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A Family Worth Knowing

As it happens, Lark and Termite—the first novel in nine years by the much-admired Jayne Anne Phillips—closely conforms to the above description. In fact, Phillips’s fiction as a whole trades regularly in just these painful social currencies. In the striking early short stories of Black Tickets (1979)—which includes an internal monologue by a teenaged girl who seduces young boys (“Lechery”), a subtle Chekhovian story about the desperation and sexual loneliness of a mother and daughter (“Home”), and a short tone poem in prose about orgasms (“Slave”)—Phillips builds on the gritty, even grotesque social realism of Raymond Carver, that era’s master of the down-and-out.

A few years later, her ambitious family chronicle, Machine Dreams (1984), charted the gradual breakdown of a post–World War II American family and the final devastating blows delivered by the Vietnam War. Her previous novel before this new one, MotherKind (2000), focused on blended families, the strains on a marriage of pregnancy and childbirth, and the care of a dying parent. All these books—as well as her others—bear the strong impress of personal experience, even as Phillips’s biography makes it clear that she’s lived a lot of what she writes about.

Her recurrent theme is, in the largest sense, family life, often the tense bond between mothers and daughters. This is a rich subject, and many of our greatest novels have been similarly domestic. Nonetheless, some readers, especially some male readers, tend to shy away from books about such emotional connections, spurning them as essentially “women’s fiction.”

From this viewpoint, Lark and Termite might be prematurely, and wrongly, dismissed as merely the kind of thing that Oprah Winfrey gushes about. In fact, anyone, male or female, who seriously cares about reading novels will find Lark and Termite to be intricately and beautifully composed, absolutely assured in its telling, but also deeply strange and full of mystery. At times, it reminded me of that other idiosyncratic contemporary classic about women and family life, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980). With both books, however, one does need to appreciate a certain deliberate artfulness, verging on artiness.

Consider the structure of Phillips’s novel. The main events occur on July 26, 27, 28, and 31 in two different years: 1950 and 1959. There are twenty-one chapters, with four principal narrators—Leavitt, Lark, Nonie, and Termite. The novel opens in 1950 with twenty-one-year-old Corporal Robert Leavitt in Korea, leading a group of fleeing villagers away from a war zone. As he does so, he thinks back to his early life, his passion for the trumpet, and his love for Lola, the somewhat older jazz singer he had married just before going overseas. The two are crazy about each other, and Leavitt knows that his wife is about to give birth to their baby. While Lola already has an eight-year-old daughter from an earlier, short-term relationship, that child, Lark, is in the permanent care of Lola’s older sister in West Virginia. Once Leavitt returns home, he and Lola plan to move from Louisville, Kentucky, to Coral Gables, Florida. Maybe they’ll open a bed and breakfast.

In the next three chapters, the action shifts to that same date—July 26—in 1959, presenting events in Winfield, West Virginia, from, successively, the viewpoint of Lark, Lola’s now- seventeen-year-old daughter, then No- nie, Lola’s sister (now in her early forties), and finally the nine-year-old Termite, Lola and Leavitt’s son. We soon learn that Lark takes secretarial classes, Nonie waitresses at Charlie’s Diner, and Termite is cared for by both of them, with help from various neighbors and friends. Born mildly hydrocephalic and with spinal abnormalities, Termite can’t walk or see very much or talk coherently; he only mimics simple sounds. His mental capacities are severely limited but he is nonetheless the radiant center of Nonie and Lark’s life. It doesn’t take long for the reader to conclude that Leavitt never made it back from Korea. Lola’s fate is, for a long time, unknown to the reader.

This four-part narrative sequence—Leavitt, Lark, Nonie, and Termite—now repeats itself four more times. The very last chapter of the novel breaks the pattern: it focuses on Lola and is set in 1951. Phillips has employed multiple voices and points of view before—in Machine Dreams a father, mother, son, and daughter recount crises in their lives; in Shelter (1994) we hear from a half-dozen characters at a girls’ summer camp. In Lark and Termite, however, Phillips never varies the strict order of her voices, so that the novel becomes a verbal string quartet, slowly working out a theme and variations. In essence, Leavitt’s death in 1950 determines the subsequent lives of everyone else. As Phillips writes: “People forget that a soldier’s death goes on for years—for a generation, really. They leave people behind.”

