[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]
At Home in the World
By Joyce Maynard
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
"I want to be happy. And I want comfort and the feeling
that I'm doing some little thing that matters. I feel a sudden desire to
-- Joyce Maynard, "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," The
New York Times Magazine (1972).
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to
front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not
-- Henry David Thoreau,Walden (1854).
These are the words of two Yankees, separated by time, gender, and neediness,
but landsmen, a term of highest approbation J.D. Salinger once applied to
Maynard and himself, in spirit. This statement is absurd on the face of
it, but Maynard never stays on the face of it and she encourages the reader
to look beneath the surface as well. Everything is fair game in this book
and reading these gutsy confessions is enervating and energizing.
Maynard confesses all, from her precocious longing for world-shine and all-encompassing
ability to dissemble, to her breast implants, which gave her an instant
40-inch bust. She made me squirm with her descriptions of "Jerry"
Salinger's sexual preferences and her admissions of her own bad mothering
and neurosis when she became stressed. Henry David scolds from aloft, but
disparages his country and town neighbors generally, instead of by name,
complains about the materialism of tiny Concord, Mass. and mistrusts trains.
As far as I can recall, he was a lifelong bachelor who may as well have
been virginal, for all he seems to care about sex.
Still, I think Henry David and Joyce would have liked each other. And if
Maynard had been strong enough, less afflicted by boundless self-inflicted
talent and love of the damned human race, she might have been happier following
her landsman's lead, ignoring the wolf whistle of early fame.
To back up, Maynard's course was laid out for her like a horoscope long
before she appeared to know it. The child of demanding and brilliant parents,
her youthful writing, drawing, and acting were piteously praised and documented.
Her family, composed of her Jewish mother, Fredelle, her dashing, but alcoholic,
Gentile father, Max, herself, and her conflicted sister Rona, wrote the
book on dysfunctionality. But they also doted on and rewarded their children
with attention, enabling them in both the best and worst senses of that
word to achieve throughout their lives. Late in the book, Maynard reveals
that they sometimes kept a tape recorder running under the table when they
chatted at dinner -- so desperate were they to preserve the brilliance.
And the entire family saved letters -- probably much to Salinger's dismay.
The 500-pound gorilla of Maynard's treatment of her short, but deep relationship
with J.D. Salinger must be dealt with first, I think, so that one can appreciate
the more important parts of this book. Not until the "Afterword"
does Maynard offer any rationale or excuse for her use of paraphrased letters
from the great one. (Salinger had already successfully sued and quashed
a biographer for quoting letters the biographer had obtained from public
sources, so Maynard works from memory and paraphrase.) She says:
[T]his is a book about a woman's life, and about shame and
secret-keeping. But after this book was published, many people expressed
the view that since my story involved that of a great man who demands not
to be spoken of, I owed him my silence.
After suffering through agonizingly detailed descriptions of his eccentric
and Puritanical eating habits, his complete phoniness, his perverse "grooming"
of a series of 18-year-old girls (at least four beyond herself, according
to Maynard) whom he would love and dismiss cruelly, I was happy to have
Joyce's reiteration of something I had been saying to myself throughout
-- "It was YOUR life too." The fact that she was 18 and unlaunched
and he in his 50s, already powerful, famous, and self-exiled when he wooed
her with letters and persuaded her to drop out of college and live with
him should not give him priority rights to their story together. I nearly
cheered when she writes:
One day I hope some feminist scholar will examine the way
in which a woman's recounting of her history is so often ridiculed as self-absorbed
and fundamentally unimportant... One need not look far for examples of male
writers who have written freely and with no small measure of self-absorption
about the territory of personal experience, who are praised for their courage
and searing honesty.
The situation is in fact reminiscent of the highly publicized ordeal surrounding
writers Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich. After his premature death, Dorris
was accused of molesting at least some of his adopted children. Louise Erdrich,
his wife, was then plunged into a terrible dilemma. Other writers, admirers
of Dorris and detractors alike, joined the fray in print. Since I believe
that some of the charges were difficult if not impossible to prove, what
was the correct stance? Should an enormous evil be forgiven because the
perpetrator was not around to protect himself? Similarly, should Maynard
keep silent (as she did for three decades) to preserve Salinger's metaphorical
gravesite? I'm glad she didn't. But gut-wrenching and formative as they
were in Maynard's life, the Salinger years are not the real focus of At
Home in the World.
