Posts Tagged ‘divorce’

O M G. Of all the books in the Simon & Schuster catalog, why, why would you put a reading group guide in the back of this one? It is, first and foremost, a comic novel. We read it because it’s funny, not because it’s thought-provoking. Christopher Moore is my favourite bit of fluff, but then, since I read Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf for fun, I may have skewed definitions. Also, you’d think a house like S&S would be more careful about typos. This one is full of them.

I first read one of Moore’s vampire books around the time that I first read The Waves, so it’s feeling a bit like Old Home Week around here. I kind of need that because I’m in such an upheaval. Two weeks ago I was looking for work, and now I’ve moved halfway across the country and just finished my first week at my new job. I’m going to look at apartments this afternoon, and if that turns out well, I’ll move in on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve also registered on a dating site for the first time in my life, and it’s convinced me that I’m much more attractive than I had ever thought. Not that men are seeking me out, but I’ve seen some of their pictures. I am just not that inbred.

So, the book.

They might have been the Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. If each of them had been a trained professional, a gunfighter with a character flaw, or a broken warrior with a past – or if each had a secret reason for joining a suicide mission, an antihero’s sense of justice, and a burning desire to put things right – they might have become an elite fighting unit whose resourcefulness and courage would lead them to victory over those who would oppose or oppress. But the fact was, they were a disorganized bunch of perpetual adolescents, untrained and unprepared for anything but throwing stock and having fun: the Animals.

We begin by meeting the Emperor of San Francisco, a homeless senior citizen with two dogs. He’s loved and considered crazy by all. He sees a vampire and spends the rest of the book wandering through the city, helping people and hunting evil. He’s based on a real person; there was a homeless man who proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco, I think in the late nineteenth century. He even sent diplomatic letters to the heads of actual states. When he died, his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Moore imagines him forward into the mid-1990s, but I don’t think the Emperor would mind. Despite the fact that we see him pissing in alleys and sleeping on benches, dumpster-diving for dinner, he’s always portrayed as having this incredible sense of dignity and self-worth. He may need to bathe more frequently, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is the only royalty this city will ever have.

And then Jody gets turned into a vampire. She’s a petite redhead with a soulless job at Transamerica who lives with a too-good-for-all-this boyfriend named Kurt. He’s not important. She’s rather attractive but still has low self-esteem. Becoming a vampire is actually really good for her, because it helps her get past a number of mental blocks that had been preventing her from living her life.

Not long ago she would have been terrified if she’d found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn’t even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn’t miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn’t as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire – and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

In some ways, turning into a vampire for her is like getting divorced was for me. Once the worst thing you can imagine happens to you, you’ve nothing left to be frightened of. I’m not afraid of being alone, or of being really really poor, or of being hungry for a few months. I didn’t transition as quickly as she does, but the end result is similar.

And so we meet Tommy. He’s a sweet kid from the Midwest, probably not far from where I’ve just moved to, who wants to become a writer.

Finally Harley said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t stay here.”

“Pardon?” Tommy said.

“You got to go to a city and starve. I don’t know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you’re going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won’t be any damn good if you don’t starve.”

“I don’t know, Harley,” Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

“Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?”

“You did.”

“And I say the boy’s got to go to the city and starve.”

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. “You sure about this writer thing, son?”

Tommy nodded.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

So, while visions of Kerouac dance in his head, Tommy drives to San Francisco to starve. He ends up sharing a room with five illegal immigrants from China who start leaving him gifts in the hope that he’ll marry them and they can get a green card. He gets a job supervising the night crew at the local Safeway, and meets Jody. She needs someone to handle daytime business transactions, like picking up her last paycheck and finding a new apartment, and he needs someone to rescue him from The Five Wongs. It’s a match made in . . . well, not heaven, but they could each do a lot worse (Kurt, one of the Wongs).

Tommy’s vampire bible is The Vampire Lestat, and apparently there are more subtle references to Anne Rice, including a chapter titled A Nod to The Queen of the Damned, but I’ve never read any of her books so I can’t comment. I haven’t seen any of the movies either. I once read the first chapter of The Witching Hour, but I was still caught up in being the perfect Christian husband and father, and I could tell that if I kept reading this book it’d take over my life and I’d be sucked into the world of horror fiction. I’ve got space in my life now; I suppose I could give her a try. The thing with a character in a book using another book as his vampire bible is that every author changes the rules. Count Dracula could go outside during the day; he was just weakened at sunrise and sunset. True Blood vampires can stay awake, but they start bleeding inconveniently and burst into flame in the sun. Jody burns in the sun, but she dies suddenly whenever the sun rises, and pops awake just as suddenly when it sets. She misses the speech about how to be a vampire, primarily because Elijah isn’t all protective of his progeny like the True Blood guys. He’s intensely lonely, so every now and again he turns someone into a vampire and watches her suffer and die over the first few days or weeks. Jody has to prove that she’s going to survive before he’ll teach her anything. Instead, he keeps leaving dead homeless people outside her apartment.

The murders, of course, lead to the police. Rivera and Cavuto are two of my favourite fictional detectives. Rivera is a little Latin guy, smart, good at his job. Cavuto is big, Italian, and gay; he overcompensates for that last one by being really aggressive. That whole hypermacho closeted thing. They do their job, making trouble for Tommy and Jody, then eventually helping.

