Duncan Sprott’s The Clopton Hercules is an interesting book, powerfully written, and certainly (indeed, remorselessly) clever: but one-tracked, and self-satisfied. It takes a traditional target, the bizarrerie of upper middle-class Victorian sexual behaviour, and blasts away at it with satirical vigour and relish: but the more points are scored, the more pointless the exercise begins to seem. Here we have, on the sexual front, a priapic squire, his neurotic trapped wife and swarms of lower-class mistresses, his uncontrolled lusts and lunatic outbursts of violence; and on the social front, the squire’s over-reaching ambitions for his family, his ‘meteoric rise into respectability and affluence’, followed, of course, by his spectacular fall (linked, in Dickensian or Trollopian fashion, both to sexual profligacy and to speculation on the railways). The story is based on a true case, that of Charles Warde, and incorporates documentary passages from legal proceedings and newspapers: but its historical veracity is absolutely of no importance. What matters is the rhetorical twist which Sprott gives to the events, the modern standpoint from which he sardonically represents them.
Of particular interest is the impersonal narrator’s voice: with considerable technical skill, Sprott affects a naive jollity which doesn’t (isn’t meant to) fool the reader a bit; the origins, rise and life-style of Charles Warde are detailed with a jocularity and apparent lack of judgment both funny and sinister. At the very point in the story when Warde’s marriage is about to disintegrate, Sprott offers the following picture of the couple at their Stratford home:
One evening in February 1847 Mr and Mrs Warde were sitting reading on either side of a roaring fire in the gilt drawing-room at Clopton House. Their four golden-haired children slept peacefully in their beds. The new baby was in the capable hands of his nurse. There was no sound but the roaring of the fire, and turning of pages, and the steady tick of the magnificent ebony and ormulu timepiece made in Manchester ... From time to time husband and wife looked up. They smiled warm smiles at each other and carried on reading.
What a hollow sham it all is! The ‘roaring fire’ of Warde’s promiscuity is about to devour the scene; husband and wife are going to struggle, in the public arena, for the custody of the ‘golden-haired children’ ensconced in their private haven; the passage of time is going to bring, not the perpetuation of prosperity and stability, but disorder and ruin. Admirably controlled and purposeful though the writing is, however, it is also suffocatingly knowing. Both here and in more openly satirical passages about what Mr Warde was actually up to and the social conditions which (until they themselves are threatened) empowered and protected him, Sprott never relaxes his grip of the reader’s arm. Just before the passage I’ve quoted Sprott depicts Warde, now High Sheriff of Warwickshire, attending the Summer Assizes in all his pomp, listening to the ‘Proclamation against Vice, Profaneness and Immorality’, and dealing out ‘justice’ to his social inferiors, ‘grinning behind his hand’ at the joke which Fortune has played on them and on himself, a joke which Sprott, himself a judge grinning behind his hand, is waiting to reverse. When Warde sees a man hanged for murder he ‘could not help winking at him when he caught his eye’. Nor can Sprott help winking at us.
Sprott represents Warde as a comic grotesque, whose ferocious erotic energy makes him a figure of excess, of that which cannot be contained within the bounds of Victorian ‘normality’. Here Sprott’s historical fiction resembles some of the other stories being reviewed, which deal either with the recent past or with contemporary life, and in which normality (roughly defined as suburban life, middling marriage, straight sex, drugless culture) is shown up, with different degrees of irony or scepticism. A terrible artist’s snobbery is at work here, even in the best of these five books, Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven and Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. Carlo Gebler dissents from this attitude; unfortunately he writes less well. Still, there were times when I warmed to Life of a Drum, lacking though it is in the stylishness and power of Hoffman’s or Cunningham’s books, because it represents the experience of a ‘normal’ life without condescension or evasion, without devaluing it in relation to the prestige of ‘alternative’ lives. There is a real sympathy and imaginative truth in the book’s narrative design, the ‘series of memories’ which Catherine, the narrator, selects to ‘form a picture of my whole life’. Her understated ambition is realised in the story of her unexpected (but not outlandish) romance, her shocking (but not extraordinary) bereavement, her surprising (but not melodramatic) recuperation. Yet the book’s style is thin, and sometimes wooden; parts of it read like a sketch not yet filled out. I would rather assume that Gebler was aiming for obliqueness and subtlety than that he had merely skimped on the bits he couldn’t be bothered with.
Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven treats suburban, Fifties America with the same ironic incredulity that Sprott brings to his evocation of Victorian England, so remote do its values and social practices seem. In the identical houses of Hemlock Street, part of a new housing development for Mr and Mrs Average, children sleep tight and ‘good girls ... believed it was wrong for boys to want to touch their breasts.’ As for the adults, ‘to have peace with your neighbours you needed to adhere to two unspoken rules: mind your own business and keep up your lawn.’ The men ‘had poker games to think about and promotions at work, they had candy-coloured cars with long fins in their driveways.’ Their wives ‘had recipes for coconut cake; they had chicken soup with rice for the littlest children, home with sore throats; they had orders in for new dinette sets with laminated table tops that looked like real wood yet were easily sponged off after a meal.’ Hoffman is more affectionate, less savagely amused than Sprott in her portrait of this community, but the necessity of escape from its oppressive conformity and hidden tensions is signalled before the story even begins by her dedication of the novel to the memory of Houdini.
Hoffman’s general theme is simplistic. Poison circulates in Hemlock Street; things are not as safe and stable as they appear. Beneath the conscious mind of the place, preoccupied with the deadening rituals of normality, lurk demons of disorder. They appear metaphorically as monsters in the children’s drawings at school: ‘they had purple hair and large yellow eyes, and you could tell they didn’t believe in good nights or sleeping tight.’ Unless the community learns to confront and accept these demons, it will disintegrate. Its hand is forced by the arrival of Nora Silk, separated from her husband, trailing two unkempt children and a collection of Elvis Presley 45’s, occupying a house which has fallen into unnatural disrepair since the death of its owner. Everything about Nora contravenes the neighbourhood’s image of itself, particularly that of the women: she dresses exotically and sexily, can’t cook, has no man, knows about magic and folk healing, gets a job. She rapidly becomes an object of fear and desire, is reputed to be a witch. Her son Billy is mercilessly bullied at school; like his mother, he is perceived as the outsider, the interloper; he can read people’s thoughts, he is abnormally shy and anxious, he is miserably gifted.
Nora moves in six years after the opening of the development; six years of dreamless sleep are about to come to an end, and Hemlock Street wakes up to adolescent delinquency, adultery, divorce, mental breakdown, the presence of ghosts, the occurrence of unexplained and magical events. The irony is that Nora desperately wants to be accepted into the stable community which, in a manner not unconnected with her arrival, is irrevocably mutating into something else. In the end she gets her wish, and so does Billy, healed of telepathy and self-hatred: but by then, Hoffman suggests, Hemlock Street has purged the poison from its system. Those who needed to leave have left; losses and frustrations have been acknowledged and survived; reconciliations and final partings have been brought about; the future is open to further change.
I must say I felt the families of Hemlock Street were the victims of a novelistic setup: but everything from the interiors of their houses to the contents of their shopping carts is vividly realised, and even when the tone is mocking it has the respect of accuracy. Hoffman is good on food, both home cooking (the endless bland lasagnes and meatloafs and tunafish casseroles) and the junk food whose brand names flow like a shamefully enjoyable litany through the book: Twinkies and Frosties, Yoo-Hoos and Cheerios, Junket and Milk Duds. Listening in to his baby brother’s thoughts, Billy picks up not words but sensations: ‘The scent of warm milk, the smooth brown feathers of an owl in James’s favourite book, the thump of a rubber ball against a wooden floor’. James is altogether that minor miracle of fiction, a believable baby.
A Home at the End of the World is a novel which fully deserves the acclaim it has received in America for the boldness of its imaginative design and the beauty of its writing. Cunningham’s style is at times too ‘fine’, too insistently conscious of its richness, but few enough writers have the resources to make such a qualm possible. Cunningham’s descriptions have an air of the inevitable; he has the ability, in Conrad’s words, to make you see. Jonathan, one of the book’s central characters, describes as a child his parents coming home from hospital after the still-birth of his sister:
My father wept. He had never before shed a single tear in my presence and now he cried extravagantly, great phlegmy sobs that caught in his throat with the clotted sound of a stopped pipe. Experimentally, I placed my hand on his forearm. He did not brush it off, or reprimand me. His pale hairs sprouted up raucously between my fingers.
As the novel progresses we will recognise this combination of dry apartness and yearning tenderness to be Jonathan’s keynote.
