Friday, December 11, 2009


“Ginny Good” by Gerard Jones, Monkfish, 2004
“Bad Behavior” by Mary Gaitskill, Poseiden (Simon & Schuster), 1988
A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, Counterpoint (Perseus), 2004
This little stack of books about young women came to me various ways.

Gerard Jones lives in Ashland, Oregon, and is famous for maintaining a blog where he simply posts verbatim any communications from publishers and agents -- an enraging and eye-opening compendium, not least to the publishers and agents themselves who hate having the rocks rolled away from overhead. He was giving away the remainders of “Ginny Good” as well as CD’s containing the music he envisioned accompanying the text. (When exchanging emails with this author, I discovered the existence of a second Gerard Jones, who lives in San Francisco and writes comedy and defenses of fairy tale monsters. He was born in Cut Bank, just north of me, because his father was a forest ranger in Glacier Park at the time. We agree that we knew each other in the Sixties because he was a child devotee of the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife where I operated the cash register in summer.) "Ginny Good" is a love letter to an extravagant and enchanting young woman who self-destructs in the age of free love and plenty of drugs.

Here’s how the book ends except for a little coda about a bird. “Okay, god damn it, that’s really, really it. I quit. Well, except maybe for just this one last tiny little thing. It’s something I wrote a long time ago. It might even have been part of that so-called journal I used to send to Ginny back when I was trying to get her to like me. I might have read it out loud in Gordon Lish’s night school writing class at the College of San Mateo when I wasn’t quite twenty-one yet and still had my whole life ahead of me. Those are the kinds of things you think about when you’ve got your whole life behind you -- the things you used to think about when you had your whole life ahead of you. It’s all I’m saying, I know that. It’s the end.” It’s all about a vernacular account of loss and yearning.

I sent for “Bad Behavior” by Mary Gaitskill because the reviews, which linked her to the hoaxy stuff, pointed out she had done “sex work” for a while, printed photos of her pale thin Voguish face, and praised her writing. “Bad Behavior” is a collection of short stories. Here are an early paragraph from the first story, “Daisy’s Valentine:”

“He worked with Daisy in the clerical department of a filthy secondhand bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The department was a square-tiled space between morose gray metal stacks of books and a dirty wall with thin white pipes running along the bottom of it. There were brown boxes of books everywhere, scatterings of paper, ashtrays, Styrofoam cups, broken chair, the occasional flashing mouse. Customers roamed the boundaries of the area, searching for the exit. Daisy, who sat nearest the bordering aisle, was always leaving her desk to sweetly assist some baffled old man with a sweating face and cockeyed glasses.” The stories are again about the cultural whiplash that told women NOT to get married, NOT to protect their virginity, NOT to avoid drugs -- then, when it was too late and they were already suffering the consequences -- lamely came up with compromises and drug regimes.

“A Complicated Kindness”
was sent to me by Whiskey Prajer (Darrell Reimer) whose own collection of stories is available via (The title you want is “Youthful Desires.”) Darrell and I are Lulu “friends” and watch out for each other in a distant sort of way. He sent me Miriam Toews’ book because she is a well-known Canadian Mennonite writer. Mennonites persist at an intersection in the Left end of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the part that wanted to created protected communities (like Hutterites) but not extend freedom of thought the way their briefly fellow-traveling Unitarian relatives did. Toews' story happens in a small Mennonite community dominated by her uncle.

Here’s the beginning: “I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.”

“Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway andplace notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. he thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.”

These stories vary radically in their tone, their geographic location, and their outcomes, but they share a general hopelessness, a powerlessness. About the most major strategy for getting hold of things or even making a statement consists of dressing sexy and maybe attempting suicide. Yet, barely hidden in the stories, is the near-religious faith that if a good enough book can be written about these -- to be truthful -- banal tragedies, all will be saved. Money and respect will arrive. People will love them and be kind to them and never desert them. (One clearly doesn’t lead to the other in these world-views.) This is the opposite of romances and “Christian” literature that make everything end happily. There is a lot about adults who simply exist from one day to another, hardly role models. And yet one has to admit that the authors and their young female heroines had something going for them or you would not be holding their book in your hands. There must be one helluva lot of people who feel just like this.

The irony is that in Darrell Reimer’s far more hopeful stories, which are from the point of view of a young man instead of young woman, happiness comes from relating to a traditional woman, in fact, an “Earth Mother” in the sorta hippie sense, who has somehow been untouched by these deadly forces.

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

Wow -- many thanks, Mary. If passers-by are curious, my original thoughts (which haven't changed much in the last five years) on A Complicated Kindness are here.