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Growing Up Absurd

THE TERRITORY OF MEN: A Memoir, By Joelle Fraser, Villard: 226 pp., $22.95

September 08, 2002|LAURA CLARIDGE | Laura Claridge is the author, most recently, of the biography "Norman Rockwell: A Life."

In her memoir, "The Territory of Men," Joelle Fraser recounts what it was like to be a child of flower children, pretty much left to raise herself while her parents steered their own course of personal fulfillment. But premature exposure to illicit adult worlds--watching marijuana haze encircle the hot tubs of groping couples, studying the bonhomie born of unlimited supplies of liquor and coke--ends up secondary to the most significant legacy of Fraser's childhood, that hidebound convention whereby the worth of a woman's life is measured by the presence of a man in it.

Her prose is cool, precise and elegant. It is, in fact, the ideal writerly style to contain oversized passions that exceed the norms of polite society. In "The Kiss," Kathryn Harrison polished even the spaces between her sentences to encompass the shock of "consensual" incest. Mary Ladd Gavell articulated in neat, tight phrases the sometimes forbidden and often contradictory yearnings for freedom in her short stories about being a good mother, wife, daughter, aunt.

Writing in the kind of territory inhabited by these admirable wordsmiths, Fraser included, requires a specific talent. How to achieve the reader's cooperation as the hero sympathizes with her family's unconventional choices, though we (and she) recoil from their consequences? Somehow, crafting poetic snippets of information, Fraser traces psychologically shrewd pictograms that convince her audience to be as forgiving of the key players as she apparently is.

Fraser's mother, beautiful and intelligent, left her feckless but charming surfer husband in Hawaii to return with her toddler to San Francisco in 1967. Back in California, however, she quickly found her self-worth dependent upon having a man by her side at all times. To her credit, she usually chose men who treated Joelle kindly, even paternally.

The exception was particularly bad: a live-in lover who fondled the young child until she broke down and told her mother. Seeing the woman grow "tense with rage," Joelle realizes that "she had chosen me over him, and I felt a love for her so big I wasn't sure I could hold it inside. She reached over and held my hand, squeezing it tightly, enough so that it hurt, but I didn't mind a bit."

If the author knew that she could depend on her mother in a crisis, she also recognized that faced with the ordinary, tedious tasks of parenthood, that same person often opted out. When Joelle was a teenager, her mother would disappear to spend the night at a new boyfriend's place; sometimes the adolescent would return from school to find the defeated woman sprawled in a drunken stupor in the living room.

Perhaps predictably, given the subject, the compelling portraits in this book are of the male company that her mother keeps. From Fraser's own father to the well-meaning, warm Mac to Tom, the evil bully, each man comes to life under the writer's spare but gentle appraisal. Fraser romanticizes her parent into a highly gifted, charismatic, drunken novelist who, it is implied, has to be forgiven his inability to tend to anyone but himself. Fathers teased with their love; it was real but it lacked strings.

If the author's mother, raising the children, is indicted, however gently, for her sins of commission, the largely absent father is held barely accountable for being missing in action. Sharp-eyed, preternaturally observant as a child, Fraser maintains throughout her youth a tendency to exculpate the men while withholding such clemency from her mother. An eerie sense prevails that the adult author also endorses psychologically--helplessly--the debilitating beliefs she intellectually eschews.

It's a paradox that never fails to sting: the liberation to do one's own thing often shortchanges justice, especially for the children dependent upon adults' sacrifices for their mental and physical health. Far from being a populist way of life, the social forms of the late '60s and '70s look oddly elitist the further we get from them.

By the end of "The Territory of Men," where we glimpse Fraser's failed early marriage and her tendency to be appeased by emotionally dangerous liaisons, the point is clear: The writer expects her future relationships with men to be messy and self-destructive. Even Fraser's reserved prose, meting out a lush story as much in the silent moments as in the presence of words, suggests her worried sense of her own future.

Only by demythologizing the male territory and transforming the equation she grew up with--the emotionally demanding, needy woman; the kindly, well-intentioned man whose attractiveness depends in turn upon freedom from attachment--will she be able to make decisions from a different playing field. Her book's dedication to both parents and to her brothers from various parental pairings somehow implies such a redemption in the offing.

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