Oyster Boy Review 10  
  January 1999
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» Levee 67


Old Love: A Novel, by Margaret Erhart

Lucy Harrison

  Old Love: A Novel.
Margaret Erhart.
Steerforth Press, 1998.
246 pages, $13 (paperback).
ISBN: 1883642736

Let me preface this review by saying that I don't like trade paperbacks. They are those oversized paperbacks, more expensive and serious-looking than their $6.99 counterparts, slimmer and more disposable than hardcovers. I believe they are hybrids, bastardizations. As far as I'm concerned God made two kinds of books: paperbacks and hardcovers. The former are meant to be stuffed into overnight bags, read in frantic spurts on the bus or subway, or slowly, lying on a sand-gritted beach towel with the sun baking down and everything smelling of pina coladas and sun-tan lotion. Personally, I prefer to go a step lower than purchasing them, pristine and uncracked, at the chain bookstore or supermarket check-out. I prefer to go to the used paperback store and pick up a stack of them for fifty cents each—a dollar fifty for the classics—and take them all home and lay them out on my kitchen table and revel in the choices I have to make. They may be without covers, stained with the ring of someone's coffee cup, smelling faintly of mildew. It doesn't matter, you see: they're paperbacks.

Hardcovers, now, are a different kettle of fish entirely. These are the books you are given as presents, on Christmas or your birthday, even inscribed to you perhaps, with the date and occasion of giving. If you purchase them yourself, it is a decision to be weighed very carefully. Do I buy this now, is it worth my $29.99? Should I wait a year, or two, until it comes out in paperback? You heft the book in your hands, feeling the weight of it, the thickness of sturdy, cream-colored pages. Acid-free paper that will never blotch or turn brittle. It is a commitment, this hardcover book, something you will have on your shelf for years to come, something your children may one day take down and read for themselves, on a wet and gray-dripping morning when there is nothing else to do. I know not everybody is in awe of these books, as I am. My brother treats them just as I treat paperbacks. Much more intellectually inclined than I, he reads them with a full cup of coffee—two servings of espresso, hot milk, sugar, that he makes in a tall glass and drinks all at once—and smoking a cigarette. He underlines things, and with a pen. He buys them without thinking twice about it. Of course, the sort of books he reads don't often come in paperback.

But the trade paperback is somewhere between the two. You can't stuff it in your purse, although it goes well in a backpack. The cover may get ripped off, but the paper inside is meant to last. I do own a few trade paperbacks, and some I have liked very much—Snow Falling on Cedars, Beloved, Why Nothing Works—but overall they are meant, I think, to be read in coffeehouses and campus quads. They are trying so hard to be taken seriously.

I read this book, Old Love, for the second time while waiting for a hurricane. It was hurricane Georges, and I was alone in my apartment wondering if I ought to be going to the store, or boarding up my windows or something. I had no bottled water, no flashlight (or at least not one I could ever find) and no candles. I watched the weather channel and didn't believe that Georges was coming anywhere near me. The local newscasters warned that there was a possibility, it could happen, if Georges jogged north during the night then we could be in for some rough weather. Schools were closed, including mine. I began to wonder if it was me that was reacting inappropriately, if there actually was some danger and everybody else was right to be so worried about it. I sat in my apartment, reading this book and half-dreading, half-hoping for, the arrival of the storm. Part of me wanted it to come, nature in all its magnificent fury. I wanted swaying palm trees, breakers crashing across the beach and over the guardrails, water swirling feet deep through the streets. The other part of me hoped it would carry straight out into the Gulf and die there, unmourned and peaceful, gasping out its last breaths over deep, calm water.

You see, there's the logical, intellectual me, and then there's the me composed of baser feelings and emotions. And both of us read this book. And here's what we thought.

Intellectual Me: You have to admire this book. Ms. Erhart writes very well at times, very clearly. Some of her sentences are crystalline.

Emotional Me: I didn't like it.

IM: But you do understand that this lady knows how to write. And not only that, she's tackling a very tricky subject—Homosexuality within the American Family. She handles it well. These characters are well-rounded, fully developed.

