An American

Frank Deford
(Sourcebooks Landmark)
When Kathryn Slade was stricken with poliomyelitis, she was paralyzed from the neck down. She lived in a chest respirator during the day and in an iron lung at night.

In the summer of 1954, she befriends Christy Bannister, a young man just in from Terre Haute, Indiana. His family has moved to Baltimore, and one day he jumps out in the street to save Kathryn's beloved Sealyham --- Oliver Cromwell --- from being run over. As a reward, he is invited to her palatial home where he is not only given use of her swimming pool, but a chance to come to know the twenty-four-year-old Kathryn.

She soon takes on the role of his swimming trainer. Each day they wheel her gurney with portable chest respirator down to the poolside so she can help him prepare for a swimming competition that her family sponsors every fall.

Christy is your typical early teenager of 1950s America --- only slightly interested in girls, very much involved in baseball. He has a loving father ("Pop"), great mother ("Mom"), and a boy-crazy older sister Sue. All these characters are lovable with only slight --- albeit comic --- failings, so this novel is a 1954 "Ozzie and Harriet," with the added spice of the quadriplegic Kathryn.

And she is a wonderful victim of this childhood disease --- brave, never falling into self-pity, filled with larky jokes, devoted to her task of teaching swimming and, all in all, being a great pal for Christy.

§     §     §

The eminent critic Francine Prose recently wrote about the literature of "Comfort Culture." In a review in Harper's Magazine, she compares the rather troubling novels of William Trevor to the best-sellers of our day, especially the popular Lovely Bones.

She points out that Comfort Books give us an art

    that traffics in problems neatly solved, in heart-warming redemptions and happy, inspiring endings, in difficult and improving lessons learned, and in personal growth.

American Summer is a classic example of Comfort Culture and thus, for those of us who are disabled, it's not only improbably sentimental, it's a royal pain in the ass. The heavily crippled Kathryn Slade lives her days with nary a tear and always a stiff upper lip, the very symbol of bravery despite all odds.

But there's a twist. Kathryn is a young lady out of the upper crust of Baltimore (her father is a judge). She has been well educated, and all her peers are attending Ivy League colleges. However, the dialogue that turns up between Kathryn and the boy Christy gets so smutty that one is forced to conclude she's is no longer a card-carrying member of the Seven Sisters, but rather, a trashmouth with the mental set of a sex-crazed sailor.

For example she explains to our young lad that he should reciprocate the interest of a girl named Linda because she has "nice little titties." She tells him, however, to avoid Catholic girls because "they can't French kiss" although it's easier to "cop a feel off a Catholic." And, in one of the most scenic of the dirty-talk passages that litter this book, we get this back-and-forth:

    "Just reach in my basket and pull out my lipstick ... I'm not asking you to put a bra on me."

    "God, Kathryn, will you keep it down?"

    But she knew how to get at me, and she loved it. "Or put on my Kotex."

Now I suppose this is just Comfort Culture by-play in action, showing that we crips can exchange street talk with the best of them. However, after dozens of pages of this, we begin to wonder about the author's couth as well as his prurient interests.

In addition, we have to wonder about the time and trouble he spent researching this stinker. Kathryn is in an iron lung. Her lungs are so weak that she cannot breathe on her own. Yet the narrator tells us that she can make a variety of ear-splitting noises: she constantly yells instructions down to Christy from her second-floor apartment. Christy also tells us that

    She could whistle much better than those really good whistlers who put their two fingers in their mouths and let a blast go that way. I honestly believe still that Kathryn could out-whistle any man.

This from a woman who cannot breathe on her own.

In another passage, Christy is holding onto "Kathryn's limp hand."

    Of course, she couldn't feel anything, so I made a point of reaching down with my left hand, too, so I could hold hers in both of mine. Kathryn's eyes followed my action, and when I could see for sure that she was looking, I squeezed her hand.

Not only should this kid be giving classes in sensitivity training on How to Befriend Hopeless Cripples but, before going much further, he --- or rather the author --- should be given some lessons in physiology.

If Christy is squeezing her hand as hard as all that, the good Kathryn would be weeping ... not for joy but in sheer agony. The only nerve endings affected by polio are the anterior horn cells (the nerves of motion). The nerves of touch --- the posterior horn cells --- are unaffected. Thus the sense of feel in paralyzed limbs is often so acute that any pressure whatsoever can create exquisite pain.

This cynical disregard for facts slops over into the author's cynical attitude towards his characters --- especially the women. They are either flighty and stupid, like Christy's sister and his girlfriends, or they are brave, stalwart, true --- and martyred --- like his mother and Kathryn.

The people I have known who have been completely, totally disabled --- I mean from-the-neck-down disabled --- either go mad, or they develop a special dignity and grace to go with their state. Those in the latter category do not say to some kid off the street --- "Don't get your balls in an uproar" or, after watching him swimming, ask, "when you go fast like that, doesn't it put a little stress on, you know, your whatzit hanging down?"