That’s the structure of the book. What of the action itself? In the Korean chapters, American planes—mistakenly?—strafe the fleeing refugees, who take shelter in the tunnel under the bridge at No Gun Ri. That location may ring a bell: it was at No Gun Ri that American troops reportedly slaughtered innocent Korean civilians. Leavitt, who has been wounded, is cared for in the tunnel by a young Korean girl and her blind, albino-like little brother. He suspects that they are all likely to die. In his fever, he daydreams about Lola and about their unborn child.

Meanwhile, on these exact same July dates in 1959, we follow Lark, Nonie, and Termite through an ordinary day. Lark takes Termite outside in his wagon, then bakes a cake. Nonie goes downtown to work at Charlie’s Diner. Good neighbor Nick Tucci, the father of Lark’s childhood friends Joey, Solly, and Zeke, mows the grass and stops by for iced tea and cake. Robert Stamble, the new case officer from Social Services, calls—he’s got very pink skin, thick glasses, and almost white hair—and he promises to bring Termite a more user-friendly wheelchair. Everyone mentions that there’s a big storm coming, and that the town might be flooded.

Like the wounded Leavitt, the girl, the middle-aged woman, and the little boy periodically reminisce about the past: Lark remembers summer days with the Tucci kids and her first sexual fumblings with Solly. She wonders why no one talks about Lola and who her father might be. Nonie recalls her childhood with her beautiful younger sister, their father’s unpaternal attentions, the men they both loved. Termite reviews each day’s events from his limited perspective in a free-associative and synesthetic flow. He often adds details, which he doesn’t understand, to events already described by his half-sister and aunt. But Termite also pays special attention to a raggedy orange cat, a little bottle shaped like a moon-man, some strips of blue plastic he likes to blow on, and the strange aura surrounding Robert Stamble. Sometimes the boy even sees shapes huddled in a tunnel, hears pounding noises, and wonders what they are. In due course, that big storm hits and changes everyone’s life.

Throughout, the novel slowly circles around various mysteries—Lola’s fate, the name of Lark’s father, the truth about Robert Stamble—and gradually builds to a series of emotional climaxes, including three deaths and a thrilling escape to freedom. The whole is further knitted together by the recurrent use of certain images, objects (like the moon-man bottle), and patterns whose full meanings only grow clear with time. Still, Phillips makes her material come alive through her dialogue—she’s spot-on in her abil- ity to render easygoing conversation—and in her four different, present- tense, stream-of-consciousness narratives. While Leavitt’s and Termite’s thoughts appear in the omniscient third person, Lark and Nonie speak in their own voices.

Let’s start with Leavitt:

The past he remembers, Lola, his stateside time in the service, Japan, even Seoul before the invasion, seems to have occurred in an adjacent dimension not quite connected to him, and the mirage he lived as a kid in Philly is cut adrift. The tenements and storefronts, the glittery concrete and asphalt, the chain-link fences bordering throbbing neighborhoods miles from the Liberty Bell, are some dream he no longer believes. Barber’s poles ran their spiraled colors in the morning smash and bang, and every deli and bodega pledged its loyalties to a numbers runner smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at a back table. Dented trash cans stood sentinel by the curbs, agleam in the pinky bronze light of late-summer afternoons. Neon signs flashed hot-pink PIZZA and lime green BILLIARDS all night as smoke borne on jukebox phrases eased from the doors of bars. On Shabbat mornings he played stickball, marbles, basketball with the Italian kids, the envy of his Jewish friends because his parents weren’t religious.

What stands out, of course, are the sights and smells of an urban childhood, in a rundown part of Philadelphia. We also learn that the blond Leavitt is Jewish. Still, it’s easy enough to skim over the opening references to “an adjacent dimension” and a “mirage” that’s been “cut adrift.” Earlier Leavitt has already mentioned that “the war makes ghosts of them all” and generates “phantoms.” In a later section he will be called a spirit-demon and there will be much talk of shamanism.

