A Great Covid Story: Hilma Wolitzer’s “The Great Escape”

I am writing early about Hilma Wolitzer’s charming new collection of short stories, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, which will be published next month. Why? I am bursting with enthusiasm over “The Great Escape,” the last story in the collection, a poignant, witty masterpiece about Covid-19. The other stories appeared in magazines in the ’60s, ’70’s, and ’80s, and I love the wry voices of the women. In the early days of Second Wave feminism, her characters cope with domestic overload, accidental pregnancies, touring model homes in suburbs (and making fun of them), worrying about a “sex maniac” loose in the apartment complex, and witnessing a woman who has gone mad in the supermarket. The stories are light, simple and graceful, fast reads, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.

But “The Great Escape” is on a higher level, truly a great work of literature. I am sure there are many Covid stories now, but this is the first I’ve read, and it is exquisite and breathtaking. The narrator, Paulie, and her sexy husband Howard, whom we have met in previous stories, have grown old: they are now in their nineties. They pop pills, squabble, and watch the news on TV, but are satisfied with their lives. Paulie, though annoyed by the loss of her curvy figure and grieving the devastation of Howard’s looks, is spirited and funny about old age.

We’d both become relief maps of keratoses, skin tags, and suspicious-looking moles. “What’s this thing on my back, Paulie?” Howard would say, yanking up his shirt while I searched for my reading glasses. “It’s nothing,” I’d tell him. “I have a million of those.” Cheerleader and competitor at once.

And here’s another:

There were running death jokes in our family. My father, driving past a cemetery: “Everybody’s dying to get in.” My mother: “Death must be great—nobody ever comes back.” Howard’s mother: “When one of us dies, I’m going to Florida.” That would have been funny except that she actually meant it. Now, none of them was laughing or ever coming back.

Then one day their anxious daughter calls to warn them about the novel coronavirus, which, as far as Paulie can tell, is only happening in a nursing home in Washington. Eventually, Paulie and Howard are housebound in New York, wearing their “disguises” (surgical masks and vinyl gloves) on the rare exoduses from their apartment. There is a hilarious segment when Paulie’s book club attempts to meet on Zoom. Nobody can find the mute button, or the unmute button, and they are suddenly disconnected – after Paulie has actually raised her hand to talk.

And then someone catches Covid. Everything you have imagined or experienced, including separation from loved ones, is documented in great detail and with an admirable lack of sentimentality. And yet while the plague rages, dysfunctional though they may be, history holds them together.

By the way, Elizabeth Strout wrote the preface to this wonderful collection. Though England entertains us with The Diary of a Provincial Lady, we have the witty Hilma Wolitzer. And you can read the title story at The Saturday Evening Post.