Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979
Lacey (Lace) Curtains began as a drayman and became a joiner. In short order he was a cooper, a puddler, a mason, a hod carrier, a pedlar, a pinch bottler, and a short-order cook. Lace flailed wheat and farmed fennel. He was a boilerman, a pot stiller, and a punchboard collector, repaired Wurlitzers and Atwater Kent wireless radios, and wove and patched caneback chairs. He had an abiding interest in the Mexican gold half-peso, which he collected, when he could, and old wax Zimmerman consolette recording cylinders, conducted Bingo games, leaf tours in the fall, and grew chrysanthemums for the high-school football “boosterettes.” In the winter he harvested Christmas trees, was the check-out at the Grand Union, and pumped gas for Cumberland Farms.
This simple yeoman, a perfect amalgam of industry and thrift, lacked only one thing: skillfulness, and craft. He was, in fact, a bit of a bungler, and gollywoggler. A bad drunk, too. In his last years he raised pregnant mares for their urine which was then used in the synthesis of birth control pills.
Lace had none of the advantages of the educated man and it showed. Whatever he put his hands to he usually failed at: his barrels leaked and his walls would not stay up. When he plucked ducks and dipped sheep the poor creatures usually died before their appointed times. But in his later years he collected many abrimming stoop of urine and prospered, until a mare kicked him almost fifty feet and he had to retire.
Well, you know, he died miserable and poor, and he even lacked good will. People said they stopped caring for Lace when he overcharged them at the Grand Union.
Lace always said the most important thing he owned was his last name. If drunk, he would sometimes add: “It will be curtains for you, too, my man, if you don’t learn to respect that.”
He was also quoted as saying: “When I die I want to be that TV fellow, George Plimpton. Queen for a Day.”
Needless to say, he had a son with Rose Edmundson and they called the lad Bledsoe, and when I asked why, Lace explained, “Because it’s Eosdelb backwards.”
Washington County, New York, where Little Lives is set, lies upstate, across the border from Vermont and south of Lake George. It’s hilly, scarcely populated, mostly devoted to dairy farming:
The County has one of the lowest per capita incomes in New York (and the Nation); it is settled largely by the descendants of Dutch, Canuck, and Scotch Irish yeomen and farmers, with more recent sprinklings and ejaculations from other minorities, such as the Eyties.
As its fictional chronicler, John Spyker describes the County, “It was the birthplace of nobody lasting or famous beyond its borders that I know of.”
Instead, as Spyker protrays in a hundred-plus sketches that range from before the Civil War to present day, its inhabitants are a collection of mediocres distinguished most by their physical deformities (the Boleg twins “were noted for their ‘canker sores” and bad teeth”), bizarre notions (“Fred was no ordinary GOP supporter, or loud mouth Buckley-ite. He was an out-right fascist, but polite about it as never-you-mind”), and most of all, sexual proclivities.
There’s Vanessa Wunderlich, for example:
The poor thing was suffering from an infection that venereally gnawed at her gums. It came from what she had once eaten, in a rash moment, at her cousin Ellen’s house in Chestertown: the hair pie, or so I was told….
There is Doc Morgan, the local Ob/Gyn, to whom Spyker attributes at least ten children: “All I know for certain is he made a lot of money and most of the local women, when they mounted his stirrups, chose his ‘raw beef injections,’ too, though Ma always said he had a gentle soul.” There are Little Rose of Sharon and Evelyn DeVilbliss, “friends, as well as lovers”: “Nobody ever knew of any discords between them; they were thick as tracel, and good to everybody who approached them except Brubaker, the knife and scissors grinder.”
There is Stace Coleman, who traffics in “pessary sponges,” which “… affixed to the cervical os, finally was to provide our local women with some protection against that most habitual infection to their wombs–increase.” Spyker’s own grandmother admitted to owning one:
As a token of that amity he gave her one of the few devices he was able to salvage from his second voyage, which she told me she used for nearly twenty years to good effect. She even produced the thing for my inspection and it was not only walnut-shaped, but walnut-hard.
