Goodbye to Summer
Onward Into Fall
Every year I can't believe it. I haven't seen it coming at all. Suddenly, spiral notebooks appear in the supermarket and traffic blooms with anxious children heading back to school. I can't imagine that the delicious leisure of summer that we allow ourselves because of the heat can just vanish. "It's still 95 degrees! Give me back my vacation!" I want to scream in the crosswalk. I'm staying by the pool until November, still working on my pile of summer books. Call it "autumn" only if you must.
On the cover of Spinsters by Pagan Kennedy (High Risk Books/Serpent's Tail, $11.99 paper) a Plymouth Valiant, Sixties op-art, and a pastel U.S. map commingle with the scrollwork lettering of the title in an appealing way. Set during the summer of '68, Pagan Kennedy's novel is about Frannie and Doris, middle-aged sisters from a small New Hampshire town who long ago gave up their own futures to care for their sick father. "The story of Doris and me began when we stood before Dad's empty bed," Frannie explains as the novel begins. In search of a shape for their new lives after their father's death, they pack up the family car and begin a journey of self-discovery that parallels the nation's larger tumult and despair.
As much as Frannie wants to retain the quiet, practical life of a "spinster," Doris wants to meet strange men and go home with them. The longing of both characters is delicious to read: when they drive past an amusement park Frannie imagines the cars are packed with newlyweds and that "the violent rattling of the wheels would make their bodies vibrate and their teeth chatter, but to them the fear would feel delicious"; in a roadside diner Doris observes "Whatever's wrong in my life at least I don't have to wear a polyester waitress outfit." But a great setting, great characters, and great writing still left me stranded:The novel's skinniness curtailed development of the family dynamics that created this spinster pair and diminished the historical events of the period to a few easy TV frames. But if you measure your self-development by summers (and isn't it remarkable what a difference those three sticky months make?), then you will love this fast, smooth, piling-up-the-miles read.
The flashes of humor and mockery that flare through Ajay Sahgal's Pool (Grove/Atlantic, $10 paper) reminded me of sunlight flashing off the pool. A twentysome-thing movie star named Emery walks off the set of his latest vacuous movie and shows up at the work-in-progress Vermont country house of his friend Jeremy. As the summer passes, the house becomes a sort of Nineties Graceland (instead of the Jungle Room there's the Wall Room, where visitors scrawl their innermost thoughts like "abe vigoda is alive and well and LIVING with jim morrison on 13th between 3rd and 4th"). This pack of privileged losers haunts local bars by night and, after lengthy recovery, tackles the problem of where to swim by day.
The would-be pool, necessary because the nearby pond is over-populated with turtles (despite party-animal Louis's BB-gun potshots), is a metaphor for where these characters lives are going. When the washed-up screenwriter Nathan refers to the hole he's begun digging as a "building site," Louis sets him straight: "Building refers to growth upward. Digging is what we're doing. Not building."
"Vacuous and proud of it," Emery, the narrator of the story, is unhappy but too big a star to know it. When his buddies sell off all his stuff at a "GIANT CELEBRITY GARAGE SALE," he is grateful for the opportunity to pare down. He tries to compose a letter to his girlfriend/manager: "I stare at a blank page... I try to draw a picture of the house, Nathan's swimming pool, the Concorde, caricatures of Hurley Thompson, Keanu, Jason, Luke, Donovan, Flea, the rest of them." He flips through a magazine and comes upon "a page with a picture of me on it. I am standing on my head at the beach and there are two girls in bikinis holding my legs up." The producer's daughter, Anne, with whom he has had a fling, says, "I miss you." "I miss myself, too," Emery answers.
Just as the summer slips into a vast depression relieved only by alcohol and drug abuse, Monty, the producer of the film Emery walked out on, decides to move the filming to Vermont. The daily task of movie-making instills a sort of meaningless order to daily life and finally propels Emery into forward movement. Pool sparkles with crisp, flat dialogue and down-played yet outrageous (and funny) games of self-abuse. This is the sort of empty-headed novel I love to hate - but this one sweet-talked me all the way through.
I am not a good person to review this last book; I refuse all responsibility. Like Carlos Fuentes, I, too, truly believe that "Maria Luisa Bombal is the mother of us all." More than 10 years ago, I first fell in love with her when I happened upon a collection of her stories on a back shelf of Garner & Smith bookstore on the Drag. Since then, I have pushed this slim book onto all my best writing friends. So, when I found out that two of her novels House of Mist and The Shrouded Woman (UT Press, paper), had been translated by Bombal herself and published in a single volume, out I was excited to renew my passion for her.
I love these novels so much I almost want to keep them a secret. I don't want anyone to dare to love them less - or even more - than me. Yet, I will try to resist such selfishness. The first story, House of Mist, is the atmospheric, romantic tale of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. As the years painfully pass, a single memory of a stolen moment of true passion gives meaning to her life. But when she discovers that her life's great love may have been nothing more than a drunken fantasy, the changes that occur dramatically expand her idea of what happiness is. First published in the 1930s (and in English in the 1940s), both novels excel at the magic realism that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has made famous. In House of Mist, the magical element of the odd weather pattern that doesn't budge from the marriage house is a metaphor for the relationship's entrapment.
The Shrouded Woman, the second novel in the volume, is the ingenious story of a woman's last hours on earth: "As night was beginning to fall, slowly her eyes opened.... And in the glow of the tall candles, those who were keeping watch leaned forward... unaware that she could see them. For she was seeing, she was feeling." Though dead, the woman lying in her coffin nonetheless retains a level of consciousness that, prompted by visitors coming to pay their last respects, recalls the many dramas of her life. "Must we die in order to know certain things?" the woman wonders as old lovers, relatives, and friends file past. The stories that unfold - of the unreturned love of a childhood beau, a father's repressed emotion, a beauty so great that it kills, and a friendship wrongly forsaken - are as mysterious and painful as life itself. As her daughter, who was known for her passionless demeanor, breaks down in mourning, the shrouded woman thinks: "But don't cry, don't cry!... I shall continue to breathe within you and to evolve in you and to change as if I were alive...."
Bombal's depiction of death continues right through the funeral procession and even past the burial. Her imagining of what follows life is evocative and sensual - even funny and inventive. Though The Shrouded Woman is about life and the permanence of our decisions, the story sheds a reassuring light on what death might feel like and the gifts it may offer. Like summer, I truly wanted this story to never end, to stay just this pleasurable and rich, forever. n