At first glance, Paula Fox’s return from the dustbin of publishing history is one of those heartwarming stories of literary virtue rewarded. Her first book, Poor George (1967), generated considerable critical excitement. Desperate Characters (1970) was described as ‘brilliant’ by Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe; Lionel Trilling called it ‘reserved and beautifully realised’. Six years later Karl Miller found The Widow’s Children ‘a compelling and satisfying book’. All those endorsements, however, didn’t keep her novels from going out of print at the end of the decade (they were reprinted in the 1980s, but went out of print again). Then Jonathan Franzen, at the time (1991) something of a desperate character himself, came across that novel on a shelf at Yaddo, the writer’s colony in upstate New York. When Franzen later wrote an impassioned plea for the ‘social novel’ in Harper’s, he held up Desperate Characters as an example of what novelists ought to be doing.
Franzen’s efforts have borne fruit, and he has written an enamoured yet acute introduction to the new US edition of the novel. Some have objected to his claim that Desperate Characters is ‘obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow’. My own reservations lie not with the superlatives, but with the implicit grounds for comparison. If Fox is, in Franzen’s phrase, ‘inarguably great’ – and I believe she is – it isn’t because, for example, she does a better job of capturing the social disorder of the 1960s than Updike. Or because she writes about desire with a frankness at least equal to Roth’s. Or because she captures the persistence of illusion in personal relations with a clarity that can make Bellow seem callow. She does all of those things, but she also does something harder to pin down precisely because it defies our customary categories for talking about fiction. Her achievement is to marry an emotional and intellectual instrument of tremendous sensitivity and precision with a social depth of field long out of fashion.
Aside from Franzen’s energetic promotion, the main engine of Fox’s current revival is the publication of her memoir. Astringent, candid, and written in the same elegant prose as her novels, Borrowed Finery is as haunting as any of them, and as disturbing. But by focusing attention on the life – a life harrowing even by the standards of contemporary confessional literature – the memoir risks overshadowing, even undermining the fiction.
Desperate Characters begins on a Friday afternoon in Cobble Hill, a neighbourhood of brownstone houses a few blocks from Brooklyn Heights. Otto and Sophie Bentwood are sitting down to sauteéd chicken livers and risotto Milanese. With her inventory of the couple’s willow-ware platter, Tiffany lampshade and a bookcase ‘which held, among other volumes, the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets’, the narrator puts just enough ironic distance between herself and the Bentwoods to make their desperation bearable.
Otto’s longtime law partnership is dissolving; Sophie finds herself unable to work at the literary translations that have kept her occupied. The couple have no children. They do have a Mercedes, a small sailing boat, a country house and a brownstone in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – Fox deftly exposes the sordid reality of this estate agent’s cliché. Across the backyard, on ‘the slum street’, the Bentwoods’ neighbours relieve themselves out of the window; their gardens are buried under sacks of rubbish. Out front, drunks and stray dogs compete to foul the pavements. The 1960s have begun, the waters are rising and the Bentwoods’ old cedar floorboards seem like the timbers of a very frail bark.
When Otto tells her two more houses have just been sold, Sophie asks:
‘What happens to the people in them when the houses are bought? Where do they go? I always wonder that.’
‘I don’t know. Too many people everywhere.’
‘Who bought the houses?’
‘A brave pioneer from Wall Street. And the other, I think, a painter who got evicted from his loft on Lower Broadway.’
‘It doesn’t take courage. It takes cash.’
Sophie may be unsentimental about money, but for days she has been feeding a stray cat; not taking it into the house (Otto wouldn’t allow that: ‘They’re not pussycats, you know. They’re thugs’), just setting out a bowl of milk. When Otto accuses her of self-indulgence, she replies: ‘I don’t care why I’m doing it. The point is that I can see it starving.’ So when the cat shows up that evening, Sophie caresses its back:
She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck her with extended claws, smiling right up to the second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified.
