Grief wants to know

May 5, 2012

I’m in awe of the last lines of Anakana Schofield’s Malarky. They offer an affirmation of life, despite the overwhelming incoherence experienced in the previous pages. When I came to them, I felt a reward of powerful clarity, an illuminating a-ha that mentally swept me back through this uniquely told story of madness and grief with heightened comprehension. “It’s beautiful when it all makes sense, so it is. Occasionally it makes sense, just for a moment.”

Malarky contains 20 episodes that in another book would be called chapters. They are the remembered events playing out inside the mind of a grieving widow who’s suffering a mental maelstrom, as she seeks insight into her husband’s infidelity, her son’s homosexuality and events leading up to their deaths. Her name is Philomena, and she is our reckless, driven narrator occasionally referred to as “Our Woman,” a compelling and unforgettable Irish cattle farmer’s widow, who cleverly dominates the page and consumes us. When the book opens, she’s in counseling with Grief, the name she gives her therapist. Her remarks frighten Grief and concern Philomena’s friends because they’re filled with desires inappropriate for a widow. Her recollections are fragmented, and that’s the point, entering us intimately and insistently into her interior world that becomes, for us, an absorbing journey into a mind swinging capriciously under the influence of guilt, confusion and loss.

Here’s where it all starts. Early in her life, Our Woman witnessed her son, Jimmy, engaged in sex with a boy in the family barn. When years later, home from college, Jimmy comes out to his mother, she tells him to keep his homosexuality to himself and hide it from his father, that at family functions “for your father’s sake, you’ll be alone or with a girl.” On this visit, however, she witnesses her son in another homosexual act, this time in the farm field, and feels disgust. She also fears being humiliated in their community of rural Mayo County, Ireland: “He’s done for. He must be gone from this country, this country where there is no forgiveness for such a thing.” But Jimmy feels no fear and flaunts his sexuality before his parents, causing his father to cut him off financially. He joins the military in America and is deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in a pub, Philomena is confronted by a woman who confesses having an affair with her husband and gives outlandish, explicit details. 

It’s enough to drive any woman to a divorce lawyer or to make her flee into obscurity. Philomena’s response, however, is a bizarre opposite to revenge and denial, a kind of obsessive understanding for the husband and son she loves that’s as imaginative as it is inconceivable. She seeks out sexual experiences for herself to mimic those brought into her consciousness not only by her husband but her son.  The erotic scenes – and there are several — are more desperate than sensual. They are infused with dark and quirky humor yet underlying them, also, is a kind of sorrow.

Often, Philomena speaks with Grief. Often, she comments on being unhinged, lacking reason and common sense. I have to admit occasionally getting lost in the narrative thread because of how she remembers things, once finding myself seeking the logical time sequence concerning Jimmy’s death by going back through some episodes. I couldn’t figure out for a while whether he died before or after his father died.  I assumed it was as a soldier in Afghanistan, but I wasn’t sure. Even so, I knew the answers were here, that my challenge had to do with the inventive storytelling in which you can miss things if you don’t pay attention, where one must surrender to the sifting of events in a mind that swings out of linear time. It’s why I was drawn to keep reading and not put the book down, to stay with the rhythm inside Philomena’s head and on par with her thread of logic, not with what I expected.

And so it gets back to those last lines. When we reach them, everything comes full circle, especially regarding something Philomena says in the first episode: “If you are a widow, be careful what you say. I think it’s why they started talking about Jimmy in the bank.” You won’t know what that bank reference means when you first read it, but you will, eventually, and it’s a stunning construct. Indeed, it all makes sense within this crazy-sad theater of a grieving mind that’s a forceful showcase for such things in life. Schofield’s brilliant storytelling in Malarky is among the most engaging I’ve ever encountered.

I didn’t ever see the movies Stir Crazy (1980) and Splash (1984). Both popular flicks were “penned,” as the industry likes to say, by Bruce Jay Friedman, whose delightful memoir is out this month. Considering I’m also unfamiliar with Friedman’s nine novels, let alone his six collections of short fiction, it’s a wonder I pushed aside my organized reading plan and put Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir first in line.

