Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Soulful Struggle With Loss, Loneliness

THE LADY WHO LIKED CLEAN RESTROOMS: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured About Around New York by J.P. Donleavy Illustrations by Elliott Banfield; St. Martin's Press $18.95, 132 pages

June 27, 1997|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here is a story that will not seem strange to anyone who has ever lived in New York, "bourse of the world where even a smile has a price," as J.P. Donleavy describes it.

A middle-aged woman, Jocelyn Jones, married to a "strong, silent husband, who wasn't so strong nor silent," finds herself the victim of his predictable philandering. He wants a divorce, she wants $165,000 and the house in Scarsdale, worth three-quarters of a million dollars.

"Revenge is what I want," she says, after firing both barrels from her Purdy shotgun at the television set, "But my mother brought me up to be a lady." (There is no doubt, by the end of this novella, that that is exactly what she is. A reader might even go so far as to regret that she ever crossed the Mason-Dixon line, against her stately Southern grandmother's advice, to marry a nouveau riche Northerner.)

Jocelyn spends her days wandering museums and galleries in New York, all the while looking for clean restrooms, a bottom line enforced by her grandmother, whose voice she hears in her ear: "My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean restrooms will do." This is the voice that taught Jocelyn how to be a lady, with or without the money.

And a good thing, too. She picks the wrong investment advisor, loses all of the money, moves to Yonkers and works as a waitress. She adjusts to the poverty, but not to the loneliness, and on the brink of suicide is informed that an elderly man who has spotted her in a funeral parlor (one with a particularly clean restroom) on the Upper East Side has left her his enormous fortune. This news does not pull her from the brink, at least as far as we know.

Now Donleavy, as the millions of fans of "The Ginger Man," which he wrote about 40 years ago will attest, has his ticks. An Irishman, his style is a strange and wonderful combination of Chekhov and P.G. Wodehouse. His use of grammar is troublesome, and he must have cowed more than one cretinous editor into submission. He shoots off at the mouth from time to time as though he were drinking heavily while writing a particular passage and wants to pick a fight with the reader (or an area rug, for that matter). For example: "The misery of the feminist backlash over the whole . . . country was whipping everybody into bloody wretched-minded submission either feminizing men or making them into bigger bastards than they were." But he can just as easily slip into soulful, heart-piercing scenarios, all the more touching for the ramrod spine of the novella's plot and its main character.

Despite her great fall, her tawdry loneliness, Polish vodka and Mahler, Donleavy has created a character of enormous force and dignity, one certain to be mowed down or worn down in the modern world. It would not be so bad, fortunes yes or no, to die like her. It cheers me up, this book. It is not conventional.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|