EM: I still didn't like it. These people bored me silly. They're all supposedly thinking about sex all the damn time, but you never see them doing anything about it. They just sit there and get depressed.

IM: The structure of the book is well-laid out. Each chapter is told by one of the five main characters: Tommie, the mother; Frank, the father; Helen, the daughter; Brighton, the son; and Hal, the gay next-door-neighbor and best friend of Tommie. Each, in turn, tells his story, and the threads of the tale are woven together to form the tapestry that is the substance of the book.

EM: Hal's gay, Brighton's gay, Tommie's gay. And Helen and Frank have had some decidedly erotic feelings for their own sex, too. If I lived in their town, I'd be getting worried about drinking the water.

IM: Everybody's bisexual to a certain degree. You know that. Tommie discusses it with her son in the deli. "It's about this thing called sexual energy, which we all have. I think most of us have it most of the time, and who or what it goes to is basically irrelevant. Or haphazard. It doesn't much matter. It could go to this person or that, or this person one day and that one the next." You see? It's good psychological counseling.

EM: But it's not good fiction. Good fiction is about the relationship between two people, the obsession, the rejection, the love, the hatred. There's a tension between two people, and the events and actions throughout the story ought to play off that tension and explain or reduce it. That doesn't happen here. I don't care about these people, because they don't care about each other.

IM: There is action here, and it does advance the story. Like halfway through the book, when Tommie and her lover and Helen are in the car accident. That changed everything. Helen barely spoke to her mother after that. Tommie moved out, eventually went to a commune.

EM: Ah-ha!

IM: What's that mean?

EM: It means you just proved my point.

IM: No, I didn't. Prove your own damn points.

EM: The point is, we never see the car crash. We arrive on the scene afterwards, with Frank and Hal and Brighton. The police are already there, so's the ambulance. All we can do is watch with them as the girls are taken away to hospital. And then Tommie conveniently has amnesia about the event, so we never, ever get to find out what really happened. Plus, Tommie and Helen never talk about it. There's no darker secret hinted at. Everyone just sort of drifts apart.

IM: Well, that's what happens in real life.

EM: Maybe, but I don't need to read about it too.

IM (Desperately): Look, you have to admit that she does write well. Listen to this: "I saw someone standing out in the water beyond the line of sight from the house, out there at the beginning of the darkness, which felt like the beginning of safety. She, if it were she, stood to her waist in the lake, brushing the surface of it with her hands as if to clear a path for herself through it. And soon after, that's what she did." Don't you like that?

EM: Yes, but think about it. That's some minor character she's writing about. Not even a character, for God's sake. Just some woman that appears on one page and then dies. If she could write about the major characters that way, show them behaving like that, actually doing something, then maybe we'd be getting somewhere. I mean, Tommie's supposedly an alcoholic too, but we never get to see her drunk.

IM: What about the part where the father talks about his college days. "If you have ever stepped onto the river at dawn, taken up your oar, drawn your chest to your knees and felt the swell of the blade pulling you and eight others through the foggy morning, then you know that all meaning can reside, briefly, in the physical; pleasure is not anonymous; the ache of the body brings something to the heart."

EM: Hey, I know she can write well. But she also overreaches herself sometimes, trying too hard to capture something in words. Like when Brighton refers to himself as the "Prince of Rashes." He says: "When I was the Prince of Rashes, Mom put gloves on me at night so I couldn't scratch and bleed and ruin her sheets . . . She said they were the gloves she met Dad in. They were yellowed white cotton and they came halfway up my arms. Some kids say prayers. We said goodnight to hands." I don't even know what that means, saying goodnight to hands. And the whole paragraph leaves me cold.

IM: You just don't understand the motivation for the characters.

EM: Probably not. But whose fault is that?

In the end, this book was like the hurricane. I kept wishing it would be more than it was. It had the potential to devastate, to break things apart and create something new, to be magnificent and furious. But the hurricane passed over the Keys, nowhere near my town, and Old Love, too, didn't affect me in any meaningful way. I'm sure others will get something out of it that I didn't—Mississippi, after all, was left battered and breathless by Georges. In the islands, people died from it. But for me, the emotional me, it passed somewhere to the south, distant and remote and slightly boring.