Alongside the intimate relations of the county’s residents, however, Spyker also recounts some tender tragedies. Hetta Wessels, a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage and housed with a malicious mother-in-law, goes quietly mad one day, puts rat poison in her children’s potato-and-leek soup, then packs their bodies in two suitcases and attempts to run. Caught, she chokes on a hunk of bread while awaiting death by hanging: “Her jailors say her cell walls were covered with a three-word scrawl in Hetta’s hand: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry.’”
Some sketches are brief–Naomi Kigelhoff’s is just two sentences: “Bart’s wife. Totally and thoroughly undistinguished except they say she drove every Friday morning to Troy to buy Kosher meat for the week.” Most are a page or two long. One of the longest tells the story of Lorelei Dembitz, who believed “that her ‘soul’ was not her own but that of another person, even smaller, frailer, and morally more ‘tattered’ than she.” Lorelei thought “‘this alien’–Francine, by name–had come to take possession of her sometime before her sisteenth birthday….”
But this is not a simple case of split or multiple personalities:
“I am most certain,” she declared, “she and I do not converge throughout our entire integuments. If I lie down she extends somewhere between my shoulders and my knees. When I stand up she peers out through the nipples of my breasts. But we are not corollaries. She crowds my soul. She cramps my heart. I am not her coefficient.”
The two co-habit, awkwardly and uncomfortably, for over forty years. As time goes by, Lorelei struggles to keep Francine separate: “In the voting rolls from 1922 on she listed herself as F. Lorelei Dembitz.” In the end, Lorelei is removed to the County Home in Argyle, then buried in the Argyle Free Cemetery. A second headstone is placed beside hers “inscribed, simply, FRANCINE.”
The odd vernacular Elman created for Spyker is one of the highlights of Little Lives. Spyker may be the Washington County’s chronicler, but his perspective is hardly objective and detached. His voice comes right from the odd mix of proper and profane that characterises many of the portraits. The stereotypes and bias of the County are his, too. Kissy Kigeloff is a “lezzy.” The depression of 1881 is blamed “on Jew bankers such as the Goulds and Fisks of metropolitan Gotham.” Brody Shansky is “a mick neighbor I had for a while….”
Spyker’s prejudices are inherent in his raising, but he claims no superiority for himself. At one point, he tells of the time when he learns that Chester Bowles is visiting the county. Assuming this is the minor political figure of the 1940s and 1950s, he rushes over to make his acquaintance. It turn out to be Chester Bowles, the “retired D&H railway engineer.” “He wasn’t quite the go-getter I expected,” he remarks afterward. “Teach me to social climb.”
Little Lives did garner favorable reviews when it came out in 1979, but faded quickly after its paperback release. Its cover featured enthuastic comments from critic Maxwell Geismar and novelist Frederick Busch (“If Grandma Moses had ball and could spell, this would have been her book”), but most of its hardcover edition went quickly into remainder. I actually bought a copy from a remainder house years ago, but it took A.P. Siegel’s mention in an item on neglected books in Maud Newton’s blog to get me to give it a second look. I’m glad I did. I will never think of upstate New York in quite the same way again.
- Time, 12 March 1979
- Like its literary antecedents, Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio, John Howland Spyker’s Little Lives consists of sketches: hard, brilliant line drawings of small-town Americans. With a roving eye for bawdy detail, Spyker (pseudonym for Poet and Novelist Richard Elman) compresses each life into a tidy epiphany; an individual is captured with an anecdote or gesture, an eccentricity or epitaph. Judge Fury collected wives and knives; “P.C.B.” Terry, who once took a swig of that carcinogenic chemical, spent the rest of his life growing tomatoes that no one else dares to eat. Hypolite Hargrove made a small fortune concocting cocaine-spiked fruit drinks savored by Mark Twain and Jenny Lind.
Each biography is enlivened by a macabre whimsy: a man is steamed alive “like a lobster” when his car wash malfunctions; children are fed meals of worms; decent folk fall victim to robbery, infidelity and bad genes. Spyker reports it all, creating a community from the disparate characters as well as a portrait of the narrator, an “outlander… struck more by bits of detail than the total sepia haze of the picture: by odd names or locutions, specific items and photographs that have survived, the price paid for caring.”
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