2.23.2013

Life at Happy Knoll by John P. Marquand



Life at Happy Knoll is an understated satire by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist I suspect few readers bother reading today.  Though in his day, around the time he won the 1938 Pulitzer for The Late George Apley, he was commercially successful and critically well received.  So it's a minor shame that, not dusting off the cobwebs of a forgotten novel by John P. Marquand every now and then, in order to enjoy his mid-century skewering of double-talking high society WASPs.  Of folks fixated on protecting their precious domestic insularity and supremely shallow social values -- common themes in Marquand's novels and especially Life at Happy Knoll -- that made his primarily WASP audience perhaps chuckle and gasp simultaneously in discomfiting recognition of itself.

Happy Knoll and Hard Hollow country clubs are in a constant letter writing battle (that's all the novel is -- the correspondence of rival boards of governors pandering to potential new members to join their country club and not that other one) as they compete for new residents recently relocated into their Revolutionary Road-like community.  Where Richard Yates rarely strayed in his strict adherence to bleak realism, Marquand routinely ventured mildly over the top in his less stringent realism.  Cadillac owners, for instance, are de rigueur in Happy Knoll and Hard Hollow, though less prestigious car owners are tolerated even as they're privately derided to whatever degree their set of wheels happens to correspond to whatever lower notch on some agreed upon and yet arbitrary country club continuum that measures the virtue most important to them -- status.

Marquand gleefully showed us how his country-clubbers would, of course, and regardless of a member's real or, more importantly, perceived status, never think of bad-mouthing a member for owning a lower class of automobile than their Daddy's Caddy, because that's just not -- obviously meaning it most assuredly is -- how Happy Knoll or Hard Hollowites behave socially.  Right!  Marquand mocked them, gifted and deft as he was conveying their subtle double-speak, double standards and general snootiness.  Marquand's country club masses are too deluded by their own hypocrisy and masks to remember they're all merely average achievers at best, and in no position whatsoever to be judging anybody within or without the narrow-minded strictures of what amounts to their stunted development, these supposed adults stuck in their extended adolescence for decades removed from their proms, rehashing the petty jealousies and insecurities of their high school cliques.

Life at Happy Knoll was Mad Men-hooks-up-with-Desperate Housewives half-a-century before either iconic Stateside television show aired, only the novel's not as serious as the former or as funny as the latter.  Mildly amusing, never savage or too outrageous, this semi-serious, mostly lightweight (but not inane) satire of Marquand's, remains a relevant class commentary of 1950s Americana.  While Marquand's novels have fallen out of fashion, the contemptible country club hubris he chronicled endures.  Or rather it has, in fact, become more pervasive in this now mediocre yet entitled "culture" of ours that's become as much the Happy United Knolls or Hard United Hollows as the 21st century United States....

Marquand first published Life at Happy Knoll near the end of his career in recurring installments (1955-1957) for Sports Illustrated.  The magazine's golf aficionados made the series a success, and soon Marquand's publisher cashed in on the country club craze, releasing the complete series as a short epistolary novel the summer of 1957.

A good introduction to The Novels of John P. Marquand.

2.10.2013

The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle



Man, I dig The Fan Man, man, the way I dug Spinal Tap, man.  The Fan Man is Spinal Tap for hippies, man.  A spoof about hippies, man, or one hippie, Horse Badorties, man.  The book is a raucous, politically incorrect, purposely offensive and misogynistic, sexist, soberphobic hysterical satire, man.  It is appalling, yet so appealing, man.  That Horse Badorties thinks he runs a music academy that is just a front for luring fifteen year old "chicks" he yearns to score with, man, back at his disgusting pad, man (when he has a pad and isn't homeless, man) is the appalling aspect, man, while watching him act so clumsily and cluelessly that he can't complete the deal with the underage chickadees, man, is the appealing aspect, man, when he foils himself in his endearingly stoned stupidity, man.  Horse Badorties is so clueless, man, he doesn't know he's a clueless man.

I think "Laat Maar Waaien" means "The Fan Man,"
man.  Like whoa!
He uses the word "man" in every utterance, every sentence, man, the way Valley Girls used to use the word "like," man.  Like all the time, man.  Like, way too much, man.  Like it is so not bitchen, man, how often "man" is used, man, in William Kotzwinkle's, The Fan Man.  Like he never stops saying the word "man" in every sentence of the entire novel, man, so that after a while, man, reading about Horse Badorties and his goomba-ish absurd shenanigans in The Fan Man, man, you find yourself starting to talk like him not just inside your head, man, but to your wife and kids, man.  To your dog, man.  It's so sad, man, talking like that around the house nonstop, man.

Horse Badorties' hippie vernacular, man, becomes damn near impossible, man, to get out of your fucking head, man, once its gotten inside you, the fucking infection of hippie inflection, man, like some language-hippie-virus, man, gone global.  That voice of his, of Horse Badorties, man, gets stuck inside you, man, just like that wretched Taylor Swift song gets stuck inside you once you've heard it even just once, man.  Weeeeee.  Are never ever ever ever ever, getting back together, weeeeeee, are never ever ever ever EVER.  See what I mean, man?  Book is a far out trip, man.  Gonna heed The Fan Man's advice, man, of Horse Badorties, and go buy me some "Peruvian mango skins," man, to like cleanse the inorganic toxins out of my aura, man, so I'll only receive the purest, most precious and positively freshest vibes from the cosmos, man.  You dig, man?

