Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For All the Ladies in my Mother's Book Group.

Today, a college friend congratulates me on having a Notable Essay in the back of Best American Essays 2010. I texted back, "what essay?" I assumed it was going to be this very serious piece called "Literary Murder," that had been chosen for Best Creative Nonfiction. She wrote back, "For All the Ladies in my Mother's Book Group." "THAT one?" I texted back. The essay was a blur that came back to me slowly -- starting with BONG HITS and ending with this wild pack of genius -- with a jab at Harold Bloom and getting snubbed by my mother's book group.


[Warning: This one's not for kids. It's got some foul language -- mainly from the mouth of my mother.]

My father calls me up. “I had to explain bong hits today to Eloise Newmarker.” Eloise is a neighbor in the lake-side trailer park where my parents spend the summer. She’s sixty or so, crisply dressed.
“Sorry,” I tell him, because I know it’s my fault. The new novel is out. “Did you do a good job?”
“I think I did a very good job.” In the 1960s, he was the nation’s leading patent expert on vacuum cleaners, anything, really, sucked clean by air– from street sweepers to handheld Hoovers -- and it seems like a vague backwards connection to bongs can be made there. “She thought bong hits meant group sex.”
“She’s naughtier than I thought,” I say.
My mother’s voice breaks in now. She’s evidently pulled the cell phone out of his hands, which is dangerous since they have to climb on a top bunk bed in the trailer’s corner to get any connection at all. “I always knew you were a genius! I told all of your teachers, but they wouldn’t believe me! Well, they believe me now, don’t they?”
Here, I should say that this is all very nice, but my parents would be steamingly proud of me if I got early parole. They’d accost the neighbors out walking their dogs. “She’s really shaped that prison up. You should see how even the guards look up to her!” And, sadly, I’m not a genius. Harold Bloom would never discuss me in one of his ghastly, wind-baggy books. I’m mediocre with some vast and gaping holes. Math seems completely subjective. I add by an elaborate counting scheme. Geography: to me the world is flat with shifting Dairy Queen landmarks. In my defense, I spent fourth and fifth grade lunching and banking with my mother because the bus ride into the city school was too long and my mother thought the driver, a white guy who wore fringed mocassins, might be a drug dealer, making his rounds on the taxpayers’ dollar.
Recently I was invited back to give a reading at my alma mater in Baltimore and the director of creative writing asked how my mother was. “Fine,” I said. “Do you remember her?” “She’s the only mother I ever had who called me up before school to ask if the curriculum would in any way damage her daughter’s natural talent. Of course I remember her.”
When I told my mother this, she drew a blank and shrugged. But we both knew it was so very much like her that there was no sense in her trying to deny it.
Neither of my parents think they have any natural talent. My father is analytical; he woke us on long car-rides to see the odometer line up in some miraculous numeric symmetry. My mother taught us to say that she’s a concert pianist, but admits that she was the hardworking blue-collar type who had to bang through everything for lack of an ear. She actually won a scholarship for graduate work in Rome, but turned it down to marry my father and because performing made her want to throw up. She didn’t even particularly like to play for dinner guests who, she feared, might start making awful requests, like “Misty,”or, worse, might want to start a sing-along in which she’d be reduced to an accompanist for drunks. And, so, she left the entertaining to my father who liked to prove the springiness of DuPont carpet padding by bouncing raw eggs off of the shag rug.
They cried on my first novel’s auction day. My father harkened back to the auctioning off of the first Baggott on American soil, a British sheep thief who, according to some ancient penal colony documentation, didn’t sell for as much as my father would have hoped . “But you, you’ve made us proud, Sweetie.” And it would have seemed that this kind of win-win, all-good scenario was just the beginning.
Unfortunately, none of us could have predicted the odd social test that a published book can become. I envision it now as an actual hurdle stolen from a track meet and set down in front of me everywhere I turn. People have to maneuver around it. Some get a running start – from across a crowded room, “Oh, I read your book!”– and hope to clear it. Others ignore the hurdle and try to balance a drink on it. Most lurch over it breathlessly. I used to offer to hold their hands, their handbags. I used to try to give suggestions. “If you didn’t read it, it’s okay.” Or “You don’t have to comment. You’re an accountant and I don’t critique your management style.” But now I just sit back and watch, which is exhausting enough.
Here are a few comments from those early days:
From a professor of 18th century English: I don’t read modern books, but I suppose, for you, I’ll have to make an exception.
My answer: Hey, you’ve got a great gig. Finite literature. Don’t make any exceptions on my part. Use the book as a door stop.
My mother in law, never having discussed the books with me: My friend Bob is reading your book. He said he’s only doing it because you’re my daughter in law, and that if you were his daughter, he wouldn’t ever want to read it.
My answer: A) Bob probably didn’t raise particularly creative children (Was he easily disturbed by their sock puppets?) and B) I’m glad that he isn’t my father. (the unsaid C) being: why the hell are you telling me this?)
My father in law: What if I hate it?
My answer: Don’t say anything. I’ve got a lot going on. I probably won’t notice.
He’s never mentioned the books again. Unfortunately, it’s become glaringly obvious.
Random man at a mall signing: Bestseller, yeah, right. What best seller list have you ever been on?
Random drunk woman at a book group: These women don’t grab life by the ass. Do you grab life by the ass? (Does life want to be grabbed by the ass or would life slap me, and, perhaps, rightfully so?)
Random question at a Q and A: Are you frail or do you just look frail? You like you could die of consumption on a moor, coughing into a hankie.
One thing was clear: For a writer used to sitting in a room alone for hours, going public was going to be tricky for me and for my unwitting parents.
First of all, it was my mother’s natural inclination to tell everyone she met that she was the mother in the novel. She beamed, “The mother is me! It’s so wonderful!” This, I had to explain, confused people – friends, neighbors, fellow airplane passengers, a group of Harley Davidson riders she met in a hotel lobby in Montana.
