The Liar’s Wife
By Mary Gordon
288 pages, $25.95
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“The Liar’s Wife” is the first in a series of four novellas in a new work by acclaimed writer Mary Gordon.
A novella is usually described as a short novel. It is a piece of fiction, more complicated than a story, but without the extended subplots and various points of view of a longer work. Usually, it can be read in one sitting. That is, if it is interesting. And Gordon is at her best in her latest.
“The Liar’s Wife,” the title piece in the book, is about an Irish “charmer,” Johnny Shaughnessy, a 75-year-old boyish Dubliner, who shows up by parking an old Frito-Lay truck across from his former wife’s house 50 years after their divorce. He’s with his “girlfriend,” Linnet, who’s a bleached-blond with “bad teeth and big boobs.” They’ve been traveling and singing gigs across the country as a duo, calling themselves Dixie and Dub.
Johnny’s ex-wife, Jocelyn Wilkinson, is a prim WASP-type, remarried to a lawyer named Richard Bernstein, who practices intellectual property law. Jocelyn is definitely not interested in Johnny’s revisit – at first. In fact, it was she who left him – deserted him – less than two years into their marriage. She came home to the States from Dublin. She couldn’t stand his lying, telling “soft” untruths born of Irish embarrassment so as “not to hurt her,” as he put it.
Well, she was hurt by it. He may have been the seducer, but she took some pride in being the abandoner.
Now, all this time later, Jocelyn stays on in the old, expensive house left her by her parents in New Canaan, Conn. She had been enjoying herself with a glass of wine on a summer evening, seemingly at peace after a life of enough accomplishment to satisfy most people. Her children are grown and she’s remarried. Between her husband and herself, they own three properties. This is the point at which Johnny requests entry into her life again. He uses Linnet as a wedge: having her stand at Jocelyn’s front door as his surrogate, to request entry for him.
This rude interruption raises old passions. If the truth were told, Jocelyn loved Johnny at first. Lust and love were mixed, when she thought of his charms.
As Johnny gained grudging entry to her living room again, a vague mutuality grows among them, with the odd pair asking if they can stay the evening before they leave for the airport and Ireland in the morning.
Even more, Johnny invites Jocelyn to have supper with them at an Italian restaurant in a decidedly-not-posh part of town. Johnny will do a gig there for their dinner. And he’s informed the owner that he’ll introduce Jocelyn to him. Johnny whispers to him that Jocelyn had slept years ago with his old friend, Mick Jagger. What a whopper, Jocelyn thinks as she hears of this before the evening is out.
Why is Johnny going back to Dublin? Linnet confides to Jocelyn: He has cancer from a career of smoking Marlboros, and no health insurance in the States. In Ireland, he’ll get medical treatment, much good that it will do him.
There is a wonderful “about face” at the end of this long story. It is a reflection on what constitutes truthfulness. Whether it was Yogi Berra or some Irish wit who first said, “Half the lies they be telling about us aren’t true,” it is the theme of this pertinent insight into human nature and what constitutes a happy life.
Next there’s the long story, “Simone Weil in New York,” a piece of fiction about Weil, the French philosopher (1909–1943) at the end of her life. A former student, Genevieve Le Clos, now Genevieve Levy, the wife of Dr. Howard Levy, away fighting in the South Pacific in 1943, notices Weil, standing on Riverside Drive. Weil seems “unfit, unsuited, with her black cape, flapping trousers, and white hand, holding down her black beret.”
Genevieve is afraid of the moment of meeting Weil. The reason? “The War has stolen whole lives. Whole cities. Ways of Living. But the sight of Mlle Weil reminds Genevieve that the loss had come before the war. Perhaps not a loss, rather a relinquishment. A gift freely given. A relinquishment, yes, but drawn up from a well of love.” Sound interesting? It’s a good read.
By the way, one is reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 remark from her prayer journal about Simone Weil recounted recently in the New York Review of Books by Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker. O’Connor was thinking about writing a novel about a Weil-like character. She wrote to a friend about the possibility: “What is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?”
Still another novella, “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana,” is about the German Nobel novelist, Thomas Mann (1875–1955) “opening the heart of a high school kid in the Midwest.” This novella takes place in 1939, when Bill, a 17-year-old, “the son of a happy family in safe America, which, though battered by the Depression, was still, if not one of the fortunate isles, at least a sheltered cove … undevastated by Hitler or his bombs.”
Young Bill tells the reader what has been told him at school: “You have been chosen. Those were the first words I heard. I’d been called to the principal’s office and at first I assumed I was in some kind of trouble … You have been chosen as the student host for the great German writer Thomas Mann, whom we at Horace Mann High School have the honor of presenting, thanks to the Hauptmanns here … a great honor, a great honor all around.” The writer had fled Hitler’s Germany, leaving all his possessions.
Bill is apprised by Mrs. Hauptmann, his French teacher, whose husband was a student of Signore Borghese, Mann’s son-in-law, that he will introduce Thomas Mann at the high school assembly. The story, with Thomas Mann “opening the heart” of his student friend, is a primer to a “finer world” for the young man in prewar Indiana.
The last novella, “Fine Arts,” concerns an American grad student, Theresa Riordan, who goes away to Italy at age 25, after her first love affair. “On the train from Pisa to Lucca, Theresa looked up the word “weak” in her Italian-English dictionary. Debole. She said the word to herself. Then she made a noun of it. Debolezza. Weakness.”
Theresa had gone through something with a man, and it was the kind of thing that neither her mother nor the nuns who had taught her would understand, explains Mary Gordon. Theresa was their special girl, their prize.
A word about Mary Gordon: she’s has written seven novels, and two memoirs that include “Circling My Mother,” received a Guggenheim fellowship and is the recipient of an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“The Liar’s Wife” glints with Gordon’s enduring mettle: She draws from the dross of everyday life, a hidden gold.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of fiction.