2.03.2013

Place Last Seen by Charlotte McGuinn Freeman



A child with Down syndrome gets lost in Desolation Wilderness in the high country west of Lake Tahoe on a family day hike in early autumn.   Like most kids, Maggie enjoys hiding in the house from her parents.   She's a particularly gifted, stubborn hider.  So saying she "got lost" -- as if she'd become disoriented and couldn't locate the whereabouts of her older brother and parents as they picnicked beside an alpine lake in the crisp Sierra Nevada air, isn't exactly accurate, since Maggie got "lost" on purpose.  All it took was a second when her father turned his attention toward a lodgepole pine, the kind of pines most common at this high altitude, to discreetly pee behind. Maggie, more observant than most in her life realize, takes off at the chance, wandering cross country in just a minute into the rugged terrain to play her favorite game, hide-and-go-seek.

So of course Maggie wouldn't respond when her parents shouted her name.  Perhaps a "typical" child free of Down syndrome's complications would've come out from her hiding place momentarily, once she heard her parents initial unconcerned shouts become increasingly frantic, and the realization set in that she'd be in big big trouble if she didn't stop hiding immediately.  Upon revealing herself, the mother of that ideal "typical" child would've no doubt semi-seriously scolded her for scaring them like that, able to breathe now and relax.

But Maggie is not a "typical" child.  Her parents can rarely relax.  She's never in her life quit a game of hide-and-go-seek until somebody finds her in her hiding spot; never quit even if the seekers in the game have yelled out "Olly olly oxen free!" over and over.  Maggie wouldn't quit hide-and-go-seek even after hours of what by then were her parents' and brother's panicked shouts and cries, imploring her to please come out .... But there was no quit or coming out in Maggie (assuming she wasn't injured and still within earshot) for even as twilight's alpenglow settled serenely on the impassive grandeur of the mountain's minarets and forested ridges, Maggie remained a no-show.  Apparently she played hide-and-go-seek more passionately than most.

Besides fear, hope can be one of the most excruciating emotions parents must cope with and endure in search-and-rescue scenarios like Maggie's.  And guilt.  Blame.  Impatience.  Anger ....  Charlotte McGuinn Freeman nails to a tee all that inner and outer turmoil, interpersonal tensions, and constant race-against-the-clock pressure as if she were the desperate, frustrated parents (and compassionate, though often bumbling, volunteers of the SAR team too) experiencing hope and the too frequent false hope (of dead-end leads) and anguish herself.

Maggie was last seen by a small lake in Desolation Wilderness.  She was wearing a jacket and jeans.  And a cap.  She's an adorable little girl.  She's developmentally and intellectually disabled. She doesn't realize that she is lost and in grave danger.  There's an early winter storm moving in. We have to find her fast.  Here's her picture.  Have you seen her?

Imagine if that were you.  Your child.

Few first time novelists attempting to sell their first novel (and to hopefully sell enough copies of it to at least earn their likely meagre advance) would dare the devastating denouement of Maggie's spiritually profound story that Charlotte McGuinn Freeman successfully dramatized here, in her powerful debut, the Picador paperback original, Place Last Seen.

I should disclose that I have an adorable little girl whose nickname is "Meggie" and who also has Down syndrome, and that I've hiked extensively throughout my life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I know Desolation Wilderness pretty well.  It's called "Desolation" for a decidedly succinct descriptive reason.  So, obviously then, it's probably easy to imagine that I identified a ton with Maggie and her family, though thankfully I didn't relate with her search-and-rescue.  I'm not embarrassed saying that Charlotte McGuinn Freeman made me cry.  Like a baby.  So real, so true and heartfelt, though not sappy and sentimental like some stupid Hallmark Channel fare, was her exciting novel.  But man it was excruciating to read.  I suspect Freeman's novel probably wouldn't be as evocative or resonate with others like it stirred deep inside me, who don't already have a personal connection with or at least know a "Maggie" or a "Meggie" in their lives.

In nosing around the internet for more information on Charlottle McGuinn Freeman, I remember reading somewhere that Place Last Seen was originally conceived as her theological thesis. Knowing nothing of Freeman's theology or faith, it's still easy to speculate and to see how visceral an analogy or potent an object lesson Maggie's story could've made in her thesis:  How a lost and helpless little girl, completely unaware that she's lost and helpless because of her intellectual disability -- and in grave, immediate danger as a result -- symbolizes humankind's inescapable, impending plight.  Death.  And not merely of the body, but the death of our hopes, if not our outright minds, through misinformation (false leads), ignorance and fear; or the crueler death of our spirits crushed by like endless tsunamis of suffering, disappointment and despair.  Pure conjecture all that, as again I don't know exactly what Freeman's faith or theology is rooted in, other than it seems strangely -- to me, a non-practicing though fateful absurdeist -- appealing and, who knows, maybe even redemptive and somehow healing.