BORROWED FINERY, by PAULA FOX
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On the book "The Coldest Winter ", here
October 1, 2001
A Fractured Memoir, and Childhood, Far From a Fairy Tale
BORROWED FINERY A Memoir; by Paula Fox ; Henry Holt; $23, 224 pages
By MERLE RUBIN, Special to The Times
Which is worse: an abusive parent or a parent who simply abandons a child?
The parents whom Paula Fox depicts in her restrained yet unsparing memoir "Borrowed Finery" combine the worst of both modes. Not content with consigning their infant daughter to a Manhattan orphanage, Fox's birth parents had the gall five years later to come back into her life and whisk her away from the nurturing home she had found with a poor but kindly small-town minister in upstate New York. Little Paula soon finds herself, quite literally, at her parents' disposal. They routinely leave her alone at home when they go out to parties. One year, they dispose of her by placing her in the Queens home of her batty, impecunious maternal grandmother from Spain. Another time, they ship her off to Cuba to stay with a distant relation. Or to boarding school. Or to the home of a friend in Florida--or California.
Fox's father, Paul, is a feckless, mercurial, narcissistic boozer who gets by on his skimpy charm and even skimpier talent as a screenwriter. (One of his films, "Last Train to Madrid," Graham Greene pronounced "the worst movie I ever saw.") Fox recounts an incident in a hotel room, when her father invited her to order her supper--lamb chop and peas--from room service:
"When the tray was delivered ... I looked at it and saw I had forgotten something.
" 'There's no milk,' I observed.
"At once, my father carried the tray to the window, opened it, and dropped the tray into the air shaft. ... Through tight lips, my father said mildly, 'OK, pal. Since it wasn't to your pleasure....'
" ... I was profoundly embarrassed, as though I were implicated in my father's act. But nearly as painful was the gnawing hunger I suddenly felt for that lamb chop lying 14 stories below."
Compared with his wife, however, Paul looks like Ozzie Nelson. A tall, dark, Spanish beauty, Elsie is icy, humorless, arrogant, easily angered, and not only uninterested in her daughter but actively hostile.
Even though Paula is nominally in their custody, they make a habit of dumping her onto various relatives, friends, acquaintances, most of them strangers to the child. Years later, her father tells her what her mother had threatened on one such occasion: "'She gave me an ultimatum .... She said, 'Either she goes or I go.' He shook his head ruefully. 'I had no choice,' he said, in a faintly self-pitying tone of voice." Despite such twisted demonstrations of spousal devotion, Paul and Elsie were more often apart than together. They were also routinely unfaithful to each other. Eventually, if hardly surprisingly, their marriage, a monument to instability, dissolves.
In tracing her childhood and youth from her early, happier years with "Uncle Elwood," the minister, to the peripatetic existence forced upon her by her fly-by-night parents, Fox's narrative line gradually loses its cohesiveness and becomes increasingly choppy and fragmentary. The reader, by now probably following Fox's story with great interest, is likely to find this disconcerting: So much seems to have been left out; so many dots remain tantalizingly unconnected. But from another perspective, this fragmentation aptly mirrors the increasing instability that the narrator experiences: Instead of a comprehensible "story" of which she is the protagonist, her life has become a series of discontinuous, arbitrary incidents that make very little sense to her.
Fox is an accomplished writer, with a gift for penetrating to the heart of complex feelings and complicated situations. Her tools are a lucid style, a cool, mildly ironic tone and an ascetic refusal to wallow in emotion, even as she succinctly reveals or expresses it. She has won critical acclaim as an author of children's books that demonstrate an uncanny sympathy with children baffled by hard circumstances or daunting surroundings. Her six adult novels have been justly praised for their unflinching portrayal of life's hard edges. In "Borrowed Finery," we can see some of the personal experience from which she has quarried her uncompromising art.
BOOK REVIEW: Borrowed Finery: A Memoir
Published Dec 9, 2001
Until recently, Paula Fox was best known as the author of award-winning children's books such as ''A Place Apart'' and "The Slave Dancer," for which she received the Newbery Medal. "Borrowed Finery," her lovely memoir about her itinerant childhood, ought to change all that.
"Borrowed Finery" begins in 1923, when Fox was born in New York to bohemian parents. Fox's father was a screenwriter and aspiring novelist whose ambitions were forever two steps ahead of his energies. Her mother was a mean and eccentric woman who resented motherhood with a vengeance.
Overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising a child, the Foxes leave their infant daughter at an orphanage. A kindly congregational minister, whom Fox dubbed Uncle Elwood, brought the foster child home and raised her in a broken-down house he shared with his mother and shelves of books by Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Here Fox learned the pleasures of the written word, as she observed Uncle Elwood craft his weekly sermons and newspaper columns.
Fox's father returned and whisked her off to a new life at age 6. The Foxes, it seems, warmed to parenting whenever they started over -- in New York, New Hampshire, Florida and beyond. As a result, Fox moved to a new city every few months, where she encountered a variety of hosts and baby sitters, from her maternal grandmother -- a dramatically emotional Cuban woman -- to semi-famous screenwriters and actors, including Douglas Fairbanks, who was a cousin.
The book's title refers to the way these constant changes required Fox to try on new lives like one does clothes. Throughout her childhood, Fox traipsed around in a suit or dress one or two sizes too big, as if understanding this breathless lifestyle was something she would later grow into.
Avoiding the blame game
Unlike many memoirists, Fox does not seek retribution for her parents' casual negligence. Rather, she transports us to this singular time, when her parents' need for space allowed her intellectual freedom. While other children grew up under watchful eyes, Fox traveled, read and spoke with the liberty of an adult. Still, she caught glimpses of how life could have been:
"I went to the movies every Saturday afternoon. My friends and I exchanged sepia-colored photographs of movie stars we cut out from magazines. There was little as satisfying as settling down on the floor in the bedrooms of other girls, a heap of magazines and scissors close at hand."
As this passage gently suggests, parental absence cast a pall over Paula's life.
Looking back at her childhood, Fox finds evidence that her parents could have given more. When sober, her father was a brilliant teacher and raconteur whose fondness for practical jokes knew no boundaries. He once sent her a pet alligator as a present. On another occasion, he bet her $100 that she could not hit the bull's-eye on a dart board twice in a row. She won.
Episodes like this are what make "Borrowed Finery" so faithful to memory, so powerful. In Fox's pages, these moments rise up amid the clutter of the past with little explanation and retreat even faster. Remarkably, Fox does not clutch too fiercely at them. As this poignant, beautifully crafted book reveals, she absorbed that lesson a long time ago.
-- John Freeman writes frequently for the Boston Globe and the Star Tribune. He lives in New York City.
W.W. Norton & Company, $13 (paper)
W.W. Norton & Company, $12 (paper)
The Widow's Children
W.W. Norton & Company, $13 (paper)
by Randall Curb
There are no careless moves in the fiction of Paula Fox. Reading her six novels for adults (she has also written more than twenty books for young readers), you sense that there isn't anything she hasn't precisely weighed, looked at from multiple angles, considered the opposite of, or seen a credible contradiction to. An empirical writer, she views her characters—including the real-life subjects of her acclaimed new memoir, Borrowed Finery—without illusion, and keeps them pinned down for the duration. Possessed of both sense and sensibility, they are almost never simplistic, and the few who don't measure up are dismissed in a paragraph or a page or two. It's not that Fox has no patience for human folly. Rather, she sees folly, as well as other human shortcomings and strengths, in the complex matrix of personality, the prison and the ambiguity of identity. Her characters have an endemic discontent that, even if keyed in their own minds to some sense of social or cultural malaise, is actually an incompleteness within themselves. Largely incapable of serious self-reflection, they still seem forever on the verge of learning something—and then resisting such knowledge because it rubs irritably against some essential truth (or even delusion) of their atomic definition. Identity, weak or willfully strong, confounds them, and they throw up their hands, helpless. When someone in a Fox novel characteristically cries out "I don't know anything!" the moment, for all its fleeting despair, is both comic and tragic. Comic, because Fox's characters possess keen intelligence and worldliness and are usually nowhere near giving up. Tragic, because unknowingness is the human condition, and, in the end, there's no getting around it.
A committed writer since the mid-1960s, Paula Fox has been equally clear-eyed about the publishing world, a world that has only recently brought her the full measure of respect long accorded her by serious readers. Though she has said she finds great pleasure in writing her children's books (which have received numerous prizes—including the Newbery Medal—and wide critical acclaim), she has used them to support the more speculative writing of her adult novels. She has no illusions about the exigencies of the marketplace either, and the disappearance of all of those novels from print until 1999 has proved her right. One of the key figures in her 1976 volume The Widow's Children, Peter Rice, is a publisher who is so disenchanted by "the ceaseless din" of publishing and the insatiable demands of writers ("Why were their books not in this store or that one? What the hell was the matter with the distributors? Had the salesmen been ordered to ignore their books because their views were unpopular?") that he no longer enjoys reading at all. And when another character in the same novel tells his sister about a porn star who has written her autobiography, saying, "'Publishing … editors…interviews …the world of literature!'" she replies, "'What better place for a cocksucker?'" Yet, as sometimes happens in the quixotic and cross-fertilizing realms of publishing and PR, five of Fox's novels from the 60s and 70s are once again available, in appealing paperback editions from Norton: Poor George (1967), Desperate Characters (1970), The Widow's Children (1976), The Western Coast (1972), and A Servant's Tale (1984). Another, The God of Nightmares (1990), is scheduled to be published in March 2002. That will see all of the novels returned to print. In addition, Fox's shimmering memoir, Borrowed Finery, which was excerpted in The New Yorker last summer, was published in September by Henry Holt, to very fine reviews. At seventy-eight, Fox has a new-found and stylishly invigorated fame that gives her grande dame status for a swelling number of devotees who have come to recognize her charm, her wisdom, and her art.
