If you read books completely at random as I do you may be able to appreciate a phenomenon that occasionally occurs: back to back or strings of seemingly unrelated titles that have an important yet specific shared theme: Thematic tendency, if you like. Perhaps this happens more often than you know (awareness plays a big role) and perhaps (cue the spooky music) there is more at work here than mere chance.
Case in point: the last couple of novels I’ve read deal at some juncture with a rather negative assessment of New York City. In Mother’s Milk by British author Edward St. Aubyn, London barrister, Patrick Melrose, brings his family to America on holiday. After dealing with the stereotypical super-sized American family on the flight over, they seem to encounter all that is tacky, bombastic, or just plain wrong with Yankee culture.
After events converge which prove frustrating to Patrick, he gives in to a little misplaced aggression. In their NYC hotel room, the curtains are “filthy.” This touches off a mini rant: “The reason why the rest of New York is breathing lovely clean air is that we’ve got these special pollution filters in our room sucking all the dirt out of the atmosphere. Sally said the decoration in this place ‘grows on you’–that’s exactly what I’m worried about. Try not to touch any of the surfaces.”
The New York episode is told from eight-year-old Robert’s point of view. Next, the pizza restaurant in which they decide to dine in a quest for familiar fare fails miserably to stack up. Here they attempt to place an order with their waitress, Karen:
“His mother smiled at her and said, ‘Could we have a Vesuvio without the pineapple chunks or the smoked turkey or…’ She started laughing helplessly.‘I’m sorry…’
‘Mummy!’ said Robert, starting to laugh as well.
Thomas scrunched up his eyes and rocked back and forth, not wanting to be left out. ‘I mean,’ he said, ‘it’s incredible.’
‘Maybe we should approach this from the other direction,’ said Robert’s father. ‘Could we have a pizza with tomato, anchovy, and black olives.’
‘Like the pizzas in Les Lecques,’ said Robert.
‘We’ll see,’ said his father.
Karen tried to master her bewilderment at the poverty of the ingredients.
‘You want mozzarella, right?’
‘How about a drizzle of basil oil?’
‘No drizzle, thank you.’
‘OK,’ she said, hardened by their stubbornness.”
In the Central Park Zoo, young Robert spots the carousel and simply must partake of its grotesqueries:
“Soon it was going fast, almost too fast. Nothing about the carousel in Lacoste had prepared him for these rearing snorting horses, their nostrils painted red and their thick necks twisted out ambitiously towards the park. He was on a different continent now. The frighteningly loud music seemed to have driven all the clowns on the central barrel mad, and he could see that instead of being disguised by a painted sky studded with lights, heavily greased rods were revolving overhead. Along with the violence of the ride, this exposed machinery struck him as typically American. He didn’t really know why. Perhaps everything in America would show this genius for being instantly typical. Just as his body was being tricked by a second afternoon, every surprise was haunted by this sense of being exemplary.”
One can’t help thinking of the last significant scene of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield watching his sister Phoebe on the very same carousel. Though the ride is, in a way, soothing and revelatory to Holden—he, finally accepting of the inevitability of adulthood—to Robert it is frightening and violent, a view of what his father, and what he in the future, must face: a stark, indifferent reality, a world undisguised and exposed.
Patrick sums up the New York experience with a contrite hint of discouragement toward the country in general, the city now only a microcosm: “I had such a love affair with America, I suppose I feel jilted by its current incarnation. Of course,” he continues, “it’s a vast and complex society, and I have great faith in its powers of self correction. But where are they? What happened to rioting? Satire? Skepticism?”
Like an old flame, America for him has dimmed, and, though he seems to recognize just what is wrong, he is powerless to help. But in the context of the novel, Patrick Melrose has many personal problems, not the least of which is his unflagging alcoholism. New York City becomes for Patrick just another disappointment.
In Norwood, Charles Portis’s side splitting debut of 1966, the main character, Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Texas (“…just the other side of Texarkana.”) heads back east to collect a debt. Well, there is a little more to it than that, but relative to the New York motif, he winds up across the Hudson in Manhattan’s Bowery section. He quickly learns that the fellow ex-Marine Joe William Reese, from whom he was attempting to collect his $70, has already abandoned the big city.
After spending a few days at Joe Williams’ roommate’s (Dave Heineman, a self described “New York Jew”) apartment and dating a girl from upstairs—Marie, a speech major from Northwestern, who reads to him from “something called The Prophet,” who “didn’t work anywhere,” “didn’t seem to have any friends,” and with whom “nothing ever got off the ground in the way of funny business” —Norwood decides to move on. Before leaving, he visits the Automat on Union Square for a plate of franks and beans:
“The place was packed with damp bums who smelled like rancid towels and he had to wait for a seat. One fell vacant and he darted in and got it. Then he saw that he had forgotten his silverware. He left the dish of beans on top of an Argosy magazine to stake a table claim and went back to the cutlery stand. While he was gone the girl with the dirty dishes wagon picked up his beans and an Oriental gentleman across the table got the magazine. A man with a bowl of oatmeal got the seat.”
Subsequently Norwood is evicted from the Automat without the benefit of the “chow” that he “paid good money for“: “Within two hours he had said goodbye to the hateful town and was speeding south in a big Trailways cruiser. He was thinking about purple hull peas sprinkled down with pepper sauce.”
With that one word, “hateful”, Portis condemns the Big Apple, at least in the mind of his Texan naif. Fish out of water episodes like this put one in mind of film’s like Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Scorcese’s After Hours, or even Arthur Hiller’s comedy classic, The Out-of-Towners (1970). But in Portis’ tale, NYC is only a small part of the story. The odyssey of Norwood is farther flung.
Both books use New York to make a point, to aid in the theme of innocence vs. an unforgiving ugly world. Being a stereotype of the worst, and the best, that urban life can offer, New York City proves robust enough to sustain the good-natured attacks in these two tales. Thoughtful readers will understand that the authors are masters of irony, that truth and perception are two very different things. Hence, New York becomes an ideal place for not only geographical exploration but for self-discovery.
This coincidence of theme is yet another joy of the reading life. I’m sure it will prompt me to pursue the subject even further with future material (Which books use Chicago or Los Angeles or Paris or London as a revelatory backdrop?). In the meantime, I will continue to read books with no apparent organized purpose and persist in my search for the patterns in the randomness.Powered by Sidelines