It’s one thing to remember yesterday, but quite another, as the Beatles plaintively suggest, to believe in it. If you don’t believe in what’s past you are humanly shallow, culturally stupid, morally irresponsible; yet if you do believe in it too intensely, you may not be free to live in the present. This last may not be altogether a bad thing, considering what the present is usually like, but it can be painful, as these two novels about lost yesterdays show.
In A Good School, Richard Yates surveys familiar ground. School is a classic metaphor for growing up, for the biological and cultural passage from youth and innocence to whatever their opposite may be—experience, wisdom, sophistication, disillusionment, corruption. If this school is a sub-par New England boarding school, if the hero comes from a doubtful social background, and the historical time is World War II, then we may expect a certain neatness in the story of young men about to face an unimaginable war.
Yates’s Dorset Academy is not a good school. Endowed by an eccentric millionairess in the 1920s, it is, in spite of its handsome pseudo-Cotswold architecture, simply too new and obscure to prosper. The headmaster is mainly a recruiting officer who gives out too many partial scholarships; many of its boys are the rejects of better schools; interscholastic sport, that great generator of parental and alumni enthusiasm, is expressly forbidden by the terms of the founding bequest. The Depression has made it possible to collect a fairly competent faculty, though not a contented one, but the place is obviously doomed, and it’s no surprise to learn that the class of ’44 will be the school’s last.
Such a situation is dangerously susceptible to sentimental nostalgia, but Yates writes about it with considerable detachment. Part of the story is told in first-person reminiscences by William Grove, an old Dorset boy who is now a middle-aged writer, but the main narrative is told in the impartial third person, with Grove no more prominent than several of his contemporaries. Grove has had a lot of trouble fitting in at Dorset. His family is wrong—his mother an unsuccessful sculptor, her divorced husband a minor and unprosperous sales executive for General Electric; his clothes are odd enough to make some of his classmates call him “Gypsy”; he has none of the gifts for sports, studies, or foolishness that lead to success at school. For such failings Grove suffers the humiliations we would expect, but he begins to find his way by writing for and eventually editing the school paper, and Yates wisely makes him less a sufferer than a witness of the woes of others.
And woe is common enough at Dorset. The students tend to sadism, sexual confusion, and snobbery. A few are obvious winners, like Britt, the bright, self-contained perfectionist who befriends Grove and helps him learn how to write, enrolls in the V-12 program after graduation and misses the war, and is last heard from as a successful psychiatrist in the Mid-West. But most of the boys are marked for disaster. Haskell, the compulsive intellectual, has a breakdown and drops out. Van Loon, Grove’s successor as class klutz, a kind of proto-Beat who likes science fiction, working-class manners, and the idea of bumming around, is killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Flynn, a virtually illiterate natural athlete who is intensely jealous of his roommate’s friendships with other boys, dies on Iwo Jima. Larry Gaines, the golden boy who’s handsome, athletic, good at studies, and just plain nice, enlists in the Merchant Marine and, after an idyllic love affair with the English master’s beautiful daughter, is lost at sea on his first voyage out. Even the faculty, though untouched by death, must endure its share of domestic misery and then try to find new jobs when the school closes down to become a rehabilitation center for blind veterans.
Luckily, Yates tells us too little about these lives rather than too much, providing no more than suggestive glimpses of life at Dorset—the capable Britt avoiding his best friend so as not to be contaminated by the latter’s crack-up, the way in which Flynn’s inability to read gradually comes between him and the roommate who’s utterly like him in all other ways. He can be funny about the founder, Mrs. Hooper, giving tea to some of the students:
“I call it Mr. Roosevelt’s war, you see, because I believe it’s only part of his plan to turn us all into Communists and Negroes. Have you thought of that? You may ask how it’s possible to turn people into Negroes, and I’ll tell you. The male Negro has an enormous—an enormous procreative power. That’s his one great advantage over most white men, you see, and then of course there will always be impressionable white girls. So you have two or three generations of Communist propaganda, you see, and there you are….”
The boys, intent on enjoying their teacakes, show no sign of having understood or even heard her, despite the worry of their decent-minded English teacher.
