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Book Review : A Novel of Mostly Sexual Secrets in a Small N.J. Town

February 25, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Bobby-Soxer by Hortense Calisher (Doubleday: $17.95)

Since this is a book about family and legend and antecedents, perhaps it's best to mention first this novel's own literary cousins: Hortense Calisher here employs the laconic "Southernisms" of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Conner and Sallie Bingham, and the glittering sexual strangeness of Djuna Barnes in her "Nightwood." Nothing in this novel is as it seems, and no one person is who or what he or she seems.

To read "The Bobby-Soxer" is to continue to unlock secret after secret. It requires all the reader's patience and good humor, since Calisher is not above shamelessly fooling the reader, and an observer made time after time to feel like a fool is apt to become sulky, obdurate and no longer interested in these intricate plot turns. "Oh, you figure it out!" is apt to be the response here, but if you love fine prose and an intricate puzzle, "The Bobby-Soxer" may be just the ticket for several pleasing and decadent evenings.

Big and Beautiful

What we know about the narrator of "The Bobby-Soxer" is that she is big , way over six feet, and very beautiful. She has an artist's eye, but will not be a painter. As she tells us the story of her own life's evolution, and the story of her small New Jersey town and the interlocking tales of relatives and friends, we are assured again and again that there are layers of things; that just as we think we have the way of things down pat, we're apt to be proved wrong.

So much here depends on these "discoveries" that it's a breach of manners to tell much of anything that's going on in this novel. This daughter/narrator thinks she knows: that she's tall; that her brother is (tiny) Tim; that her mother is Southern and loves to recline and eat chocolates; that her dapper father has a "mistress" in the city. The giantess also knows that her family (such as it is) is surrounded or flanked by a dour grandma with a secret on the third floor of her old family home; that there are, as well, materialistic neighbors in town who wish to "better themselves" by acquiring property, and a blind couple next door who teach Braille and see what the rest of us cannot.

Then . . . a "famous" playwright, Craig Towle, who was born in this place (in the raffish, worn-down old section called Cobble Town), comes back, to dredge this little city for material for a new play. Towle is quite the womanizer; he cuts a very, very, very wide swath through these pages. He's left his wife, he takes a mistress in town, then marries the 19-year-old "bobby-soxer" (to find more material for his plays?), then he has a few more affairs.

And people begin to change sexual preference the way workers change trains in the Tokyo rush hour. Nothing is as it seems! If, in town, all these houses and front yards and trees look the same--if the town lives on decorum and convention . . . at the same time almost everyone in town knows everything about everyone else, but not all at once. (Again, if I am not specific here, it's out of respect for the pains Ms. Calisher has taken to keep her novel under as many wraps as a Christmas package done up by your crazy old grandma.)

Leona or Leo

The one open secret is that the person who lived on the grandmother's third floor is androgynous: half-man, half-woman, alternately Aunt Leona or a nice fellow named Leo.

It is the story of this "monster" that brings Towle back (although why he'd want to stoop to the kind of research he does is another question. Why doesn't he just check out "Nightwood" and other tales of that ilk from the library?)

Calisher's tale explores this kind of hold that certain men have on women. She touches on the often callous use that artists make of ordinary people (the Bobby-Soxer herself comes to a very bad end). And Calisher also reminds us that the family does not have to be heterosexual and four-personed to be correct and useful: Affection flowers everywhere, if we let it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that "The Bobby-Soxer" suffers an affliction of fancy prose: "Though still a pack of a certain sort," the narrator remarks about a group of young people, "their eyes were long with the knowledge of the best books proffered, and perhaps slighted, but in an atmosphere of all the socially proper oratories being sung." Whether this is flaw or ornamentation is ultimately up to the individual reader.

But for a book that addresses itself to questions of modernity, much of the material here, especially the sexual adventurism, seems curiously dated.

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