I said, ever so gently, “People will think that dad had an affair with a redheaded bankteller. They’ll think we caught him in the act. They’ll wonder why he has two legs and isn’t a gynecologist.” This didn’t phase her. I hadn’t wanted to say the harshest truth, but now I was forced to. “They’ll think you were raised in Bayonne, New Jersey.”
And so she stopped.
And then came the critics. As a writer, I was used to criticism, but my parents weren’t. If it was positive, the reviewer was a smart cookie, not as smart as their daughter, of course, but close. If negative, the critic was obviously a jealous-crazed idiot with a personal vendetta. If my mother had had Abby Frucht’s mother’s number after that Washington Post review, well, she’d have gotten an earful, let me tell you.
But this is nothing, really, compared to the personal comments that their friends began to make.
“I just don’t see any reason to use foul language in books or in life. Why would she use such horrible words?” one of my mother’s prudish friends said.
Although my mother once invented the term “triple asshole”, she doesn’t curse much. But she told me later that it came quite naturally. She’d had a gin and tonic, but enunciated it clearly, gingerly, “Well, fuck you.”
My father kept his hands in his pockets and smiled. He watched my mother slam back into the trailer then added, “I think you know what those words mean, don’t you? If not, I can further explain.”
(Did this really happen? Did my mother actually say fuck-you? Did my father offer to explain it? Did I dream it up? My parents would say, “Yes, she’s a fiction writer! Who cares what’s true or not! Fiction! Isn’t it wonderful!”)
After the (let’s say: supposed) fuck-you incident, my mother decided she needed to do research. She remembered an old National Geographic with Faulkner’s mother in it. She handed me the article and talked me through it. “When Faulkner’s mother was attacked at a bridge group by a woman who said she didn’t like it that Faulkner was writing about the folks in town, Mrs. Faulkner simply said, ‘My son writes what he has to.’ I’m going to use that from now on.”
This didn’t help, however, when I was booed by three hundred Jewish women from a Haddassah group on Long Island where Victoria Gotti got top billing. (The fact that I was talking in the same line up as Victoria Gotti should have been an indication that I might have been in the wrong place.) While talking about the importance of personal memoirs, I called them “an older audience” and the place erupted. They’d been eating dessert, the mic was bad. I was shocked they’d heard me at all. They were older than me by an average of forty years. They didn’t boo Victoria Gotti, by the way, who bragged about her “award-winning article after September 11th called ‘Bomb those Bastards.’”My mother still brings it up, sometimes over bagels.
Still and all, this was a small price to pay, and we moved on, looked forward to bright horizons, new days, good things to come. But what we didn’t know was that it was about to take a turn for the worst. My mother’s own book group was turning on her. It would prove to be a near-fatal blow.
I’d been on national and international book tours, NPR, French news, but my mother’s book group is elite. My mother had been a founding member when in 1963 they first met to discuss The Group. They have short stylish haircuts, for the most part. They serve rich desserts from the local bakery. They’re mostly my mother’s age, except for a young lesbian – a fact that most of the members have never quite grasped – who works at the local bookstore and handles the orders. They bicker endlessly about the autobiographical nature of every book, which causes some bewilderment when it comes to novels like Memoirs of a Geisha. What else? They smell very nice.
The fact that my second novel had been out for about six months when I was invited to give a talk should have made me question the suspicious lag time, but I said I’d be happy to come. A week later, however, I was at a neighborhood get together and was chatting with another founding member, a straight-shooting Texan, who informed me that it had been a split vote on whether to have me or not, but that she, personally, was looking forward to it. My mother hadn’t been at that meeting, obviously.
“A split vote?”
“People already know you,” the Southerner explained. “They know your story.”
It was one of those awful moments. My face must have dropped – like my father’s expression at that eventual, unavoidable dinner party when the carpet padding had worn down to an unforgiving thinness and the egg didn’t bounce but cracked and seeped into the shag.
I called my mother later that day. “You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” I told her with grave sincerity. “Which is to say that, evidently, they knew that I once peed my pants in second grade and can’t take anything I say very seriously.”
“A split vote?”
“I can’t go,” I told her. “Even if only one person didn’t want me to be there, I couldn’t go. But half?”
My mother was completely betrayed. She said, “Don’t worry about it. You aren’t worrying about it, are you? Don’t. It isn’t worth your time.” But I could tell she wasn’t going to be able to let it go. There was this angry shake to her voice. “Their loss. They’ll regret it.”
But I wasn’t so sure they would regret it, frankly. Although I’m convinced that my mother believes that my elementary school teachers spend their days lamenting, “How could I not have seen the genius in that little Baggott girl? How could I have been so blind?” I can’t quite buy it.
“You’re brilliant,” my mother went on, “brilliant and they simply don’t get it.”
And, here, I stopped her, because she’s buoyed me up for years, whether I wanted it or not. Both of them – my mother telling the suspicious bus driver who rode down in front of my house one day and beeped, belligerently, “No, she’s not feeling her normal perky self, not today!” and my father that wry angel in Polyblends comparing bongs to the delicate nature of certain 1960s vacuum cleaners. “No,” I said, “you’re brilliant, you and dad. And they are jealousy-crazed idiots with personal vendettas. We will not harden our hearts to them, but know that they suffer a paranoid insanity not because of books, but because they have witnessed the glowing love that I have for you, a mother among mothers, a queen, and dad, father among fathers, a king. Have they ever inspired such love? No. Not possible. They are triple assholes, and we will rebound like eggs bouncing off new DuPont carpet padding. I come from the best stock in the world.” I told her, “A pack of wild geniuses, and how could they ever understand that?”