In spite of Richardson, Emily Brontë, or Lawrence, you would hardly know from reading most Anglo-American fiction that it’s love that makes the world go round. For the Protestant imagination, passionate sexual desire needs to be satirized, sentimentalized, or domesticated, as if it were some severe but exotic disease which, properly isolated, needn’t interfere with important concerns like money, politics, manly adventure, or social education. Now, even in a more lenient moral climate, we get lots of sexual performance but not much love. Most of the great love stories are still imports.
Scott Spencer’s Endless Love, a serious novel of wholehearted desire, thus seems odd and intriguing. In the summer of 1967, while David Axelrod, a bright but apparently innocuous middle-class Chicago teenager, waits to go off to college at Berkeley, he is temporarily banished from his girlfriend’s house by her parents, who think they may need a little cooling off. Unable to stand this separation, David sets fire to their house, hoping vaguely to regain favor by pretending to rescue them from a danger he’s just happened to discover while passing through the neighborhood. But the fire takes hold faster than he expected, and the domestic Saturday night he’s yearningly observed through their windows owes its tranquillity to an unanticipated cause—the Butterfields are tripping together on LSD, and poor David has the devil’s time getting them out uncooked.
You can read such sad stories in a newspaper, though this one is enlivened by Spencer’s knack for small touches—when David tries to rouse the family he yells not “Fire!” but “Let me in!”; with touching hopefulness he tells them “We‘re on fire”; one of his sweetheart’s brothers reports that “the porch is burning like crazy.” In other hands this neatly symbolic beginning might lead to a familiar kind of comedy of despair, but Spencer plays it straight. David is neither a teenage monster nor a victim of an absurd social system, he’s just an intelligent and sensitive boy in love.
His extreme passion does of course have a background. His own parents are earnest Jewish ex-communists who give their emotions to important public causes but aren’t very good at private love. He is drawn to Jade Butterfield (a name, as I’m sure Spencer knows, that seems to have leaped out of a Harlequin Romance) because her family so clearly represents liberated feeling. Her two brothers are talented, peculiar, free to be interesting. Her father, Hugh, an unconventional physician, and his wife Ann, who once published a couple of stories in The New Yorker, are shabbily elegant in a Waspish way, seem (unlike David’s parents) to be still in love, and take easy views of drugs and sex—David often stays the night and her folks buy Jade a double bed so they can be more comfortable.
But Spencer knows the difference between conditions and causes. David doesn’t love Jade because he’s an adolescent or feels unloved at home or finds her “lifestyle” seductive; nor is it the fault of the age or the culture he has to grow up in. He loves her, Spencer seems to say, simply because he has a mysterious gift for loving which most people lack. And that gift makes of him a kind of figure usually relegated to “popular” fiction and song, films and soap-operas—the lover as, in essence, criminal and maniac. His kind of love is what young people are told they will outgrow and almost always do, if only because they’ve been told they will; it’s what some adults talk to priests and psychiatrists about, what keeps the sensational press and the police courts so busy. I admire the book for being able to play so close to the muddy stuff of mass entertainment without quite getting its hands dirty.
Because David tells his own story, ten years after the fire, we know from the beginning that his act of incendiary passion has had decisively bad consequences. Hugh Butterfield, implacably vindictive, makes sure that David stands trial for arson and reckless endangerment; he’s paroled, on condition that he enter a mental hospital and have no further contact with the Butterfields. After three years in a hospital, he’s released, still on parole; the Butterfields have left Chicago and split up. David lives glumly for a while with his parents, whose marriage is failing, goes to classes at Roosevelt University, works part-time for the Clothing Union. Though he seems to be adjusting, all the while he’s combing out-of-town phone books for people named Butterfield, calling them up until he finally finds the ones he wants.
On and on it goes. He violates his parole by visiting Ann Butterfield in New York; while there, the unforgiving Hugh sees him by chance in the street, starts after him, and is killed by a car. Jade comes down for the funeral, she and David have a harrowing all-night sexual reunion in his hotel room, and he goes back to live with her in a communal student rooming house in Vermont while she finishes her BA in ethology. Summoned briefly to Chicago when his father has a heart attack, he returns to find that Jade has learned of his role in her father’s death. She turns him out (literally into the doghouse) and, when he tries to plead his case, calls the police. As a parole violator he’s committed to various prisons and mental hospitals, where he develops a limp and a hearing defect, begins talking to himself, and eventually, having learned that Jade has married and moved to Paris, turns into a dedicated erotomaniac, having dangerous liaisons with several female inmates. His father dies, he is brutally beaten for trying to escape, things generally go to pot. After seven years he’s released and begins to make a new life, taking more courses, living on a small legacy with a woman who paints.
