A visit to the Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, Montana, has been one of my rituals during our annual stay in Missoula, but this year events put books and many other things on hold. I did, however, snatch about 45 minutes in the store, just before closing, on my way back from a hospital in Spokane, and harvested about a dozen books from their basement paperback stash. Old paperbacks hold a special place in my heart, perhaps because they were the first books I bought when I started haunting used bookstores back in the mid-1970s. And one of the reasons I love the Montana Valley Bookstore is that it’s one of the ever-dwindling number of used bookstores that still has a substantial holding of paperbacks from the decades before trade paperbacks took over.
With only a short time to spare, I focused on looking for interesting titles by women writers. It’s harder and harder to surprise me — but not impossible, and easily the biggest surprise was the two thick Dell paperbacks by Arona McHugh.
If I’ve ever seen either of these books, I’ve forgotten. But from a material standpoint alone, I recognized a substantial piece of work when I saw it, and, of course, bought them both. Taken together, A Banner with a Strange Device and The Seacoast of Bohemia tell the stories of a collection of young men and women in post-World War Two Boston. Running over 1300 pages, the two books put Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to shame in the Great American Doorstop Novel Race. Whether the same can be said about their literary merits is something I cannot yet say. The New Yorker’s brief review offered the faint praise that “Mrs. McHugh’s rough, able-bodied style carries her at full speed through almost six hundred pages, in which she describes the manners, looks, and varying sexual capacities and appetites of a group of young Boston people during the years immediately following the Second World War.” Writing in The New York Times, Haskel Frankel was a little less polite, saying that Banner should have been titled, “The Sun Also Rises on King Kong and Lady Chatterley.” Exactly one year later, Seacoast and Frankel again was the Times man on the scene. He surmised that the two books were, in fact, one novel roughly hewn in two by a publisher afraid to launch a single monolith into bookshops, and credited McHugh as “a natural-born storyteller, one of that rare type who can write about rocks and reduce the reader to a jelly.” On the other hand, he also concluded that “Enough is enough and 1,259 pages of painful youth in Boston is too much.” So perhaps I will not be assaulting Mount McHugh anytime soon.
The name Maude Hutchins struck a vaguely familiar note, which is why I picked up Honey on the Moon, but only after a quick search did I see it was because NYRB Classics reissued her novel of a girl’s coming of age, Victorine, with an introduction by Terry Castle. Hutchins spent 27 years in an unhappy marriage with Robert Maynard Hutchins, who played a large role in elevating the University of Chicago to a level equal with the Ivy League. But after their divorce, as Castle puts it, “the defection of the boy wonder that seems to have changed her, almost overnight, from dabbler in the avant-garde to serious writer.” Thumbing through the book, I gathered it’s the story of a young bride who begins to suspect that her older husband married her for her resemblance to — and value as a cover for his interest in — a younger man. Kirkus Reviews called it a “screaming spoof on the New Wave films, the anti-novel, and those drugstore bestsellers of purple passions.” Another reviewer wrote that Hutchins wrote for “the kind of reader who will assume her complexity from her carefully selected simplicities.” This one sounds worth placing in the to-read pile.
I knew exactly who Elizabeth Jenkins was when I spotted this copy of her 1963 novel, Brightness. Jenkins, who may hold the longevity record for writers, having passed in 2010 at the age of 104, is best known for her novel of marital tension, The Tortoise and the Hare. When that book was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, Hillary Mantel wrote that it was “as smooth and seductive as a bowl of cream,” and that Jenkins “seems to know a good deal about how women think and how their lives are arranged; what women collude in, what they fear.” Which is interesting, considering that Jenkins herself never married. Brightness is about the relationship between two very different mothers (and their no-so-different sons) in a small English village — the sort of situation that lead immediately to comparisons with Jane Austen. One reviewer called it “a fine novel — rather on the side of the angels, but without a smidgen of candied inspirational guff” and quoted the excellent line, “If you’ve only come across suffering that could be cured by psychiatry, you’ve done pretty well so far.”
The Inner Room purports to be a novel, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a linked set of short stories. It tells the individual stories of five women committed to an asylum for a variety of conditions ranging from post-partum depression to alcoholism. One of the stories was originally published in The New Yorker. Although, in an early NY Review of Books issue, Martha Cameron wrote that the book was “affecting and yet somehow fraudulent,” Randal appears to have based the work on first-hand observations, as he went on to publish a second novel (story collection?) on essentially the same topic, You Get Used to a Place.
The New York Ride was the second of Anne Bernays’ ten novels, an account of the growing up and growing apart of two friends — first on a tour of Italy, swapping away ever-hovering Italian men, then in New York City as they navigate through the “floating crap game” artists, poets and poseurs in the Village, and finally in their married lives, when one’s apparent bi-polar disorder (two decades before it was routinely diagnosed) starts to rip things apart. One reviewer wrote that it was “fueled by a wit, intelligence and perception that make it a pleasure to read.”
“Several cuts above Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” declares a quote from a Sacramento Bee review. This was enough to pick Jeeney Ray as a subject for further research. What I did find out was that Iris Dornfeld was another woman who was better known as Mrs. Someone Else — in her case, Mrs. Carey McWilliams, whose husband was editor of The Nation magazine and journalist who first came to fame for his work exposing the brutal conditions of farm workers in California. Jeeney Ray earned respectable reviews from the few major national papers and magazines to review it. In The Saturday Review, Aileen Pippett wrote, “Every memorable novel has its distinctive tone. This one sings. Yet the characters are mostly brutal, ignorant, or depraved, their language is coarse and their actions are in keeping. Nature pleaseth, in Northern California, but man is frequently vile. Against a murky background Jeeney Ray herself shines like a star.” Jeeney Ray is considered mentally handicapped by most everyone in her town, but her grandmother has a greater trust in her senses. After many hardships and misunderstandings, Jeeney Ray is correctly diagnosed as spastic — not that a diagnosis alone make for a happy ending. Interestingly, Dornfeld’s only other novel, Boy Gravely, dealt with a protagonist who didn’t understand he was suffering from epilepsy. Dornfeld had grown up in the same area Jeeney Ray is set in, from what she called “a family of singers, storytellers, bible-reciters, make-believers, and downright liars.”
Based on what 45 minutes produced, I look forward to having more time to browse when I return next year.