It is for such pleasures alone (and the book is prodigal of them) that I found A Home at the End of the World worth reading: but the book makes other and larger claims. Jonathan’s is one of the two voices through which the story is mainly told; the other belongs to his friend Bobby. The two men grow up in Middle America and emigrate to New York, each of them with a messy family romance dragging at their progress like a psychic limp. Jonathan, who is gay, lives with Clare, who is not; when Bobby (hitherto neutral) joins them, he and Clare fall in love and have a child; then they all set up house together, in upstate New York as opposed to New York City, attempting to re-found the family on new ground and new terms. It is a peculiarly American project, summoning to mind earlier versions of American pastoral and visions of American utopia; and, though it fails, the aftermath of this failure, unlike others which the book has depicted, is forward-looking and free of trauma. Normality, as expressed by the traditional family structure in which each of the characters has been trapped either by inclusion or exclusion, has been finally dismantled or simply outlived; they all, and Jonathan especially, whose voice concludes the story, are free to affirm their autonomy and selfhood. As Jonathan puts it, in the novel’s final and perhaps rather too heavily epiphanic scene, ‘I was nothing so simple as happy. I was merely present, perhaps for the first time in my adult life ... I would not die unfulfilled because I’d been here, right here and nowhere else.’
Cunningham wants this outcome to seem not just believable and moving, but symbolic of a whole order of events, a fundamental shift in social values. David Leavitt has praised the book for this ‘historical largeness’, for telling ‘the story of the Seventies and Eighties in America’: the story, in other words, of the unmaking of the traditional family, with its gender and generational roles, its economic and psychic hierarchies, its unquestioned power to shape moral and sexual choices. I think there is an element of wish-fulfilment here, and I suspect that Cunningham’s characters are not as typical as he or Leavitt would like them to be.
A topic which enters late into Cunningham’s account of gay life in New York, but which comes to dominate the final chapters, that of Aids, broods over the title story of David Leavitt’s new collection, A place I’ve never been, in which Nathan and Celia (five years on from their appearance in an earlier story by Leavitt, ‘Dedicated’) resume their quirky friendship in dark times. But Leavitt is not interested in didactic or elegiac accounts of the epidemic and its consequences. He writes about people who are vulnerable to more than a virus. Nathan has given up sex – no sex is safe enough, ‘a microscopic cut in your skin’ is enough to let in doom – but Leavitt makes this despairing self-protectiveness the vehicle also for Nathan’s dreadfully cruel treatment of Celia. She listens at the end of the story to his cries of anguished self-pity, and makes us understand (but not him – she rebukes him only in her mute narrator’s voice) the nature of his indifference to her and her own hurt:
‘You know,’ he said after a while, ‘it’s not the sex, really. That’s not what I regret missing. It’s just that – Do you realise, Celia, I’ve never been in love? Never once in my life have I actually been in love?’ And he looked at me very earnestly, not knowing, not having the slightest idea, that once again he was counting me for nothing.
That last sentence moves quietly, but with great force to its end. Leavitt excels at the specific; he is much less good when he is describing the course of a relationship or life rather than two people having a drink. The last story in the book, ‘Roads to Rome’, rashly praised in the blurb as the ‘most daring’, is in fact the feeblest: set in Italy where a timid New Yorker is visiting his lover’s exotically ‘different’ family, it read like the pilot for a garish alternative soap, complete with sexual scandals in the past, ‘characters’ with weird life-stories, and melodramatic happenings. It should, however, be set against the excellence of ‘Houses’ (the only story I have read in which an estate agent is the sympathetic hero), ‘When you grow to adultery’, and above all ‘Gravity’, which covers no more ground than a shopping trip taken by Sylvia and her dying son, Theo, to buy a wedding present for his cousin. Both characters are drawn with masterful economy and precision: Theo, constantly reminded by his drug treatment ‘of how wide and unswimmable the gulf was becoming between him and the ever-receding shoreline of the well’, and his mother, ‘intricately cheerful’, who urges him to visit ‘the little museum with the dinosaur replicas he’d been fond of as a Child’. Sylvia takes her son to a shop to ask his opinion of the gift she has in mind, a large and expensive crystal bowl. Then without warning she tosses the bowl to him ‘like a football’, in ‘a great gleam of flight and potential regret’. Theo catches the bowl, though it pulls down his arms, weakened by illness. ‘What was she trying to test?’ Theo wonders; and his tentative answer is that, ‘in the war between heaviness and shattering, he’d just helped her win some small but sustaining victory.’ ‘Gravity’ is the shortest story in the collection, and to my mind the best.