What follows is part suspense, part comedy of modern manners, part social autopsy. Does Sophie have rabies? Will she leave Otto? Will Otto leave her? To what extent are the Bentwoods answerable for the decay that surrounds them? And why does everyone Sophie meets, from a young couple at a cocktail party – the boy in ‘an army fatigue jacket’ and the girl in a white leather suit – to the old woman from whom she tries to buy an omelette pan, treat her with such awful condescension? These are not comfortable questions, and Desperate Characters is not a comfortable book. It is, however, both unsparing and tender in its approach to character.
Charlie Russel, Otto’s partner, may seem a mere caricature of a ‘movement’ lawyer (‘like Paul Muni’, Otto says, ‘defending the unlovely and unloved’); and certainly, when Charlie shows up on the doorstep late one night, with the face of a Renaissance putto gone to seed, moaning about Otto’s ‘moral failure’ and complaining about his wife Ruth’s obsession with sex, it is hard to fault Sophie’s verdict: ‘You’re a coarse man,’ she tells him. But the verdict he delivers on Sophie and Otto lingers in the mind: ‘You don’t know what’s going on . . . You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this . . . what’s happening now. People like you . . . stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.’ Fox undercuts him, writing that, afterwards, Charlie ‘looked calm. He had gotten even.’ But she never contradicts him.
Sophie and Otto flee the city:
Once Flynders had been a town, a centre for the neighbouring farms. Most of the farmland, abandoned and neglected, had reverted to marsh and had once been a halting place for myriad birds. Every summer house had, still, in cupboard or basket or bookcase, worn copies of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Then the village people had called in the mosquito-control people. Now there were few birds, and poison ivy and Virginia creeper flourished in the acid earth. The elm blight had destroyed those trees not already harmed by frequent droughts.
Elm blight is the least of it. The Bentwoods’ farmhouse has been broken into and vandalised – lamps shattered, paintings defaced, clothes cut with scissors, books torn in half. A dead bird is in the bathtub; in the living-room, in front of the fireplace, ‘a hummock of dried faeces sat like a rotting toad.’
Yet even as she captures the rising tide of chaos, Fox never loses sight of her characters’ inner landscape. And though there is no escape for Sophie or Otto – Desperate Characters is not a melodrama – they are allowed moments of insight or, failing that, minor detonations. ‘God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside,’ Sophie tells herself, and the elusiveness and subtlety of that connection is explored throughout the novel.
It was quiet outside on the street. But that was a deception. There was a siege going on: it had been going on for a long time, but the besieged themselves were the last to take it seriously. Hosing vomit off the sidewalks was only a temporary measure, like a good intention. The lines were tightening . . . but it was almost impossible to know where the lines were.
Not all of Fox’s characters lead lives of quiet desperation. When we first meet Laura, one of the ‘widow’s children’, she is in mid-eruption: ‘Tell me about the dignity of leopards! Of cockroaches! But don’t tell me about the dignity of man! How dare anybody stop anybody from going anyplace in the goddamned world?’ Laura is a writer and partisan of no cause but her own: when her progress down the sidewalk is blocked by picketing waiters, she is furious: ‘One of them had a sign that spelled support with one p. Did you notice that? Christ!’
A Spanish-Cuban-American gorgon in furs, she has a secret. Her mother, Alma Maldonada, has died. The news comes just as Laura and her husband are about to leave on an African cruise, and Laura decides not to tell anyone. Not her husband, or her editor, or her daughter, not even her brother – all of whom spend the evening together, drinking and bickering.
Clara, the daughter,
had not lived with Laura, or her father, Ed Hansen, not been under the same roof with her mother since that first parting in a hospital delivery room . . . Between her and Laura there was no void but a presence, raw and bloodied. Laura had had four abortions before a fifth pregnancy which had gone undetected a month too long and had produced Clara. She had, she told herself, thieved her way into life.
Carlos, the brother, has his own preoccupations – ‘he did not respond to the cabdriver’s remarks, even though he was a young cabdriver and very good-looking’ – and his own guilt-stained history with Alma. Desmond, Laura’s second husband, and Peter, the editor who both loves and is terrorised by his favourite writer, maintain an uneasy comradeship.
Once again we are inside a social world on the brink of disintegration. This time, though, Fox seems far more sanguine about the splintering. Laura may be Clara’s mother, but she is also, in her daughter’s eyes, ‘the personification of calamity’. Desmond’s uxorious attentions, we learn, quite possibly derive from fear of his wife who, on discovering his involvement with another woman, had gone through his jackets ‘and found his address book . . . She had sent thirty telegrams – not enough money for all the names in the address book, she’d explained regretfully. The message had been identical: Am in desperate trouble. Please send $2.00, and signed it, Desmond.’ Even Peter’s devotion is tempered by the sense that Laura ‘actually can’t judge her own behaviour’. His etiolated responses and wry self-doubt are the perfect foil for Laura and Clara’s barbed certainties. Peter is a one-man Greek chorus, and the gradual shift in his loyalties from mother to daughter marks a recognition that the making – and breaking – of bonds is a complicated business. Clara looks at her family and concludes that ‘the house of Atreus was, and always had been, full of boarders like herself.’ Peter agrees, but not before ‘the Maldonada perversity’ has ‘forced him to admit the precariousness of custom. These people,’ he realises, ‘had not signed any social contract.’
Helen Bynum, the narrator of The God of Nightmares (1990), comes to New Orleans in 1941 to escape her mother’s ‘importunate and bullying optimism, and the hardened heart which was its consequence’. Baffled by local practices – the drinking fountains with signs on them saying ‘Coloured’ and ‘White’ – she soon falls in with the bohemian crowd around Claude de la Fontaine, the scion of an old Creole family. Tall, tanned and terrified, Claude caps every evening with a drink, ‘a libation to the god of nightmares . . . Not to stop him from having nightmares. He was asking for them, but that they come to him only in his dreams.’
Helen soon learns that he has good reason to worry: ‘A knowledge I didn’t want entered me stealthily. My aunt had made it clear that women held no attraction for Claude. But there is a difference between knowing and seeing.’ His challenge to local mores is compounded when he takes the son of a gangster for a lover. Helen had met Claude through Gerald, her landlord, partially crippled after a garden hose was forced into his rectum as punishment for his violations of Cajun propriety – and his only offence had been to write poetry about life on the bayou.
Helen’s exposure to such violence makes her feel paralysed, purposeless. ‘There were stories,’ she thinks, ‘that can make you tremble with apprehension, with the knowledge of the frailty of your own life – that cut you out of life.’ But a much larger wave of violence is about to break over all of Fox’s characters, and not just because of the war in Europe. ‘People have a horror of those they’ve mistreated,’ Claude tells Helen.
There’ll be one big fountain one of these days. We’ll certainly be in this war, you know, and Negroes will fight in it. Of course, no one will like that great big fountain where everyone can drink. People will be angry for a century, the abusers and the abused. But the law will change. It can’t hold back what’s been held back since slavery days.
At the novel’s end, Claude’s prophecy – ‘one big fountain’ – has come to pass. But Claude himself has been murdered. And when, after an interval of three decades, Helen runs into Nina, Claude’s old housemate and her best friend from New Orleans, on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, she finds a woman embittered almost beyond recognition. ‘My husband is crippled and lost the sight in his left eye,’ Nina tells her. ‘He went on a freedom march two years ago – in Alabama. He was clubbed and beaten by a policeman and a local representative of law and order and murder.’ Nina’s daughter is living on a commune in New Mexico; her son is in Canada, evading the draft. The boy’s name is Claude.
The confrontation that closes the novel is not violent, and is not about race. Helen quarrels with Len, the rabbi’s son whom she loved in New Orleans and married just before he went off to war. Now a lawyer defending anti-war protesters – a kinder, gentler version of Charlie Russel – Len doggedly tries to sleep while his wife literally drags him out of bed so she can continue to berate him. Faced with the tragic simplifications of politics, Fox seems to opt instead for the complications of domestic life. In a world of large betrayals, she, and her characters, cling to small acts of redemption.