The Animals are the stocking crew at Safeway. Most of them are not fully realized as characters – just a quick detail about skin colour or type of hair and a single personality quirk – but that’s what sequels are for. Their leader is Simon Wheeler, a loud cowboy type who can’t read, so probably isn’t qualified for any other sort of work. Simon is kind of like Tommy’s dad’s friend Harley, the Alpha who needs a Beta sidekick. Moore explores the psychology of the Beta male more explicitly in A Dirty Job, but you can see the traces of it in most of his books. Another sterling beta example is the protagonist of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. By the end of the book, though, Tommy doesn’t need Simon’s protection or guidance. He’s still a nineteen-year-old idiot (sorry, folks, it comes with the age. I was one too), but he can stand on his own feet.

It can be easy to disregard subtitles, but I think this one is important. This is a comic novel, yes, the cover art tells us that much. It’s also a vampire story, with some of those tropes thrown in. But the important thing here is that this is a love story. It’s about Tommy and Jody meeting and falling in love. They have some issues that make it complicated, but this is essentially a romantic comedy.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy’s in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: “Mélange Youth Cream – Because he’ll never understand why you’re worth it.” Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy’s.

One other important thing to mention, though. We’re in San Francisco in the mid-90s. There are gay men everywhere, selling makeup, waiting tables, and dying of AIDS. It’s just that most of them are not main characters. And one of them proves that Moore, as well as making me laugh all the way through the book, can also bring me to tears.

His name was Philip. His friends called him Philly. He was twenty-three. He had grown up in Georgia and had run away to the City when he was sixteen so he wouldn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He had run away to the City to find love. After the one-night stands with rich older men, after the bars and the bathhouses, after finding out that he wasn’t a freak, that there were other people just like him, after the last of the confusion and shame had settled like red Georgia dust, he’d found love.

He’d lived with his lover in a studio in the Castro discrict. And in that studio, sitting on the edge of a rented hospital bed, he had filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into his lover and held his hand while he died. Later, he cleared away the bed pans and the IV stand and the machine that he used to suck the fluid out of his lover’s lungs and he threw them in the trash. The doctor said to hold on to them – that he would need them.

They buried Philly’s lover in the morning and they took the embroidered square of fabric that was draped on the casket and folded it and handed it to him like the flag to a war widow. He got to keep it for a while before it was added to the quilt. He had it in his pocket now.

His hair was gone from the chemotherapy. His lungs hurt, and his feet hurt; the sarcomas that spotted his body were worst on his feet and his face. His joints ached and he couldn’t keep his food down, but he could still walk. So he walked.

He walked up Polk Street, head down, at four in the morning, because he could. He could still walk.

When he reached the doorway of a Russian restaurant, Jody stepped out in front of him and he stopped and looked at her.

Somewhere, way down deep, he found that there was a smile left. “Are you the Angel of Death?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s good to see you,” Philly said.

She held her arms out to him.

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This novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story for children. It reads very quickly, and seems to have affected the people at Walt Disney to an extraordinary extent. Their Pirates franchise draws a lot from this book. It’s been memorialized in films more frequently than that, though; there have been a number of adaptations. Despite its great popularity, when it first came out, someone bet H Rider Haggard that he could write a better novel without much effort, and because of that we now have King Solomon’s Mines and the other Allan Quatermain novels.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t remember my childhood. I hadn’t thought of it in years. The ex had had a very happy childhood, despite the drawbacks of loneliness and poor income, so she kept asking me about when I was a child, and I started to remember things, and after a short time she asked me to stop telling her about my childhood. Apparently, it’s rather depressing, no matter how normal I find it to be. [Of course I think it’s normal; it’s the only childhood I’ve got.]

My parents split up when I was eight years old. Nowadays I think it was a very good idea; my mom likes babies and my dad likes sex, which seems like a good fit, but my mom didn’t like having sex and my dad didn’t like having quite so many babies. He tried talking her into various methods of birth control, but after conceiving the seventh time he got a vasectomy. My mom started sleeping on the couch, because there’s no point sleeping together if you’re not going to get pregnant. They never had much in common, and neither was having their needs met in the relationship. My dad also had bipolar disorder without having that word for it, so he was depressed almost all the time. When he realized that he was faced with either divorce or suicide, he chose life separated over faking a car accident so we could get the life insurance money.

What I remember is that my dad worked all the time; when he came home, he went out to his shed and worked on cars. We saw him very little, and when I did see him, I was petrified. I spent most of my childhood afraid. My mother had her own anger management issues, which she dealt with by emotionally distancing herself from her children. She only ever disciplined me herself once, and it was so horrifying that I resolved never to give her reason to spank me again. Never is always a strong word, but in the heart of a five-year-old it can set the course of his entire life. As for my siblings, I don’t know if there was a reason for it or not, but we were never kind to each other. We were never united against common obstacles. We suffered alone, in close proximity.

The divorce was not the big shock that these things sometimes are, even to a kid who didn’t see his parents fight. My dad faded slowly until he vanished completely. I understood it as running away; my oldest brother had already done that several times, as had the protagonist of nearly every sitcom we watched regularly. So it was completely normal to me, though perhaps my idea of normal isn’t quite standard.