But A Good School is more elegy than satire, and it runs some large risks. Some of the principal events seem more suited to television drama than to serious fiction—the eventual reconciliation of the crippled and embittered chemistry teacher with his wife after her lover, the dashing French master, goes off to join the OSS; the dreadful fate that comes, right on cue, to the glorious Larry Gaines. When one of his less interesting classmates runs into Grove long after they’ve graduated, he advises him: “Listen, though: don’t look back too much, okay? You can drive yourself crazy that way.” I suppose that the remark is meant to characterize the speaker’s superficiality, the fear of someone relatively simple that the past will spoil the present if it’s not firmly kept in its place, but in an odd way it’s rather good advice for a book like this one, which sometimes gets trapped in the emotions it means to measure and judge. People who went to schools like (or better than) Dorset may enjoy A Good School for reasons quite different from those of people who may enjoy it because they didn’t go to such a place. I’m not sure which of these reactions would, from Yates’s perspective, be the right one, since he has not been able to find a clear enough perspective toward the past he tries to reconstruct.
In Diane Johnson’s Lying Low, yesterday is both closer to the present and harder to make out. The scene is Orris, California, a hot, rather bleak college town not far from Sacramento; the time is 1975, the main characters live in a run-down Victorian house on a once fashionable street. Theodora Wait is a spinster who was once a dancer, and now, at sixty, teaches ballet in town. Her slightly younger brother Anton is a well-known photographer of western landscapes and a bit of a ladies’ man. The Waits rent rooms to students—to Ouida Senza, a plump and anxious Brazilian girl whose faulty command of English makes America a somewhat perilous place for her, and to Marybeth Howe, a former political activist who’s been on the run for six years, after a protest bombing which accidentally killed someone.
Although things are—at first—quiet around Orris, there’s anxiety and apprehension in the air. Ouida fears being deported to Brazil and her ambitious, upwardly mobile family, now that the sinister Colonel Pacific, for whom she worked as a baby sitter for a while, has appropriated her passport, and she’s also a little worried about Mr. Griggs, a middle-aged black watchman who may want to marry her but often doesn’t show up for their dates. She’s also afraid of heart attacks, kidney disease, and the federal government. In this hostile world she has the support only of her concerned but faintly amused housemates and her remarkable religious eclecticism—she’s at once a Presbyterian, a Rosicrucian, and a devotee of a Japanese messianic cult.
Marybeth can remember a time when she too was “somebody who believed in everything,” but political commitment narrowed her interests, and her years underground have made her passions for action seem remote. For her, more seriously than for Ouida, paranoia has become the condition of life—both the generalized uneasiness anyone feels in a culture of muggers, mass murders, and gunshops, and her own particular fear that any old acquaintance may be an informer, any stranger an FBI man in disguise. Though her heart leaps up when she finds a cache of explosives in an out-of-the-way shed and realizes that she has successors, she knows that she’s not half the revolutionary she used to be.
Most touching of all is Theodora Wait, immersed in liberal causes—conservation, the local co-op, prison visiting—and annoyed by her brother’s willingness to help save trees but not people. She is possessed by a secret conviction that she’s “the angel of death,” that her presence brings disaster to others. Certainly her memories contain disasters—once an incomprehensible Finn burst into her hotel room, naked and erect, only to collapse on her bed and die of a coronary; during one of her transatlantic crossings a child was mysteriously lost and believed to have fallen overboard. These memories don’t interfere with her sympathetic interest in the present—for example, she thinks of using the drowned girl’s name in constructing a new identity for Marybeth to use—but she can’t stop worrying about what she may do to those she cares about.
Diane Johnson is uncannily alert to the subtleties of these women’s feelings, and she has no trouble in showing that the reality they inhabit is quite as dangerous as they think it is. Ouida spends the book planning and preparing a Brazilian feast she’s giving to raise some money, but her feijoada turns into a small riot, with embarrassing damage to the house and possessions of the absent Waits. Marybeth is abducted by a man she hitches a ride from, and escapes from (presumably) rape only by leaping from his moving car. She injures and then very nearly loses a child she’s minding for her neighbors; she falls rapturously in love with an old high-school acquaintance from Iowa but begins to suspect that his masculine competence and protectiveness pose new threats to the freedom she has tried so hard to preserve. And, most shockingly, Theodora is killed by the police when the group of do-gooders with whom she innocently visits a prison turn out to be involved in a mass break-out.
The book is less successful with, or maybe just less interested in, its male characters. Anton Wait’s artistic and sexual complexities are mentioned rather than explored, and his marginal presence seems mainly designed to set off the quite different qualities of his sister. Mr. Griggs is given one fine aria toward the end, a story of how he’s been bilked of a $300 money order by the white folks down at the Bank of America, but otherwise he’s just an ambiguous figure for Ouida’s desire to stay here at almost any cost.