Around 1980 I read a reprint of Desperate Characters, which I was drawn to by a blurb from Irving Howe. Howe said the novel had taken its place "in a major American tradition, the line of the short novel exemplified by Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Seize the Day." There was, I found, no exaggeration: I was shattered by the book's raw emotional honesty. Now, with each reissue, it becomes clearer that Desperate Characters was no fluke. Andrea Barrett, in her introduction to The Widow's Children, puts Fox in the company of Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, and Flannery O'Connor. But the list could go on and on, and with male writers too—Cheever, Updike, Bellow, Roth. It is only company, however. Fox's work has a purity of vision, and a technique undiminished by hommage or self-indulgence.
Poor George was Fox's first novel, and if you want preparation for the thornier experience that is Desperate Characters, it is a good place to begin. Less chronologically compressed than the two other books under discussion here, it takes place over a single spring and summer in the mid- to late-1960s. The title character (it is his sister Lila who, with somewhat disingenuous sympathy, refers to him as "poor George") is George Mecklin, an English teacher in Manhattan, married for eight years, and now living in "the country," a train-commute away from work. It is a move he felt he wanted to make, but, if anything, it has dislocated him further from the nebulous sense he has of himself in the world. It has exacerbated his boredom, further strained relations with his wife, Emma, and set in motion a series of psychic disturbances that he is ill equipped to handle. Not a man lacking in brains—few Fox characters are—George is an observer who is sometimes self-consciously voyeuristic, sometimes perplexed by his helpless inability to see very far inside things. Occasionally he approaches a breakthrough, but then a curtain falls: "There was so much about people he had never understood, not so much the question of motive or purpose, but the mystery of authority, of substantiality ….Perhaps he was close to discovery; perhaps it was all gimcrack, a cheap cover for his old weaknesses, brought on by a spell of self-righteousness." The inchoate epiphany stops right there. Next line: "…he had taken to eating between meals, whenever he liked."
Early in the novel, George comes home to find an intruder in the house, a seventeen-year-old boy named Ernest Jenkins, a school dropout and a really serious voyeur (he relishes telling George the unpleasant things he sees through people's windows). Ernest is not a vandal or even much of a thief. Like George he is bored and aimless. But he is also cynical, sullen, lazy, rude, bigoted, and volatile. With a desperate home life and no apparent prospects, he has virtually given up, and belongs to a street gang. George responds to him almost immediately—wants, in some way, to rescue him. He insists on tutoring the boy and discovers that he'd rather read Conrad to this one unruly delinquent than teach Moby-Dick to a roomful of plodding sophomores. The relationship with Ernest, who is never reliable and only rarely attentive, quickens George's lethargic nerves—George, whose neighbor tells him he looks like "a piece of office furniture," whose sister says he's "like a pumpkin waiting to have a face carved on it"; George, who wonders "what a portrait of himself would look like" and decides "it would be a portrait of a suit." In his own idealistic mind, George is trying to give Ernest civilization, the capacity to be interested: "He had to convince Ernest of—of what? Convince him that much had gone before, that he had not sprung from sticks and stones to find himself on a dead planet thinly covered with sidewalks leading nowhere."
But Fox is no idealist, and George is no hero. (You never think of characters in Fox's novels in heroic terms; one way or another, she always knows how to deflate them.) Emma won't let her husband's professed motives go unchallenged. Friends are sarcastic about George's "project." And from the beginning, when George first lays eyes on Ernest, we suspect that a need deeper than sociological altruism has been struck. "He was, George thought, almost beautiful. His features were purely linear, like those of wooden saints in cathedral niches. His narrow-lipped mouth was finely delineated, his cheeks long and flat. But when he turned, how different he was! Then his mouth was thin as thread; his lynxlike lid suggested secretiveness. He seemed bloodless." Not long after, George watches him sleep and "felt himself close to tears." Is this a manifestation of paternal instinct? George is childless, but he is only thirty-four, and Ernest turns eighteen that summer. Emma, who dislikes Ernest intensely and disapproves of the whole arrangement, half-fancifully accuses George of homoerotic attraction, words that sting for longer than a moment. Is she so far wrong? Fox won't say, but she treats clearly homosexual characters with much sympathy in later novels like The God of Nightmares, and her gay Uncle Leopold is one of the few lovable figures in her memoir. Near the end of Poor George, once he has inevitably been betrayed by his protégé, George decides he "had never felt a thing for Ernest, only fear." But this verbal absolute is only a fractional truth, like any other. Fox leaves the knotty psychology of George's feelings intransigent to a single diagnosis. In many ways, he is an enigma to the end.
In his irritatingly coy introduction to the new edition, Jonathan Lethem writes, "But really, here's the key thing about poor George: don't tell the guy, but he's made of gorgeous sentences." Well, it's true that there's not an off-key passage in the book. This early in her career Fox was already a master of cadence and elegant syntax. Every line is lucid, and no paragraph goes on too long. But in the dialogue, especially between George and Emma, the sentences aren't gorgeous at all; they're abrupt, truncated, awkwardly cued, loaded with indirection. They're jabbingly Pinteresque. Not only, as Emma tells George, do these two not know how to fight, they barely know how to converse. After eight years of marriage, George is just now telling Emma things she should have heard long ago. And once she leaves him, George informs his friend Walling (the only friend he has), "'I liked Emma,'" then immediately realizes he has lied. This time we believe him completely. He hardly knew who she was.
No, Fox's gorgeous sentences are far from the key thing about "poor George," character or novel. This book, with all its 60s weather (race, political disaffection, single-motherhood, a Cheeverian cocktail party, and a "swinging" adulterer are part of the social climate), is a classic story of an underdeveloped, undernourished spirit sealed inside a passionless body. George Mecklin could come right out of Chekhov or Gogol, a secondary figure given center stage, but a figure too unconfident ever to be truly at center stage in his own life. Even when violence hits him—real, life-threatening violence from a man with a gun—the circumstances are almost farcical. Thus Fox's humor keeps rescuing George from morbidity or sentiment. He is not a clown, though, and in the end, when he pronounces himself a fool, he can't be dismissed as such—and so swept out with the rest of errant humanity. Left to his own unstellar devices, he has at least come to a knowledge of not knowing, a knowledge of mystery and chaos:
Women wanted blood and death on the face—forgiveness in the heart. He was supposed to look like what had happened to him. Lila had tormented him; he had cheated her by looking like a pumpkin. Didn't they know understanding had its own procedures—and that he didn't understand? He could hardly give himself an illusion of sequence; the events which had taken place were terrible because they seemed random, inexplicable.
On the last page of the novel, George is to start telling his story—Emma, Ernest, Lila, the gunshot wound that could have killed him—to his friend Walling. He will have to give those inexplicable events some illusion of sequence, and relate to Walling, however inadequately, what Fox has eloquently told us. Poor George! If he will stumble upon any truths in the telling is anybody's guess.
When Paula Fox published Desperate Characters in 1970, it was quickly recognized as a tour de force. Her reputation, for a time anyway, was assured. And no wonder. Once confronted—and reading Desperate Characters is a kind of confrontation—the novel refuses to be ignored. It's one of those books that stares back, as pitilessly as a Gorgon. There's no real comfort in it, certainly no palliative, and yet it produces an ineffable exhilaration. It's so nervously pulsating it seems electrified. Part of this neurotic effect comes from the narrative alone, which is propelled by a simple engine of relentless suspense. On a Friday evening in Brooklyn, circa 1969, Sophie and Otto Bentwood are having a quiet dinner at home. Every detail of that home (there's a bookcase filled with "the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets") suggests affluence and culture. Otto is a lawyer, Sophie a translator. Married fifteen years, they have no children and are apparently past the prospect. They are soon to go to a party. Sophie's first words—the book's first line of speech—are "'The cat is back.'" And that innocuous remark, uttered while Otto is unfolding his linen napkin, ushers in pain, fear, menace, desperation, and anarchy. Sophie goes outside to feed the cat, a stray, and in return for her kindness (one can't help thinking of George and Ernest) the cat fiercely bites her hand. The cruelty of the act baffles her, but to her "Why?" Otto tersely answers, "'Because it's savage.'" Thus savagery, a festering wound Sophie tries to overlook, and the possibility of rabies and its unspeakable horrors enter these well-upholstered lives. Sophie serves the cat its milk in a Meissen saucer.
In the long weekend that follows—the novel ends at noon on Monday, fewer than seventy-two hours later—other disturbing things happen. A rock is thrown through the bedroom window of a friend of the Bentwoods. Sophie receives a late-night phone call with no voice on the other end. A stranger, a black man, turns up at the Bentwoods' door wanting to use the telephone and asking for money. Sophie and Otto go out to their house on Long Island and find it thoroughly ravaged by vandals—furniture destroyed, a dead catbird in the bathtub, human feces in the hearth. Otto's law partnership with his oldest friend, Charlie Russel, comes to an end, leaving harsh recriminations on both sides in its wake. Late on Sunday, Sophie voices her real fear: "'It's what's behind it [all] that bothers me.'" When Otto, who has already accused Sophie of relying on "lunatic logic," answers that they've had "a few bad days," that Charlie hadn't murdered him, the farmhouse was still standing, the Negro man didn't kill them, and Sophie is surely not rabid, Sophie articulates the existential hypothesis that is her ultimate cri de coeur: "'But, by extension, everything you say could have come true! One more step, one more minute—'" There, on the highway back to the city, the abyss yawns. Plot and narrative suspense have metamorphosed—metastasized—into cosmic philosophical gridlock.
