Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]




At Home in the World
By Joyce Maynard
Picador, 1998

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 buy land."

-- 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 lived."

-- 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.

Order At Home in the World from Amazon.com.

Other titles by Joyce Maynard.

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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 and Literatures.

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