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Nashville Scene In the Details

Paula Fox's classic novel captures its milieu with precision and insight

By Michael Simms

JULY 26, 1999:  Reissues of classic books give reviewers an excuse to sidestep the parade of clamoring new releases and pause instead to celebrate a worthwhile and lasting work. W.W. Norton has provided such an opportunity by publishing a new trade paperback edition of Paula Fox's 1970 novel Desperate Characters. Fox has published several other novels for adults, but much of her claim to fame rests on her many books for children and teenagers. Her One-Eyed Cat and The Slave Dancer are especially well-known. But Desperate Characters--which is decidedly not for children--is acclaimed as her masterpiece.

For years now, critics have been ranking this book with the great American short novels--Herman Melville's Billy Budd, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. The similarities lie in the depth of conception, the sheer artistry on display, and the writers' ability to create a brief, precisely drawn story out of a wealth of material. But the contrasts between Fox's novel and the others in this pantheon are more interesting than their similarities. Fox isn't as dramatic as Melville, as self-conscious as Bellow, or as romantic as Fitzgerald. She is an impressively--an almost alarmingly--clear-eyed and unsentimental writer. In Desperate Characters she takes an unblinking look at a brief period in the lives of two ordinary people.

To say that Fox is unsentimental is not to say that she is cool or distant. Her story is heartbreaking in its portrait of the unarticulated pain and confusion of everyday life. Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a married couple in Brooklyn in the late 1960s. They are a bookish pair--he a lawyer and she a translator of French novels. One morning Sophie tries to pet a stray cat she has been feeding on the fire escape, and the feral animal bites her. The bite becomes infected. Sophie puts off going to a doctor, raising the possibility of rabies--and death. This event fuels the plot and provides a curious kind of suspense and anxiety as we follow the Bentwoods to a party, to a hospital emergency room, and to their summer home.

Sophie's hand isn't the only thing infected; society itself seems to be. All around the Bentwoods' insular, inward-gazing lives, there is vandalism, filth, abuse, despair. A dog howls somewhere as if being beaten. Babies cry too long, unattended. Drugged and drunken men lie on sidewalks. Beggars and hoodlums prowl the streets. It is the clamoring, claustrophobic life of a big city, but seen through the lens of Fox's concentration, the separate elements become part of a larger significance.

Yet in spite of her refusal to look away from a soulless society that seemed to be crumbling even as she wrote, Fox remains an enormously entertaining writer. Her dialogue is pitch-perfect and frequently amusing. She is clever in the way that Robert Louis Stevenson said was the only way to be clever--by being precise. She follows the writing-class rule of "Show, don't tell," and makes her point with detail rather than with exposition. She distills incident and language until they have the density and precision of poetry, but without ever coming across as self-consciously poetic or precious. Desperate Characters covers three or four days and only 154 pages. But you'll come away from it remembering scenes as vivid as any in recent literature--the encounter with the cat, the horrific descent into the inferno of the emergency room, the discovery of vandalism at the summer home.

Fox is like the poet A. R. Ammons, who says that although he has looked everywhere he can find nothing lowly in the universe. She gives her full attention to every aspect of Sophie's and Otto's lives, and she carefully chooses those aspects to reinforce her portrait of the people and the era. There is never any vagueness in her descriptions of either major characters or incidental ones; both passing scenery and passing emotions are woven into the picture and the mood and the experience of being in the world of this extraordinary novel.

A sample of Fox's prose, in a seemingly insignificant moment, demonstrates her offhand authority. She is in control, playing the characters like instruments in an orchestra. As the conductor, she is the only one who knows the whole score:

When Otto came home, he discovered Sophie off in a corner of the living room, sitting in a formal chair no one ever sat in, stippled with light and shadow. Her silence and the dining room table set for dinner, which he glimpsed through the living room doors, looked like a set piece arranged for some purpose that had subsequently been forgotten. He had the impression she was weeping without sound, and that perhaps the elements of this forlorn scene had been contrived for his benefit, a domestic lesson that was to elicit from him an apology.... She was not crying, the dining room table was set for two, not part of a set, only a detail of their routine. He considered what he thought he had seen, an outsider's view of their life form, inaccurately judged perhaps, but for a second he had not been enmeshed in it, had not been oblivious.

Lost in America

Joe Bolton's posthumously published The Last Nostalgia (Arkansas, $24) sets many of its memorable poems in the author's native Kentucky, where his lost happiness haunts the air like midsummer humidity. A suicide at the age of 28, Bolton sought his escape from doomed love, innocence, and a sense of belonging through travel; his sepia-and-neon itinerary included Houston, Tucson, Newport Beach, Gainesville, Atlanta, and Nashville.

At the Vanderbilt Holiday Inn, the poet stands with a lover "on a balcony /Above the city of losses" and defines desire as "That sweet song the body sings to itself,/Or under the best of circumstances/The song two bodies sing to each other." Another Nashville-based poem, one of several notable sonnets that take their cue from American popular culture, places Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl in a Cadillac "driving through the dark of night"; Williams breaks off an impromptu rendition of "I Saw the Light" to confess, his voice dimming: "There ain't no light, Minnie. There ain't no light."

Poetry readers owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Justice for editing The Last Nostalgia. Locating, reading, and selecting from the 500-plus poems Bolton wrote between 1982 and 1990, the year of his death, must have been a formidable task.

While Justice's name evokes due reverence from the many poets who consider him a true master of the art, he has also acted as a practical, hands-on champion of those such as Bolton, Weldon Kees, and Henri Coulette, writers whose work might well have been forgotten shortly after their deaths. His introductory essay to The Last Nostalgia should be read in tandem with his title piece in Oblivion (Story Line Press, $14), a collection of prose devoted to writers and writing.

"For the artist," he unfashionably asserts, "some sense of disappointment and frustration, some rage for the absolute, seems inevitable, [yet] persistence in the face of such certitude of oblivion is in its small way heroic."

--Diann Blakely

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