Books: Joyce Carol Oates and Sally Ryder Brady (Widows’ Tales)

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New Books: Friday Reads. Book Reviews.

A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage by Sally Ryder Brady (St. Martin’s Press)
and
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Harper Collins/Ecco)

Widows’ Tales 

Joan Didion chronicles the aftermath of the sudden (relatively) unexpected death of her husband of nearly 40 years (one month shy of their anniversary), John Dunne, in The Year of Magical Thinking. After the two of them have returned home from their daughter’s hospital bed, Didion watches her husband collapse and die of a heart attack while they are figuring out dinner. As Slate pointed out, The New York Times alone devoted 16,000 words to the book. Didion later adapted the memoir for a Broadway production starring Vanessa Redgrave. (Her next memoir, Blue Nights, is due from Knopf in 2011.)

It is into this literary long shadow that all subsequent widow’s memoirs must step.

Upton and Sally Brady were also, to all outward appearances, a thriving literary couple, for over forty years, as she describes their lives in A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage. He was the director of the Atlantic Monthly Press, while she wrote short stories, essays, magazine articles, and the 70s novel Instar. She characterizes the “dazzle” of their public life: “dinners with Pauline Kael at the Ritz, elegant parties at Edward Weeks’s house on Beacon Hill for Peter Ustinov and Agnes de Mille, Sunday lunches here in Bedford with Faye Dunaway, Jose Luis Sert, and William Least Heat Moon.” Their private life was much different.

One night, shortly before Easter at their Vermont home, he doesn’t come downstairs for the 6 o’clock weather, and she discovers he’s died quietly in the upstairs bath.  In the ensuing days and weeks, their adult children arrive. Ashes are scattered. Easter is celebrated. “His final shopping list — dishwash, steak, pots — remains intact on the refrigerator door.”

And slowly the secrets start trickling out. Daughter Sarah goes through her father’s desk and discovers he is “over seventy thousand dollars in debt.” The sudden widow is mystified that the utilities are about to be shut off when, every month, “I had given Upton a check for my share of those bills.” The chapters then alternate between her new life as a widow; their courtship (during which she nearly married another man, and possibly should have); and their nearly 50 year union, about which, she had repeatedly prayed, “Dear God, please help me make this marriage work.” With good reason.

She reveals over the course of several chapters that, in addition to his having been a mean drunk and conflicted Catholic plagued by clinical depression, his money was “his” money, while “her” earnings were family upkeep money. He has also borrowed against his life insurance policy. But the biggest revelation (hardly a spoiler, as it’s detailed on the dust jacket and in every review) comes when she’s clearing out drawers and discovers his stash of gay porn (or as the jacket more delicately puts it “her husband of forty-six years had desired the love of other men”).

While she spends the rest of the book coming to terms with whether he was or was not gay, and how she might or might not have known all along, she pussyfoots around the stereotypes for some time (he did design and sew a fabulous gown for her; he dances a perfect merengue; he was preternaturally neat; he conveniently suffers from repeated bouts of “alcohol-induced” impotence; he keeps a separate Design Within Reach/MadMen style apartment in the city, for heaven’s sake).

But  the whole thing takes on more than a trace of the disingenuous when she eventually recalls, 95 pages in, a morning early in the marriage (four kids in five years) when he returns home hungover after an all-night bender and announces, “I had sex with Edward,” (a family friend… a gay family friend). He explains that it only happened because he was drunk; because he was seduced; and probably because she needed to “pay a little more attention” to him “for one thing.” He said it wasn’t the first time, but that it wouldn’t happen again, and that was the last conversation they ever had on the subject. She remembers, “Even now, forty years later, as I write the words I am still stunned…” Well, sure. Who wouldn’t be? But just how much of a surprise could the posthumous discovery of gay pornography have been after that?

Other than that (how-did-you-like-the-play, Mrs. Lincoln), the book is more an elegy for an (admittedly complicated) marriage than it is a contemplation on widowhood. What she asks in the prelude is an essential theme in any relationship narrative, “What do I really know of Upton? What do I know that I didn’t know I knew until now?”
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Joyce Carol Oates, often described as America’s most prolific writer, on the other hand, has written a book that says it all in the title, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir.

It begins at the hospital, where she has parked “haphazardly” in a rush to get to her husband’s room in the Telemetry Unit, where he has been admitted for pneumonia. A fellow driver has left a note on her windshield that reads: “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.” His condition vacillates, until finally on the fifth night, he succumbs to a secondary infection, and dies alone at the hospital while his wife tries to get a brief night’s sleep at their nearby home, hoping he is on the mend.

The Smiths (Joyce and Raymond) also enjoyed a charmed literary relationship, the two of them  put out the Ontario Review for more than thirty years, while both taught, and she earned a National Book Award and Pulitzer nomination. They published friends like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. The emails she exchanges during the ill-fated hospital stint are with the likes of Richard Ford and Gloria Vanderbilt.

She is later introduced at one evening honoring her, with the praise that “over four decades she has written over 115 books, 55 novels, more than 400 short stories, over a dozen books of essays and nonfiction, eight books of poetry and thirty-plus plays…The Wonder Woman of American Literature,” on the eve of what would’ve been Ray’s 78th birthday.

The book is not a year of magical thinking, so much as it is The Six Months of Magical Thinking. And even at that, it is approximately 118 pages too long (and would’ve strongly benefited from the chronological structure both Didion and Brady applied in their memoirs).

