Sunday, May 29, 2011

Happy All the Time: Traveling with the Lone Pilgrim

To my poor neglected Literate in L.A. blog, I am thrilled to post a guest essay by my dear friend Janet Brown, who originally published this piece on her terrific blog, Tone Deaf in Thailand. There are few greater literary pleasures in the world than sharing a love of Laurie Colwin ... many thanks to Janet for doing so with such talent and affection:

Traveling with the Lone Pilgrim
by Janet Brown

I have no idea why this book has accompanied me through my life. For over forty years, when I first read it in a novella form in Redbook magazine, then when the longer novel emerged in 1978, I have loved Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time with a fierce and unconditional passion. I have bought and given it away more times than I can count. When I have lived without it for a few years, I have to buy it again--most recently at the beautiful new site of Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company. I knew it would be there, waiting for me, under a slant of sun from the store's skylight, and it was.

I've read it as a young mother in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a woman living out a long-delayed adolescence in her forties, and as a sixty-plus expat in Bangkok. It has always absorbed me and delighted me and I have never asked why--until now. I don't love romantic novels that sparkle on the surface and have very little plot. I don't usually cherish characters who speak in short, crisp, almost utilitarian sentences. And I would detest any one of the four central figures in this book should I ever meet them off the page.

Guido Morris, Vincent Cardworthy, Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz are all in their own singular fashions, perfect. They are physically attractive, accomplished and they can cook. They love fine art--in fact their lives are works of fine art. Each of them could be a small jade figurine. They fall in love and they marry and they "keep the ugly, chaotic world at bay." Their Manhattan is one of charming little restaurants and dark, genteel bars and the occasional museum. Even parenthood is perfection. Why are they not absurd? Or at least very, very dull?

Perhaps because Misty and Holly are perfect but they are difficult--and proud of it. "I am the scourge of God," Misty tells Vincent. "I was made for Attila the Hun." Holly, Guido comes to understand, is "Genghis Khan in emotional matters." And so is Laurie Colwin.

This is a writer who takes as her territory an entire Great Lake of thin ice and skates on it with aplomb and complete enjoyment. Her plot is romantic, her men would like to be, her women never are. In what should be a paradise of happily ever after, her heroines are equipped with a detached and loving irony that pervades and eventually takes over the entire book.

So does a gentle and laser-beamed satire. Although never focused upon the two couples whose book this is, the peripheral figures in their lives are fleeting and unforgettable. They are skewered and examined and put aside, without cruelty or caricature. Alive and indelible, they glitter in some undiscovered universe, waiting for their own novel.

Laurie Colwin specialized in that. A short story would become two or three, all with the same characters, then a novella, then a novel. Her gift was to provide the full bodies for her characters within the first story. The details came later, and when they did, the people they embellished were remembered as old friends--"Now where have I met you before? You're the one who takes off your gloves with your teeth."

Her books sparkle and glisten and at first they seem all patina, no core. They're much like the novels of another woman who said of her own writing, "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory." Yet hundreds of years later, Jane and Bingham, Elizabeth and Darcy, still pull readers to their pages again and again and again. So do Guido and Holly, Vincent and Misty, in a fairy tale with an edge, in a satire laced with deep and abiding love.

But there was a subversive side to Laurie Colwin. Six years after she idealized matrimony in Happy All the Time, she published a collection of short stories called The Lone Pilgrim. It's dangerous to speculate on any writer's life based upon their fictional output, but I think it's safe to say that only someone who was alive and young in the '60s could have written those stories.

These are dark little gems; they gleam; they do not sparkle. "The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing" is one of the funniest stories I have ever read; it's also the closest that Laurie Colwin ever came to cruelty. The page and a half that she allows for the speed-rap sales pitch of a drug dealer named Uncle Marv has the poetry and idiocy that many of us remember all too well from past lives. And as the narrator ends with "Suddenly I was full of optimism and hope for the future," Altamont and Kent State and Charles Manson peer out at her through that sentence.

This is a writer who refuses to believe in innocence, "that witless spontaneous affection, that hungry purposeless availability." For Laurie Colwin, there are people who plunge into the world straight on and others who approach it in baby steps; some girls have "money instead of imagination and complete self-confidence" and some, even in childhood, recognize the polished and seductive charm described in "Delia's Father." "One false move and you lose everything," says the girl who, with one kiss, "crosses over to my side of the street forever." And in "A Girl Skating," a poet mercilessly deflowers the child he loves without ever needing to touch her. "I was the child he loved best. There was no escaping him," but it was "the infant seriousness" that froze that girl into place in poems. Without her intelligence, she would never have understood that this attention kept her from having a life that was "entirely unremarkable and happy."

Happy is a word that Laurie Colwin uses a lot and as she shows who is truly happy in her fiction, Misty and Vincent, Holly and Guido take on an almost sinister luster. They are abandoned to what kind of a future, at the end of their novel when they "raised their glasses and, by the light of the candles, they drank to a truly wonderful life." The candles are beeswax, the glasses hold champagne and when it is gone, "they were suddenly sad." Thank heaven Vincent has an extra bottle--but will there always be enough champagne?

The final story in The Lone Pilgrim, "Family Happiness" shows what happens to smart people in happy marriages. So does "A Mythological Subject" and "Intimacy" and "A Sentimental Memory." Nobody has ever written so rationally about infidelity than Laurie Colwin. Her characters, with the fine emotional geiger counters that they have within their hearts, negotiate the hazards of adultery without damage and with few tears. An affair, Laurie Colwin suggests over and over, in short stories and in novels, is the secret to a successful marriage. It is simply another kind of love. It is not "full of the misery and loneliness that romantic people suffer in love."

Well-stocked pantries, well-ordered lives, well-placed objects, well-enjoyed meals: yet at the base of this glorious celebration of domestic living is a bullet aimed straight at the heart of monogamy. While making marriage look desirable, Laurie Colwin as much as anybody and more than most transformed it into an altered state, "a dark forest" filled with "a little chapel, a stand of birches, wolves, snakes, the worst you can imagine, or the best."