Two Good Old-Fashioned Young Novelists
Some writers can’t be judged by their sentences. You read for pages in Dreiser without finding an elegant phrase and you endure endless prolix tangles in Conrad: novels often take on a life wholly unpredicted by their parts. So sometimes it’s wise to be forbearing about style. Consider the opening paragraph of a new novel:
A warm sour cloud wafted across to Tommy’s side of the bed as his wife rolled over in her sleep. Tommy De Coco lay on his back smoking a Marlboro and staring at the green metal Venetian blinds. One of the slats was bent and let in some early-morning sunlight. 7:30.
What can you tell from reading this? Only that it appears to have been written in twentieth-century America by someone not very concerned about precision and not too proud to be seen with a cliche. Does it move you to read on? Maybe not. but I did. and I’m glad.
The paragraph begins BLOODBROTHERS by Richard Price (Houghton Mifflin. $8.95). a novel that steadily gathers speed, force, and depth of feeling. Its central figures are members of an Italian-American family living in the monstrous Bronx apartment complex. Co-op City. The De Cocos belong to the prosperous working class—the men are electricians by trade. They are among the people called hard-hats or Middle Americans in a depressing number of newspapers and magazine pieces, but journalism has never penetrated their world as Price does: he plainly knows it from within.
As the few lines I quoted suggest. Price writes in a heedlessly old-fashioned naturalistic way: a style prone to sloppiness (and to romantic raunchiness) but also exuberant, vigorous, tough. His sentences are studded with freshly heard speech and memorable bits of observation. Here is another early moment (whose muddled antecedents ask to be forgiven): “And Stony couldn’t bitch either because his old man had thumbnails as big as clam shells and if he gave Tommy any bullshit he would get a (lick behind the ear that would sting like a bastard.”
This book’s first reward to the reader is a sense of authenticity, of traveling in unfamiliar territory with someone who knows his way around. You learn things. A young woman in the Bronx with her own apartment is said to have her own “crib.” The phrase “town pump.” to designate what is also called a “hoowah,” is much in use. There’s a persuasive description of a man’s pride of station, his distrust of what threatens his status: “He’ll go into the union. He don’t need college. What’ll he do? He’ll fuck aroun" down there four years, then+ get a job jerkin’ off a pencil for eight grand?” The book is rich in social artifacts. as in the affectionately listed items that comprise party preparations in Co-op City: “. . . Brazil nuts, silverfoiled chocolate kisses. Snowcaps, assorted miniature Hershey bars . . . the liquor, bottles of Seagram’s. Canadian. Wilson’s. Cherry Heering and Early Times . . . wooden swizzle sticks carved in the shape of big-breasted Ubangi women . . . the toilet paper [with] do]lar bills printed on it with oval portraits of a cross-eyed George Washington. Under each dollar was the legend. ‘It’s Only Money.’ ”
All of this comes under the heading of sociology, the sort of thing a good reporter could produce from his notes. And the first part of Bloodbrothers has a distinct documentary feeling to it: closeups of the various De Cocos, and a long bawdy tour around Bronx bars (and “cribs”). But the book quickly narrows its focus.
Bloodbrothers portrays a family that is important not as a representative of a social class but for its own desperate particularities. The De Cocos seethe with violence and sentimentality. The father. Tommy, is full of simultaneous pride and loathing for his lot: a staunch “family man” and earner of “good money,” he is also a driven womanizer. He ignores one of his children and dominates the other. His frowsy wife has a temper that continually edges toward full-blown psychosis. She terrifies her younger son into anorexia. The novel turns on a summer in the life of the older boy, eighteen-year-old Stony, who is torn between loyalty and flight. His father sustains himself by dreaming of the day when his older boy joins the union. The boy himself wants to get away, has a vague ambition of “working with kids” which he briefly realizes in a hospital. But he is trapped by a code of values that gives him only one way of certifying his masculinity.
Told in outline, there’s no reason that this fictional situation shouldn’t make for a mawkish tale. But it’s saved. Partly by the sheer accumulation of believable grit in this book, Partly by Price’s gift for seamy comedy. Beyond that. Price manages to create a convincing eighteen-year-old sensibility: blustering, proud, with a voice that has to sound cocksure but sometimes breaks into high notes of unguarded innocence and doubt. Price sees his subject with a double vision. He can stand outside Coop City and view the De Coco code in all its arbitrariness. But he also makes the reader feel its weight, which is. after all. only a peculiar version of the universal arbitrariness parents inflict upon children. I have not read recently a book that dramatizes so well the awful power of family.
