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The masterly stories of Mary Gordon return us to the pleasure of this writer’s craft and to her monumental talent as an observer of character and of the ever-fading American Dream. These pieces encompass the pre- and postwar Irish American family life she circles in the early Temporary Shelter series, as well as a wealth of new fiction that brings her contemporary characters into middle age; it is their turn to face bodily decline, mortality, and the more complex anxieties of modern life. Gordon captures the sharp scent of feelings as they shift, the shape of particular lives in their hope and incomprehensibility.
In “The Neighborhood,” a seven-year-old who has lost her father finds birthday parties, with their noisy games and spun-sugar roses on fancy cakes, her greatest trial. “City Life” explores the dark side of Manhattan apartment living. “Intertextuality” proposes a dream meeting between Proust’s characters and the author’s aging grandmother. Throughout, Gordon’s surprising path to the center of a story is as much a part of the tale as the self-understanding her characters achieve in the process: “What were they all, any of them, feeling?” one narrator ventures. “This was the sort of question no one in my family would ask. Feelings were for others: the weak, the idle. We were people who got on with things.”
With their powerful insights into how we make do, both socially and privately, these stories are a treasure of American fiction. Each is a joy to read and a chance to savor Gordon’s clear vision: her ability to reveal at every turn what we need and what we wish for, and her willingness, always, to address what comes of such precious wishes.
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Mary Gordon is the author of six novels, including Final Payments and Pearl; a memoir, The Shadow Man; and an earlier collection of stories, Temporary Shelter. She has received a Lila Wallace—Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1997 O. Henry Award for Best Story, and an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Peter had always been more than thoughtful in not pressing her about her past, and Beatrice was sure it was a reason for her choice of him. Most men, coming of age in a time that extolled openness and disclosure, would have thought themselves remiss in questioning her so little. Perhaps because he was a New Englander–one of four sons in a family that had been stable for generations–perhaps because he was a mathematician, perhaps because both the sight of her and her way of living had pleased him from the first and continued to please him, he had been satisfied with what she was willing to tell. “My parents are dead. We lived in western New York State, near Rochester. I am an only child. I have no family left.”
She preferred saying “I have no family left”–creating with her words an absence, a darkness, rather than to say what had been there, what she had ruthlessly left, with a ruthlessness that would have shocked anyone who knew her later. She had left them so thoroughly that she really didn’t know if they were still living. When she tried to locate them, with her marriage and her children and the warm weight of her domestic safety at her back, there was no trace of them. It had shocked and frightened her how completely they had failed to leave a trace. This was the sort of thing most people didn’t think of: how possible it was for people like her parents to impress themselves so little on the surface, the many surfaces of the world, that they would leave it or inhabit it with the same lack of a mark.
They were horrors, her parents, the sort people wanted to avert their eyes from, that people felt it was healthful to avert their eyes from. They had let their lives slip very far, further than anyone Beatrice now knew could even begin to imagine. But it had always been like that: a slippage so continuous that there was simultaneously a sense of slippage and of already having slipped.
It was terribly clear to her. She was brought up in filth. Most people, Beatrice knew, believed that filth was temporary, one of those things, unlike disease or insanity or social hatred–that didn’t root itself in but was an affair of surfaces, therefore dislodgeable by effort, will, and the meagerest brand of intelligence. That was, Beatrice knew, because people didn’t understand filth. They mistook its historical ordinariness for simplicity. They didn’t understand the way it could invade and settle, take over, dominate, and for good, until it became, inevitably, the only true thing about a place and the only lives that could be lived there. Dust, grime, the grease of foods, the residues of bodies, the smells that lived in the air, palpable, malign, unidentifiable, impossible to differentiate: an ugly population of refugees from an unknowable location, permanent, stubborn, knife-faced settlers who had right of occupancy–the place was theirs now–and would never leave.
Beatrice’s parents had money for food, and the rent must have been paid to someone. They had always lived in the one house: her mother, her father, and herself. Who could have owned it? Who would have put money down for such a place? One-story, nearly windowless, the outside walls made of soft shingle in the semblance of pinkish gray brick. It must have been built from the first entirely without love, with the most cynical understanding, Beatrice had always thought, of the human need for shelter and the dollar value that it could bring. Everything was cheap and thin, done with the minimum of expense and of attention. No thought was given to ornament or amplitude, or even to the long, practical run: what wouldn’t age horribly or crumble, splinter, quickly fade.