As I think on it, I think that I must have read Treasure Island shortly after the divorce. [As mentioned, this period of my life is a little hazy.] I read it a few more times over the next couple of years, until I got out of elementary school. I hadn’t read it again until this week. Analyzing it as an adult/teacher/father, I can see the appeal for a kid in the situation I was in. Jim Hawkins, the first-person narrator, is growing up in his parents’ pub, when this pirate guy shows up. Hawkins Senior dies, pirate gets killed, and Mrs Hawkins digs through the pirate’s stuff to get the payment due to her when she finds a treasure map. Jim takes the map to the local squire and doctor/magistrate, and they decide to sail on off to find all that money. Unfortunately, the dumbass squire hires a huge gang of pirates to man the ship. They get to the island and somehow the pirates are even dumber than the squire and just about everyone dies.

The point is, Jim is unrealistically badass. He doesn’t kill everyone, but the adults place undue emphasis on keeping him alive. How is this kid so valuable? It doesn’t make sense. Also, he kills a pirate. Yeah, the guy is really old and drunk, but why have the little kid kill him at all? And how is he not traumatized after killing someone? It’s a kids’ book because no one else would believe it. On the other hand, for a kid, it’s really empowering. Jim Hawkins can be a badass almost-pirate, being brave and clever and all, so maybe I can too. I understand a lot of kids had this reaction to The Parent Trap. Not the Lindsay Lohan, the Hayley Mills – apparently kids’ movies in the ‘50s involved submission, obedience, and Father Knowing Best.

So maybe when I was reading Jim Hawkins, I could be him for a little while. I didn’t have to be stuck in this weird and awkward family situation where I didn’t feel that people cared about me; they kept leaving me instead. I mean, I lived with my mom, but she’d . . . forget me. Sometimes at home. Sometimes in public. She’d start counting kids in the rearview mirror when she was halfway home, then turn the van around. Así es la vida. These days she doesn’t forget me in public any more, but she still reminds me that the cats live at her house and I don’t. [Some people have sibling rivalry; I’m more jealous of the pets. I’d be happy if my mom could express affection for human beings.]

What I do remember about reading Treasure Island is that it made me feel grownup. It was a big fat book (by nine-year-old standards), with big words and long sentences and it includes real danger. It’s not the fluff that was targeted to my age group and gender in the 1980s; now I know it’s the fluff targeted to my age group and gender in the 1880s. I think the age of the book fed the mystique of maturity I was trying to access by reading it. In the years after the divorce, some of us went drinking, some of us dove into work or college, and I drowned myself in the library. I got to be all sorts of people; as long as I was reading, I didn’t have to be myself. I hid in books for a long time. A very long time. Eventually it was books that got me out of hiding – they helped me label my childhood as abusive (from neglect, not violence), and they helped me realize that I’m gay. They’ve helped me work though a lot of issues. They protected me when I needed it, and they brought me out when I needed it. I still feel safest with a book in my hand.

I’ve been taking stock of my life lately; not only am I quitting my job and moving to a different country, I’ve also very recently turned thirty-five. Back when I was young, thirty-five was the age limit after which I thought a person was no longer young. Now that I’m there, I’m not sure if that’s true. I always thought that when I grew up, I would be taller, balder, more responsible. Instead, most days I still feel like an emotionally tempestuous teenager with inexplicably grey hair and child support payments. I thought I’d be better at being a grownup. But then, when I hear people describe what they think youth is for, I wasn’t that good at being a kid. I wasted my salad days being overly religious (ploy for my mother’s approval; worked for a while, until I realized I was lying about having faith in all that), so maybe I’ll carry on feeling young until I do ‘being young’ correctly. Or maybe approaching middle age really is about being a little kid whose face is finally getting stuck being all liney. I knew I shouldn’t have made so many faces in the mirror, all these years. Oh well; too late to stop now.

Last weekend I found myself at one of the local bookstores, where I had a gift certificate from buying electronics a year ago. Their English-language selection is rather small, and last year was dominated by the works of Paulo Coelho. This year, Coelho is out and the battle for supremacy is being decided between Nora Roberts and Jude Devereaux. Neither of them writes books I care much for, so it’s a good thing I’m moving in a few weeks. I ended up with the only copy of the only book in the store I wanted to read, a recent Stephen King novel. When I was about two-thirds in, I was moving the book from the couch to the nightstand and took a good look at the cover. It’s not of a girl in a modest green-and-black dress; it’s of a girl in a low-cut short green dress after the censors saw it. It feels strange to own a book that has been thus altered.

Stephen King is famous for writing horror, which is a bit of a shame because I believe he is one of the best writers of our time, full stop. And, he doesn’t write just horror. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” for instance, the one about the banker (Tim Robbins) and the Irishman (Morgan Freeman) breaking out of prison, is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. As his career progresses, King seems to write more and more about the fact that the world doesn’t need imaginary monsters like It or The Tommyknockers; real people are monstrous enough.

Joyland is a coming-of-age murder mystery. Yeah, there are a couple of ghosts and a couple of psychics, but that doesn’t make it horror. Our first-person narrator, Devin Jones, is spending the summer he’s twenty-one working at an amusement park on the coast of North Carolina. There is no mention of the fact that we were called The Graveyard of the Atlantic (the shore was a bit too tricky for early sixteenth-century mariners). He makes new friends, gets over getting dumped by his first love, saves a few lives, and finds a real sense of identity wearing a big furry dog suit in the unreasonable heat. He stays on after summer’s end, makes friends with a terminally ill ten-year-old, and loses his virginity to an older woman. The murder mystery works its way in and out; people keep seeing the ghost of a girl who was killed in the haunted house four years previously, so Devin sets out to solve the murder as part of his growing-up process.

