditions of their composition. Contrary to legend, for example, the invention of double-entry bookkeeping was not almost simultaneous with Columbus’s first voyage, but was only first described in print then; yet Howard sees that the legend is true in another way, clarifying something about the “new world” mood of the Renaissance that associated geographical discovery with balance sheets and profits. Or we can follow Howard to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where Carl Akeley’s great gorilla diorama, for all its magnificence, tells us less about West African wildlife that about America when the diorama was made in the 1920s:

It’s not Africa the visitors to the museum look upon, but an American landscape of bright mornings, of time stopped at the innocent moment of discovery before guiltless acquisition, before the gorillas looked back at us in furious recognition.

Though not a particularly long novel, Natural History is in other senses a big one, big enough to have room for a remarkable variety of images of Americans, then and now, “an ongoing narrative” whose ending is unknowable and not really the point anyway. This immensely impressive book treats its people as creatures of the history of a place, but not of a past that is forever dead and gone, whatever the devastations of present-day Bridgeport may suggest. Maureen Howard’s kind of “natural history” is about ourselves imagining a past that, for better or worse, remains in our own lives.

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