Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review: "Sleep Before Evening" by Magdalena Ball

Maggie Ball is a guest poster on this site, and I hope she noticed the hazing that our colleague Craig Alan Williamson got on these pages for his “college comedy.” Welcome to the boys’ club, Maggie. But we were expecting you to bring the fun and games. Instead, we get grief, from a woman who is both a looker and a thinker.

Chick lit, it’s not, convenient as that would have been for the sake of contrast to the boychik variety. No, what we have here is a full-on rush of ambitious literary fiction. That it largely succeeds as such is no consolation to horny but bookish males hoping for a bit of fluff or a few chuckles while killing time in the airport departure lounge.

Her central character, seventeen-year-old Marianne Cotton, doesn’t have a problem—she has onion-like layers of them—each drawing its quota of weeping as it is rudely stripped off to reveal more of the same beneath. And she seemed like such a nice, bright girl from the burbs, most likely to succeed, even if she’s headed for the success-starved achievements of the liberal arts.

It all starts when Marianne’s godlike grandfather, who is her chess master and father-substitute, croaks. No clean death, this. He suffers a devastating stroke (as she watches) and lingers on painlessly (for him) until his tormented daughter (Marianne’s mother Lily) decides to pull the plug. Except she doesn’t bother to ask Marianne. That’s major life crisis number one (unless you count the time her natural father took a hike when she was three).

To this point, Marianne has been an A-student out on politely competitive Long Island, bound for NYU with a scholarship and earnest plans to major in music. (Grandpa was fond of quoting Wittgenstein to her, so we guess she will also minor in philosophy with no strain.)

Propelled by her grief over the loss of the only sane man in her life, Marianne goes into socioeconomic free-fall. It seems all she has to do is set foot on the Long Island Railroad and inevitably she’s spiraling down into the rock music and drug culture of lower Manhattan. A creepy-sexy harmonica player named Miles is her undoing, and he does a helluva job, deflowering her and getting her hooked on horse, not necessarily in that order (or maybe simultaneously—she doesn’t seem to notice or care).

Life as a junkie and a wannabe groupie isn’t glamorous or fun, although at times Marianne seems to think it’s all she deserves. She delights in high-life sex with Miles, although unfortunately for voyeuristic male readers, we have to take her word for it—there’s no graphic content here.

What follows for much of the book is a whipsawing of agony and ecstasy as Marianne struggles to scrape up enough cash to cop and occasionally also eat. Bukowski comes to mind—no glamorous existence there, either. (Some practitioners of fratire don’t seem to grasp this, fascinated as they seem to be with the puke on their own shoes. Ah, well.)

Oh, it’s an artful whipsawing, in that the narrative respects the rhythms of the reader’s expectations. Just when we think Marianne will get smart and win back some self respect, she gets knocked down, someone dies, she gets a bad dose, she catches her boyfriend in flagrante with the band hag, and so on. (Fiction isn’t life. In its contrived worlds, as in the movies, people rise, suffer, and die on cue, even to a beat. It has to be that way—art is artifice, after all.)

Just when Marianne has been beaten to a bloody pulp, she winds up in rehab, and there begins the arduous climb back toward reconciliation with her mother and the middle class. Late in the book as she starts to spill it in psychotherapy, we begin to appreciate (as she does) what precipitated her fall. Up until now, she’s blamed the inept other men in her life—her father and her mother’s subsequent string of loser lovers, along with the infamous Miles and an all-male cast of criminals, dope dealers, and sleazy employers.

But here comes the epiphany: All along she’s been disappointed by the lack of love and attention from her mother, a self-absorbed painter with a manic-depressive lifestyle. Marianne’s image of herself has been reflected through her mother’s neuroses, and they both have to get through, and past, that core issue.

So, relax, guys. You may be crass, sleazy, opportunistic, and inept. But you’re not at fault.

This time, you'll have to let the women work it out.

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