Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Traveling with The Lone Pilgrim

There was a subversive side to Laurie Colwin. Six years after she idealized matrimony in Happy All The Time, she published a collection of short stories called The Lone Pilgrim. It's dangerous to speculate on any writer's life based upon their fictional output, but I think it's safe to say that only someone who was alive and young in the '60s could have written those stories.

These are dark little gems; they gleam; they do not sparkle. "The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing" is one of the funniest stories I have ever read; it's also the closest that Laurie Colwin ever came to cruelty. The page and a half that she allows for a drug dealer named Uncle Marv to deliver his speed-rap sales pitch has the poetry and idiocy that many of us remember all too well. And as the narrator ends with "Suddenly I was full of optimism and hope for the future," Altamont and Kent State and Charles Manson peer out through the sentence.

This is a writer who refuses to believe in innocence, "that witless spontaneous affection, that hungry purposeless availability." For Laurie Colwin, there are people who plunge into the world straight on and others who approach it in baby steps; some girls have "money instead of imagination and complete self-confidence" and some, even in childhood, recognize the polished and seductive charm described in "Delia's Father." "One false move and you lose everything," says the girl who, with one kiss, "crosses over to my side of the street forever." And in "A Girl Skating," a poet mercilessly deflowers the child he loves without ever needing to touch her. "I was the child he loved best. There was no escaping him," but it was "the infant seriousness" that froze the girl into place in poems. Without her intelligence, she would never have known that this attention kept her from having a life that was "entirely unremarkable and happy."

Happy is a word that Laurie Colwin uses a lot and as she shows who is truly happy in her fiction, Misty and Vincent, Holly and Guido take on a sinister luster. They are abandoned to what kind of a future when they "raised their glasses and, by the light of the candles, they drank to a truly wonderful life." The candles are beeswax, the glasses hold champagne and when it is gone, "they were suddenly sad." Thank heaven Vincent brought an extra bottle--but will there always be enough champagne?

The final story in The Lone Pilgrim, "Family Happiness" shows what happens to smart people in happy marriages. So does "A Mythological Subject" and "Intimacy" and "A Sentimental Memory." Nobody has ever written so rationally about infidelity than Laurie Colwin. Her characters, with the fine emotional geiger counters that they have within their hearts, negotiate the hazards of adultery without damage and with few tears. An affair, Laurie Colwin suggests over and over, in short stories and in novels, is the secret to a successful marriage. It is simply another kind of love. It is not "full of the misery and loneliness that romantic people suffer in love."

Well-stocked pantries, well-ordered lives, well-placed objects, well-enjoyed meals: yet at the base of this glorious celebration of domestic living is a bullet aimed straight at the heart of monogamy. While making marriage look desirable, Laurie Colwin as much as anybody and more than most transformed it into an altered state, "a dark forest" filled with "a little chapel, a stand of birches, wolves, snakes, the worst you can imagine, or the best."

1 comment:

Kim said...

Halfway through reading this essay, I ran and grabbed my copy of Lone Pilgrim off the shelf - I know I will be up all night reading it. This must be guest post #2 in LIL!!