We are told in the poop pieces that the author, Frank Deford, has written fourteen books, two of which have been made into movies. He has been a commentator on NPR for twenty years.

If this is true, God help what little is left of American culture. And if his portrayal of Kathryn is any example, he comes to us directly from the "Agony Equals Virtue" school of writing: pain gives wisdom; and its corollary --- those who suffer the most are going to be the most wonderful and true.

Our take on Kathryn is that Frank Deford's sketch of her is not only off-base, it's off-color. It ends up being a misogynistic slap at women in general, and an insult to disabled women as a whole.

--- L. W. Milam


Ron Loewinsohn
(Dalkey Archive)
If you are interested in being what we used to call an inside man --- i.e,. one who robs houses for a living --- then you should commit to memory the first story in Magnetic Fields, entitled "Albert."

For example: Don't be stealing things at night --- neighbors will notice lights or anything amiss. Always wear a hat, to hide your hair and part of your face. Wear a jacket that has different colors inside and out so you can reverse it. Use "nothing-colored" pants and running shoes, because your may have to "break some track records."

Carry a screwdriver or a tire iron but not both, because if you are caught, the two of them together can be considered "tools" for burgling. Figure out two escape routes.

And, after you hit a house, do it again in two or three months. No one would guess that you'd repeat yourself, but that is when the insurance has replaced the TV and stereo, "and then you hit them again and you got brand-new stuff."

§     §     §

Albert learns all this from his friend Jerome, and he falls into it easily. He likes the hours, the money, and the thrill of it --- especially being in someone's house when they don't know you are there, which adds to the joy of it because "they always feel violated." The house "had gone through a whole series of lives ... and all those lives excluded him..." but once there, you became "a consciousness in the room or a consciousness of the room, part of the body of the house."

    He would feel a panic then, an anxiety whose source he could never name except that it was connected with the house, with his being in the house, as if --- unless he did something --- he would dissolve, simply not be there anymore, like the smoke from a cigarette, or that he would faint. It scared him to feel things he could not understand like now this heavy feeling of loss. What was it he was grieving for?

I can't think of any other writing --- outside of Genet's Thief's Journal or Jack Black's wonderful autobiography You Can't Win that puts one so profoundly into the passion that is thievery. Like Genet and Black, Albert loves the feeling that a good "job" gives him,

    More and more now he found that after he had gotten his one valuable thing out of a house and into his car he wanted to go back in the house and simply stand there, feeling the house as a kind of ongoing zone around him.

An "on-going zone," one that never belonged to him, would never belong to him, but which made it possible for him to --- for example --- steal something of no value, "a spoon that said NEW JERSEY, a small plastic honey bottle in the shape of a bear, a half-size railroad spike that someone had had brass plated." Albert also enjoys a tiny, random act of vandalism --- dumping an ashtray on the couch, or putting out his cigarette in a stick of butter on the breakfast table --- reminding us of one of Genet's friends who, after cleaning out a house or an apartment, would defecate on the rug just behind the front door.

§     §     §

In "Albert," Loewinsohn has written an entrancing story, which, because of "magnetic fields" is tied to the next one. Albert has looted David's house, and David manages to get the license number on Albert's car, has him arrested. We get into David's world then, which is just as tricky, just as affecting: one of music and genius. Weird music and video, taking his tape recorder out in the fields, "Like Cage hearing the random traffic noise as part of the string quartet he was listening to."

But Loewinsohn being Loewinsohn, this is not just son et lumière. We find ourselves in a house, a "zone" as Albert would have it (it's one of the same houses visited by Albert) which has a room built by a (now deceased) twelve-year-old genius to make music. In the attic of the same house, we find an amazingly complex model railroad system which the boy built "because he knew it made his father feel good thinking he was contributing in this way to his son's happiness."

Rooms, space, the secrets of a house, what the people who live there give to it: these themes run throughout Magnetic Fields. In the final story we learn of David's friend Daniel. Daniel is cheating on his wife. He has fallen for Connie, "beautiful, a classic Swedish blonde." And all this, in a switch from the previous stories, doesn't come to us from an omniscient narrator but from the subject of the previous story, David. Like the author (perhaps he is the author) David puts himself in Daniel's head. These are his thoughts about Daniel's thoughts about Connie's room:

    For a long moment he forgot the girl, so absorbed was he in feeling the distance between the top of his head and the wall on the other end of the room, behind the couch, feeling the volume these walls enclosed, the pictures Connie had hung on them, insisting that the apartment become part of her life, the wall she hung her pictures on. And yet the walls had been here long before she ever saw the space.

§     §     §

This one is as good as they come, once you get past the weirdness of it all or, better, once you begin to see the worth of the weirdness of it all. Themes pop up, disappear, and reappear, making you know that the author or the narrator is having a good time. And, at the same time, he is testing you. Or playing with you.