The economy of Fox's prose in Desperate Characters is magisterial. Always a succinctly descriptive writer, here Fox uses metaphors and similes sparingly but indelibly. A boy at a party has frizzy hair that "shot off in all directions, like a pubic St. Catherine's wheel." A man on the street, gazing into a sewer, "had the stunned immobility of a displaced person who had come as far as he could without further instruction." A professor Sophie knows has "a hand that looked as soft as a glove full of water." And Fox can delight in malicious caricature. At the hospital the Bentwoods finally go to for Sophie's wound, she spots a nurse with "a face that looked as if it had been drawn by a child with a pink crayon." Sometimes these observations relieve the novel's tension, sometimes they compound it. But they always vivify a time and place with the unpredictability of a discrete moment.
The formal exactitude of Desperate Characters—its events can be charted hour by hour—has a parallel in Otto's profound preoccupation with order. Otto is physically disgusted by debris and messiness. The garbage lining the streets in his neighborhood is like a moral affront to him. He is repulsed by "youths," with their unkempt appearance and careless use of the language. Conservative to the point of cultural anachronism, his reference points are all outdated: Fredric March, Evelyn Venable, Paul Muni. Charlie Russel, his only real friend and a man he once admired for his spontaneity, he now damns as a force for disorder, a hypocritical renegade. (Fox gives us Charlie's side as well, and it too is credible.) Otto is so maddeningly sure of himself, or so determined to give that appearance, that Sophie erupts, "'For God's sake—be a little uncertain!'" She has a more artistic temperament and looks for coherence (sequence, George might say) in literature, particularly nineteenth-century French novels. Her thirst is more for comfort and escape, and though he does not know it, she has been unfaithful to Otto.
Theirs is a more intimate marriage than George and Emma's, but Otto and Sophie are on the edge of implosion. The quiet desperation of these two lives—it is Charlie who invokes Thoreau's maxim—is, finally, like the absence of an immune system. In the hospital E.R., Sophie thinks, "I have no pride, no resources, no religion, nothing." (Indeed, religion is an unimaginable consolation in the lives of Fox characters.) Before leaving Long Island, Otto announces, "'I wish someone would tell me how I can live.'" Sophie has no useful reply. Earlier in the novel, listening to Otto rant against Charlie, she thinks that he is speaking thoughtlessly, that "he didn't believe much in the efficacy of words which were, after all, only for what could be said." What cannot be said, what cannot be seen, makes Otto and Sophie the terrified victims of the unknown that they are. And where can they turn but within? Anticipating implosion is the final rush of suspense in Desperate Characters, and it is no surprise that when it comes it is a small, domestic act of wordless ferocity.
This novel, which was filmed in 1971, is theatrical in its armature and has the stark, emotionally nuanced drama of a play by Edward Albee—say, A Delicate Balance, in which Agnes and Tobias, who seem to be waiting for madness, are close counterparts to Sophie and Otto. There is a confined, closeted feeling about the book, as though the characters were stage-bound. Wherever they go, they are soon back in that Brooklyn brownstone, a contrived fortress in which they seem to do little but wait—for the cat to return, the phone to ring, their lives to resonate with more than literature and legalities. Where George Mecklin is in search of personality, of something that will make him more than a business suit or a pumpkin head, Otto Bentwood desperately needs to break out of the rigid skin he has defensively fashioned for himself. Outwardly he is all inflexible judgment, inside he is psychically crumbling. And Sophie? For all her fears, she is the stronger one, and the one who listens. She can strike out, can think, "I am equal to what is outside." The delicate balance "between the quiet, rather vacant…days she spent in the house, and those portents that lit up the dark at the edges of her own existence" is one she might, somehow, be able to maintain.
Paula Fox's fourth novel, The Widow's Children, is the least analyzable and, to my mind, most emotionally satisfying of all her books. While its predecessors are remarkably free of dogma and cant, and while there isn't a whiff of agenda in them, they are novels redolent of ideas. Sartre, understanding Otto's nausea, would be right at home reading Desperate Characters. The old notions of culture and anarchy—not to mention moral stalemate, political impotence, personal responsibility, and the class war—are given subtle, pungent re-examination in Fox's first two triumphs. The Widow's Children touches lightly on a few of these matters, often with wicked wit, but it's on an altogether different plane of the imagination. It's both more buoyant and more down-to-earth. The pointed symbolism and the freighted imagery of the Bentwoods' world have been jettisoned. Only a slender thread of suspense (will Clara be told of her grandmother's death?) courses through the story. There is only a little more plot than there is in Woolf's The Waves, and, like The Waves, the swells and falls issue from an ensemble of endlessly interesting people—thinking about each other, reacting to each other, talking to (and arguing with) each other, trying to connect or to forsake connection. Because most of these people are related, it's also a novel about family, and that Pandora's box of rampant emotions. In bursts of energy, invention, absurdity, and passion, Fox lets those emotions fly out and injure or assuage where they will.
Though more leisurely in its rhythms than Desperate Characters, The Widow's Children is even more compressed in time. Everything transpires between the evening of one day and the afternoon of the next, about the same number of hours as in Mrs. Dalloway. The first third of the book occurs almost entirely in a Manhattan hotel room, where five people have met for cocktails. The festivities—it's a bon voyage party—continue at a restaurant close by. There are then scenes in the apartments of three of these characters, and the introduction of another character. The novel concludes in a cemetery near Queens, at a funeral, with all six characters present and few, if any, of the tangled affections and hostilities among them resolved.
It is a varied cast, full of foils and sharply disparate sensibilities. Indeed, almost everyone is a foil to the flamboyant, clever, reckless, outrageous Laura Maldonada, whose vivacity is both allure and weapon. Laura and her heavy-drinking husband, Desmond Clapper, are about to embark on a trip to Africa. But on the afternoon before their farewell party, Laura has learned that her elderly mother Alma has died in a nursing home. She will keep this news from everyone who comes for "Drinks" (the title of the long, virtuoso first chapter) and dinner, including her diffident twenty-something daughter, Clara; her ne'er-do-well homosexual brother, Carlos; and her adoring old friend, the publisher Peter Rice. Alternately spouting invective and endearments—her ex-husband once pronounced her "against reason itself"—Laura won't let anyone off the conversational (or emotional) hook. From her self-absorbed cocoon, and her "burlesque hauteur," she looks out with meretricious cynicism. "'The world is wrecked, my dears,'" she proclaims, while Fox assesses her as "like the personification of calamity," disorder on wheels.
Fox's new memoir reveals strong autobiographical underpinnings in her portraits of many members of the Maldonada family, who are strikingly remininiscent of Fox's mother's family, the de Solas. Alma Maldonada, the matriarch (and the widow of the title), takes Clara to raise just as Fox's own Spanish grandmother did. Carlos, openly gay in the novel, is an affectionate literary double for Fox's more discreet Uncle Leopold. As for Laura, who abandons Clara in childhood and never desires a maternal connection with her, she is as selfish, jealous, and fiercely defensive as Elsie de Sola, who left baby Paula in a foundling hospital and once, during a brief attempt to reunite the family, told her husband "Either she goes or I go." Whether Fox was exorcising Elsie in writing the novel or not, she used her to create, in Laura, her most redoubtable character.
Both families, real and fictional, are—dreaded word—dysfunctional. (This fact is brought into even sharper focus once we meet Laura and Carlos's brother Eugenio, an enigmatic travel agent who tells Peter "in my family we could never do anything but imitate. We never knew.") Clara, who's in a limbo of identity consciousness, wants to dissociate herself from the Maldonadas, with their "profound spiritual indolence," their "posture of aloofness…[that] was a quality of contempt." She mostly despises her fractured heritage. But it is not just these familial frictions and grievances that make Laura and Carlos (who quarrel constantly), Eugenio and Clara, so compelling. Rather it is what George Mecklin might call their individual substantiality, their "mystery of authority," and their inability to escape from the past and whatever destinies—even the ones they have designed for themselves—that have formed and imprisoned them. In the title they are called "children," and they are still in the process of growing up.
Ironically, it is Laura, with her dismissive manner, anti-Semitism, and racism (she blithely refers to "niggers" and "coon[s]"), who may be the most caged of all. We do not fully enter her mind until more than halfway through the novel, but when we do we are cast into a whirlwind. In a frenzy of unprovoked animus, and after fleeing the party at the restaurant, Laura thinks of Peter, her most loyal partisan, as "an insect husk, the goddamned vampire sucking her life away, that bloodless Christian sewing machine with his intolerable daintiness." Clara is a girl of "idiot fearfulness," Desmond "thick-witted," Carlos "debauched." But it is self-loathing she is masking with such poisoned epithets. And she, who, like the other Maldonadas, so often thinks of people in animal terms, ends by feeling cut off from speech, longing for the "utter quietness of animal being, that slow sinking into the eternal present that was animal sensibility." She is crushingly tired of being Laura and of the strain of keeping up her own act. In her wish for union with lions—it would be lions, not cats—she is most human.
This climax is followed by an unexpected piece of authorial strategy. For the rest of the novel our guide is outside the tumultuous Maldonada family. It is Peter, witness and observer, who has loved Laura because "she was ruled by impulse, he, by constraint." This dialectic—with Carlos and Laura on one side, Peter and Eugenio on the other, Clara in the middle—is central to the novel's journey into personality. Peter and the Maldonada siblings are ultimately beyond change now, but Clara is still making crucial choices, looking outside as well as within. In the book's first part she has been fascinated, bewildered, and beleaguered by her mother; in its final sections she is morally and emotionally confronted by Peter. He has been enjoined by the capricious Laura to deliver the news of Alma's death to Carlos and Eugenio—but not to Clara ("'She wouldn't be interested'"). As we go with him through his rounds we discover that he too has been blistered by family relations, that he is celibate and alone, that he is sustained by an early, inviolate memory of Laura that recalls Jay Gatsby's romanticizing of Daisy. In his pivotal late scene with Clara, as the two face what Clara calls their "spooks," Peter becomes the most sympathetic of all the characters in these books. Fox never works at creating sympathy for a character—that is crucial to her steely integrity as a writer—but Peter has a unique claim. Perhaps it's that his weaknesses (for he is weak) are more endearing. Perhaps it's that he understands that every strong emotion passes, and when it comes to the nuances in human relations, truths are of short duration: "He knew how transient…dramatic summations could be, surging up with what seems to be all the truth of a thing, falling away as a great wave falls, into the trough of daily life and its unthinking motion." He is also the man in these intractably unsentimental novels who speaks most wisely about love. "'There's more to love than love,'" he says to Clara, who asks, "'What else is there?'" His reply: "'Well, there's thought.'"
