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Book Review : Fully Fleshed Lives in Sorry Surroundings

January 28, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Foxybaby by Elizabeth Jolley (Viking: $14.95)

Once again reminds us, as Robert Penn Warren said long ago, that "Whatever you live is life." You can be a husband with three kids in the suburbs or an adventurer jolting down the Amazon in a raft, with headhunters loping along the bank waiting eagerly for you to capsize: It doesn't matter , because whatever you live is life. Even more important, all life is fun, all life is interesting.

Elizabeth Jolley writes from this thesis, and lives it too. She's about as far away from Midtown Manhattan and Norman Mailer as it's possible to be: She lives not just in Australia but Western Australia. She presents herself as the opposite of "glamourous"; her jacket photograph shows a bespectacled lady a little past middle age, the kind of woman no one pays any attention to. Her first two books published in America, "Miss Peabody's Inheritance" and "Mr. Scobie's Riddle," deal respectively with a lonely spinster in a foul London flat taking care of her senile-dementia-case mother, and a crazed, Brand X nursing home in Western Australia where the only thing waiting for the criminally neglected, urine-soaked inhabitants is an ignominious, anonymous, unnoticed death--again, the kind of subject we'd all prefer to forget.

And yet the life in both those tales is breathtakingly funny, exquisitely heroic, as engrossing as a Buck Rogers serial--just the best, and so is the world here in "Foxybaby."

At least in her first two books, Jolley allowed herself some promising "nature" to work with--starry skies, great stands of eucalyptus and a verdant meadow or two--but here she is much more strict. The Western Australian wheat belt is shorn, forlorn stubble as this story opens; there is nothing to redeem it.

The place here is "Trinity College," a semi-deserted half-boarding house, half-hotel, rented out for weeks or months at a time to various weird and pitiful organizations. In this case, it's an ongoing seminar for overweight women, based on the doubtful premise that you can substitute "art" for calories and leave this fat farm an inspired, thinner person.

Of course, this is all madness, and Jolley's names show it: The "farm" is in "Broadbent" in the district of "Cheathem" (cheat 'em). The director is Miss Paycroft, since her only craft is to get fat, sad, forsaken ladies to pay for the opportunity to come there and get bilked.

And yet . . . one of the tutors, herself a spinster, forlorn and alone, with thick upper arms, is Alma Porch, who must live by teaching and by her pen, and so is forced by circumstance to spend her interterm giving a seminar comprising readings and videotapings of her own work-in-progress, "Foxybaby." Alma is only too aware that she's stuck in a modern-day leper colony. Her odious roommate is forever sniffling, constantly whining--an absolutely awful person banished to this place by her son-in-law. The other "students" range from dim to vacant. The only excitement here seems to be an ongoing lesbian orgy between Miss Paycroft and her moronic secretary, Miss Paisley.

A Shadow World

And yet . . . the daily readings of "Foxybaby" go on, each part taken by an obese and ugly, unloved and forgotten woman. And another world, a glamorous shadow world (just as in Jolley's first two novels), emerges. Under our gross, uncooperative fleshly shells, our souls still spark and shine. In spite of everything, manifestations of art begin to change the inner life of this miserable place.

And in another way, the daily life of Trinity College begins to change and become bearable. While the sun shines, these women are tortured by meals of raw carrots and tap water, but by night, thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Viggars, a woman gargantuan in body and soul, the students at the college creep down the backstairs to midnight feasts: "Shatto Birand Stakes" as the illiterate cook chalks it on the blackboard, and the inmates, imbibing Traminer Riesling, spatlese, and awaiting a dessert of strawberries and cream, are consoled.

Available to All

Good meals, good conversations, wine, friends and the daring arabesques of art--these are available to all of us, not just the thin and the rich, not even just the smart. Alma Porch, lonely spinster, artist in her soul, grasps this as she watches another tutor, a wretched Russian sculptor who deals in "found art" because that's the only material he can afford: "The sculpting, he said, should be a mixture of real life, a cry from the soul of a person, but with the weight of Thought and the beauty of Art. Miss Porch felt she would like to be a part of this. . . . She would like to handle something from the heap at the side of the shed and make from it something which could reveal more than its immediate appearance of being ugly, spoiled and discarded."

Of course, that's what Alma does, and what Elizabeth Jolley does, from the farthest shores of our civilized world. This is prose, thought and art of the highest elegance and quality. (And if her publishers in Australia read this, could they please think about sending over Jolley's glittering collection of short stories, "Women in a Lampshade"? Thanks.)

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