One of the things that sets this novel apart from the typical story of its type is that Devin is narrating from 2013 the events of 1973. This gives him the chance to drop wise commentary into the novel in a realistic fashion; it also means that he keeps interpolating epilogues. No sooner do we see Tom and Erin move closer together than Devin tells us about how long and happy their marriage was, how it lasted until death parted them more than twenty years after the story. It’s sweet, and pulls the emphasis off of the suspenseful murder-ghost part of things. I know that these people are going to survive, and even though he makes comments like

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.

Devin Jones is a fairly reliable narrator. As you would expect from someone telling a forty-year-old story, he’s also a little nostalgic.

We could see other fires – great leaping bonfires as well as cooking fires – all the way down the beach to the twinkling metropolis of Joyland. They made a lovely chain of burning jewelry. Such fires are probably illegal in the twenty-first century; the powers that be have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people. I don’t know why that should be, I only know it is.

I’m not 61 yet, but I watch enough old movies and read enough old books to believe that this is true. I think it’s part of the paradoxical nature of the internet – everyone has a chance to make some art and get it out into the public, but so many people are doing it that no one becomes famous. Besides, most people use the internet to make the world uglier, by leaving unkind comments or spreading bad news. Some days, the time I spend on facebook is even more depressing than staring at the four blank walls of the studio apartment.

The day that Mike spends in Joyland is a really emotional section of the book for me. How can it not be? The kid is dying of multiple sclerosis, will be cremated in a few months, so Devin gets his friends to reopen Joyland for an afternoon. Mike rides all the rides (that his mother will let him) and wins all the prizes. I was also a rather unhappy child, growing up with a single mother, and while I’m still alive at very nearly thirty-five, I can understand what it’s like for someone who never gets to do anything to finally have the same kind of fun that everyone else takes for granted.

All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.

I also identify with Devin, in the big breakup with Wendy. Well, it was big to him, even though she dumped him by letter and just stopped taking his calls. I was married for eight years; it was the first time I really loved someone, and we were fairly determined to make it last forever. There were problems and we started pulling apart, but when I told her I could no longer pretend to be straight she was done. Like Devin Jones, I was depressed with suicidal ideation, and the only thing I had going on in my life was my job. He falls in love with his job and stays in North Carolina; I felt that my job was futile and moved to Saudi Arabia. Someone who had lived through a similar situation once called me brave for leaving; I think I was too cowardly to stay. I can’t imagine his bravery in staying in the same place to date guys where he had lived with his wife. Devin deals with the breakup in a few months; it took me about a year and a half.

I knew it was true, and part of me was sorry. It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.

At twenty-one, I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented. I found her, we got married. I held on too long, long after my hand was clutching thorns and bleeding constantly. After the divorce, though my list of qualifications is still short, it has become rather different. I want a man who is kind, willing to forget offenses, and able to set boundaries.

This summer, I had an experience like this:

Ten years after the events I’m telling you about, I was (for my sins, maybe) a staff writer on Cleveland magazine. I used to do most of my first-draft writing on yellow legal pads in a coffee shop on West Third Street, near Lakefront Stadium, which was the Indians’ stomping grounds back then. Every day at ten, this young woman would come in and get four or five coffees, then take them back to the real estate office next door. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw her, either. All I know is that one day I saw her, and realized that she sometimes glanced at me as she went out. The day came when I returned that glance, and when she smiled, I did, too. Eight months later we were married.

Something about this passage feels absolutely perfect. But the guy I saw – he’s in a town I’ve been moving in and out of for sixteen years; I’m sure I’d seen him before. But in July I saw him, for the first time with all the force of Devin Jones’s italics. There wasn’t time to do much before heading back into the desert, but I’m hoping to rectify that situation in the next few weeks.

In relation to sex, most horror films are as prudish as Chick tracts. If anyone has sex, he or she must die. Jason Voorhees once impaled two people right in the middle of it; in The Cabin in the Woods, the girl who has sex has to die first. The same thing happens in LGBT films before around 2010; the sex scenes are designed to make the audience uncomfortable, as if they’re horrific (pay attention to the music, lighting, and situation – you’ll see it).  Joyland’s attitude is different.

 “You better go now, Dev. And thank you. It was lovely. We saved the best ride for last, didn’t we?”

That was true. Not a dark ride but a bright one.

Sex can be horrific, no doubt. Chokers, rapists, and such. But it can also be bright, beautiful, joyful. Lovely. And even in a Stephen King novel, it’s not a one-way ticket to the death-house.

Usually in a murder mystery I can sit back and go along for the ride. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve given any thought to who the killer might be. I was right, but I figured it out by looking at the constraints of the narrative instead of the clues presented. The killer has to be a character in the story, not some random person off the street who hasn’t been involved in the action, and it has to be someone the audience cares about, preferably because of a charming personality trait or habitual gesture. For me, it’s usually the character I feel most strongly attracted to; I don’t actually think murder is sexy, but maybe my subconscious does.

