The Madonnas of
President Street

John Sandman
Vivian spends her days on the telephone trying to con people into signing up with her temporary employment agency. Her daughter Melanie hangs pictures of John Stuart Mill in the kitchen of their latest New York apartment ("She had a regular pin-up collections of bearded British economists") and talks about him at breakfast: "He never went to school, he never saw the inside of a classroom."

    I always listened to her breakfast lectures. I was enchanted by the fact that here she was talking about all this crap, but she was still a teenager. It was my kid I was listening to. It was like playing "Go Fish" again. She thought I was listening to her words and I was listening to her.

Melanie has been admitted to Smith College on scholarship. She's also a pain in the ass. After they move into their new awful apartment in Bensonhurst --- complete with Madonna on the front lawn --- and a mere week before she is to go off to school, she decides to join the army.

When Vivian finds this out, she takes the subway over to the recruitment office in Times Square and breaks out one of the windows. Then she runs over to the local USO, picks up a lad from Arkansas named Dwayne, drags him to the Howard Johnson's Motel:

    When you say Howard Johnson's you can already taste the pistachio ice cream but the one on Ninth Avenue had a musty, venereal atmosphere that twenty-eight flavors couldn't get rid of.

"The desk clerk who took my credit card looked like he was writing down the number so he could use it to call for a telephone blow job from Hustler after I checked out."

In the room she hustles poor old Dwayne so drunkenly that he breaks out the motel window just to get away from her.

Dad disappeared just before Melanie was born (last seen in Viet-Nam --- but not to be discovered among the missing or dead). So what we have here the portrait of stalwart Vivian, former hippy (occasionally hiding members of the Weathermen in her Greenwich apartment), electing to be mother, a good one, hanging in there all the way through the mad-making age of seventeen, and here are the both of them now going loony in mother/daughter enmeshment. You do know, don't you, that when the kids get ready to leave, many of us take leave of our senses? Vivian most assuredly does.

In the midst of this chaos, there's The City. It's soggy, hot New York, dumb temp jobs, thousands of people pushing each other around on the street-corners and in the subways, ugly apartments with nosy landladies, those strange humped ladies listening at the door trying to figure out what's going on inside. The city is a presence, another gnarly character here. It brings to mind Invisible Man or perhaps Salman Rushdie's Fury.

There, too, is a New York spookiness here: people inchoate, shouting at each other, no one listening, that New York City Deafness, no one wanting or interested in understanding what's being said, or bag-ladies wandering down the street, hovering over the trash-bins, babbling to themselves. At one point Vivian tells us one of her survival techniques, one that's pure New York: "There's a moment when words fail, where they actually distort if you don't shut up."

§     §     §

To this reader Melanie is a perfect rendering of the drive-you-bonkers seventeen-year-old: sometimes nutty, sometimes loving, sometimes idiot, sometimes funny, sometimes driving Vivian too hard. When she says "I don't want to owe you for the rest of my life. I want to owe you nothing," Vivian finally smacks her one and --- surprise --- we readers find ourselves thinking well, thank god, she got that pop in the jaw she so roundly deserved. Parents and children at that particular age can drive each other beyond all endurance, ne'st-çe-pas?

Towards the end Vivian almost gets caught up in a softball game with some neighborhood lesbians. One of them invites her to come out: not only come out and play, but come out. And Vivian says, "I'm coming out my way, not your way, and I've got a place to come out from that means as much to me as the place your coming out from does to you. Know what I mean?"

    She didn't know. She was kneading her baseball glove, pounding it and said "Sure."

    "I think there's more than one way to come out. I don't think anybody has a monopoly on that, know what I mean?"

    "Oh. Well I never thought about it that way."

    "Neither did I, until just now. Sometimes being straight doesn't even make it much easier..." I was intrigued by the idea, even if she wasn't.

This one was published by Xlibris, which means it was probably self-published by the author. Good for him. And good for him for his astonishing ability to know two very contrary women, know them so well that they live for us in all their terrible/wonderful battles with each other, and the world.

--- J. V. Watters

Live a Little,
Laugh a Lot

Barb Bancroft
(Wellworth Publishing)
I'm a sucker for fact books. It probably grew out of the years at the breakfast table trying to avoid getting punched by my older brother Bob or sassed by my younger sister Patricia. I found that they'd leave me alone if I sat at the far corner and concentrated on my Wheaties, "Little Orphan Annie," "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Our Boarding House (With Major Hoople)," the "Toonerville Trolley," "Smokey Stover," "Hambone's Meditations" and --- most of all --- Ripley's "Believe It or Not."

Problem with the latter was the very brevity of it. A Hindu fakir staring at the sun until his eyes cooked out. A house built of beer cans. A cow with three heads in Texas. A Venezuelan fisherman who hauled in a ninety foot man-'o-war. A dog who nursed a litter of cats. Just the facts. I wanted detail.