There is great uncertainty in the fiction of Paula Fox. There is doubt and fear and sometimes paralyzing anxiety. There are no bromides, no platitudes, no clichés. Religion, patriotism, the consolations of philosophy—those things so many people have turned to in recent months—are not accessible to the people she writes about in these books. Love is elusive and problematic, risky, poorly scaffolded. Souls are half-empty, with minds unsure of what it could ever take to fill them. Rocks hurtle through windows, the phone rings in the middle of the night. Boys with the features of wooden saints are pointlessly killed. Mothers reject daughters out of an irrationally defined selfishness. "'I'm desperate!'" Charlie Russel shrieks. "'He's desperate!'" Otto Bentwood shouts back, at the end of his own tether. And Charlie's voice continues to shriek through the phone, "on and on like gas leaking from a pipe."
Readers in these desperate times may not find much comfort in Paula Fox. She does not offer ease or solace. But she offers what Peter Rice says is more valuable: thought. That, with her other gifts, should ensure her reputation; Fox rediscovered should become Fox canonical.
Randall Curb's reviews and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers, Oxford American, and American Scholar
Originally Published in December 2001/January 2002 issue of the Boston Review
“Too much too late,'' Gore Vidal remarked when witnessing the bustle of Paul Bowles's long-deferred literary revival. Perhaps Paula Fox, now 78, feels the same way, but more likely she's just pleased by the great enlargement of her reputation and readership over the past few years. In a culture that resuscitates backlist literary fiction with Lazarene infrequency, Fox has lately seen her out-of-print novels reissued with introductions by esteemed younger writers like Jonathan Franzen, Andrea Barrett and Jonathan Lethem. She has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and invited to read at the hip downtown venue K.G.B.
Like most revivals, this one has had its evangelical excesses. Franzen's pronouncement of ''Desperate Characters,'' Fox's fine 1970 novel of barely suppressed urban panic, as ''obviously superior to any novel by Fox's contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow'' is almost more embarrassing than the neglect it sought to remedy. But hyperbole is publishing's lifeblood, and if this is what it took to give Fox's oeuvre a commercial pulse, one finds the zeal pardonable enough.
Some of the writers now rejuvenating her career are young enough to have read Fox's more steadily successful children's books, which she's been producing for 35 years in a kind of reverse compensation for the emotional neglect she suffered as a child. As one autobiographical character puts it in Fox's adult novel ''The Western Coast,'' ''I was born and thrown away.'' The author has repeatedly fictionalized her early life, and now, in ''Borrowed Finery,'' she offers a fascinating, if fragmentary, memoir of her actual upbringing.
One needs to use that last term loosely. Paul and Elsie Fox, the author's cruelly feckless parents, relinquished her to ''a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe.'' Chief among the rescuers was the Rev. Elwood Amos Corning, a kindly Congregational minister in Balmville, N.Y. Uncle Elwood is the Mr. Brownlow of Fox's Dickensian tale, which includes, quite rightly, its touches of Victorian rhetoric: ''My heart had grown dull. Sorrow, and the changes in my life that were its cause, had worked its desolation upon me.''
Her mother's original ultimatum to her father, the order that led to Paula's abandonment, had been, ''Either she goes or I go.'' Explaining this to his daughter, Paul would later say, ''I had no choice.'' Corning could provide Paula with only a ''short-lived Eden,'' subject as it was to sudden interruption by the ''two incomprehensible people'' who occasionally remembered they were the girl's parents.
We see Elsie throwing a glass at her daughter and Paul flinging her room-service dinner out a hotel window after she meekly notes the absence of milk on the tray. Fox's father, an alcoholic and a rarely successful writer, may have had more charm than her mother, but some of the most painful moments in this memoir involve the recollection of what passed for good times -- crumbs of benign emotion that still nourish the author's memory.
''It was a hopeless wish,'' Fox writes, ''that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitous for my mother.'' One measure of this memoir's strength is the author's unwillingness to pretend she's even close to an answer. Toward the end of the book, she visits the dying Elsie for the first time in 38 years. ''We shook hands,'' writes Fox, who can't quite remember ''what we spoke about during the hours I spent with her.'' This repellent material is presented with no trace of what the author calls, in one of her novels, the ''corrupt passion to be right.'' Elsie is a dark natural force who leaves her daughter neither righteous nor forgiving, just depleted.
''Borrowed Finery'' is organized around the locales of Fox's shuttlecock youth. We see Paula in Hollywood at the time her father sells a script called ''The Last Train From Madrid'' (''The worst movie I ever saw,'' Graham Greene said). After that, she's on Long Island and in Cuba, just prior to the 1933 revolution, with her grandmother, whose situation -- paid companion to a wealthy woman -- will be familiar to readers of Fox's novel ''The Widow's Children.'' Even in Cuba, there ''was no one who said my name for hours at a time.''
The reader is soon dispatched, as abruptly as this poor girl, back to Long Island and then to Florida, where Paul's involvement with another woman prompts Elsie's telephoned demand that Paula look for her rival's diary -- but only after she tells her mother whether she loves her. ''Who was I to love such a person,'' writes Fox, more mystified than resentful, ''and who was she to be loved? I was frightened by her question; there was something in her voice that made loving her a punishment. But I said yes. I was painfully aware of the neighbor listening nearby.''
Sharp observations and pieces of humor stick out from all the confusion and dread. At boarding school in Montreal, Paula regards one girl who ''learned derisively, as though conceding to a madness in adults that drove them to teach.'' The author's theatrical career ends ''at the moment it began,'' during a youthful summer on Nantucket when she dissolves in laughter while playing a mourner in the funeral scene in ''Our Town.''
Apparent everywhere in ''Borrowed Finery'' is the real-life germination of scenes that would go into Fox's fiction: the anti-Semitic outbursts of the mother in ''The Widow's Children''; the Masses offered to restore the sanity of Senora Beatriz de la Cueva in ''A Servant's Tale''; even the cat-inflicted wound that opens ''Desperate Characters.'' As told here, much of Fox's experience in Southern California, living among fringe leftists and film people just before World War II, will ring a bell with readers of ''The Western Coast.''
Familiarity with the fiction makes for a certain detective pleasure in reading ''Borrowed Finery,'' but sometimes the connections are so numerous as to distract one into a kind of pedantry. Those who have no prior acquaintance with Fox's writing may actually be in for a fresher, more powerful experience than those who do. Either way, the new book will very likely seem choppy and imagistic. Perhaps it couldn't be otherwise with a childhood this disjointed.
''Borrowed Finery'' is definitely memoir, not autobiography; meaning here resides more in the vivid moment than in the connective tissue of progressive experience and cultural context. Sometimes, in fact, significance seems to lie more within the elisions than the text, and a few of the vignettes, truncated by sudden white space, seem flatly portentous.
But any irritation is made up for by Fox's intelligence and her exceptional eye. Cockroaches move ''with their hideous broken speed''; a man's celebrity ''turns everyone around him into beggars''; the 1930's Mickey Mouse, ''thin and worried-looking . . . as if he'd just eluded a laboratory technician's grasp,'' isn't the ''plump, smug and bourgeois'' creature he later became.
Fox remembers, as a little girl, asking a Hudson Valley bishop, ''Do you like me?'' The cleric responded, ''Don't you think your question is a little premature?'' Those who enjoy this flickering memoir should not count on liking Fox's fiction, if they haven't yet read it. The novels tend to be very dense. ''The Western Coast'' may be a clear exception, but ''The Widow's Children'' has an almost Nicholson Baker-like molecularity, requiring eight pages to get a set of characters down a hotel corridor and into an elevator. In such instances, Fox works too hard at what the memoir calls ''tunneling always deeper for meaning, attributing nuance where there was none.''
''Borrowed Finery'' ends with a burst of unexpected incident -- also Dickensian, in the less-used, joyful sense of the term. The author's rediscovery of the daughter she decades earlier put up for adoption -- a more formal abandonment than she had undergone herself -- gives the narrative a sudden amplitude and liveliness. Just as the book is reaching an end, it becomes less wary, more coherent and connected. Form ceases to follow dysfunction, and the reader who has stayed the course will see the memoir's epigraph -- After so long grief, such nativity!'' from ''The Comedy of Errors'' -- circle into lovely service as its true peroration.
Thomas Mallon's most recent books are ''Two Moons,'' a novel, and ''In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing.''
In the winter of 1991, the novelist Jonathan Franzen was poking around the library at Yaddo, the writers' colony in upstate New York, looking for something new to read. He pulled a slim volume titled "Desperate Characters" from the shelf and sat down to look it over. The author's name was Paula Fox. The story -- a ruthless, elegant portrayal of the social paranoia of a bourgeois Brooklyn couple named Sophie and Otto Bentwood -- mesmerized Franzen, so much so that he didn't stop reading until he reached the end. Soon after, he called a bookstore to order a copy of his own; to his dismay, he was told it out was of print.
In addition to being an intricate, breathtakingly formal portrait of New York City in the 1960's, "Desperate Characters" seemed to Franzen to be concerned with something much larger. "This startling thing happens, and it just chases those two people down, and they can't get away from it," he says of the seminal moment in the novel's opening pages, when a stray cat bites Sophie's hand, bringing the tumult of the outside world -- in the form of the threat of rabies -- directly into the Bentwoods' brownstone fortress. The wound, which Sophie tries to ignore until it forces her to the emergency room, mirrors her own festering psyche. "I had never read a book before that was about the indistinguishability between an interior crisis and an exterior crisis," says Franzen.
Before long, his admiration of the novel, first published in 1970, escalated into something greater than just the desire to get hold of a copy of his own. "I was not going to rest until it was back in print," he recalls. "I felt like here we were, bowing down before 'Rabbit, Run' as this great domestic novel of the 60's, and this book that just blew it out of the water wasn't even in print."
He mentioned Fox's work to agents and editors, but no one seemed interested. Then in 1996, he published an essay in Harper's about the role of the novel in contemporary America, which included a passionate description of "Desperate Characters." A young editor at W.W. Norton named Tom Bissell read the essay and took the idea of reissuing the novel to Norton's paperback committee. In 1999, with an introduction by Franzen, "Desperate Characters" came back to literary life.
"I was bewildered," says Fox, who is now 77, recalling the moment when Bissell phoned her about the reprint. "And I was terribly thrilled, in some very profound way." We are sitting in the living room of her own Brooklyn brownstone, purchased 30 years ago with the money from the film rights to "Desperate Characters," which in 1971 was made into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine. The room is comfortable, with an underlying sense of order in its framed pictures and carefully arranged collections on the mantelpiece and end tables. She shares the house with her third husband, Martin Greenberg, a former editor of Commentary (and the art critic Clement Greenberg's brother), to whom she has been married for 40 years. The couple met when Greenberg rejected a short story Fox sent in to Commentary.
Fox seems nervous, even wary, as she sits on the edge of her floral-print sofa. It's a reaction to attention that seems only natural considering that, until recently, all six of her adult novels -- she is also an acclaimed children's author -- had been out of print for years. Since 1999, Norton has reissued not only "Desperate Characters" but also two other Fox novels, "The Widow's Children" (1976) and "Poor George" (1967), the latter just last month. (Though her last novel was published in 1990, so far only her work from the 60's and 70's has been reissued.)
Her belated good fortune, however, doesn't prevent Fox from regarding her past with the same lack of sentimentality that lends her writing such force. "I felt that I'd been unjustly treated," she says evenly of the way her novels disappeared from bookstores. "But I had learned not to look back and to look at what I was in at the moment. There was this terrible disorder that I grew up in," she explains. "I don't think I had any expectations that things would be different as I grew older."
"Disorder" is a mild word for the chaos of Fox's early life. Her parents -- a temperamental Spanish mother and an alcoholic screenwriter father -- left her in a Manhattan foundling home when she was only a few days old. After being rescued by her maternal grandmother, who happened to inquire after her new grandchild while visiting from Cuba, Fox eventually landed with a Congregational minister in the Hudson Valley town of Balmville, N.Y., at the age of 5 months, where she lived until she was 6 years old. She adored him and attributes to him her first tastes of literature and writing: "He'd been a newspaperman and had lots of books and lots of poets," she explains, gesturing to a small photo of him in a silver frame on a nearby table. "So I managed to grab some of it as the merry-go-round went."
At 6, Fox was summoned by her father to California but spent only a few turbulent days in her parents' Hollywood home before she was taken to live with an elderly woman several towns away, where she remained for a year. Decades later, Fox learned from her father that she had been banished after her mother issued an ultimatum: "Either she goes or I go."
Looking back now, she says: "I just took everything as it came. I was startled, but I never felt any anger or rage toward them. To me they were simply fascinating, and I saw myself as a child of fate."
Fox spent the next few years with her maternal grandmother in a cramped apartment in Queens, where she was taunted by her schoolmates, and in Cuba, where her grandmother worked as a companion to a wealthy relative on a plantation. There, she attended a one-room school and made friends with the servants in order to have some company. "I felt very lonely in Cuba, but I was terribly interested in everything," Fox recalls. "I didn't have any sense of self, but I had a terrific sense of the outside, that the world was huge and alien and exotic." When the Cuban government was overthrown in 1933 -- Fox was 10 years old -- she and her grandmother returned to Queens. Throughout all of this, there were periodic, disastrous visits from her father. One last effort to live together when Fox was in the sixth grade ended once again with Fox's parents abandoning her, in Florida this time, after only a few days and in the care of their housekeeper. She had made her mother jealous through her efforts to please her father by reading a George Bernard Shaw play.
After Fox's parents split up, she lived briefly with her father and his fianc 1/8e in New Hampshire, where she was asked to leave the local school because of her father's drinking. She was 14, and it was the first time she'd ever spent more than a week with him. "He had so much charm," she recalls, "but he drank a lot, and that was terrible. He made me laugh, but he also frightened me and he betrayed me a lot." Still, she says, "it took me years to get over the fact that I thought he knew everything. I had a lot of affection for him, and still have."
At 17, Fox had a brief, unhappy marriage. Shortly before her 20th birthday, Fox gave birth to a daughter whom she put up for adoption, a decision she regretted almost immediately but could not reverse. At 20 she headed to Europe to work as a stringer for a British news service; she reported from London, Warsaw and Paris. It took almost two decades, several more cities and a second marriage before she found herself settled down again in New York -- with Greenberg, and rearing two sons from that second marriage. There she taught elementary and middle school and attended Columbia (where she was accepted even though she had never really been to high school). Now in her late 30's, she at last had the safety and structure that had been so markedly absent from her life.
Although she had been trying to write short stories all along, it was not until 1966 that Fox published her first children's book, "Maurice's Room." The novel "Poor George" appeared the following year. She was in her 40's by then, and when "Desperate Characters," her second novel, was published, she decided to "let go of the trapeze" and become a full-time writer. Her children's books gave her the financial solvency to write novels, not to mention peace of mind. "I loved writing children's books, and I didn't love writing novels," she says. "With the children's books, I knew right away that I wasn't going to write 'Anna Karenina."' She has written 22 children's books; they approach kids' problems with sympathy but avoid being didactic. She continued with the novels because, as she puts it, "the struggle makes one feel alive."
As she describes all of this to me, it's plain that those early lessons in self-reliance engendered a permanent cautiousness in Fox -- a suspicion of surfaces and superficial chatter and a desire to strip them away in both fiction and life. "When there's a terrible murder," she tells me with a kind of hushed outrage as we drink tea, "people who are interviewed say, 'This has always been a quiet neighborhood.' That is so dumb and uninformed! The earth is not a quiet neighborhood. There isn't anyplace that's a quiet neighborhood. People are asking themselves how to stay neat in the cyclone." Then, considering the whirlwind of her own life, she sums up: "It's not been smooth sailing, but then again, most people don't live to see their books reissued."
Indeed, the passage of time often seems to be a necessary component of the process of revival. Geoffrey O'Brien, editor in chief at the Library of America, points to the case of Willa Cather, who by the time of her death "had been relegated to old-maid status, this old-fashioned writer lacking in literary interest. It took a good 25 years after her death for her work to be regarded as great." A similar fate befell Edith Wharton, whose works were disparaged well into the 1980's as nostalgic portraits of society life. But while both of them suffered a temporary loss of prestige, neither Wharton nor Cather went out of print. When that happens, a writer's fate is usually sealed.
Rare as it may be, though, the reissue of a forgotten writer often can serve to shake up our view on periods that have become fixed in our collective imagination. As O'Brien puts it: "It's like, 'This is the 30's, but, oh, this is a different 30's than the one I know already, a different way of describing it."' This is certainly the case with Fox's work, which provides a window onto the 60's that is at once more restrained and less partisan than much of the other writing about the period. Rather than celebrating or condemning the prevailing ideals, she reports on them and then refuses to take sides.
"I'm amazed by the way she manages in 'Desperate Characters' to make you feel Sophie's muddle and denial about race," says the novelist Jonathan Lethem. "When Sophie is in the hospital having her wound examined, the viewfinder widens at certain moments, and you realize that she's in this sea of racial hostility, and that that's part of what she has blunted herself against. It's completely unresolved material, and Paula just lets it be unresolved, and you become complicit with Sophie's avoidance."
This panoramic technique also says a lot about Fox's own position within the literary culture of her time. "I was completely outside of literary life," she says now. "I knew certain people, like Alfred Kazin and the Trillings and Philip Roth, but we didn't have literary discussions. I was mostly cooking for them when they came to dinner," she says with a throaty chuckle. "I think I saw that there were fashions and so did Marty. We both knew that everything passes."
This refusal to pander to literary trends may have been what prevented Fox's writing from catching on until now, despite earlier efforts to bring it back. In a 1980 reprint of "Desperate Characters," Irving Howe wrote an afterword placing it in a grand American tradition of short novels, from "Billy Budd" to "Seize the Day." According to Howe, Fox's diamond-hard prose is not "pretty decoration, but sentence by lapidary sentence . . . the realization of a mind committed to the hardness of its own truth." Indeed, Fox's work is filled with moments of brutal grace, like the passage in "Desperate Characters" in which Sophie finally confronts her anxieties: "God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside,' she said out loud, and felt an extraordinary relief as though, at last, she'd discovered what it was that could create a balance between the quiet, rather vacant progression of the days she spent in this house, and those portents that lit up the dark at the edge of her own existence."
