Magazine article The New Yorker

Relative Strangers

Magazine article The New Yorker

Relative Strangers

Article excerpt

Andrew Sean Greer's 2004 novel, "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," quite brilliantly fulfilled the difficult task it set itself--to show the life of a man born old, who over the decades grows backward into infancy and, finally, nonexistence. This narrative feat had been attempted before, by Scott Fitzgerald and Gabriel Brownstein, but never at such length or with such loving ingenuity. At every turn of Max Tivoli's wrong-way life, his predicaments and discoveries light up the human condition as the odd thing it is and, in addition, give us vivid glimpses of San Francisco's colorful past as it evolves toward the present. The novel is magical; but such a success holds for the novelist a temptation to cast himself as a magician and stuff his sleeves for every performance onstage. The great Nabokov did something like this, out of loyalty to illusion and deception as aesthetic ideals, but Greer is possessed by a serious tenderness that asks the reader's indulgence in a way that the aloof Russian would have scorned. Greer's new novel, "The Story of a Marriage" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $22), announces its basic illusion on the first page:

We think we know the ones we love.

Our husbands, our wives. . . . We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know. . . . One morning we awaken. Beside us, that familiar sleeping body in the bed: a new kind of stranger.

Presto, change-o. The plot meant to illustrate these ruminations is so tricky, so full of pregnant pauses and delayed revelations, that to discuss it at all is to risk giving it all away. The narrator, who reveals herself as female on the second page, when she speaks of her husband, does not let the reader know until page 48 that she is African-American. The news at this point is startling, but, in retrospect, it explains a certain tense reserve in her voice, an embattled, extra-keen awareness of the passing pedestrians and car headlights in the neighborhood of Ocean Beach, north of San Francisco. Hers, it turns out, at this juncture in the early nineteen-fifties, is the only black family, across the street from the only Jews. Perhaps her name, Pearl, was a tipoff, or the skimming mention of her eating in "a special area of a department-store lunchroom, after being turned away by two others," but this reader was taken by surprise. Mysteries cling to some fraught asides and constrained locutions in Pearl's tale. "Pearlie, I need you to marry me" is Holland Cook's way of proposing marriage, and "Let me take care of you" her inspired way of announcing her availability. A shadow, a rumor, of disability hangs over the groom from the start, though everyone agrees that he is an attractive, amiable man.

Pearl and Holland were children together in Kentucky, and began to walk home from school hand in hand as teen-agers. In 1943, Pearl helps Holland's mother protect the young man from the draft, tutoring him and bringing him fond but chaste companionship in the farmhouse room where he is hidden. An illness blows his cover--Pearl goes for the doctor, who is not the one to report him to the police. The draft officer, failing to elicit any philosophical beliefs that would justify draft evasion, gruffly releases him, saying, "Boy, I can't put down that you're just a goddamn Negro coward. I can't have that in my district." Holland is drafted, and is severely burned when his transport ship is sunk. Meanwhile, Pearl has been enlisted by a Mr. Pinker to be a factory worker on the West Coast and to spy on her fellow-employees ("Be a finker . . . for Mr. Pinker!"). She complies, and then becomes a WAVE. When, shortly after the war, she spots Holland on a Bay Area park bench, she is "startled to see such despair on his square handsome face." On his side, he doesn't even recognize her. As she pursues the relationship, he warns her, "You don't know me, not really."

Nevertheless, they marry. …

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