Daniel plays, too. He plays dressing games with his new love Connie. Sometimes they'll dress up as cowboys. Or she will put on the outfit of a very young girl. They'll meet at a bar; she will pretend not to know him; if he touches her, she scolds him. They get on a train, meet in a club car where he is to pick her up. They pass through a town, where Coming Home is playing at the local movie theater --- and we remember the model train, built by our deceased young genius, which had a perfect model movie theater with just that same title.

Daniel sees a boy through the train's window "in the front yard of a large white house with many roofs slanting at odd angles, a young boy was shooting a bow and arrow..." and this is the house that we have already met in the previous story, "Kindertotenleider."

Connie is a model, does commercials on TV for tampons, and we also saw a tampon ad on one of the TVs that Albert stole in his story. It even extends to the description of the father of the boy genius (who died young --- "Kindertotenleider being a song cycle by Gustav Mahler, "Songs on the Death of Children") who "would stroll down the aisles stacked from floor to ceiling with shelves of books, touching and randomly taking down books and reading their dedications and acknowledgments... To my wife, who typed these pages with such painstaking care ... who brought me cups of coffee all that dark autumn in Reykjavik...

We learn that Daniel had

    written a story about a strange man who wandered through the stacks of a library, taking down books at random and reading only their dedication pages.

And to make the circle perfect, we look back at the beginning of this particular book Magnetic Fields and find a dedication reading, For Stephen, Will, and Joe, and for Kitty, who brought me cups of coffee all that dark autumn in Reykjavik.

--- Stephen LeClair

Origins, Beliefs,
Practices, Holy Texts,
Sacred Places

Jennifer Oldstone-Moore
Confucianism is a religion, or, better, a philosophy that encourages following orders, fitting in, accepting the hierarchy, honoring the dead, respecting the government, and believing in the patriarchal system. It would probably drive most Americans mad --- although it is an accepted part of the operating milieu of South Korea, Shanghai, and Taiwan.

It's generally a benign system, but under Chinese law a father is "within his rights to kill a disobedient child, and a son could be executed for striking his father."

The hierarchy begins with the Chief of State --- the ruler who "is to be like the wind, the people like the grass that bends in whatever direction the wind blows."

The Analects are the guiding principals. One is, "What you do not want done to you, do not do to others." Confucius was also known as Kong Qiu (Master Kong or, if you prefer "King Kong"). He lived 2500 years ago in the Shandong province. A typical sentiment was,

    In order to have a harmonious society and effective government, the primary relationship of parent and child must be in order .... Good government consists of a similar process of care and obligation between ruler and subject.

Thus, it has elements of The American Way.

Confucius said that women are to practice "the wifely Way," which means exactly what it says. Supper on the table at six, no nights off at the disco, no fiddling around with any of those handsome studs who come by to fix the plumbing.

Confucianism thus is a system of order that expects loyalty, fitting in, responsibility, and no hitting up the government for welfare checks. However, this being The Mysterious East, what you read and what you believe you read are two totally different things.

For example, the heart of Confucianism is found in the 305 poems that constitute the Classic of Poetry. A typical poem reads,

    The north wind is so cold;
    The snow falls so thick.
    Be tender, love me
    Take my hand and we will go together.
    You're so timid and so slow ---
    We must hurry, hurry!

    The north wind is so strong;
    The snow whirls so fast.
    Be tender; love me
    Take my hand and we will return together.
    You're so timid and so slow ---
    We must hurry, hurry!

Now you and I can picture a loving couple on the road, and it's getting cold, so he urges her on, concerned with the impending storm. Au contraire. According to the author, "North Wind" is "an indictment of a cruel government, a warning against tyrannical rule, and an advocacy of righteousness and beneficent leadership."

The final stanza reads,

    Nothing so red as the fox,
    Nothing blacker than the crow;
    Be tender, love me
    Take my hand and we will ride in the carriage together.
    You are so timid and so slow ---
    We must hurry, hurry!

They are in love, it's getting cold, there are foxes and crows about, so they should get in the car and split, right? Sorry. "The fox and the crow who appear in the final stanza are intended as omens of evil," the author tells us: "In stressing rule by virtue, Confucians warn that subjects will flee a tyrant and flock to the country of a just ruler --- illustrated here by the speaker's insistence on a hurried departure." So much for the romance of Confucian poetry.

§     §     §

This little volume runs no more than a hundred pages, and the first part bogs down with many obscure figures like "Huang Di, The Yellow Emperor," who invented the Chinese people, Xunzi (298 - 238 BCE) who said that humans "were originally evil and became good only through strict punishments and harsh punishments." Then there's Zhang Zai who propounded "the Great Ultimate," and, too, Hung Chow, the Constipated Chinaman.

On top of these are the numbered elements: the Hundred Schools, the Five Classics, the Double Fifth Festival, the Ten Wings, the Five Poisons, and the Five Relationships. These may mean something to those interested in a deep study of this school of philosophy; however, in terms of an already (to us) confusing system --- in which power means yielding and weakness might be seen as being too pushy --- these make for double confusion (or Confucius) and, in general, an impenetrable text.

--- M. P. Pressley, PhD

Go Up     Subscribe     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH