Everything that he’d forgotten was still real and immediate to them – the prom, the lake, the yearbook, Miss Balsam’s third grade class. Had lived his life without looking back, and he’d been happy. Had their disappointment made them dwell on the past, as a kind of consolation?
Brace yourselves, my blogging worlds are about to collide.
I’ve been talking a lot about “narratives” in connection with Project Runway lately. One contestant in particular, Michelle, has a personal narrative I find fascinating; I just said last week that nothing can shake her personal narrative of “I’m producing great work, it’s the fault of my teammates’ lousy work that I’m not winning any challenges” when, prior to last week, there was no evidence of that whatsoever to viewers (though PR loves to play with heads, both contestants’ and viewers’) . I see Michelle as the designated “star” of the show, because: “articulate cluelessness is the coin of the reality show realm.”
Works here for Paul Theroux’s main character, too.
In some ways Ray Testa is presented by the early paragraphs of the story as your basic flawed-but-decent guy, a dentist on the plus side of middle age in the grips of something too powerful to resist: an attraction to his adorable young dental hygienist, Shelby, that remains unspoken for seven years until she announces she’s thinking of leaving.
“You can’t leave. I love you.”
She didn’t smile. She swallowed air and said that she had feelings for him, too. Then, “What about Angie?”
The thing is: this follows the opening paragraph at Ray and Shelby’s wedding, at which he boasts he’s younger than his father-in-law. It’s like the story zigzags back and forth between reality, and Ray’s personal narrative. But the reader is firmly grounded in his eeewy-ness from the start.
The bloodlessness of the above revelation of passion revealed struck me as important. It seemed like a negotiation over salary or benefits rather than the unleashing of romantic yearning. Cut to discarded-wife Angie, who’s reaction is also bloodless – at least, initially: “Why didn’t you leave me years ago when I might have met someone who really cared for me?”
He hadn’t imagined that she’d object in this peevish way, for such a coldly practical reason – because his timing was inconvenient for her. He’d thought she was going to tell him how much she’d miss him, how miserable she’d be without him, not that she might have been better off with someone else.
You gotta admire a guy with a personal narrative so strong, he blames his wife for not missing him when he dumps her for a younger woman. No, “admire” is definitely the wrong word – marvel?
I jotted in the margin at this point: “Practical women. Deluded man.” But in the next paragraph, the game shifts again, as Angie gets a lot less bloodless:
As she stared at him, her eyes went black and depthless, and she seemed to swell physically, as though with malevolence. Ray expected a shout, but her voice was the confident whisper of a killer to his helpless victim. “I know I should say I wish you well, but I wish you ill, with all my heart. I’ve made it easy for you. I hope you suffer now with that woman who’s taken you from me. These women who carry on with married men are demons.”
So this is the pattern I’m left seeing throughout: reality is presented to the reader for evaluation, followed by Ray’s take. There’s also this hint of supernaturalism. It’s never overt, but to me it’s clear from the moment Angie’s eyes went black and depthless that something unusual is going on. Come on, when was the last time you saw the word “malevolent” in a purely realistic story?
A few months into their marriage, Ray talks Shelby into accompanying him to his 40th high school reunion, which is when things really start heading, um, south. Several women he’d groped as a teenager drop by to greet him – acidly – and remind him of his tendency to shove teenage girls up against walls and stick his tongue down their throats and his hands up their sweaters.
He remembered these women’s flesh and he sorrowed for what they had become, parodies of the girls he’d known.
Ray had known them as girls. They were almost old women now – older than him, he felt, for their look of abandonment, tinged with anger.
It’s one thing to evaluate women on the basis of their attractiveness. Of course Ray does that; we know him now, on Page 2, and that’s who he is; we expect it. But it’s also the contrast between his memory of the events – what used to be called “copping a feel” in the days of sex-by-bases, before hooking up became part of the landscape for 14-year-olds – and that of the women. And the coldness of his evaluation that they’re no longer the youngsters he forced himself on.
…he remembered the rowboat at Canobie Lake the fumbled kiss, the way he had gripped Roberta as she snatched at his hands. And Annie – the summer night on her porch, her arms folded over her breasts, and “Don’t, please.” And when Maura returned with the drinks he recalled the back seat of his father’s car at the drive-in, the half pint of Four Roses, and her “Cut it out.” Horrible.
He still doesn’t get it. What was “horrible” about those incidents, for Ray, was the “cut it out” just as his wife’s reaction to his abandonment of her disappointed him. The women involved have a different kind of “horrible.” And they’re finally letting him know about it.
Ray’s life goes downhill from the reunion, with more abused and mistreated women showing up regularly, often at inopportune moments, to disrupt his life.
He wanted to tell her that most people have flawed pasts, have acted selfishly at some point in their lives, and then moved on. New experiences take the place of old ones, new memories, better memories; and all the old selves become interred in a forgetfulness that is itself merciful. This was the process of aging, each new decade burying the previous one; that long-ago self was a stranger.
But all that these women had was the past. They dragged him back into it, into their ritual of on fulfillment, with these endless visitations – old women, old loves, old objects of desire with faces like a bruised fruit.
Shelby finally has enough, and leaves, carving out attractive terms for herself. I’m interested in hers and Angie’s role in all this. Angie didn’t seem to mind Ray’s history until she herself was discarded. I wonder if that’s because she didn’t know about it, or if she just was enjoying the benefits of being a dentist’s wife and didn’t want to think about it. In that way, she shared a kinship with Shelby. The last paragraph hints at some kind of collusion between the two women: Was Shelby in on it all along? Were they all? I’m unable to parse it at this time.
The story reminded me a bit of Tony Earley’s “Jack and the Mad Dog” in which Jack of folklore fame is surrounded by all the sweet young things he’d deflowered in hundreds of stories. It’s pretty much a standard revenge tale, I suppose, but I like the added element of Ray’s persistent blindness to the wrongness of his behavior, and the careful balance between realistic and supernatural elements.
Theroux’s Page Turner interview mentions his use of The Furies, and what he calls his “small-town version” of “maddened goddesses of the underworld rising up in indignation to punish injustice.” Still, the story plays the edges very carefully (at one point during the reunion, Maura insists on getting a drink for Ray and Shelby, which adds a touch of sinister, hinting at some kind of potion) never coming down firmly on the side of realism vs. supernaturalism.
I’m going to guess women will like this story a lot more than men do. For obvious reasons.