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Memphis Flyer Book Reviews

FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals by David Laskin (Simon & Schuster), 308 pp., $26

This is a stretch, but think back two decades to the bad but better days of television. In January 1980, a talk-show host, a pre-Prozac Dick Cavett, had as guest the writer and critic Mary McCarthy and the talk was not of the brown-nosing variety perfected by Charlie Rose. Under Cavett's steering, McCarthy announced to a watching nation that Lillian Hellman was a "dishonest writer" down to her every "and" and "the." This, believe it or not, caused a public commotion and caused a lawsuit from Hellman. Today it is cause to wonder. Wonder that: 1) an American TV talk-show could feature an honest-to-God, self-professing intellectual; 2) an American audience could be presumed to recognize her as such; 3) literary opinion, even at its cheapest, was something to take seriously; and 4) the object of that criticism could ask for $1.75 million for "mental pain and anguish" and another $500,000 for punitive damage. Such, at the time, was Mary McCarthy's influence, and it was not a function of her best-seller The Group.

Turn now to David Laskin's Partisans and turn specifically to its index. Under "McCarthy, Mary" we read the subcategories "drinking of," "mental breakdown of," "psychoanalysis of," "sexual adventures of," "[Edmund] Wilson's abuse of," and tucked in as afterthought see also specific works. The dirt, in a word, first; the works down the list.

And dirt there was beyond the pages of Philip Rahv's Communist-sympathizing but anti-Stalinist magazine Partisan Review. According to this book, you gained entry into its pages based basically on talent and, in this order: strong opinion in general, strong leftist politics in particular, strong drinking universally, and a strong back, a back to survive this crowd's favorite sport and pastime: back-biting and bedding down (with one another).

No one comes out of Laskin's recounting unscathed or even particularly fully fleshed (as in: alive). True, Edmund Wilson is physically a frog, but he's a brute to boot (as in: wife-beater). Robert Lowell, victim of seasonal madness and seasonal womanizer, spends here more time a pain in the neck than a major poet-in-the-making. His writer-wife Jean Stafford is a chronic alcoholic, the better to survive a car wreck with Lowell at the wheel and eventually jettisoned by Lowell for his next wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, a woman with the patience of Job, the steel of a magnolia, and the ability to trash McCarthy in print one moment and eulogize her the next. Allen Tate is father-figure and double-crossing stepfather in one. Caroline Gordon, his on-and-off wife, is homemaker from hell. And poor Diana Trilling, wife of Lionel, commits the unpardonable sin of holding her husband's flame higher than her own. Hannah Arendt, above the in-house fray, has at least two things going for her: She's European and she had sex with Heidegger.

Who is the audience for Partisans? Readers who recognize its cast already know it's the writing that outlives the writer and his or her darker sides. Readers who haven't a clue who that cast is will be puzzled by so much fuss. Should you fall between the two camps, Laskin's pages turn as quickly and guiltily as an issue of People but peopled by the dinosaurs of thought this limited cast took itself to be. Landscape: New York's Upper West Side. Era: the distant Forties and Fifties. In today's terms: off the scene and screen. — Leonard Gill

Remembering Blue by Connie May Fowler (Doubleday), 290 pp. $23.95

Connie May Fowler captured the 1996 Southern Books Critics Award for Before Women Had Wings, which later appeared as an "Oprah Winfrey Presents" TV movie. This fame allowed Fowler and her husband to found the Connie May Fowler Women with Wings Foundation, a non-profit organization aiding needy women and children. Whether Fowler's fourth novel, Remembering Blue, achieves such success is dubious, as its remarkably engaging introduction promises a better novel than it delivers.

Mattie Fiona Blue, the first-person narrator, begins her story by decrying its conclusion — the death of her young husband. "It's all so surprising," she says," here we are, staring into the jaws of a new century and I at twenty-five years of age am left to ponder the world as if I were a woman of eighty. My remembrance, my meditation on Nick Blue is the simple act by a grieving wife, yet his story cannot be told to the exclusion of mine."

Mattie describes the circumstances of her life prior to meeting Nick in swift transitions from pathos to humor, and this is some of the book's best material. Raised alone by her Avon-selling mother, Mattie recalls the night her father walked out on them when he told her that he was off to join the circus. Her mother, Pearl O'Rourke, responds by never mentioning his name again and chasing one no-count man after another. Oddly, though it is just the two of them, Pearl denies her daughter any sign of maternal affection and preaches a code of mediocrity: "She once said to me, ‘Matilda, over-achievers are the unhappiest people in the world. They have ulcers and bad hearts. They make the rest of us uncomfortable.'" Mattie was thus instructed not to succeed, and above all, not to touch her mother's Avon case.

When she meets Nick, Mattie is a voracious reader who has submerged her dreams and is living under her mother's dictum as a clerk at the Suwannee Swifty convenience store. Their attraction proves so strong that Nick spends his afternoon in the store making enough purchases to require a box. One thing quickly follows another and they are off to live on the island of Lethe, Nick's family residence, where Nick resumes his life as a fisherman. Florida's Gulf Coast — its magical if not hypnotic charms — receives tender treatment. More than just the pull of coastal life, Remembering Blue explores the mythology of the ocean as a form of religion for the characters, especially Nick Blue.

Though the novel ties bereavement and remembrance as the title promises — "Grief," Fowler writes, "is the great Jokester — he pulls our strings at whim, spurring us to collapse or run, masking our pain behind a scrim of daily practicalities and then revealing our anguish in such detail it's apparent to everyone but ourselves that we are slightly off"'— the narrative sags under the weight of Southern stereotypes, forced dialogue, and awkward moments. At its best, Remembering Blue offers a touching look at loss and longing with a fine sprinkling of humor, and this is hopefully enough to satisfy Fowler's fans. — Lisa C. Hickman

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