The most valuable part of this book, and a reason I would recommend it to
any budding writer, is her fastidious record of becoming the writer she
is. Partly natural, partly painfully synthesized by her doting parents,
her talent burst from her at the age of eighteen. As she herself admits
(she publishes The NYTimes Magazine story that ushered in her fame
in the back of At Home in the World ) she was writing beyond her
depth and with an assumed sophistication she had not yet developed or earned.
Still, the writing is natively wise. She writes about sex as if she's had
it, while, in fact, losing her virginity becomes a struggle as she suffers
from an inability to relax the muscles of her vagina enough to allow penetration.
She is rather cagey about when and with whom she finally achieves coitus
-- which I found uncharacteristically coy. Later, she is forced to perform
fellatio for a cowboy in Nashville, but never reports the incident. Sex
with her self-centered artist husband Steve sounds enormously confusing.
In fact, her descriptions of her home life with their three children ranges
from the funny and gentle and Martha Stewart-ish domesticity which she regularly
projected in her early Family Circle articles to the frank and direct
and lurid exposés which got her "Domestic Affairs" syndicated
column dropped from several newspapers.
Once, in the throes of anorexia, which Maynard endured, along with bulimia,
for years, (neither disease had a well-known name yet), the writer casually
proposed an article about it to McCall's. She was promptly turned
down, the editor explaining that it was not really a widespread problem
and too bizarre for her readers.
Besides her honesty in explaining how this book came to be, Maynard has
guts. Her "soldiering on" in the face of the deaths of her parents,
the unreasonable restrictions set on her access to her mother by Fredelle's
second husband, and financial disappointments and setbacks will impress
any woman who is a single woman, whether by choice or misfortune. When she
ran short of money, she scrambled for jobs, used her early connections,
refused to run and hide, and wrote, wrote, wrote.
If there is one fault in the book, however, I think it is in Maynard's unintentional
irony. Once she has discovered that she was not Salinger's only Eliza Doolittle
figure, she goes to some effort to speak to anyone with knowledge of the
others. Thus, she finds the cast-off husband of one of Salinger's last conquest.
He is describing his marriage to this woman, Colleen, in bewilderingly glowing
terms while Maynard is thinking "as a person who has gone through a
divorce of my own, how one person's vision of their [sic] marriage can differ
from another's." I couldn't help but feel that the same might be said
of Salinger's (or Steve's) relationship with Maynard.
There is one last horrid confrontation scene between Maynard and Salinger.
It is pure, degraded soap opera stuff. After reading it, one feels the way
Hemingway once described an unwanted piece of information -- as if you had
opened the wrong hotel room door. I'm sure had I been Maynard I would have
had to make the attempt at understanding too. I'm not sure I had to read
it to help my closure. But a single observation, meant as an insult among
the truly mean and damaging vituperative descriptions Salinger hurls at
Maynard, serves, I think, to describe the double-edged trait that makes
At Home in the World so necessary and so painful to read. "The
trouble with you, Joyce," he (allegedly) says, "is you-love-the-world."
Even in the extreme crisis which is the prevailing mode of this memoir,
I think that truer words would be hard to find.
Home in the World from Amazon.com.
titles by Joyce Maynard.
Gay Davidson-Zielske is slowly returning to her birth name of Norma Gay
Prewett for writerly purposes. Recent work can be found under either name
in On the Road: Monologues (Heineman Publishers, 1999), Wisconsin
Poets' Calendar 2000, and Sunlight on the Moon, an anthology
by Carpenter Gothic. She is a member of and regular contributor to Mindseye
Radio Writing Collective, and can be heard on WORT-FM
radio second Mondays of each month from 1-2:00 pm. She lives and writes
in Madison, WI and teaches at the U of WI-Whitewater's Dept. of Languages
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