If the circumstances that have brought about the current appreciation of Fox's work seem appallingly arbitrary, the truth is that they're not unusual. Other writers whose work has been revived lately -- like the satirist Dawn Powell, or the novelists J.F. Powers and Charles Portis -- have also been saved virtually by chance. For Powell, it was Gore Vidal and the music critic Tim Page who spearheaded the campaign that has led to Steerforth Press's reissuing of her work. In Portis's case, the journalist Ron Rosenbaum wrote a column in Esquire saying it was a scandal that Portis's work was out of print; an editor at Overlook Press took notice, and the books are now available again. Even writers whom we now think of as sacred, like Zora Neale Hurston and Emily Dickinson, came dangerously close to being lost forever. For writers whose work has gone out of print, the lesson is weighty: resurrection requires the serendipitous arrival of an admirer powerful (and pushy) enough to persuade publishers to dig the work out of its grave.
Of course, there's a danger that Fox's fame will be as fleeting as it was the first time around. Her literary survival is now being guarded by a growing court of younger writers to whom she has become a kind of touchstone. It's a role she embraces cautiously. She recently read her work at the K.G.B. bar in Manhattan and occasionally has dinner with people like Bissell and Franzen (both of whom she refers to as "lovely fellows"). At a dinner party he held for Fox a few years ago, Franzen watched her cast a spell over the other guests. "We hung on every word," he recalls. "She had this incredible timing, and she told stories about New York in the 60's and Cuba in the 30's, about the stupidity of other people and her own mortification, all in that hushed, compelling voice of hers. She's really a grande dame." The novelist Frederick Busch is equally admiring, and points to her cutthroat intelligence: "She has the same cold eye that Mary McCarthy had, but she's smarter."
According to Franzen, Fox has become a magnet for his generation of writers as they rebel "in a kind of Oedipal way" against the influence of "the great white male post-modernists -- Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis and Heller." As he puts it: "Those guys were out there in the world, not thinking about home. That was fascinating, but it was also chilly. What Paula's work points to is that life, as experienced by you or me, actually happens inside -- that the big picture is always apprehended in the context of the little picture."
The next time I see her, Fox dispenses with the formality of the upper floors and invites me instead into her basement kitchen. We sit eating cookies and looking out at her neatly planned, albeit wintry, garden. This is clearly the heart of the house, and her initial guardedness is soon banished by the liveliness of her intelligence. We start off talking about novels, but she soon digresses to her love of geology. "It's aesthetically and metaphorically so pleasing -- these great events in the earth in turmoil and writhing and hardening."
She could be describing the roiling inner lives of her own characters. Indeed, the title character of "Poor George," an unhappily married English teacher named George Mecklin who has just moved to the suburbs of New York City, is a man of barely suppressed impulses. The bedroom community in which he lives is equally rife with repression. "There's a party scene where everyone in the room can feel that George's sister is being seduced by the married cad who lives next door," says Lethem, who wrote an introduction for the new edition. "It's corrupting everything everyone says, but no one can address it in any direct way. It just hangs there -- the pressure of consensual silence."
Addressing such bleak moments is clearly a necessity for Fox, and according to her, it is this bluntness that accounts for the mounting interest in her work. "I'm surprised, but I'm not surprised," she says of her newfound audience. "It's not that I thought so well of my books, it's that in some way I think so well and highly of truth, and I know that my novels have a tiny bit of truth in them. Truth: that's what I care about."
Fittingly, she has just written a memoir. Like her novels, "Borrowed Finery," which will be published by Henry Holt this fall, is compressed, even elliptical as it covers the turbulent events of Fox's first 20 years. Instead of telling all, as current tastes dictate, she tells only what's essential and doesn't apologize for it. One story in it, which also found its way into one of our conversations, begins with another loss that Fox took hard but tried not to look back at too often -- the decision to put her first child up for adoption. At the time, Fox, ever the realist, knew she simply had to get on with her life. Her forbearance was rewarded when that daughter, Linda, found her 10 years ago. (Linda herself is the mother of the rock musician Courtney Love. Fox once had tea with Love, an event about which she has little to say beyond the wry observation that her granddaughter "uses all this language which I find so dreadful.") "I can still remember the day I got the first package from Linda," Fox told me soon after we met. "I didn't know what it was, and then when I opened it, it had a note on top that said 'Go slow,' and I knew, and I called upstairs to Marty, 'She's found me."'
And now we've all found Paula Fox again. "It doesn't seem long ago or a short time ago," she says of writing her novels. "But at my age nothing seems very long, including life itself." Perhaps for this reason, her attitude toward the reissues is marked by a certain calm. Then again, it may be that her stoicism springs simply from her understanding of survival. "You've got to pick up your bed and walk," she says, a fierce expression flashing in her eyes. "You get up -- as Lazarus did -- and walk, and that's what makes life possible."
Melanie Rehak writes regularly for the magazine. Her last feature was about the poet Anne Carson
Paula Fox's 1970 novella "Desperate Characters" was a small, taut masterpiece about a marriage unraveling, a society imploding, a woman's life coming undone. Writing in economical but lyric prose, Ms. Fox drew an unsparing portrait of a Brooklyn couple, Sophie and Otto Bentwood, whose artsy, upper-middle-class life is shaken one weekend after Sophie is bitten by a stray cat.
The bite — and her fear that she has contracted rabies — serves as a catalyst for all of Sophie's long-suppressed anxieties and discontents. And it becomes a metaphor as well for the Bentwoods' foundering relationship, and their flailing efforts to cope with the social and cultural tumult of the 60's, a world impervious to their craving for order.
"Desperate Characters," which had fallen out of print, was reissued in 1999, thanks largely to the efforts of the novelist Jonathan Franzen, and helped spark a welcome revival of interest in Ms. Fox's work. It is a revival sure to be ratified by the publication of her unsettling new memoir, "Borrowed Finery."
It's clear from Ms. Fox's account of her youth that Sophie Bentwood's sense of apprehension — her amplified sense of the precariousness of life — had roots in the author's own childhood. "Borrowed Finery" often reads like an American version of a Dickens novel, replete with cruel relatives, startling reversals of fortune and traumatic abandonments and reunions. It is a story about shockingly negligent parents and the unexpected kindness of strangers, a story about childhood as a series of non sequiturs.
Ms. Fox's handsome father, Paul, we learn, was a sometime screenwriter and play doctor and almost full-time drunk; her mother, Elsie, a cruel, capricious beauty, who was "panic-stricken and ungovernable in her haste to have done" with her newborn child. A few days after her birth, Paula was left at a Manhattan foundling home; she eventually wound up in the care of a kindly minister, the Rev. Elwood Corning, who took her home to live in the small, aptly named town of Balmville, N.Y.
Even as a small child Paula had a keen sense of the impermanence of life — she was constantly worried that Uncle Elwood would tumble into the well in the meadow and leave her alone — and her fear that the minister's home was "a lifeline that might slip out of my hands at any moment" was soon borne out. Her mercurial parents resurfaced in her life, taking her away from Balmville and shuttling her from one caretaker to another, one town to the next. Penurious days of eating cold cereal and buttered bread for supper were juxtaposed with glamorous sojourns in Malibu and Nantucket; days of sharing a one-room apartment with several relatives juxtaposed with stays at estates equipped with goldfish ponds and formal gardens.
At age 6 Paula was taken to Los Angeles, where her parents rented a house near the Hollywood sign. One evening she found herself locked out of the house and had to spend the night at a neighbor's; the following morning, when she returned home, she found her father in bed with a strange woman. Her mother was nowhere to be found, and no one seemed to have noticed that Paula had gone missing for an entire night. Several days later her father drove her to Redlands, a small town where she was left in the care of an old woman named Mrs. Cummings. Her father later said her mother gave him an ultimatum: "She said, `Either she goes or I go.' "
Such abandonments would occur regularly throughout Paula's childhood, her parents sometimes disappearing for years at a time before popping up again to disrupt whatever routine and sense of security she had managed to assemble for herself. Sometimes she was left with strangers like Mrs. Cummings. Sometimes she was left with her maternal grandmother and her mother's unstable brothers. There was a 16- month visit to Cuba, where her grandmother served as a companion to a wealthy relative, and there were interludes in New Hampshire, New York City and Martha's Vineyard, too.
Ms. Fox's mother emerges in this account as a seriously unbalanced woman, prone to inexplicable rages, mocking put-downs and cruelly manipulative strategems. Her father, though more attentive and charming, was unreliable as well.
"How could it be that Elsie was enough of an organic being to have carried me in her belly for a term?" Ms. Fox writes. "What I was sure of was that fate had determined that her presence was the price I had to pay in order to see my father. But when I did see him, his behavior with me — playful, sometimes cruel, a voice of utterly inconsistent and capricious authority — confirmed my uneasiness, my ever-growing sense of being an imposter, outside life's laws."
Ms. Fox's experiences in her teens and 20's would prove equally disjointed: stints at a Canadian finishing school and the Juilliard School giving way to a brief, failed marriage and the birth of a daughter (whom she put up for adoption), as well as a succession of odd jobs: making shrimp cocktails, sorting rivets and painting sleeping Mexicans on pitchers and vases.
Although "Borrowed Finery" sometimes feels like a collection of almost random recollections, this fractured narrative is doubtless meant to mirror the author's chaotic childhood, just as her refusal to speculate about the reasons for her parents' behavior seems meant to reflect a child's bewildered apprehension of the world. Pointillist in detail, lapidary in method and brutal in effect, "Borrowed Finery" is an eloquent, disturbing memoir — and the perfect bookend to the author's powerful novels.
