||No Ph. D. , But Still Horny
by Keith Nickson
Many respected writers who started publishing in the mid-to-late seventies have doggedly got by on grants, teaching stints, journalism, and decent reviews. They have yet to find a sizeable audience. This generation includes Trevor Ferguson, Paulette Jiles, Matt Cohen, and Clark Blaise. The West Coast novelist Keith Maillard is one of them, too.
Maillard appeared poised to reach a wider audience in 1993, when, after several novels and an award-winning book of poetry, he published Light in the Company of Women. This historical romance was set in Raysburg, West Virginia, the state where he grew up. It was well-received by critics, and seemed to be perfectly designed for mainstream readers, and yet that audience eluded him again.
The second instalment in his Raysburg cycle, Hazard Zones, is a departure from the first one. Here Maillard takes on a tough subject: a middle-aged man's struggle to cope with the death of his mother.
Larry Cameron is married with two children and works as a textbook editor. He quit graduate school at Harvard, turned to booze, and finally married Cynthia, another would-be scholar who also failed to complete a Ph.D. (at Radcliffe). They live a perfectly happy domestic life in a small town outside Boston. Maillard kicks off the novel in the present time with the two of them driving towards Raysburg, where Larry's mother lies near death. Upon arrival, his mother is dead, and Larry and Cynthia spend several weeks cleaning out her apartment and waiting for the ashes to return from the crematorium in Pittsburgh. Maillard deftly creates a frame for his story of Larry's youth in 1950s small-town America, which is subsequently evoked through dreams, visits with an old high school friend, and walks around Raysburg, situated among the steel factories of the Ohio Valley. Larry, we learn, is still tormented by memories of his stepfather and stepbrother.
In fiction, grief is seldom gripping unless the characters are driven to madness or endure some kind of catharsis. In Jack Hodgins's recent novel The Macken Charm, the death of Glory sends her husband Toby on a rampage that is bizarre and sometimes plain silly. A death might also spark memories, so that a natural space for poignant or painful vignettes is created in the narrative texture. The narrator of Hodgins's book tells fine stories about his youth-playing pirate games in tree-stumps, for example. A very different novel, Louise Erdrich's Tracks, features Fleur Pillager, who broods over the loss of her newborn baby. Her grief results in a shrinking of her confidence, a slide into anxiety. She trusts no-one to look after her daughter and fears a "dangerous" world. One character says of Fleur that she "was a different person than the young woman I had known. She was hesitant in speaking false in her gestures, anxious to cover her fear." To evoke the interior landscape of grief, as Erdrich does so wonderfully, you've got to be, let's say, a damn good writer.
Maillard's narrator isn't violent or prone to madness. He finds it difficult to summon up the narratives of his past. Instead, Larry weeps and broods a lot and doesn't know what anything means. He fumbles and is baffled. In the mocking words of his old friend Jeff Snyder, Larry is "sensitive", a "New Age" type. A typical line from him is: "I don't know what I mean." Larry registers grief on a more human, mundane scale than is common among fictional characters. Still, the death of his mother sends him on a journey to the place of his youth and (of course) on an interior trip to solve the puzzles of his life.
Larry was raised by a drunken stepfather, Bud, who always doted on Johnny, his own son, from his first marriage, and clearly a bent child headed for trouble. "Johnny.was capable of doing really rotten things," recalls Larry, ".the worst he did.was set fire to the living room drapes." Bud turns to drink when his business collapses and Larry is protected from his stepfather's abuse by his mother and grandmother-two figures who tower above the weak men in the novel. As two kids who have lost a parent, Larry and Johnny form a tight bond. They make fireworks, go hot-rodding in Bud's Chevy, and generally get crazy together. As Larry mulls over the past, Johnny's accidental death becomes a source of crippling guilt.
At school, Larry has a knack for memorizing facts and he eventually exploits this talent to land a spot at Harvard as a graduate student in geography. This is one of several plot developments that defy belief.
Walking around present-day Raysburg, Larry and Cynthia run into an old friend from the high school swimming team, Jeff Snyder, and his wife Linda. Jeff is a former heart surgeon, who's given up the fast lane for a comfortable life in Raysburg. These two resemble nothing so much as a Ken-and-Barbie couple who are living out the American dream. In fact, when the two couples are together-and they spend a good deal of time socializing on the Ohio River and at Jeff's house-the texture of their lives is clear: these are suburban boomers with kids, who celebrate sensitive and sentimental moments. And they are still horny. In these episodes, Maillard seems to be writing in a calculated way for an audience of like-minded boomers.
Both couples are fascinated by surfaces. Here's Cynthia telling Larry about Linda:
"I didn't think I was going to like her.God, she seems like such a bimbo, but there's a lot more to her than that. Doesn't she have a cute figure?"
"Not as cute as yours, my dear."
"Oh Larry, you don't have to say that."
"Yes, I do. Come on hon, get in bed."
Is this what happens to students of hot-shot graduate schools who do not complete their Ph.D.s? Maillard's novel suggests that Larry's and Cynthia's intellectual lives peaked early and then went into a steep decline. For me, the central problem in Hazard Zones is that they simply aren't articulate. The Larry who finishes one section with the comment, "I was, you understand, about to enter my next incarnation as a drunken asshole," cannot be the Larry who went to Harvard. And would a fifty-year-old former intellectual spout banalities like this: "Oh, I just had one of those dumb, obvious thoughts. The stories I've got in my head right now are all the stories I'm ever going to get."
The characterization of Cynthia also doesn't add up. Maillard tells us that in her twenties, the sexy, airhead wife of Larry was breaking new ground with a thesis on a neglected American writer.
Next, I object to the sentimentality that washes over much of the story. It lends the novel a nineteenth-century weepiness reminiscent of Dickens that will test a modern reader's stamina. We want to be moved by Larry's anguish, not forced to witness scene after scene of tears from a distance. Unlike Louise Erdrich, Maillard never gets us inside Larry's heart where we can feel his pain for ourselves. His guilt over Johnny's death is expunged but this catharsis at novel's end feels arbitrary. The fumbling Larry simply hasn't earned it.
And then there are the dreams. Larry has several about his childhood, and I can only say that Maillard might heed the advice that the novelist John Barth gives to aspiring writers: "Don't do dreams." Larry's dreams are prosaic and add nothing to the narrative.
In Hazard Zones, Maillard creates a solidly conceived framework for storytelling, but the telling itself goes awry. It would be ironic if this novel brought him the mainstream audience he seems to be courting.