Now here’s Lark:

The school is up above the Five & Ten, on the second floor of the long building with the long red sign that says in gold letters MURPHY’S FIVE AND TEN CENT STORE. It’s a really old sign, Nonie says, it was there when she and my mother were growing up, but the store was both floors then. Now Barker Secretarial has filled the big upstairs room with lines of Formica-topped desks, each with a pullout shelf where we keep our typing books ( Look to the right, not to the keyboard, look to the right— ). We have to be on time because the drills are timed and we turn on our machines all at once; there’s a ratchety click and a rumble, like the whole room surges, then it hums. The typewriters hum one note: it’s a note Termite could do, but what would he do with the sound of us typing. We all work at one speed for practice drills. We’re like a chorus and the clacking of the keys sounds measured, all together. Then at personal best we go for speed and all the rates are different. The machines explode with noise, running over themselves.

Nonetheless, it’s again the opening, the reference to Murphy’s five-and-dime, that the reader should notice. Robert Leavitt has already mentioned that Lola keeps a picture showing this same store in her room. Throughout, Phillips compels us to gradually join together the pieces of this fragmented story, to use various elements—tunnels, a cigarette pack containing Lola’s picture, a set of Lenox silverware, a tiny derringer—to suggest both the flow of time and the strange connectedness of things. Sometimes she’s quite subtle: Leavitt tells us that he used to perform “My Funny Valentine” for Lola; near the very end of the novel Phillips mentions that the trumpeter Chet Baker is playing on the jukebox. His signature tune was “My Funny Valentine.”

Of the four narrators, Nonie—by far the oldest—is the most worldly wise, always tired, and sometimes cantankerous, as in her thoughts about Termite’s medical care:

I’m thankful the doctors let him alone. What would he think in a hospital with them doing things and making him hurt, when he’s hardly been out of this house except to the river or up and down Main Street in the wagon? Who says he wants to walk around? Who says he’s missing something? What’s so great about walking around on this earth, I wish someone would tell me. Social Services going to fix that, make it someplace a boy like him can walk around?

Nonie also has a way with similes: “Sure enough, here comes Gladdy, in her summer hat. She has the look of a sparrow wearing a plate on its head, bobbing along in a quick step.”

Termite’s world is largely one of touch, smell, and sound. He likes to spin the knobs of radios, blow on his strip of blue plastic, listen to the rumble of the trains down at the yard. But he lives inside his damaged head and, like a mystic or shaman, seems to mix up time past and present, to drift in and out of our world:

There’s a picture inside the roar, a tunnel inside the tunnel. He’s been here before and he looks deeper each time and he sees. There are sleepers everywhere, bodies crowded together. The bodies are always here, so many of them in the tunnel when the train roars across above, bodies spilled and still, barely stirring. The train pulls and lifts and shows them and lets them move. They know he sees them but they cannot say or see. No sounds, just the roar, lifting them with their eyes still closed, turning them over like the pages of a book. One shape stands and turns toward him, a man’s shape opening his glowing hands as though to be sure he can. The soft light goes stark bright like a white fire and the pounding starts, pounding and pounding until the train pours off, gone away where none of them can reach.

Such meaningful meandering inevitably calls to mind the idiot Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s novel—also told in four voices—focuses on the doomed Compsons and especially the tragic fate of the beautiful Caddy, Benjy’s sister. In a small way, Phillips uses Faulkner’s tale as a kind of red herring, setting up a similar family situation, making us worry about Lark, then delivering a much different and brighter ending. But Termite’s visionary rambling also highlights one difficulty with Lark and Termite. Phillips originally hoped to be a poet, and sometimes her language can grow overly poetical: “The sky pulses dark blue behind them, veiled with cloud like a swaddled fist.” Similarly, when Leavitt remembers Lola, he thinks: “She was luminous ground he worked and sowed, sweated for and lost. They found each other in blinding, convulsive instants that seared him open.”