Paula Fox's Borrowed Finery is another memoir of brutal parents. But this time, argues Rachel Cooke, you want to know more
Sunday September 1, 2002
by Paula Fox
Flamingo £12, pp390
The name Paula Fox does not - yet - ring many bells on these shores but in America she is, at 79, hot stuff. First, thanks to the efforts of her number one fan, Jonathan Franzen, several of her novels have been republished having long been out of print (in 1991, Franzen stumbled on her minor masterpiece of the Sixties, Desperate Characters, in the library of a writers' colony; he has adored and championed it ever since). Then, a year ago, Borrowed Finery, a memoir of her peripatetic childhood, was published. 'Eloquent... disturbing,' said the critics. 'Pointillist in detail, brutal in effect.' Suddenly, Fox was in all the colour supplements, peering over her spectacles, the ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
It is, of course, a sign of the astonishing trade in memoirs that Borrowed Finery is being published here long before the reprinted novels arrive in our bookshops (they are due in the spring). In recent years, we have had one set of reminiscences after another - some good (Lorna Sage), some not very good (Dave Pelzer).
We've grown almost blasé about the nasty things mummies and daddies do to their little ones. Fox, however, is made of stern stuff; she is not about to spill her guts willy-nilly over the page. Rather, her tactics are tranquil. A raised eyebrow, perhaps, but no mushy business. She writes as if she were merely flicking through a dusty photograph album. Sometimes, your eye coasts an entire paragraph before you understand its horrible import.
Fox's story begins in Manhattan, where she is born to Paul, screenwriter and drunk, and Elsie, a Spanish beauty with so little warmth in her soul you wonder how the blood managed to move through her veins. The pair are too self-obsessed to be interested in anyone but themselves, and place their daughter in an orphanage. Rescued by her grandmother, she is then passed from pillar to post until, aged five months, she is taken in by a Congregational minister, Uncle Elwood. Unfortunately, some years later, Elsie and Paul turn up again - and stick around until Elsie decides that three is a crowd. 'Either she goes or I go,' she tells her husband, as if her daughter were a rival. Fox is sent to live with yet another stranger.
And so it goes on. Fox goes to live in Queens and, later, Cuba with her grandmother. She pitches up in Jacksonville, Florida, for a little while and in Nan tucket and Montreal. In between these sojourns, there are painful shards of time spent with her parents - snatched when they remember her existence. Elsie flings an ice-filled glass at her; Daddy throws her longed-for dinner of lamb chops and peas out of the window. Finally, at 18, she is sent to Hollywood in the care of an alcoholic family friend. Lonely and at sea, she marries a feckless actor-cum-sailor and winds up living in a claustrophobic rented room at the wrong end of Sunset Boulevard.
Fox makes no attempt to analyse the casually brutish, almost feral behaviour of her parents. She cares little for where it comes from, being more interested in its eye-widening effects on a girl as desperate for their approval as for their love. 'For years, I assumed responsibility for all that happened in my life,' she writes. 'It was not out of generosity of mind or spirit that I did so. It was a hopeless wish that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitious for my mother.'
In her final chapter, Fox describes visiting Elsie, whom she has not seen for more than 30 years, at the instigation of her own grown-up children. The two shake hands politely, but so deep is Fox's revulsion at the sight of her mother, she cannot bear even to use the same lavatory as her. There is no doubt about it: Fox writes elegantly, her prose as delicate and hushed as a Victorian tea party, and it would be churlish of me to say otherwise. But still, Borrowed Finery is as notable for its unsettling omissions as for its razor-sharp recall; its author, her lips pressed tightly together, gives away only what she has to, and no more.
As a result,
the book is as itinerant as the girl whose story it tells, its narrative
slipping bleakly through the reader's fingers like so much ash. It ends with a
joyful but maddeningly discreet coda, in which Fox is reunited with the daughter
she gave up. The two meet in an airport: 'We walked so closely together, I could
feel her breath on my face. I found her beautiful.' Spoilt, perhaps, by too many
years of therapy-speak, you close this book longing for more.
Elizabeth Bowen remarked that the charm of memory lay in chance, which "rejects the edifying cathedral and indelibly photographs the small boy outside, chewing a hunk of melon in the dust." This applies to many recent memoirs, which are narrow in focus, almost parochial.
Yet memoirs have never had it so good. The worse the life – sexual abuse, drug addiction – the better the material. Now Paula Fox's Borrowed Finery comes winging across the Atlantic complete with praise for its eloquence and power.
Why do people write memoirs? It is because they hope to serve as inspiration, or because, in overcoming hardship, they want recognition? Is it to make permanent something fleeting, to explain things that eluded them? Are memoirs creative works or acts of therapy? Sometimes it seems a thin dividing line.
The award-winning children's author Paula Fox was born in 1923. Within days, her glamorous and feckless parents dumped her in a Manhattan orphanage. Her Spanish grandmother rescued her and, briefly, Fox lived with a kindly but impoverished minister in upstate New York.
Reclaimed once more by her grandmother, Fox was dragged off to Cuba, to the home of a rich lunatic relation. Back again she went to New York. Each new arrangement was punctuated by visits from her parents – except for four years, from seven to 11, when she didn't see them at all.
Her hard-drinking father, Paul Fox, was a Hollywood screenwriter, responsible for The Last Train to Madrid (described by Graham Greene as "the worst movie I ever saw"). But Fox's relationship with her mother Elsie is the key. From the moment she gave birth, at 19, Elsie disliked her daughter.
Elsie was both ferocious and indifferent. On one occasion, when Paula complained of toothache, her mother strapped her in the back of a car and drove maniacally around Malibu, so the child was shaken like a rattle. Meeting Paula to buy her shoes, Elsie made the purchase, then told the girl to find her own way home across New York.
In this bewildering world Fox meets John Gilbert, Buster Keaton and Orson Welles. She recalls her three uncles, her grandmother and various best friends: temporary fixtures in a random life. She can be very insightful. Introducing her to James Cagney, her father seems apologetic: "I thought of how the notability of a man turns everyone around him into beggars."
There's the tiniest glimpse of something quirky beneath Elsie's brittle veneer. Reading a story about farmers shooting coyotes, she exclaims, "Why not arm the coyotes?" Fox didn't see her mother for 38 years. When Elsie died aged 92, Fox felt she had lost "a daughter's last privilege, I couldn't mourn my mother."
Borrowed Finery keeps us at a distance. There's also a tension between the awful content and the bald, dispassionate way it's related. When Fox tells of being reunited with her own daughter (put up for adoption when she was 21), you feel years of unwept tears. Maybe it all feels too long ago, as if it happened to someone else. Or is Fox aware that if she exposed her true anguish, she might never stem the emotional floodwaters? Whichever, the result is oddly unmoving.
Borrowed Finery: A Memoir, by Paula Fox. New York: Henry Holt. 210 pages. $23
Reviewed by LYNNE TILLMAN
After September 11, reckoning with Paula Fox's memoir, Borrowed Finery, is intellectually consoling. Like most people, I'm roller-coasting: Nothing means anything, everything's urgent, life's precious or, obviously, expendable. Her memoir asks: What does another life tell us? How is the manner in which a life is written significant?
Fox's life has had its fair—or unfair—share of painful incidents, alarming events, betrayals, bad parents. But thinking and writing against the current American grain, Fox doesn't deliver cause-and-effect dicta; she doesn't blame others or luxuriate in neglect, succumbing to the narcissism of victimhood. Instead, she shapes her memoir with a light hand, clearing an unusual path to her psychology and history. Connections she might have forged to establish the story, as she does in her novels—though there too she masters the art of underexplanation—are mostly absent or understood by indirection. The reader connects to and makes sense of, or doesn't, her psyche and worldview.
I once was surprised to find out that Paula Fox writes children's books. Not after reading the preface to this book. She launches her memoir with a parable, using a suit, clothing—Borrowed Finery—as a trope for fashioning and rendering a self. The opening prefigures a work about human mysteries rather than revelations. It signals Fox's exception to conventional wisdoms, reminding me of Paul Bowles's elegant, enigmatic Moroccan stories.
"In that time I understood mouse money but not money," she writes, whimsically characterizing her early poverty. In one sentence, Fox ensares the adult, who is somehow forever a child, to suggest that no one is ever completely removed from childhood's fantastical realm and claims. In her preface too she touches on materialism, capitalism, and proposes that the life she will construct in writing might be the sum of a subjective struggle between culture and politics.
Fox doles out the past in episodes spanning people and places. She leaves them and returns, leaves again. The book divides into sections: "Balmville," "Hollywood," "Long Island," "Cuba," "Florida," "New Hampshire," "New York City," "Montréal," "New York City," "California," and "Elise and Linda." The reader hasn't seen the name "Linda" before.
There are many kinds of surprise in Borrowed Finery, not the least Fox's circumspection and reserve. Fox omits a lot—she never mentions becoming a writer, when she first published, any of that. We know, from how she reports listening to adult conversations when she was a child, that she loves words and ideas. We have a sense of the way she sees and pays attention: "Behind the door that closed off that uncanny space, I pictured Auntie, lying on her back in her bed, her eyes opened wide and unblinking, smoking cigarettes in the dark." Those who know her human-suspense novel Desperate Characters will notice that Fox was once bitten by a cat. She makes profound use of a cat bite in the novel, not unlike Shakespeare's use of the handkerchief in Othello. But like Edith Wharton, who in "A Backward Glance" never mentions her divorce from Teddy Wharton, Fox is reticent, and what she withholds, she forces the reader to embellish, to fill out the suit she's designed for us. In the end, Fox doesn't tailor easy resolutions or cozy notions about redemption.
Looking through reviews of American novels, even a casual reader might be disgusted by how often the concept of "redemption" appears. Contemporary novels have become a repository for salvation; characters—and consequentially readers—are supposed to be saved at the end. Paula Fox avoids pious niceties. She claims a reality most American readers want to avoid—the possibility of failure, when good acts don't replace bad ones in symmetries more appropriate to bad fiction. In Fox's fiction, defeat and failure are normal.