But then, I like what’s coming out of Biblioasis, the book’s publisher. They caught my attention a while back with Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, a collection of short stories that drove me to act similarly — I began reading MacLeod’s collection within moments after receiving it in my mailbox. Also, likely influencing my decision of what to read next, I desperately wanted a book on the lighter side. Friedman’s take on his life clearly fit that need with his humorous, self-effacing, name-dropping, candid storytelling. I dove into his memoir eagerly and was rewarded sumptuously on every page.

Friedman is a long-time successful writer, screenwriter and playwright whose heyday occurred during the second half of the 20th century. His memoir flourishes on the insider wit about the famous friends met along the way, as well as his hilarious sometimes jaw-dropping experiences in the world of Hollywood screenwriting and New York City literati.

There are so many entertaining riches in this book it’s impossible to cast a far enough net to capture them, from encounters with actresses Natalie Wood and Marlene Dietrich to competitive storytelling with playwright Harold Pinter. And then there’s the time Friedman engaged in a public fist fight with Norman Mailer. One of my favorite anecdotes involves Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road. He just appeared one day at the Magazine Management Company, an organization that published men’s adventure magazines where Friedman worked for many years. Friedman writes:

“He sat down behind an empty desk as if he worked on the magazines and hung around for weeks. It was difficult to know what to do with him. He was a disheveled-looking man with a handsomely ruined face and the hangdog demeanor of a sheepdog who had wandered in off the street. I knew of his quality. I had read Revolutionary Road and the word-perfect Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. But there was no job available at the time; nor did he ask for one. He just wanted to sit there, as if we were operating a shelter of some kind. He rarely spoke.”

And here’s some more of those riches. Friedman hired Mario Puzo as a writer at Magazine Management, and one day Puzo asked Friedman’s opinion of the title The Godfather for his novel-in-progress. Friedman went negative on it and said, “I’d take another try at it.”

Before his career as a magazine writer and editor, Friedman studied journalism at the University of Missouri and then served in an administrative position in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. His first book Stern was published in 1962, while he worked at the Magazine Management Co. Shortly after, he left his corporate job to write full-time as an independent, which took him down the varioius paths of writing books as well as for the stage and screen. His agent, Candida Donadio, also represented literary greats Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.

Now this talented raconteur can add Lucky Bruce to his pile of lifetime successes. Dedicated to authors Mario Puzo and Joseph Heller, it’s one of those memoirs that’s a large, refreshing pleasure, and worth pushing aside everything else to read it.

These three soon-to-be-published books caught my attention this week, and it happens two of them are by Canadian authors: one a short story collection set in cities along the U.S. Canadian border, the other a novel set in Newfoundland. The third is a new collection by Billy Collins, the ever enjoyable and loved-by-the-public former U.S. Poet Laureate. His accessible and typically upside lyrics take on the dark topic of death in his new book of poems. What’s that going to be like?

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. It’s not often I stand in the kitchen reading a book that just arrived in the mail.  I may read the first sentence or skim the jacket copy but not stand like I did one day this past week, leaning against the counter for a long read. This book snatched my exclusive attention that quickly.  MacLeod’s narrative voice speaks with a seductive mix of conviction and vulnerability as it takes us inside the lives of its everyday people, such as two runners who’ve been competing together for a long time and a group of bricklayers mentoring a high school kid on a summer job. MacLeod is a delightful discovery for me, published by indie press Biblioasis in Emeryville, Ontario. His debut will be available in the U.S. this April.

Galore by Michael Crummey. Crummey takes a mythic viewpoint of his native Newfoundland in this story that spans two centuries. Publisher’s Weekly gives the novel a starred review and calls it Crummey’s “gorgeous latest” – his previous novel River Thieves also is set in Newfoundland. From the publisher’s website:  “When a whale beaches itself on the shore of the remote coastal town of Paradise Deep, the last thing any of the townspeople expect to find inside it is a man, silent and reeking of fish, but remarkably alive. The discovery of this mysterious person, soon christened Judah, sets the town scrambling for answers as its most prominent citizens weigh in on whether he is man or beast, blessing or curse, miracle or demon.” On sale by U.S. publisher Other Press in April.

Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems by Billy Collins. Library Journal’s starred review delivers the verdict that Collins’ ninth collection of poems is “witty bleakness.” Collins’ poetry is frequently described as not only witty but also playful, which is why his take on death likely will be unique. Here are the opening lines from the title poem of his new collection, out in March

Every morning since you disappeared for good,
I read about you in the newspaper
along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news.
Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you . . .

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