So, it’s a cheap mystery paperback. Checking with the exchange rate, I got mine new for about $8.50. But it’s a very good mystery novel, one worth reading a second time. It’s a brilliant study in effective foreshadowing, for those of you writing your NaNoWriMo novels who want to get that technique down. I do hope that fifty years from now, when we’re studying the novels of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, Stephen King gets a good representation in the academy. He richly deserves it, more than many an author with an NBA or Pulitzer.

I believe that many people will find my attachment to this novel to be somewhat singular, yet I must confess that my affection for Evelina can hardly be surpassed by that of the hero for the eponymous heroine.

Fanny Burney, who would later become Madame d’Arblay and write a moving account of her unanaesthetized mastectomy in 1811, wrote a novel in her teens called Caroline Evelyn, about a nice girl who gets lured into a private marriage and then abandoned, pregnant, with no proof of her child’s legitimacy. This type of story was quite common among novels written by women in the eighteenth century, actually, and even Charlotte Temple, America’s first bestseller, was a similar don’t-trust-handsome-men warning tale for young women. Writing was not seen as an appropriate activity for a young lady in the 1770s, though, so Burney burned all her early writings. By her mid-20s, when she had passed the age that women of the era pinned all their future hopes on marriage, she wrote a sequel and got it published without her family’s knowledge. Caroline Evelyn is summarized in the first few chapters, and then we move on to the story of her daughter, Evelina.

The novel is in the epistolary style so popular to the eighteenth century, and chronicles a young lady’s first introduction to society. It reminds me of Lydia Melford’s letters in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, but Lydia’s letters are balanced by others of her family while Evelina’s are so numerous that the few other writers hardly seem mentioning. The structure of the story lends itself well to the three-volume division that was common at the time, as Evelina spends each volume with a different set of people, the Mirvans, the Branghtons, and Mrs Selwyn. At one point there is a mention of Justice Fielding, and I can’t help thinking she’s consciously referring to Henry Fielding, the comic novelist who later became a magistrate. The humor of the novel is very much in his style, and I sometimes feel sorry for Evelina because her writer makes her narrate so many practical jokes that she herself fails to enjoy. It’s a bit like asking Richardson’s Pamela to become the protagonist of Tom Jones.

Burney seems fully aware of some of the issues that we in the twenty-first century recognize as of prime importance: gender and class. Women are expected to be decorative, and one of the characters actually says that he doesn’t understand why women live past the age of thirty because then they’re only in someone else’s way. The same guy later has a conversation about how important it is that a woman never seem to be more intelligent or stronger than any of the men around her. Compare this with Burney’s own life, and the fact that she didn’t marry until she passed forty. After she was considered a confirmed old maid, she met someone who found her desirable enough to marry and gave her time to continue her writing, and they seem to have been very happy together. And as for strength, she was almost sixty years old when she had a breast removed, let me repeat with no anaesthetic, and then she lived for nearly thirty years more in apparent good health. She’s kind of amazing. However, the best she can do for her time is to have the moral centre of her novel say,

Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men: the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes, though the manner in which it is pursued may somewhat vary, and be accommodated to the strength or weakness of the different travellers.

Today we would cavil at the idea that women are somehow essentially gentle and modest, and indeed, Burney’s characters call this idea into question. But think of the 1770s, before Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and give her credit for the gesture toward gender equality.

Class is rather an important issue in the novel. At the time the novel was praised for its accuracy in portraying working-class dialect, but I didn’t meet any characters I could really think of as working class. There are servants, of course, but they rarely speak. I think they must be referring to the Branghtons, who are only working class in that they do work. Mr Branghton owns a shop and rents rooms – he is an employer, not an employee. He is in trade, which separates him from most of the characters, but there are hardly any Dickensian brickmakers, or even any of Fielding’s shrill dairymaids. Evelina’s world only contains one named character who is really poor, and even he is revealed to be the son of a baronet. The Branghtons torture Evelina by trying to seem aristocratic, as in this description of one of their close friends:

In the afternoon, when he returned, it was evident that he proposed to both charm and astonish me by his appearance; he was dressed in a very showy manner, but without any taste; and the inelegant smartness of his air and deportment, his visible struggle, against education, to put on the fine gentleman, added to his frequent conscious glances at a dress to which he was but little accustomed, very effectually destroyed his aim of figuring, and rendered all his efforts useless.

This group is entertaining to us who don’t have to associate ourselves with them, but Evelina is miserable with them. Mr Branghton is always insisting on doing everything as cheaply as possible while his children want to live the high life with the upper class who frequent their shop. In the end nothing is done well and they are only spared embarrassment by their colossal insensitivity. They are Evelina’s cousins through her grandmother Madame Duval, an English barmaid who married up twice and now has a rich French husband, so she pretends to be native French gentry. But no matter how she’s dressed, she’s still a barmaid with an inflated sense of self-worth. In this, she’s not really that different from ‘the quality.’

The Mirvans are more highly placed than the Branghtons, but it seems that Burney isn’t quite sure what to do with well-behaved people. Mrs and Miss Mirvan are so self-effacing that they practically disappear from the narrative. It’d be tempting to forget the family altogether if it weren’t for the Captain. Captain Mirvan has just arrived in England after a seven years’ absence at sea. His time abroad has unfit him for the life his wife and daughter lead, and he compensates for this by abusing Madame Duval for being French. He concocts several practical jokes to play on her; he only injures her dignity and her clothes, but that may be more of an accident than evidence of care. He’s often joined by Sir Clement Willoughby, one of Evelina’s suitors. Sir Clement is one of those guys who can’t take a hint; he pursues Evelina through three hundred pages without realizing that she can’t stand him. Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval seem equally matched in terms of manners, and Sir Clement only talks better than they do. The people who don’t need a profession are just as vile as those in trade; money and status aren’t the best indicators of worth or respectability.

