Paula Fox is best known for Desperate Characters, a 1970 masterpiece which nimbly delineates a weekend in the lives of the Brentwoods, an unhappy couple in Brooklyn. Not much happens–except that Sophie, a translator, is bitten by a stray cat. But this book is remarkable for its nuances and elegant style.
Fox’s other books are not bad, either. I recently read her first novel, Poor George, which strikes me as an American-Dostoevskian narrative of chronic unhappiness. (That is, if there is such a thing as an American-Dostoevskian novel).
Fox is fascinated by flawed characters, and no one is more flawed than George Mecklin, a depressed, self-centered, mopey thirtysomething anti-hero, well-spoken but without emotions, a completely egotistical American type we recognize from literature of the ’60s and ’70s. (Think of Updike and Frederick Exley.)
George hates everything about his life. He is a depressed English teacher at a posh school in New York, and though he is diligent, he no longer cares about the unappreciative students who constantly nag him to raise their grades so they can get into Ivy schools. Empty as his life is at school, he cannot even enjoy his vacation, and when he tells his wife Emma he has no interest in taking a weekend trip with her, we see how desperate and close to the edge she feels.
George thinks only about his own feelings. And the following passage humorously captures George’s ironic attitudes toward his students and his own pretences.
… he opened his briefcase and took from it a worn copy of Moby-Dick, along with a handful of blue notebooks in which were written the answers to an examination he had given his ninth-grade English class. Most of them would have written three pages on the symbolism of the whale’s whiteness. Most of them would not have read the book at all. He didn’t like it himself; the passion for revenge, he thought, was too alien to him. He placed book and examination papers on the card table he used for a desk. The whale wasn’t white at all—it was pale with exhaustion from being hounded by a New England autocrat.
And then Fox’s witty novel changes shape: a quirky incident convinces George to play amateur social worker. One afternoon when he goes home, he finds a stranger roaming around the house. The stranger, 18-year-old Ernest, claims he has broken into every house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to give amusing character sketches of the neighbors. Instead of calling the police, George offers to tutor him so he can go back to school and graduate. Without a diploma, “You’ll end up a bum!”
Ernest himself is not keen but has nothing else to do. It takes George a while to recognize that nothing–absolutely nothing–he says sticks with Ernest, except a few passages he has read aloud from Joseph Conrad. Ernest refuses to read any books, and does no homework, despite George’s admonitions. And Ernest is even less promising than the rich kids, though George doesn’t admit it. But Ernest has no interest in going back to school, and tells George kindly: “Mr. Mecklin, you ought to have a kid.”
And poor Emma! Ernest’s presence in the house is the last straw. George invites him to say in the spare room for a few days–thus heightening the tension in the marriage. George is annoying and Emma is a cipher, but we are still fascinated, and Fox has a knack for creating vivid minor characters. I especially like George’s sister Lila, a single mother who works in a bookstore, and Mrs. Palladino, a disheveled housewife.
Mrs. Palladino reveals to Emma that she is an agoraphobic alcoholic.
“I’ve been afraid to go out of the house since you moved in because just a week before that, I passed out on the road… in a ditch. A bastard we know told Joe she had seen me there and he came to get me.” She paused, looked at the cup in her hand and set it down on the floor. “Would the doctor tell me the truth? How could he? I can’t find it myself. Every time I turn around and try to see how it all began, the past reshapes itself.” She held up her hands as though fending off something. “No!” she cried. “Why must I blame someone?”
A bit overdramatic, but I love Mrs. Palladino, whose husband Joe is unfaithful–even with George’s sister, Lila.
A fascinating short novel, but you should read Desperate Characters first. Then you’ll appreciate what she does in Poor George, which is slight but perfect in its way.