Paula Fox’s mother, Elsie, gave her up for adoption, and though she was retrieved from the Manhattan orphanage a few days later by her Spanish grandmother, her early years were spent in a pass-the-parcel round of relatives and family friends. Fox implies that her father, Paul, a perpetually broke screenwriter with a beautiful voice and a weakness for whiskey, at least meant well. Certainly she describes his persistent, if ineffectual, efforts at intervention with a wistful forgiveness. But Elsie is a monster, mercenary enough to sleep with a wealthy relative to secure a mink coat, but incapable of spending more than a few hours in her daughter’s company without exploding in rage.
My parents were staying temporarily – their arrangements, as far as I could work out, were permanently temporary – in a small borrowed apartment in New York City . . . My father filled in the silence with his voice. I wasn’t listening to him. Where was my mother?
Suddenly she appeared in the doorway that led to a second room. I saw an unmade bed behind her. She pressed one hand against the doorframe. The other was holding a drink . . . All at once she flung the glass and its contents in my direction. Water and pieces of ice slid down my arms and over my dress . . . My father was in the doorway, holding my mother tight in his arms. Then he took me away from the apartment.
This scene also appears in The Widow’s Children, as do Elsie’s anti-semitic ravings, her racism, her dubiously acquired mink coat and a story about a Spanish uncle who pretended that he couldn’t speak Spanish. It was also Elsie who sent the telegrams asking for two dollars – though in real life the target was a lover, not a wayward husband.
Indeed, it comes as something of a shock to realise just how closely Fox has drawn from life – right down to the cat which, ‘in its terror, scratched my hand’ when she tried to comfort it. Of course the material has been extensively reworked: for example, Fox wasn’t allowed to go to her grandmother’s funeral. ‘She wouldn’t have been interested,’ Elsie says, but Clara thwarts Laura’s attempt to exclude her. And where Fox’s childhood seems unrelievedly gothic, her novels deploy a much wider range of modes. But the temptation to read Borrowed Finery as a key to the novels is strong. Especially because Fox doesn’t make it too easy for us – the memoir is as elliptical as fiction. Thus in an epilogue Fox describes a reunion with her own daughter, put up for adoption at birth – a daughter she hasn’t mentioned in the previous 250 pages – remarking that she’d asked the doctor ‘to find a Jewish family to take her’. Fox, the child of a Spanish Catholic and an American Protestant, never explains this preference. (Her daughter ended up with Sicilian-Americans.) In The Widow’s Children Clara’s father repeatedly hints that Laura’s racism is a response to a partly Jewish ancestry. Elsie’s maiden name wasn’t Maldonada but de Sola; the Encyclopedia Judaica has 34 separate entries for de Sola. Interesting, perhaps; but significant? No more than the fact that Fox once delivered a book to Orson Welles, passed Harpo Marx in the hallway of a friend’s apartment building, or spent an hour dancing with the young John Wayne, all of whom are mentioned in her memoir – unlike Courtney Love, Fox’s granddaughter by the daughter she put up for adoption, who isn’t.
There are other odd silences. Though the book ends in the present, Fox never discusses her second marriage, which also produced children, or her current husband, Martin Greenberg, a former editor of Commentary and brother of Clement Greenberg. And while the later pages of the book are sprinkled with famous names – John Barrymore, Burl Ives and Frank Sinatra all have walk-on parts – the only literary figure who appears is John Buchan, and that as Governor General of Canada. Fox has said she ‘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.’ Fox’s culinary skills, together with her career as a writer of children’s books (she has published 16), may have something to do with the fact that her novels have not been taken seriously enough. It is as hard to imagine Mailer in the kitchen as it is Roth in the nursery.
Desperate Characters and the others remind those who need reminding that there is a world beyond the boys’ club of Bellow, Mailer, Updike and Roth. Like Grace Paley’s short fictions, or the novels of Henry James, Fox’s novels don’t confine themselves to the smaller disturbances of man. What they do instead is find a scale, a language, in which the small disturbances can register – and the larger upheavals be illuminated. Free of bombast, lucid, eloquent and never precious, Fox’s finery is entirely her own.