But nothing important has changed, as the novel’s ending, an imaginary letter to Jade, makes clear:
It is night and I am alone and there is still time, a moment more. I am standing on a long black stage, with a circle of light on me, which is my love for you, enduring. I have escaped—or have been expelled—from eternity and am back in time. But I step out once more to sing this aria, this confession, this testament without end. My arms open wide, not to embrace you but to embrace the world, the mystery we are caught in. There is no orchestra, no audience; it is an empty theater in the middle of the night and all the clocks in the world are ticking. And now for this last time, Jade, I don’t mind, or even ask if it is madness: I see your face, I see you, you; I see you in every seat.
This seems just the right ending for such a story. “Madness” is not the question; to call David mad, or pitiful, or ridiculous, is only to avoid feeling something of what intensity of desire is like. He says it better by describing himself as an operatic actor—playing his role intensely, perhaps even overplaying it, since, even though the performance and the audience may be “illusions,” only in the role is there a chance of living up to his own best possibilities. This odd, scrupulous, rather exhausting novel succeeds in making one think again about a kind of feeling one may not usually be prepared to take seriously.
Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a history not of endless love but of many loves that ended too soon. Here ten connected stories follow the early and middle life of a woman named Rose, born around 1930 in West Hanratty, Ontario, a shabby, depressed small town of the sort that talented and sensitive kids like Rose will do almost anything to get out of, only to spend the rest of their lives remembering what it was like.
Munro records the development of Rose’s emotions without making them seem to “stand for” anything outside of Rose’s own sense of her life. The first story, “Royal Beatings,” shows her subtle, oblique method at its best. As a child Rose was aware of an older girl, Becky Tyde, a polio-stricken dwarf who became pregnant, supposedly by her father, a morose and penurious butcher much given to beating his wife and children. Three drunken local roughnecks, acting in the name of outraged communal morality, gave old Tyde a vicious horsewhipping in his nightclothes on a cold winter night; he thereupon gathered up his money and took a train to Toronto, where he promptly died of pneumonia. The assailants were imprisoned but then pardoned, suspiciously soon, and Becky and her brother lived comfortably ever after on their inheritances.
This awful story is told to young Rose by her stepmother, Flo, who rightly observes that “it reflected good on nobody.” Flo enjoys thinking ill of other people; but in Rose’s mind the tale of the beater beaten associates itself loosely with the “royal beatings” her own father administers to her, usually in response to Flo’s complaints about her foul language, rudeness, and general corruption. Yet, puzzlingly to Rose, Flo’s demands for domestic justice turn to pity and concern when the punishment is actually given, and afterward, though without spoken apology, she brings Rose cold cream for her wounds, and trays of chocolate milk, special little sandwiches, and cookies.
Though Rose learns something about the complexity of adult feeling from this incident, no exact relation between her own beatings and the story of the Tydes is ever stated. But the story’s ending brings them together in the grown-up Rose’s mind. Years later, living in Toronto, she hears an old man being interviewed on the radio about the good old days. What he says is banal, and she at first supposes the interview is part of a play. But at the end of the broadcast the man is identified as “Mr. Wilfred Nettleton of Hanratty, Ontario,” and Rose is startled to recognize that he was one of Tyde’s horsewhippers, who, the radio informs her, died at 102 shortly after the interview was recorded.
Rose is pleased by the transformation of “horsewhipper into centenarian,” amused to know the disreputable secret of this “living link with our past.” She thinks immediately that Flo would enjoy the joke—“She thought of her saying Imagine! in a way that meant she was having her worst suspicions gorgeously confirmed.” But the joke is also on Flo, and Rose; Flo is now living in the same home for the aged in which Nettleton died; she has stopped talking or listening, the only trace of her old self is that she occasionally bites a nurse.
So, I suppose, the materials of a life really are assembled and pondered, seldom achieving distinct meaning but gaining importance from their general, almost accidental affinities. The larger effect of The Beggar Maid is similar—each story considers some remembered instance of love or desire that has been thwarted or transformed by the passage of time, but no definite conclusion emerges to make all the parts cohere. These things happened to Rose, they made a difference, she remembers them, if not fondly then at least respectfully.
We hear of her humiliating herself by trying to identify with the richer kids at school, of her courtship in college by a rebellious, insecure rich boy from Vancouver, whom she marries out of prudence and spends ten years of misery with, as he becomes a pompous replica of his parents and she turns to other men. Later life draws her back to Hanratty, to put the failing Flo into the county home; and finally, on a brief visit to the town, she bumps into a man who had intrigued her when they were children, finding that something of his old self has survived into middle age and discovering, when she hears of his death afterward, that “she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she’d loved.”
Alice Munro shares with some other Canadian writers of her generation—I’m thinking particularly of Margaret Atwood, Marian Engel, and Timothy Findley—a strong sense of how place and local circumstance can shape and interpret lives. Such an awareness could be called provincial, but it seems to me a strength for a novelist, a way of protecting fictional particularity from the temptation to homogenize things in order to pursue issues or themes. Though Rose’s story bears directly, for example, upon the issues of contemporary feminism, in The Beggar Maid they are her own experiences and no one else’s. For this, as well as for its quiet eloquence and its refusal ever to say more than is needed, Munro’s book seems to me very fine.