Chuck Sweet, Marybeth’s beautiful football player from back home, is, as his name implies, virtually an allegorical character. He enters the novel at its only moment of implausibility, when Marybeth, who didn’t know him well in high school and hasn’t seen him for some ten years, recognizes him instantly when he calls out her name in the local supermarket, even though he now sports a lavish beard. Chuck has definitely changed for the better; he’s been to Vietnam, is taking a PhD in art history, is wholly in sympathy with her political history, knows all about how to conduct a life on the run, is a marvelously effective sexual machine, is altogether tender and masterful and understanding. He seems, in short, to have escaped from the pages of Cosmopolitan or Playgirl, and when Marybeth speculates that he may be “a designated agent of happiness,” it sounds as if even she suspects that a puzzling authorial joke is being made.
But if Chuck himself seems a cartoon, Marybeth’s reactions to him make sense. Men are good for incidental domestic pleasures, but they interfere with the serious business of a life like hers. For one thing, Chuck has no use for personal guilt. Wanting her to escape the police by going off with him to France (he has a Fulbright, naturally), he vehemently opposes her intention of giving herself up:
“Look, Marybeth, you give yourself airs, kind of—don’t you think?—talking about ‘paying’ and all that because you caused a death. That’s something people have to bear all the time. What about wars and accidents? Where’s your head? You’re just run down by the fear of consequences. Your compunctions about life are rather after the fact, so what good is it to go sit in jail? Especially if you’re not sorry.” He laughed. “There are more useful forms of atonement, anyway.”
Such talk seems too wooden even for Chuck, but it’s clear that a life of guilt and anxiety is preferable to a life that’s been morally anaesthetized by accepting the necessity of horror. Through Chuck Marybeth gets an inkling of what Theodora has long known, that in loving someone we expose ourselves to a recognition of the other’s, and our own, mortality. Almost her last words to him in the novel are “Let’s not ever leave each other,” but by then both of them are beginning to see that such sentiments alone won’t do.
At her best, with the women characters, Johnson does wonderfully what she can’t or won’t do with Chuck, which is to imagine the reality of other minds without forgetting their limitations. Here is Theodora grieving for a hen killed by a dog:
Hens. She knew it was silly to cry for hens. She knew all there was to be thought and felt correctly on this subject, in a world full of dying children, of course she did, and she also knew all there was to be said about foolish weeping old maids. That was why she was in the habit of hiding away in her room during these spurts of tears, and in her heart she felt there was something rather decent about this disinterested crying she was apt to do. It was more than just tender-heartedness. (“Theo is so tender-hearted,” their mother had often said.) It was cosmic work, you almost might say, crying for the creatures who have no one else to cry for them, and for the whole state of things. While crying, she ran her bath, plucked her hair from her hair-brush, dusted the powder from the dresser scarf, enjoyed the fragrance of the powder.
The limiting factors here—her inclination to want to think and feel “correctly,” her wish to make, however tentatively, a virtue of what she can’t in any event not do—are qualified by our awareness that she knows about them almost as well as we do. And the last sentence, reminding us that life is not just thinking and feeling but also doing things, things that neither support nor contradict whatever the mind may be up to, firmly attaches our sense of Theodora to something we know about in the world outside books.
Lying Low is an elegantly written and constructed novel, full of a talented writer’s delight in her mastery of such things as multiple points of view and shifts in narrative verb tenses. And, though its subjects are somber enough, an equivalent delight comes through in Johnson’s keen sense of the closeness of terror and comic absurdity. Just before Marybeth leaps from her abductor’s car, she asks him in growing panic, “Are you interested in art?” Theodora, trying to remember what she once heard about Marybeth’s crime, inadvertently turns it into a B-movie:
Had they tied the man up and danced around jeering, or had he just accidentally been standing there at the Bunsen burner when the bomb went off, or however it had been done? Or was it Marybeth alone, looking through the window from her hiding place in the hedge, aiming at the evil scientist, pulling the trigger with her delicate fingers?
Chen-yu, the wholly Occidental counter-culture child Marybeth takes care of, turns out to be named not out of philosophical or political yearnings for Eastern ways (“You hear a lot of kids called Mao, or Chou,” reliable Chuck remarks, “but you can understand that”) but after a brand of nail polish popular in the 1940s. Diane Johnson’s picture of how a troubled past keeps reasserting itself by filling up an empty present with dire ideas of the future is a wholly serious one, but it makes living in such a present a little more fun.
November 23, 1978