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In the Radical Nursery

How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories

Dorothy Gallagher
Random House, 187 pp., $22.95

A few fierce sentences into the title chapter of Dorothy Gallagher’s memoir, readers might be forgiven that sinking feeling of being spectators at yet another act of literary revenge by a grown child with a grievance. Gallagher’s parents are in their early nineties, living in a jury-rigged house in upstate New York with a wood-burning stove (her father removed the hot water heater a year earlier—too expensive) and a feces-smeared bathroom. Her mother—“the woman was certified senile,” Gallagher tells us, just “a heap of rags” slumped in her chair—can’t take two steps without falling. No nurse lasts more than a few days. “This house is very dangerous to work in. The man is a very bad man I think he’s mad,” writes one of the nurses (“not the one who refused to masturbate him, or she would have mentioned it,” Gallagher adds helpfully). “His daughter lives in the city. She’s a very nice person but he treats her bad.” Gallagher thinks there’s a million dollars hidden in the mattress; her father thinks the young con man he keeps writing checks to is going to triple his money in real estate. So the very nice daughter hires a lawyer and a judge makes her her father’s conservator. “My father couldn’t believe it,” she writes. “The look he gave me! Bitter hatred.”

If this story reads like opening arguments for a full-scale literary prosecution, it soon becomes apparent that Gallagher has an interesting twist on the usual filial complaints. A year after her parents’ deaths, she collects her father’s “cremains” from the funeral parlor (her mother’s are in an urn on the closet floor, jumbled among the shoes) and sets about considering the evidence. First, there’s the old photograph of her parents in the hazy time before she was born, “young and darkly sexy,” apparently in love. (Except for that story about the time her mother ran off to Canada, something to do with another woman…) Other chapters sketch out a portrait of an immigrant family, often by means of their artifacts. There’s Cousin Meyer’s suicide note, describing the family’s hardscrabble origins in rural Ukraine, and the revolutionary ideology they carried with them to the New World. There’s the poignant letter Gallagher’s mother writes to her night-school typing teacher, describing her buried grief after the death of a sister. There’s the story of Aunt Lily’s savings bond, locked tight in the family safe, and the family’s efforts to keep her sad-sack husband’s hands off it. And scattered throughout are inklings of how Gallagher herself grew, from Red Diaper baby to directionless “good-for-nothing” to serious writer, capable of performing precise emotional surgery on her own family, with elegantly astringent literary style as the only ether.

Gallagher’s book belongs to the subgenre of memoirs about growing up Jewish, bookish, leftish, and working-class in America in the first half of the twentieth century, a category that ranges from the full-throated nostalgia of Alfred Kazin’s melancholy classics Walker in the City and Starting Out in the Thirties to, more recently, the conflicted feminist reconsiderations of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Kim Chernin’s In My Mother’s House. For all their differences, these books evoke a vanished world of high passions, political and romantic, played out in humble tenements, with aria-like outbursts performed against a vivid backdrop of a class and ethnic solidarity (and often with a beady glance at the gallery). Kazin recalls his father exulting in newspaper columns sticking up for “our Sacco and Vanzetti,” and draws out the affecting story of his sad-eyed cousin Sophie with the peasant blouses and weepy mandolin, pining away at the family’s Brownsville kitchen for love that never comes, teaching young Alfred all he knows of exquisite romantic loneliness. After Gornick’s father dies, her mother—a tough-minded political organizer—can’t catch a glimpse of her without shrieking, “An orphan! Oh, God, you’re an orphan!” and soon launches into a lifetime career of mourning with the same energy she brings to the Tenants’ Council.

Dorothy Gallagher’s own family tends toward a lack of sentimentality and self-regard so brutal it comes across as its own kind of theatrics. As a girl, she asks her mother why she and her father never kiss. “‘She wants a kiss, we’ll kiss,’ my father must’ve said, because the next weekend they kissed, conspicuously, four eyes slipping sideways to see if I was noticing.” When her Aunt Frieda is killed by a runaway car outside a restaurant, Gallagher’s mother submerges her grief in earnest letters to the typing teacher. Gallagher herself wonders why Frieda and her companions weren’t waiting for the rest of their party inside the restaurant, like normal people. “What was the matter with these women, standing outside the restaurant waiting for my mother…like greenhorns?” She takes the title of one story, “No One in My Family Has Ever Died of Love,” from the Polish poet Wisl/awa Szymborska: “No one in my family has ever died of love./What happened, happened, but nothing myth-inspiring.”

For all her book’s home-grown antecedents, Gallagher credits as her literary model the Russian dissident writer Sergei Dovlatov’s 1983 memoir, Ours: A Russian Family Album, a collection of charmingly wayward sketches of roustabout uncles, no-good cousins, and accidentally literary aunts. For Dovlatov, relatives are remarkable more for their ability to put a whole apple in their mouths at once or their tendency to burst into inspirational songs like “Fly Forward, Our Locomotive!” than for the darker currents of history that swept them along, and sometimes away. When his grandfather is dragged off and shot by the Bolsheviks, the event comes and goes like nothing more than a loud piece of punctuation at the end of a sentence. The official harassment that eventually drove Dovlatov to emigrate is summed up most perfectly by his Uncle Aron’s doggerel on Brezhnev’s facial hair—“Thy brows/Crave blood!” For Dovlatov, writing isn’t anything sacred or mysterious, just another trade likely to get one in trouble with the authorities, like bootlegging or smuggling. Gal-lagher borrows from him the comic tone and the oblique approach to self-portraiture—both dig down into the roots of the family tree while developing a distinctive voice that breaks into the clear, between the branches.

She also shares with Dovlatov an absurdist view of the Communist religion, seen from the other side of the world (though he is both more damaged by it and, seemingly, less bent out of shape). The “D” of young Dorothy’s name honored the Bulgarian Comintern leader Georgi Dmitrov, hero of the Reichstag trial. She thrills to the Red Army Chorus and songs like “Meadowlands” and “The Four Insurgent Generals.” But while radical politics form the setting of Gallagher’s family album, they don’t really interest her here. The communism of her parents’ generation is not so much politics as a bizarre tribal folklore, with its own cosmology of fairies and gremlins, folk sayings and old wives. Gallagher’s own version of Norman Podhoretz’s famous “Negro Problem”—“Negro children just don’t like me,” she writes of the schoolyard bullies and street toughs in her neighborhood on the edge of Harlem—emerges against a surreal background of lectures about “Jim Crow and The Negro Question and The Necessity to Root Out White Chauvinism.” A playmate announces to Dorothy, “My mama says I can’t play with you no more because you’re white trash.” Gallagher’s own mother brushes it off: “That’s just an expression, darling.”

Like many others in the book, this episode—played for nervous laughs—has a curious underexamined quality. The chapter where it appears, called simply “No,” summarizes her rejection of her parents’ politics without giving any account of the development of her own. Indeed, for all the literary pleasure she takes in her shockingly frank stories, her voice retains a closed-mouth, emotionally blank quality. At times she seems to dare the reader to judge her a self-absorbed ne’er-do-well, a cold-hearted disappointment to her striving immigrant parents. There are deadpan anecdotes about dropping out of college, a string of disastrous clerical jobs, two unsteady early marriages, and two back-alley abortions (one after—perhaps because?—her father, elated at the prospect of a grandchild, offers to buy her a brownstone in the Village). She finally stumbles into “the job of my life”—writing wholly fictional articles about Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen for a fan-magazine publisher that churned out product “the way Detroit produced cars.”

Even Gallagher’s eventual career as a “serious” writer—author of Hannah’s Daughters, a social history of six generations of women in a working-class Pacific Northwest family, and All the Right Enemies, a biography of the murdered Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca—comes off as a cover for her shameful secret life as a total screw-up. The Tresca book is recalled primarily as the occasion for humiliations by rival scholars and a rejection letter from a “famous” editor containing words like “so badly written that…unpublishable…can’t see how it can ever…“—though we’re also told of the review, “a full page, glowing (if I may say so),” that eventually appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

Gallagher’s stories usually end with a mordant punchline, and sometimes the joke’s on her. She may reject the hollow antiracist dogma peddled at her Labor Youth League meetings, but she slips herself back on the hook in “Social History,” a story about an elderly friend of the family found murdered in her bathtub in the East Bronx apartment she hung onto long after the neighborhood had succumbed to white flight:

I had an idea that I could use Clara’s life and death as an occasion for a high-class piece of social history. I could see it in Harper’s, or The Atlantic: the changing demographics of a Bronx neighborhood, a once stable working-class community slipping into decay and disorder as the local economy declined and jobs fled.

But it turns out the culprit may in fact be another mercenary daughter, more criminally inclined than Gallagher but, like her, only after what she regards as her rightful inheritance. “As you imagine I was quite dejected” Gallagher writes. “How in the world could I write my social history without a dark stranger?”

Gallagher has written a kind of sidelong social history anyway, in the form of this odd, affecting, sometimes desperately sad collection of stories from “the once-upon-a-time in the common life of my family when we clustered as closely as bees in a hive.” In her final chapter, she recalls refusing to take her mother on a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1970s to see what remained of the workers’ paradise. (Her mother only made it as far as visiting her sister in that other workers’ paradise, Florida). Later, her parents five years dead, Gallagher travels to Transylvania with a friend, and the fairy-tale landscape slides into place like a crudely painted but magically correct stage set:

We saw time immemorial…. We saw people in the poetic postures of backbreaking labor. We were hounded by Gypsies. We saw women harnessed to plows, and men carrying donkey-burdens on their backs. We saw animals beaten, and a shepherd kissing his pretty lamb on the mouth.

She stands at the edge of the Tisza River and looks over at Ukraine. “I wasn’t quite there, but I was as close as I was ever going to get,” she writes. Night falls, grief slips away. Dorothy Gallagher’s book stands as a gesture not of revenge but of unblinking love: a serious book masquerading as self-deprecation, a shepherd’s kiss in wolf’s clothing.

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