The shining star of the aristocracy is Lord Orville, who alone seems to care how other people are feeling. At first, Evelina mistakes his manners for ordinary:

These people in high life have too much presence of mind, I believe, to seem disconcerted, or out of humour, however they may feel: for had I been the person of the most consequence in the room, I could not have met with more attention and respect.

But more contact with Sirs and Ladies puts that notion out of her head. Indeed, I find that to encounter such a person is just as rare in real life as it is in this book. This passage reminds me of a line from the otherwise-forgettable Brendan Fraser/Alicia Silverstone flick A Blast from the Past, when he explains to her that a gentleman is someone who tries to make everyone around him feel comfortable. I try to be like this, but generally I fail through oversensitivity. My emotions shout so loudly within me that it’s sometimes hard to hear what anyone else has to say; I only seem still and silent to others.

In fact, I am far more like Evelina than I feel I ought to be. Being a seventeen-year-old raised in isolation, she has a marvelous excuse that I can’t claim. I’m twice her age and was raised in a large family, so I was constantly around people. Maybe the problem is that I was with too many different kinds of people, so I never learned to ally myself with any particular cultural niche. Even today I feel uncomfortable if I find that I’m typical of any group of people. If I’m told that I’m classic gay, I’ll ‘straighten’ myself out. If I seem too high for my company, I’ll start dressing like a lumberjack. And if I’m too much of an Appalachian cracker, I read plenty of books, and especially books that are hundreds of years old or written by international authors.

But as I mentioned, she and I are similar in a lot of ways. I felt that Mr Villars was talking to me when he tells Evelina,

But you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: […] do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret.

I have been blessed with a splendidly passive facility, which leads to my own future regret and sometimes the censure of the world. I need to struggle against it, particularly as the time comes for me to re-embark on the job search. I’m great at thinking for myself, but taking active steps comes less easily. And even though I’ve been travelling all over the country and the world, I still find myself, like her,

unused to the situations in which I find myself and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act.

The ex was once in a group of students listening to a well-known author, and someone asked what it took to become a good writer. He explained to the group that from his youth he had had the habit of replaying events from his day in his mind, imagining how things would have happened if someone (usually himself) had behaved differently. This tendency to correct reality doesn’t guarantee a writing career, but he had never met a successful writer who didn’t have it. I do this all the time. It’s annoying, frankly. But when I’m dissatisfied with my own behavior, I play the scene back and write myself a different part. Sometimes that part fits my character, sometimes not. Sometimes I picture myself acting so far out of character that I wonder if I really know who I am at all, and who I would have been if the circumstances of my life had been different. But things being as they are, I keep making false steps, offending where I mean to comfort, wasting time being shocked, and ignoring real affection in favor of the conditional love that I expect. Like Evelina,

my intentions are never wilfully blameable, yet I err perpetually!

Which may explain why I’m alone on the wrong side of the world, and why I keep remembering things that I probably ought to have apologized for, but that happened so long ago that I doubt anyone else remembers, or cares. My perpetual erring is particularly noticeable when I’m around people I’m attracted to. I don’t know how to act, so I’m offensively silent, or I interrupt when I ought to have kept my mouth shut; I’m either too aloof or too familiar; I start to get close and then I push people away. Or run off to another city, state, or country for a few years.

Perhaps my closest affinity for Evelina is in the manner in which we fall in love.

Young, animated, entirely off your guard, and thoughtless of consequences, Imagination took the reins, and Reason, slow-paced, though sure-footed, was unequal to a race with so eccentric and flighty a companion. How rapid was then my Evelina’s progress through those regions of fancy and passion whither her new guide conducted her! – She saw Lord Orville at a ball, – and he was the most amiable of men! – she met him again at another, – and he had every virtue under heaven!

I mean not to depreciate the merit of Lord Orville, who, one mysterious instance alone excepted, seems to have deserved the idea you formed of his character; but it was not time, it was not the knowledge of his worth, obtained your regard; your new comrade had not patience to wait any trial; her glowing pencil, dipt in the vivid colours of her creative ideas, painted to you, at the moment of your first acquaintance, all the excellencies, all the good and rare qualities, which a great length of time, and intimacy, could alone have really discovered.

You flattered yourself, that your partiality was the effect of esteem, founded upon a general love of merit, and a principle of justice: and your heart, which fell the sacrifice of your error, was totally gone ere you suspected it was in danger.

Yup. That’s me. I might be in my thirties, but this passage still describes me well. It was eleven years ago that I met the ex and imagined her to have all sorts of good qualities that I desired, rather than knew, her to have. In eight years of marriage, continually treating her as if she were kinder than she is helped her to develop that quality, and her treating me as I were more assertive than I am helped me to develop that as well, but after the breakup we snapped back to our original characters like rubber bands suddenly relieved of pressure. Not quite back to where we had been, of course, but separating from a spouse is such a paradigm-shifting event that you change very quickly, mostly by rebelling against the person the former spouse wanted you to be. And it was just this summer that I had that sudden crush on the guy I’m trying not to think about, because I don’t want a repeat of the same experience. The ex and I spent all our free time together for nine weeks and got married (not decided to get married – I proposed after twenty-three days, and she had already made up her mind to accept if I should ask), and it was good for a while, but I don’t want to rush into things again. I certainly don’t want to end up smitten with someone who’s going to treat me badly, again. This time I’m going to pay more attention to reality – how does he treat strangers, for instance. The ex could be nice to me, and to people she knew were important to me, but not to cashiers or office clerks who didn’t follow her idea of how she should be treated. Besides, after being with a couple of guys who become intimately violent, and paying attention to who I feel attracted to in films, I’ve realized that I tend to fall for psychos. Sure, David Tennant is my favorite Doctor on Doctor Who, he seems the most capable of really loving someone, but when The Master has him trapped and is dancing around singing, “I can’t decide whether you should live or die,” I wish I were dancing with him instead of trying to save DT. I love villains, the more self-loving the better, and that makes me very suspect of anyone I might feel attracted to in real life. The next time I enter into a relationship, I’m going to be more careful.

So. Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who loves Jane Austen. Burney’s society here is set a little higher than Austen’s gentry, but it’s also about thirty-five years earlier, so the manners are pretty similar. It’s also a good recommendation for someone who likes Ann Radcliffe, though it’s more comic than Gothic. Someone who likes Fielding but not Richardson may find it too sedate, someone who likes Richardson but not Fielding may find the humor too physical, and someone who loves Smollett and no one else may find it a bit too feminine, but if (like me) you like most of the eighteenth-century authors whose works have survived this long, don’t miss this one. Evelina is the best introduction to Burney fiction because it’s a normal length for the time period, but it’s the shortest of her novels. Cecilia and Camilla went to five volumes instead of three, and I think The Wanderer was four. I’ve not been brave enough to read them yet; The Mysteries of Udolpho was the last four-volume novel I read, and I’m not in a hurry to do that again. It’s also good for students of the history of English, since several spelling and grammatical choices are different than what we now consider standard. Choose is spelled chuse, happy people are chearful, and educated people say ‘you was.’  Evelina is cute, funny, imperfect, an impressive debut novel, a pure delight.

Evelyn Waugh writes about Britain’s upper middle class during the Great Depression; a bit like Jane Austen a hundred years later, or Aldous Huxley when he’s not being science fiction-y, but without the comedy of either of them. There are a few vague attempts at humor, but this is not a funny story.

The book opens introducing John Beaver, a young man whose family was once wealthy though he is not. He lives with his mother, who does dreadful interior decorating, and survives by getting invited to lunch or dinner. No one actually likes him, but he’s useful in filling up the numbers at a party because he’s always available and knows how to look and act in a drawing room. In a world where one of the worst possible things is to have an odd number of guests at dinner, this is an invaluable skill. However, Beaver’s not the protagonist, and soon sinks into obscurity. His existence in the novel is more important than his actual presence.

Beaver was sort of half-heartedly invited to go down to the country for a weekend, but the host forgets he had said anything to him, so it’s rather a surprise when he shows up. Tony Last, the actual protagonist, introduces him to his wife and then manages to avoid him for most of the weekend. He apologizes to Brenda, but she says it really wasn’t that bad. Their house was redone in the neo-Gothic style of the mid-nineteenth century, and it symbolizes Tony’s adherence to tradition. It’s out of fashion and a bit isolated, it evokes an idealized past that never quite existed, and his wife only pretends to be happy there.

Brenda goes up to town and begins an affair with Beaver, one of those discreet affairs that is only a secret from the husband. Tony has his son and his farms, but as Brenda spends more time in London, he gets increasingly lonely. She hires a bedroom in a block of flats, the sort of room that really only has one purpose. All the fashionable people are getting such rooms in a city where they already have a house or apartment so they can carry on their affairs. She pops down to the country to see Tony on the weekends, or not, and always brings a group of friends with her. For a while she tries to get him interested in one or two young ladies, but he’s not interested. Some people are congenitally faithful.

Then their son dies in an accident and Brenda petitions for a divorce. They decide that it’s better for her to be the plaintiff, so he goes off to Brighton with a lady-for-hire. This was really funny in The Gay Divorcee, but in the novel it’s just pathetic. Tony’s not happy and barely goes through the motions (of seeming to have sex, not of actually doing it) and the lady brings her eight-year-old daughter. Then he finds out that her lawyers are asking for a settlement large enough to support her and Beaver in their new marriage, and he quits being reasonable. Eventually he goes off to Brazil to let things adjust in his absence.

There’s a film, done in 1988. It seems as faithful as film could possibly be. The movie opens with a scene in Brazil, after Tony’s camp is destroyed but before he meets Mr Todd, so the majority of it is a flashback with a slight air of delirium. It seems strange to me to see James Wilby and Kristen Scott Thomas leading a film (who are they again?) when names I know so much better have such minor roles – Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston, and Alec Guinness are all supporting cast. The book’s attitude toward the Brazilians is quite sufficiently colonial, as expected for an English author writing in 1934, but the film actually makes it worse by having the Indians steal all of Tony’s stuff. Waugh is careful to point out that they do not take anything that doesn’t belong to them. The film does tone down some of the misogyny, but I actually regret that. When men are rejected by a woman, they spread their anger to all women. This is just what we do; I understand that women often do the same to us. In the wake of the divorce, I’ve had moments when I’m very misogynistic indeed, so when Jock’s girl cancels on him and he says,

It’s the last time I ask that bitch out.

I almost cheered. It seems so natural. When men are alone and unhappy, this is how they really talk, even today. Generally, novels sanitize this sort of thing. It’s not the misogyny that I celebrate, but Waugh’s freedom in portraying it. A moment of unlooked-for realism.

At some point I’m going to have to stop thinking of myself as recently divorced. Books like this tend to bring that time closer to me, but at least the old wounds aren’t opening back up. This novel didn’t hurt the way that some others have done. In some ways my divorce was exactly the same as Tony and Brenda’s, and in other ways it was completely different. My ex never had an affair, but having children can create that distance too. All of the ways that she had shown me affection went to them; my role became more functional, paying the bills and fathering the children. Over time, love becomes an assumption that you don’t examine closely. I’ve had to stop talking about this part of things because people tend to assume that the fact that I was unfulfilled in my marriage means that I’m not really gay, I only came out to create a situation where I could get a divorce without it being anyone’s fault. Throughout the proceedings, though, we both tended to act like it was someone’s fault – mine.

When you’ve been together for eight years, you tend to have all the same friends. The ex didn’t much care for most of my previous friends, so the only people I spent time with only knew us as a couple, not as singles. They tried to get us back together, but only drove us further apart. When people talk to your very recent ex and then talk to you, they distort things to make it seem like reconciliation is possible. They mean well, but it’s just not helpful. There are times when offering hope is just cruel. Waugh captures this aspect of divorce quite well. Brenda might be tired of Beaver by now, but until she figures that out herself, that piece of information is not going to help Tony. She may not want Tony to be sad, but she doesn’t want to be with him either. My divorce had a great deal of confusion on this topic for a few weeks, until she and I met and she made her feelings clear. Then I had to tell people to stop helping, that we were not going to get back together. I tried to avoid telling them flat-out that they were wrong about her feelings; I don’t remember whether I succeeded.

There comes a point when you realize suddenly that everything is over. At first, it’s like this:

For a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new mad thing brought to his notice could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Then, something happens, and

His mind had suddenly become clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief . . . there was now no armour, glittering in the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the greensward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled . . .

You lose your illusions about the situation and about the person you had been married to. Once the unicorns flee, you can face your future resolutely, realistically. You can let go.

Tony and Brenda agree on a settlement privately, but when the lawyers get involved the amount quadruples, at least partially on the insistence of Beaver. He doesn’t have an income large enough to support himself, much less her. Part of the advantage of the affair is that she feeds him; when that’s done, so is he. The larger amount, though, would require Tony to give up his house, which he refuses to do. When we split, my ex gave notice on the apartment without consulting me, so I ended up homeless for a while. Tony draws the line at that, and cuts Brenda off with nothing. Since the weekend with the girl is obviously faked and everyone knows about the affair with Beaver, it’s not hard to get away without being required to pay her anything. I didn’t have a single turning point when I was suddenly ready to stick up for my rights; it came on slowly. The ex and I settled on an amount of child support that was reasonable for three kids, but completely out of proportion to my income. I spent the next year trying not to starve to death, and only barely succeeding. When you’re raised on the Protestant work ethic, you see your ability to provide for yourself and your family as a marker of self-worth. Economic anorexia is a dangerous thing, because while you can justify it because you can’t afford to eat, the truth is that you feel like you don’t deserve to eat. That can take the joy out of food that you don’t pay for as well. Eventually, I had to sell my car to pay my child support.

I find that emotions are often tied to places. When I came back home after vacation, all the loneliness and depression I had left behind were waiting for me at the door. I am rather anxious to relocate when my contract is over. But when separating from a spouse, it can be good to put some physical distance between yourself and the situation. Tony and I both thought an ocean would be enough. He left England for Brazil, and I left America for the Middle East. Tony’s such a quiet, stay-at-home sort of fellow that it’s strange when people start calling him an explorer, but he really does go off to the Amazon to look for El Dorado. Instead he finds Mr Todd, a missionary child left in the jungle when his parents died. Now he’s an illiterate old man with the complete works of Charles Dickens. He captures people who know how to read English and forces them to keep reading aloud. One of his favorites is Little Dorrit, a book about the different types of imprisonment in Victorian England; part of the absurdity of the situation is that Tony clings to his Victorian home and values, only to end up imprisoned by the literary embodiment of them. Living where I do is a bit like Mr Todd’s. Of course I have the freedom to leave when I like, but there’s nowhere to go. The difficulty of getting anywhere makes it an effective prison. It was good for me to come here and sort out my issues with being divorced, being gay, yet still being worth keeping alive, but I’m beginning to fear that I’m going to end up like Tony. It’s time to find something else to do, to go live another life.

There are some events that seem to divide a person’s life into two equally important halves, even though there are many years before and only a few days or hours after. Marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a foreign country. Divorce is one. But given time, the event becomes a part of your past and you can see it in its proper perspective. I thought that getting divorced was going to kill me. I thought it was the worst possible thing ever. But now I’m quite pleased that it happened. I’m free in a way I could never have been when I was still married. Maybe this is why I don’t get all excited about gay marriage. I’ve been a husband once; I’m not in a rush to try it again.