As she grew older, she believed the house had been built to hide some sort of criminality. It was in the middle of the woods, down a dirt road half a mile down Highway 117, which led nowhere she knew, or maybe south, she somehow thought, to Pennsylvania. Her parents said it had once been a hunting lodge, but she didn’t believe it. When she was old enough to have learned about bootlegging, and knew that whiskey had been smuggled in from Canada, she was convinced that the house had had something to do with that. She could always imagine petty gangsters, local thugs in mean felt hats and thin-soled shoes trading liquor for money, throwing their cigarette butts down on the hard, infertile ground, then driving away from the house, not giving it a thought until it was time for their next deal.
Sometimes she thought it was the long periods of uninhabitedness that gave the house its closed, and vengeful, character. But when she began to think like that, it wasn’t long before she understood that kind of thought to be fantastical. It wasn’t the house, houses had no will or nature. Her parents had natures, and it was their lives and the way they lived that made their dwelling a monstrosity.
She had awakened each day in dread, afraid to open her eyes, knowing the first thing they fell on would be ugly. She didn’t even know where she could get something for herself that might be beautiful. The word couldn’t have formed itself in her mind in any way that could attach to an object that was familiar to her, or that she could even imagine having access to. She heard, as if from a great distance, people using the word “beautiful” in relation to things like trees or sunsets, but her faculty for understanding things like this had been so crippled that the attempt to comprehend what people were saying when they spoke like this filled her with a kind of panic. She couldn’t call up even the first step that would allow her, even in the far future, to come close to what they meant. They were talking about things out of doors when they talked about trees and sunsets. And what was the good of that? You could go out of doors. The blueness of the sky, the brightness of the sun, the freshness of a tree would greet you, but in the end you would only have to go back somewhere to sleep. And that would not be beautiful; it would be where you lived. So beauty seemed a dangerous, foreign, and irrelevant idea. She turned for solace, not to it, but to the nature of enclosure. Everything in her life strained toward the ideal of separations: how to keep the horror of her parents’ life from everything that could be called her life.
She learned what it was she wanted from watching her grade school teachers cutting simple shapes–squares, triangles–and writing numbers in straight columns on the blackboard or on paper with crisp, straight blue lines. The whiteness of pages, the unmuddled black of print, struck her as desirable; the dry rasping of the scissors, the click of a stapler, the riffling of a rubber band around a set of children’s tests. She understood all these things as prosperity, and knew that her family was not prosperous; they were poor. But she knew as well that their real affliction wasn’t poverty but something different–you might, perhaps, say worse–but not connected to money. If she could have pointed to that–a simple lack of money–it would have been more hopeful for her. But she knew it wasn’t poverty that was the problem. It was the way her parents were. It was what they did.
They drank. That was what they did. It was, properly speaking, the only thing they did. But no, she always told herself when she began to think that way, it wasn’t the only thing. Her father, after all, had gone out to work. He was a gravedigger in a Catholic cemetery. Each morning he woke in the dark house. Massive, nearly toothless, and still in his underwear, he drank black coffee with a shot in it for breakfast, and then put on his dark olive work pants and shirts, his heavy boots–in winter a fleece-lined coat and cap–and started the reluctant car driving down the dirt road. He came home at night, with a clutch of bottles in a paper bag, to begin drinking. He wasn’t violent or abusive; he was interested only in the stupor he could enter and inhabit. This, Beatrice knew early on, was his true home.
Her mother woke late, her hair in pin curls wrapped in a kerchief, which she rarely bothered to undo. She was skeletally thin; her skin was always in a state of dull eruptions; red spidery veins on her legs always seemed to Beatrice to be the tracks of a slow disease. Just out of bed, she poured herself a drink, not bothering to hide it in coffee, and drank it from a glass that had held cheese spread mixed with pimentos, which her parents ate on crackers when they drank, and which was often Beatrice’s supper. Beatrice’s mother would sit for a while on the plaid couch, watch television, then go back to bed. The house was nearly always silent; there were as few words in the house as there were ornaments. It was another reason Peter liked her. She had a gift, he said, for silence, a gift he respected, that he said too few people had. She wondered if he would have prized this treasure if he’d known its provenance.
Beatrice saw everything her parents did because she slept in the large room. When she was born, her parents had put a crib for her in the corner of the room nearest their bedroom, opposite the wall where the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator were. It didn’t occur to them that she might want privacy; when she grew taller, they replaced her crib with a bed, but they never imagined she had any more rights or desires than an infant. The torpor, the disorder of their lives, spread into her quarters. For years, it anguished her to see their slippers, their half-read newspapers, broken bobby pins, half-empty glasses, butt-filled ashtrays traveling like bacilli into the area she thought of as hers. When she was ten, she bought some clothesline and some tacks. She bought an Indian bedspread from a hippie store in town; rose-colored, with a print of tigers; the only vivid thing in the place. She made a barrier between herself and them. Her father said somet...
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