That last quotation sounds fundamentally corny, as if any twenty-one-year-old would think of a woman in such high-flown language. Nonetheless, the adjective “luminous,” the word “blinding,” and the phrase “seared him open” all touch on themes in the novel as a whole. There are repeated references to lights and auras and glows and shining and white blurs and pale blues; there are later references to bodies opening and releasing spirits or ethers. How seriously does Phillips intend such mystical imagery? She once ended an essay on Stephen Crane by insisting that

his work deals not only with things human and natural, but with the force that acts in them and so unites us, who are utterly alone, in a connective universe.

Her novel Machine Dreams concludes with Danner, the daughter of the family, like a spiritualist, feeling the presence of her dead brother Billy:

I dream about Billy. At first I liked having the dreams because I didn’t think about what they meant. And I got to see Billy, his face, so clearly. I still see his face, usually his young face, his kid face more real than any photograph or memory. My sense of him is so strong I think he must be coming through from some completely foreign zone, a zone free of interference and boundaries. A zone that is out of this world.

Throughout Lark and Termite there are suggestions of memories and dreams so vivid that they might be astral projections. Who or what is Robert Stamble, the strangely insubstantial Social Services worker who says, “I come and I go”? Lark notes that he smells of Old Spice, which is what “dads wear…in Dadville.” Termite perceives Stamble as “more than himself,” as “a shape glowing through the door that Lark keeps nearly closed. The shape shines like a light.” The secret of Stamble, it is strongly hinted, may be found in the dying Leavitt’s reflections on Korean shamanism. Male shamans, he tells us, are

called by the spirits through heredity, or after hardship, deathly wounds, illness. Survival was transformation…. They communed with the other world in trance states, delivered messages, directions.

Later, as Leavitt awaits the final machine gun fire, the girl next to him, who seems to be Lark’s age, chants Buddhist prayers “having to do with journeys, purification.”

Equally suggestive and initially puzzling is the orange cat. Phillips keeps mentioning the cat, but it never does anything much but watch over Termite. In the end, Phillips has a nightclub owner identify the animal almost too plainly. And unnecessarily. The attentive reader will have already guessed the truth simply by remembering the color of Lola’s hair.

While Machine Dreams closes with a young man’s death in wartime, Lark and Termite instead traces more fully the aftereffects of such a loss—the unrelievable burden, an ongoing sadness. To repeat, “People forget that a soldier’s death goes on for years—for a generation, really.” But by the end of the novel, the old wounds will begin to cauterize. Lark learns the truth about her mother and father, and Nonie learns to let go of the past and embrace the present. Even Leavitt and Lola find peace, of an otherworldly sort. Termite remains Termite.

There is, I think, one further important element to mention about Lark and Termite. Despite its many sorrows, the book is something of a fairy tale. All the characters, save one or two, are likable, well-meaning, and admirable. Lark is a particularly wonderful creation, and one can understand why everyone loves her—she is as kind as she is beautiful, but also tough and resourceful and wise. When she comes out of the kitchen bearing her cake on a tray, she says, in a lovely phrase: “People ought to see something pretty moving toward them. That way they get time to want what they really can have.” Termite is clearly an enthroned and beneficent young prince, spreading cheer, petted by everyone around him. And while the town of Winfield may be run down, it still seems an idyllic paradise, a lost Fifties world where hardworking people help each other through hard times.

Above all, though, one comes to feel that seventeen-year-old Lark and eighteen-year-old Solly are right for each other. They are definitely so, symbolically: Lark’s resemblance to her mother is frequently mentioned in the book, and we know that Leavitt was a blond Jew. Solly—from Saul—is an improbably Jewish-sounding name for an Italian. But his link to Leavitt is completed when Lark casually mentions that Solly Tucci has been dating blond girls with “sweater sets and college funds” and “one of those girls bleached his hair like hers.” As Lark further says, a few pages later on, “I was like my mother with Solly, all along.”

And so happiness would seem to await this young couple. But then one remembers the date: 1959. In just a few years the American involvement in Vietnam will start to claim a whole new generation of young men—and the women who loved them and the families they might have had. As Leavitt thinks toward the end: “The planes always come…like planets on rotation, a timed bloodletting with different excuses.”

Alas, we know this far too well.

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