I shudda waited around for Ms. Bancroft and her chunky little book of 350 or so pages. Under the heading, "So you think you're sleeping alone?" she tells us things that we might not want to know: that dust mite droppings in 44,000,000 homes are "enough to trigger allergies." Mosquitoes? They sense that lactic acid exuding from your skin and the carbon dioxide you are exhaling; they also like "the breath of ox --- grass fermenting in the stomach." So now there is a machine you can turn on that "has an audible heartbeat, gives off a small amount of heat and ... emits an odor just like ox breath" so they'll stick it to the zapper instead of you. (Mosquitoes also prefer birds over humans, so those mites we brought over in our ships and airplanes have handily destroyed most of the indigenous species of Hawaii.)

Spermicides? Harvard Medical School tested five different soft drinks, found that "Coke Classic" was the winner by a landslide. It killed sperm five times faster than New Coke,

    although the Coca Cola corporate offices refuse to endorse their product as a spermicidal agent...

Kitty litter in the sewers is now infecting sea otters. Toothbrushes can carry strep infections. Toilet seats are generally cleaner than the cutting boards that you use in the kitchen. Men produce sperm until they die, but those of a 20-year-old "can swim up the 5-inch Fallopian tube in fifty minutes," whereas the sperm of a 70-year-old geezer like me "takes 2-1/2 days." Pant-pant.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the 65-plus age group "have increased by more than 300 percent according to a report by British researchers in The Medical Post." And for those thinking of going on a diet: "A 412-pound woman fell head first out of bed, knocked herself unconscious, and was suffocated by her own bosom."

    "Her enormous breasts had fallen down over her face in such a way that she couldn't get air through her nose or mouth," a police officer said.

--- L. W. Milam

What We Lost
Dale Peck
(Houghton Mifflin)
You think you got problems? Try growing up like Dale Peck. The old man drinks up the weekly paycheck, either with bad booze or codeine cough medicine. The six or seven kids sleep in the same bed. The house is the pits. His mother beats Dale as often as possible with the hose that drains the washing machine, tries her best to flay him with the metal connectors.

His clothes are shabby, often dirty. He has to steal fruit from the warehouse where he works in order to have enough for him and his brothers and sisters to eat. When he goes off to school, there are three ruffians lying in wait to beat him up or tie him up or rough him up.

Then his father kidnaps him, take him upstate to live with Uncle Wallace on a milk farm. There, he has to put up with the gibes of his fellow worker, and Uncle Wallace and Aunt Bess who don't favor talking. Once he finally gets in the hang of hauling milk and shoveling shit, mother comes to take him back to Queens. Why does he go? Maybe he misses the washing machine hose, with its connectors. He says he figures he doesn't know his littlest brother, so he's missing something. Dumb choice.

What turns out to be missing is the chance to see anew his father coming home on a Saturday night, pissing in his pants while he is getting kicked around by two cops. The old man begs for mercy. They finally get tired of their sport, so after they leave Mum starts whaling at the boy with you-know-what shouting "Good for nothing sonofabitch. Goddamn worthless piece of Upstate trash." I mean ... you thought you had troubles this morning when you burned the bagels, bounced a check, and couldn't find the keys to the car.

§     §     §

There have been many Dickensian novels of kids age 8 or 10 or 12 who everyone likes to pick on. It can be heart-rending if it is done right: an innocent youngster going through such sorrow, learning to trust nothing, knowing that neither words, nor actions, nor appeals to justice will help. It's a no exit situation in spades.

We think back on others who've written in this vein: Richard Wright's Black Boy, Robert Musil's Young Törless, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: there is young Dedalus having his hands smashed with the master's ruler because his glasses are broken and he cannot see the blackboard. And there's Roald Dahl's autobiography, Boy: Tales of a Childhood. He is at one of those Anglican schools where the boys were beaten on the backside until they bled (the master who disciplined him this way was later elevated to be Archbishop of Canterbury).

The power of such writings comes from the tension between injustice and the natural inability of any of us at that age to express ourselves. In What We Lost, Dale Peck does a fine job of recreating the punishment for which there is no reason, no explanation, no release:

    The first blow is hot and wet. As if she has sprayed lighter fluid on him and lit it at the same time. The next catches him in the palm of his hand when he turns to ward off the blow. The metal coupling at the end of the hose bites deeply into the palm, and despite himself, he screams. He turns then, protecting as much of his soft parts as possible, offering up instead the broad plain of his back.

§     §     §

Peck shows a certainty of revelation of the agony of being young and helpless, and almost brings it off --- but then, in the very last chapter, he suddenly brings us into the present. Dale Peck, author of What We Lost takes us on a visit to upstate New York. He travels with his father, the Dale Peck whose painfuil biography we've just lived through. The old man is now a plumber, and the two of them get invited to a picnic on a farm near when he spent his year away from the family.

It is hardly a kindly picture. The elder Peck comes across as a dodder, babbling on about "trenchless sewer line replacement." The character we came to love though all the travails of being a child trapped in a wretched family has now, forty years later, turned into a sentimental old fool. It may have been something that came to pass, but it diminishes a brilliant tale of a young man's disorder and bitter, bitter sorrow. We would almost invite the readers of this book to quit page 174. You have little to lose.

--- G. S. Wilson

Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH

Send us an e-mail