Richard Price is twenty-six. Bloodbrothers is his second novel: his first. The Wanderers, was also set among youth in the Bronx. He grew up there, in a housing project. He went to Cornell. and to Columbia, and held a writing fellowship at Stanford. He lives on the Upper West Side and has been a teacher of creative writing and urban studies. All this information comes from the publisher’s publicity release, and it’s all I know about the author. The few’ facts by themselves, though, evoke a story: they describe a young man who. at an early age. has left a life behind. I wonder what he’ll do next. He is already (as the publisher’s copy also says) “an accomplished writer”—more accomplished, I’d guess, than “promising.” I suspect he’ll soon have to abandon in fiction the world he has left in fact, and I hope he can bring a similar intensity to the society he now inhabits.
Perhaps the kindest thing anyone ever said about a bad novel was Edmund Wilson’s remark on the publication of This Side of Paradise: “. . . it does commit every sin, except the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.”
1 think I can say the same thing about Lisa Alther’s KINFLICKS (Knopf. SX.95), and that would explain my having stuck with its 503 rambunctious, outrageously untidy pages. Kinflicks (the title refers to home movies) records the dubious progress of a girl of the South, a member of the generation just turned thirty. The heroine, Ginny Babcock. bounces, without much more willpower than a pinball, from high school (cheerleader, flag twirler), to Worthley (read Wellesley) College, to a lesbian commune, to housewifery and bizarre adultery (more about that, as the breezy author says, later), and finally away from it all “to go where she had no idea.” Her history is interspersed with scenes in the present, at her mother’s deathbed.
This is one of those novels that might better be called “The Collected Works of . . .”Editing is a declining art. but it’s hard to imagine that Alther didn’t receive (and reject) some rudimentary suggestions for pruning a book that has the shape of an orchard planted by a drunk and unvisited thereafter.
One difficulty is that the book alternates without any apparent justification between scenes in the first and third person. The heroine’s own voice is blithe, fresh, dazzlingly non-introspective, at once dim-witted and witty: it evokes a girl lovable for her instincts, not for her mind. The narrative voice has more dignity. bat not a lot more depth. Disquieting, You begin to wonder how much Ginny Babcock’s speech represents a Active creation and how much it resembles the author’s own mode of addressing her diary. In any case, it’s the first-person passages that carry the book. They contain what has to be called the good stuff.
And good stuff is what this book is all about. Lisa Alther’s strength is her eye for comic social situations. A writer who notices that “The electric chimes of the Southern Baptist church were now placing ‘Call Me Unreliable’” can’t he all bad. She is very good on 1960s high school life, about pubescence and political advances, about the liberated teen. She creates a fine character in Joe Bob Sparks, catatonic high school hero whose rippled back muscles are his main attraction. He’s distinguished by his response to almost any remark: “Do whut?”
It’s a book of firsts. First electrocution (or near-miss, actually) by means of a vibrator. First fictionalization of the Far Eastern practice of Maithuna. or ritual coition. The ritual involves some weeks of meditative preparation, the renaming of the genitals, and then, at the actual event, some thirty-two minutes of conjoined motionlessness. It’s this that occasions the heroine’s adultery, though the imperfectly trained couple falls asleep before the ritual is over. Surprised by her wronged husband. Ginny says, “I gingerly removed Hawk’s wilted lingam from my yoni . . .”
Kin flicks comes with a generous dustjacket encomium from Doris Lessing, who says, in part. “No man could have written it. but it is very far from being ‘a woman’s book.'” That’s true. It’s sort of a tomboy’s book. It is a mirror image of any number of sprawling, lusty, self loving, undisciplined first novels written by young men. some of whom go on to better things. Part id’ the pleasure of reading it, I guess, comes from this sexual turnabout. You admire Lisa Alther’s pluck. You feel perhaps the way Dr. Johnson would feel if he could see the local girl who makes the Little League team: the wonder is not that she does it well, but that she thinks it’s worth doing in the first place.
A bad book. But not a bad novelist. Much too soon to say that.