Like her novels, her memoir is exceptional, not because she's had a unique life, though she has probably, or at least a difficult one, but then who hasn't. It's how she chooses to represent it; how she manufactures meaning through style, with measure and intelligence. Her memoir is generative and evanescent. It speaks to the way life comes and goes, with its beauties and tragedies, through its balletic recording of transience and impermanence. Fox's graceful writing and integrity give comfort in these darker days.
Lynne Tillman's most recent novel is No Lease on Life (Harvest, 1999).
July 27, 2002
It's a hard life
Paula Fox’s compelling autobiography reveals a woman who found salvation in words after a troubled youth, says Glyn Brown
FINERY: A MEMOIR
By Paula Fox
Flamingo, £12, 272pp
ISBN 0 007 13724 9
It is not unusual for a writer to have a life so singular that it might be fiction, but the novelist Paula Fox’s autobiography has so much in the way of warped family emotions, distant locations and what in anyone else’s hands might be tragedy, that it is almost too much. It works because she delivers her story with a calm, lightly ironic touch. This may be a result of cauterised feelings; but it reveals underlying pain or joy more effectively than would labouring the point.
Born in Twenties America, Paula had a childhood of nomadic loneliness. Her father, Paul Hervey Fox, is a raffish, alcoholic screenwriter; her mother, Elsie, the self-dramatising daughter of Cuban immigrants, might charitably be called psychotic. She deposits her daughter, at a few days old and for no reason other than distaste, in a New York City foundling hospital. Located by her grandmother, baby Fox is foisted on her young uncle, whose flatmate gives her to his sister, whose mother briefly cares for her. Eventually a Congregational minister, charmed by the infant’s smile, takes her in.
The next few years, in upstate New York, are happy ones, but then her peripatetic parents request the six-year-old’s presence in Los Angeles. Elsie’s inflamed first reaction is to hurl her drink at the girl and within days the couple have vanished. Bounced between unwilling minders, Fox finds herself in Cuba, where her grandmother is a paid companion. Here she learns Spanish, has skittering adventures (on one bewitching night there is a Cinema Paradiso-style film show in the starlit square) and makes a temporary family from any scraps of affection she encounters.
At ten, she is in Spanish Harlem, New York, living with her neurotic uncles. She finds solace in books, reading fairy stories to friends on the tenement stairs. Her parents occasionally summon her; in the glare of her mother’s “cold, radiant smile”, she doesn’t cry — in fact, she’s stoically cheerful — but instead develops crippling stomach cramps. As she grows up, Fox becomes tough and acutely observant. Efforts to gain her parents’ affection cease but, with their divorce, she forms a relationship of sorts with her father, whose claim to fame is working on the film script for Last Train from Madrid (“The worst movie I ever saw” — Graham Greene). After a Montreal finishing school, she marries badly, then takes a series of jobs amid the sprawl of Forties Hollywood and bumps into Harpo Marx, dances with a young John Wayne and delivers a package to Orson Welles.
It is all told resiliently, with compassionate insights into everyone but herself and her parents, whose motives she cannot bear to question. Only towards the end is there a hint of deeper feeling. Contemplating her mother’s contempt, she admits: “My life was incoherent to me. I felt it quivering, spitting out broken teeth.” In the last few pages she visits the dying Elsie who, at 92, still faces her “like an old conquistador”. Fox is so revolted that she squats in a field rather than use the same lavatory as Elsie.
But Fox survives; she marries again, has children, finds a writing career. And there is a sense that words were always her real family. They treat her well and do her bidding carefully so that Borrowed Finery is like being let into a living diary, full of glittering scenes that, as you turn to them, suddenly begin to move. It is a more humane, even-handed and entertaining book than many of the people involved had any right to expect.
Pass the parcel childhood
Anne Chisholm reviews Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox
Grim childhoods make good reading, and always have. From fairy tales to Victorian novels and beyond, the story of the abandoned, maltreated child who eventually wins through to safety and happiness is a familiar, favourite plot. Of late, the same satisfying pattern is more often to be found in autobiographical writing rather than in novels. Whatever the form, we still seem to enjoy, even to need, tales of survival against the emotional odds.
Paula Fox is an American writer in her seventies whose cool, quietly disturbing memoir of her fractured childhood has already won prizes and received much praise. It is unusual not so much because of the story it tells but because of the restraint and composure with which it is written. Nevertheless, it is a bleak enough tale.
When she was only a few days old, Fox was left in a foundling home in New York by her "reluctant" father, a handsome aspiring writer, and her elegant, volatile, half-Spanish and "panic stricken" mother. This feckless pair, both with a taste for drink, the high life and travel, never even tried to give her a settled home; nor would they allow anyone else to do so, thus ensuring that Fox's early life was a sequence of new starts and false promises.
She was removed from the home by her Spanish grandmother, and ended up in the care of a congregationalist minister in a small town in upstate New York. Uncle Elwood earned Fox's trust, and is the only character remembered here with undiluted affection and respect.
With great skill, Paula Fox, who has written children's books as well as novels, presents her recollections with a childlike clarity and simplicity, without much analysis, comment or hindsight. Nor does she attempt to weave a coherent narrative; the story is told as it was lived, in disconnected episodes set in different places.
When she was eight, she spent two years living with her grandmother on a sugar plantation in Cuba, a magical time beautifully described. From time to time, one of her parents would make a brief, exciting appearance in her life before vanishing again for years on end; sometimes she would even live with them for a few weeks, in New York or California, where her father was trying to make a living as a script writer. He called her "pal", and was mostly nice to her except when drunk; her mother, on the other hand, she learned to regard with terror.
With brilliant economy, Fox evokes a woman more malevolent than any fairytale stepmother: "I sensed", she writes of one early encounter "that if she could have hidden the act, she would have killed me." Her mother's hatred is never explained; the reader understands that it is as painful and mysterious to Fox now as it was then.
As she began to grow up, Fox lost the resilience and acceptance of childhood and began to realise what she was up against. Her parents divorced, and her father married a young woman who was kind to her; she lived with them, briefly, and was happy, she writes, "for a while"; she started to learn about the possibilities of life and love from books.
Back in Hollywood, on her own, with no money and wearing handed down clothes, she took any menial job she could find; every now and again, through her father, her struggle to survive would be punctuated by a chance encounter with a Hollywood legend - Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, John Wayne. Then came a brief, disastrous marriage, and, at 20 the birth of a daughter immediately taken away for adoption.
In her last few pages, Paula Fox's emotional and literary self-control is demonstrated to powerful effect. She tells us, very briefly, how after 38 years she finally faced her dying mother, and then how her long-lost daughter sought her out. This is not a writer who deals in happy endings; but this book's very existence testifies to her courage and belief in the redemptive power of memory and truth.
Anne Chisholm is writing a biography of Frances Partridge.
Spurned at birth in New York by her mother, Paula Fox had a turbulent childhood in the US and Cuba. At 20 she gave up her own daughter for adoption. She went on to write controversial but award-winning children's books as well as autobiographical novels. At 80, she is enjoying a revival as her adult fiction is championed by a new generation of American writers. Aida Edemariam reports
Saturday June 21, 2003
Read this article, here
September 25, 2001
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
Adrift in a World of Kindhearted Strangers and Negligent Parents
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
By Paula Fox
210 pages. Henry Holt. $23.
Read this article, here
On the book "The Coldest Winter, see this page
When I was seventeen, I found a job in what was then downtown Los Angeles in a store where dresses were sold for a dollar each. The store survived through its monthly going-out-of-business sales.
Every few days I was required to descend to the basement to bring up fresh stock to replace what had been sold. It was a vast space, barely lit by a weak bulb hanging from a low ceiling, and appeared to extend beyond the boundaries of the store itself. In its damp reaches I sometimes glimpsed a rat shuttling along a pipe, its naked tail like an earthworm.
Against one wall, piled up on roughly carpentered wood shelves, were flimsy boxes of dresses. In front of the opposite wall was an enormous cardboard cutout, at least ten feet high, of Santa Claus, his sled, and his reindeer. I guessed this was displayed in the store upstairs at Christmastime.
One morning when I was sent to the basement for dresses, I noticed drops of sweat on Santa's brow. Later it occurred to me that the pipe along which I'd seen rats running extended over the cutout, and leaks could account for the appearance of sweat. But at the time I imagined it was because of his outfit. He was as inappropriately dressed for the California climate as I was in my thick blue tweed suit.
I've long forgotten who gave the suit to me. I do recall it was a couple of sizes too big and sewn of such grimly durable wool that the jacket and skirt could have stood upright on the floor.
I earned scant pay at a number of jobs I found and lost that year, barely enough for rent and food with nothing to spare for clothes. What I owned in the way of a wardrobe could have fitted into the sort of suitcase now referred to in luggage ads as a "weekender," a few scraps that would cover me but wouldn't serve in extremes of weather -- and, of course, the blue tweed suit that I wore to work in the Los Angeles dress store day after day.
In that time I understood mouse money but not cat money. Five dollars were real. I could stretch them so they would last. I was bewildered even by the thought of fifty dollars. How much was $50?
The actress ZaSu Pitts, in a publicity still -- an advertisement for the movie Greed made in 1923, the year I was born, that showed her crouching half naked among heaps of gold coins, an expression of demented rapacity on her face -- embodied my view of American capitalism when I was a young girl. As I grew older, my attitude about money changed. I began to see how complex it was, how some people accumulate it for its own sake, driven by forces as mysterious to me as those that drive termites to build mounds that attain heights of as much as forty feet in certain parts of the world.
At the same time that I began to acquire material things, my appetite for them was aroused. Yet in my mind's eye, the image of ZaSu Pitts holding out handfuls of gold coins, not offering them but gloating over her possession of them, persists, an image both condemnatory and triumphant.