I live on the other side of the bay from San Francisco, so I listen to KALW radio. That’s how I heard his name, and his voice I think. So when I stood in front of his book at Moe’s one Sunday afternoon, an autographed copy, I thought I might be missing something if I stopped at the suggestion of the title: it would be a boring story of some successful marriage by perfect people.
I read the first page, and thought this might be good.
“We think we know the ones we love.”
Okay, whatever, it’s still a happy marriage story.
“Our husbands, our wives. We know them — we are them, sometimes; when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them.”
I was ready to put it back on the shelf. I think I did. I took a walk to the literary remainders, you know, the $6 Everyman Library classic that you’ll get to replace the paperback version you have. “Give it one more chance,” I thought.
“We think we know them. We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know.”
Take a chance. Those are beautiful sentences. Get that ATM unit out and pay the nice guy at the register who will even put the penny you don’t want into the donation pot for books in prisons.
I started reading, and didn’t stop until my eyes could no longer stay open. This doesn’t occur that often with me. The thought of going to see a movie will get me back on my feet if one sentence speaks less than enchanting words. It didn’t happen. The days after that I couldn’t wait to have time to read more. At the end, when I read the last word, I needed to share this incredible experience of spending a few hours with Pearlie, the narrator of this story, the more than just a wife person I would like to have here, now.
You’ll find the story elsewhere, on other web sites. After a few pages, I thought, “I bet the husband is gay,” and he was. But that was in the 1950’s when that was hardly an option. And then they’re black, and the beautiful man is white, almost stereotypically German and successful. There’s Ethel Rosenberg being killed by the state because she was a good wife. There’s the hysteria that makes everyone be a good citizen and follow orders (a bit like now). And there’s Love, especially the one nobody talks about, with secret encounters with someone you know will never be your lover. It’s amazing how the transposed heart metaphor resonates over and over in this novel.
“Perhaps you cannot see a marriage.” I’m still on page one. “Like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the human eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it.” I don’t know, this book is full of sentences like that. I want to reproach it that the last page doesn’t have them, as if the author had decided that since you were going to close the book right then, he’d no longer talk to you. He gave you that moment when you wanted to cry for whom? A fictitious character? Ha! I wanted to. I was in Pearlie’s head all the time. For nearly two hundred pages I wanted to be Pearlie, because she was a beautiful lady.
I thought, maybe I could contact that author and he’d come to my writers group, maybe even for free. Fat chance: he’ll be at City Arts and Lectures with Michael Chabon. That’s how good he is.