When she cares to invoke it, Jayne Anne Phillips also has a strong sense of place (Appalachia, in her case), and she could never be accused of saying too much. More than half the stories in Black Tickets run to a page or less, and the longer ones have no fat on them. Compared with Spencer and Munro, who work coolly, well within the limits of their means, Phillips writes with noticeable power, even violence, so that her brevity seems more a matter of conscious self-discipline than of natural sensibility.
Her usual fictional material, as it happens, calls for self-discipline. Consider the remarkable “Under the Boardwalk,” a sketch of only five paragraphs. “Her name is Joyce Castro,” it flatly begins, “and she rides our school bus. The Castros all look alike. Skinny, freckled, straw-haired.” Her father is a fundamentalist preacher, and Joyce is never seen without her transistor radio: “Music is the work of a devil that licks at her legs. She stands, radio pressed to her face, lips working. Undah the boardwalk, down by the sea ee ee ye eh eh, Ona blanket with my baybeh’s where I’ll be.” She is shy, stares at the floor, doesn’t talk to the other kids. She is also pregnant, by her brother (“The Castros all look alike”), who’s gone off to work in the steel mills.
The words of the song “Under the Boardwalk” come hideously true in the story’s next to last paragraph, with perhaps a touch of overcalculation that yet doesn’t spoil a brilliantly imagined moment:
She disappears from school but comes back a month later, having had it in a bloody way. She rolled up a horse blanket and walked to the field. Daddy thundering I won’t lay eyes on your sin and big brother in Youngstown, holding a thing that burns orange fire. She rolls, yelping, dogs come close and sniff. They circle. The sky circles. Points of light up there that sting. Finally she sees that they are stars. Washing herself in the creek she remembers the scythe against the grass, its whispering rip.
Phillips finds a kind of beauty in this horror—the phallic suggestion in the red-hot steel the brother holds and its association with the stinging “points of light,” her animal yelping that seems almost to create the ominously circling dogs, the suggestion, in her seeing the stars and remembering the sound of the scythe through the grass, that giving birth has been, even for her, a brief participation in natural order.
But the story’s final sentences return bleakly to things as they are in Joyce’s world. When she is alone in the house the next day, “The dogs come in with pieces in their mouths. She stands in the kitchen shaking while the Drifters do some easy moanin.” Their simulated, commercial moaning is indeed easy, and it seems appallingly possible that her “shaking” may be only her habitual, mindless reaction to the music and not a recognition of what the dogs have brought her. This is remarkably alert and resourceful writing.
But Phillips pays a price for her interest in human beings who are frozen into their worst possible cases. Most of the stories in Black Tickets examine the lives of people who are desperately poor, morally deadened, in some way denied comfort, beauty, and love. Girls tell each other dirty stories in a shack, while small boys listen avidly outside; a crazed black woman beats up drunken derelicts while policemen laugh; drug drops are made in porn movie lavatories; a rich old homosexual is cared for by a calculating male nurse who spends all his spare time in peep-shows; a fourteen-year-old mute orphan girl sells dirty pictures and hustles her body for her drug-addict pimp; a Son of Sam type describes his quest for murderable girls; the sighted daughter of blind parents watches her nearly blind brother die of (apparently) a cerebral hemorrhage; and so on. None of these, alone, is an unworthy subject for art, and Phillips’s interest is compassionate; but in such heavy concentration, horror begins to seem predictable, and then positively funny. So represented, the world in effect becomes a machine designed to do the worst things possible—sidewalks are for displaying dog-puke, delivery boys are for screwing suburban housewives while the prissy neighbors watch with binoculars through the curtains, public lavatories are for drunks and junkies to throw up in.
Happily, a small group of these stories—and the best ones, I think—deals not with the lower depths but with more or less ordinary people, in families, who are trying to love each other across a gap. Their common situation is the more or less reluctant return home of a young woman, usually a student or a teacher, who finds herself challenged or threatened by a parent’s concern about what she’s doing with her life. The parent, usually the mother, is invariably divorced or widowed, not at all ill-willed or obtuse, not very demanding but anxious to understand better what has replaced the old closeness they once had. These stories are full of beautiful touches that stand without need of explanation—a mother who leaves the house when she hears her daughter making love with her boyfriend, not out of offended assumptions about decency but because she fears getting interested again in sex, a father who touchingly deflects his worry about his daughter into an obsessive and annoying worry about the condition of her car.
Phillips wonderfully catches the tones and gestures in which familial love unexpectedly persists even after altered circumstances have made it impossible to express directly, the ways in which grown children, while cherishing even an unrewarding freedom, can be caught, and hurt, and consoled by their vestigial yearning for dependency, safety, a human closeness that usually seems forever lost. I don’t of course mean that Phillips should devote her very promising talent to writing more stories about such parents and children, but I do think that her remarkable powers work best in the realm of the ordinary and the domestic.
March 6, 1980