She is at her best when slogging through the details — how will she get enough trash cans from the city to contain all the detritus that accompanies grief and mourning (dozens and dozens of flower arrangements and “sympathy gift baskets stuffed to bursting with goumet foods — chocolate covered truffles, Brazil nuts, honey-roasted cashews, pickled herring, smoked pepperoni sausauge, Key West Lime Pie, jars of peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds.”)? How will she get those trash cans hauled to and from the curb? How many trips to the DMV and how many copies of the death certificate will she need to prove that her husband is indeed dead, and the car is now hers? As she surveys the somber ribbons on the arrangements in “tasteful dark colors,” she imagines Ray’s “droll voice in her ear, ‘What, have we won the Kentucky Derby?”

photo by Marion Ettinger (HarperCollins)

There’s too much narrative and exposition, but too few scenes, too little dialogue. Ray often seems vague and amorphous, as does their marriage. Too much Tell, not enough Show. What did they eat? Where did they go? How did they live? We know they addressed each other as “Honey.” There are brief flashbacks to their ill-advised early careers in Beaumont Texas and in Detroit. She includes a brief description of her interactions with the famed assassin Richard Wishnetsky, but it is not especially illuminative.

There is at least one Box of Darkness/Brady moment, when she writes, “If a widow is honest about her feelings she will acknowledge that she has been afraid, since her husband’s death, of learning something about him — of having something thrust into her face, about him — of which she had no previous knowledge.” As she puts it, the woman is “the elegist…the repository of memory.”

The “secrets” aren’t too earth-shattering. Ray had a “nervous breakdown” as a young man before he met her, and met a first love in the sanitarium who became the subject of his lifelong novel-in-progress. His relationship with his father (who wanted him to be a Jesuit priest) was painful and conflicted. He has a sister who “Joyce never met” who’s mentioned once in the first few pages, but does not turn up again until the very end. She had been “institutionalized,” though it doesn’t appear that she was disabled or ill, more that she was a handful for a strict Catholic family that did not know what to do with her and chose Girl, Interrupted-style warehousing. (Joyce’s much-younger autistic sister was also institutionalized.) He tells her at the beginning of the marriage to “drop it,” and she does. These stories aren’t explored in any extensive way, just glanced on, like the metal ball in a pinball machine making its desultory rounds.

It’s clear they had a different style of marital intimacy than the kind enjoyed by Dunne and Didion. She writes, “In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious — unless it was unavoidable.” But what did they share? A cheese sandwich? A fondness for broccoli? A hatred of talk radio? They don’t have children — odd for that generation, even among the literati — and not a word is spoken of it.

The rest of the book is so obsessed with the meditations of widowhood that it becomes profoundly, existentially repetitive — endless contemplations on suicide; repeated use of the word interstices; constant obsession over which pharmaceuticals to take and not to take (until one friend in the medical profession finally snaps and tells her “You could be ‘addicted’ to that drug for the rest of your life and it wouldn’t be nearly so serious as going without sleep. If you don’t sleep, you die.”

Clearly, they were a couple who enjoyed the Life of the Mind, but often there’s an over-reliance on her philosophy background — too much narrative jibber-jabber and not enough concrete detail. (Odd for a longtime Princeton writing professor.) The scene where she finds their dead cat is one of the most vivid passages in the book. Surely some of the flair that served that moment (and informed her decades as a fiction writer) could have been applied to her husband and to their marriage.

The book ends in an earthy place. She comes down with shingles, and then she sets about resurrecting her late husband’s garden, one of the book’s more successful themes.  “Broken and rotted shells are all that remain of the pumpkins. Dessicated tomato vines on tilted poles, like frayed nerves…Amid the ruin of the garden are some fresh green shoots that don’t appear to be weeds! These are what Ray called — (did he invent the term, himself?) — ‘volunteers.’” (No, he did not. All gardeners know that expression, but it’s charmingly telling of her naivete and willingness to overcome her inexperience.)

She writes, “When an avid gardener dies, his family must make this choice. You will see gardens that have been allowed to go wild, for no one is equal to the challenge of maintaining them.” She brings his back, substituting flowers and perennials over his preference for vegetables and annuals.

Although it isn’t included in the book, a year after her first husband’s death, she remarries a Princeton neuroscientist. While it might have been disrespectful to make that in any way the focus of the memoir, it does seem a bit coy not to at least mention it in an epilogue.

If you like these books, you might also like:
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. 2010. Random House.

Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, another literary widow’s tale, it almost is. Gail Caldwell, the Pulitzer-Prize winning former Chief Book Critic for the Boston Globe (author A Strong West Wind: A Memoir) meets her best friend, Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story) through their two dogs.

She writes, “As a reviewer for a big daily newspaper, I was the older and more seasoned writer; Caroline was the young turk at the alternative paper who’d enjoyed a rush of attention for her memoir.”

The narrative turns dark, halfway through: “Those cigarettes. I would like to leave them out of this story but cannot.” Shortly after, Caroline’s boyfriend takes her to the ER with a fever and pneumonia, where she is diagnosed with stage-four-non-small-cell adenocarcinoma.

After her death, she writes “Caroline and I had been the soothing modulated voice in each other’s heads. Now my thoughts were clanging around unnoticed and unheard, lonely music with too much bass…”

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