The Things We Do To Make It Home by Beverly Gologorsky
First published by Random House in 1999, and then in paperback in 2000 by Ballantine Books, Seven Stories Press has wisely chosen to reissue Beverly Gologorsky's highly-praised The Things We Do To Make It Home.
In the light of the recent Iraqi War, the shadows from America’s recent past in Vietnam have proven to be inescapable phantoms, coming out of the darkness of our collective, repressed memory banks once again mercilessly to show us their legions of unhealed wounds. The era of the Vietnam War is a timely choice, both for literature, and for American consciousness, as we face the damages and national trauma of yet another tragedy of errors.
“For the prose artist, the world is full of other's people’s words,” wrote Mikhail Bakhtin, in his 1984 essay collection Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, “among which he must orient himself and whose speech characteristics he must be able to perceive with a very keen ear. He must introduce them into a plane of his own discourse.” David Lodge, drawing on Bakhtin’s essay in his own collection (After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism) adds to this: “an important rider: that the signifying system of the novel cannot be limited to the surface of the text... another aspect of the art of the novel... is dialogue... the representation of direct speech in prose fiction.” Lodge ties in the abilities of a novelist who can truthfully render human dialogue as real and moving and still able to serve the novelist’s plane of discourse, with a profound gift, and feel for the novels’ highest capabilities. That is a novelist who can give us dialogue is able to fulfill Bakhtin’s “possibility of employing on the plane of a single work discourses of various types with all their expressive capacities in tact, without reducing them to a single common denominator in a way that this plane is not destroyed. He works with a very rich verbal palette.”
The brilliantly crafted dialogue has everything to do with the success of Gologorsky’s affecting novel. Her writing, so resonant in different voices, records the devastated lives of those irrevocably marred from the war. Because the novel is also a medley of voices spoken from the bewildered women impossibly confronting the changes in their returned husbands and lovers, the book is an exceptionally “rich verbal palette” indeed. And Gologorsky gives her empathetic writer’s heart to both equally -- the men returned and the women returned to -- drawing the reader into a compelling and complex balance of sympathy and distance. The novel holds its own as a polyphonic text, with little third person narration. Traditional “plot” is only sparsely sprinkled in and plays a secondary role. For me, this was such a refreshing and alerting reminder as our current climate in publishing and reviewing continues to tout the thickly plotted, genre-bender. The small, lean book is shining proof that a novel wrought with emotional depth and real skill will endure, in fact, it will even show us how the current trends are limiting.
As the story begins, we are introduced to a group of men all returned from combat in Vietnam to their wives. It begins in 1973, shortly after Rooster, Frankie, Nick, Sean, Rod, and Jason first try to readapt themselves to civilian life. The characters are from lower-middle-class neighborhoods New York, the Bronx and the South Shore of Long Island. They all meet for a party to watch a TV program on Nixon and Watergate. Unsentimentally and precisely, through dialogue, the novel comes upon one as if one is spending a night in a run-down bar, listening in several simultaneous, raucous, and intimate conversations. Though taut, pitch-perfect dialogue, and a series of vignettes which overlap and escalate in different ways, the first section culminates into a kind of collective orgiastic chaos. Already, from the beginning of this book, we feel the threats around the anguished of the families about to become broken and dissolved. Gologorsky opens the chapter with this short introduction:
“We were in bed.
We were sauced.
We were plastered.
We were stoned.
We were drumming floors.
We were bathed in TV light.
We were alive.
We were together.
We were back in the world.”
As the scenes progress, all the men hold one goal in common: a reckless desire to get drunk and stay drunk as the news reports the Watergate Crimes of the government sound and echo on the TV.
“Jason's using the TV as an armrest,” Gologorsky writes, “Paper plates are strewn around his feet; potato chips mashed into the carpet.” You know what I think I think?” He says. “Nixon's men are afraid to show up today. And they're right because we aimed our guns in the wrong direction."
All the behavior of men quickly slides into a collective oblivion, drunkenness, and sex, a sort of reverse death, perhaps, a desire for death aimed in the other direction, like the guns. Their libidinous hunger is out of control.
For the women, bewilderment and helplessness soon replace the simple joy and hope they felt when their husbands first returned to them from the war.
“Ida's words float around in her head,” Gologorsky writes (and Ida’s thoughts and feeling here could be any of the other women’s, too). “She (Ida) doesn't want to hear them, deal with them, doesn't want to know what she knows that much is wrong that much is there to worry about... it worries her now to speak things aloud. Naming things can give them life.”
Ida further explains to the women in the same position as she, that her husband, Frankie, has begun to talk to himself, referring to an imaginary friend called “Papa-san.” "Something's out there is threatening him,” Ida explains to the other women. “He doesn't want to be found. He's a fugitive." In another passage Ida continues: “Gone,” she says, “Like that rabbit that disappeared down that hole. He'd dug a tunnel somewhere to sleep in or keep drugs in or stolen goods or body parts. How do I know? God, I don't. I don't.”
Plot devices alone would not have been able to convey the depth and scope of the devastation at hand. As the country moved on, they all moved apart and, more or less, moved off the radar of the times. Some of characters drifting through America’s trailer parks and homeless shelters. Some lost their house mortgages, some lost their wives who leap for air, the right to their own lives and identity and desires. The wives and daughters discover they could not, after, all exist as Gologorsky describes their role has dictated. They cannot be the women who “Take what we can get, all of it, whenever it’s offered. Like camels storing water for the long haul through the desert.”
Grieving a past with their husbands which cannot be recaptured, the women struggle to make it home, too. And then, they all seem to fight just to make a home, with or without their men. Each of the women characters in turn, succeed or fails at this effort. Each bears a private story, but all the stories are intertwined and decked in with the bitter realization that they are struggling inside a country that simply does not provide for, and refuses to recognize as victims the families that directly bore the wounds and traumas of the Vietnam War. The unraveling of sorrows, the frustrations, and hopeless roaming of mind and body, like all the real plots of life usually are, become heart-crushing, I was thoroughly shaken by them. The stories come from a writer who refuses to compromise what she has learned about life in America after the Vietnam War. More than 20 years later, each characters’ fall into the tumults homelessness, mental illness, and in two cases, physical death and sickness are riveting. What is gained by the abrupt shift in time, (The novel jumps ahead from 1973, straight to 1993) is a breadth of scope, offering us the opportunity to see all these interlocking lives as a collection of casualties we can’t turn away from. Both the sheer multiplicity of characters, and the extremes in their situation create a sort of alternate nation. They are the ones who couldn’t keep their houses, couldn’t repair themselves, or their marriages, who have died already from sorrow or are dying now. Ultimately, most of Gologorsky characters cannot make it home. All but very few were able to make a home, either.
But there are also moving and uplifting exceptions, stories from which one can derive faith and hope. At the very end, the character Sara-Jo, the daughter of Millie and Rooster leaves Millie, dying of cancer in the hospital and she also leaves a boyfriend who has perpetuated her inherited conflicts in relationship and sex. Her father, Rooster is now an alcoholic drifter of the streets, but she is about to find a place within herself to at least halfway cope with him. Sara-Jo becomes, by virtue of her sheer youth and energy a symbol, perhaps, of some future for the next generation. And we believe she is finally able to escape a legacy of hopelessness, submission to destructive impulses, and self-destruction which her parents have left to her. But, there is an important condition placed on this hope. As Sara-Jo enters a diner, just having left her boyfriend for good, certain the dying Millie will no longer need her by her side, she spots an old woman across the aisle.
“The woman sits alone,” Gologorsky writes, “her long white brain braided and wrapped around a large head. One feathery earrings her shoulders her shoulders. The woman leans towards her (Sara-Jo) and whispers, “Give me some money and I’ll tell you your fortune. At your age, it’s mostly good luck.”
“I don’t believe in luck. How much?” (Sara-Jo tells the woman.)
“Whatever you can spare is my good luck,” (The woman answers)
With effort, the woman inches her large bulk out of her booth and into the seat facing Sara-Jo. She holds a pack of cigarettes.
“No smoking in here, right?”
“These are Mickey Mouse.” The woman shifts closer.
“Not real. Five-and-dime store, make-believe chocolate cigarettes. You live around here?”
“For the time being. Does the owner know you tell fortunes?”
“I don’t do it in front of his face. I dishwash three mornings a week for a few bucks, and get to sit here all winter. Make a fist.“”
Sara Jo obeys. The woman weighs it in her hand. “Good heft. You need heft when you’re young, also when you’re old. It’s not important in middle age.”
“Why?” Sara Jo asks her.
“You’re on top of the hill. You need it going up and you need it coming down. “The woman taps her fist. “Unclench.“
“Do I have a long life-line?”
“I don’t believe in life-lines,” the woman says, “Just journeys. First you must know where you have been.” The woman turns her hand over, massages the knuckles. “You have fighter’s bones.”
“I do, don’t I?” She (Sara-Jo) says more to herself than to the woman. “Am I leaving soon?”
“Only the old leave.” the woman’s dark eye beneath thick white brows looks past her. “The old leave everything, even their breathing.”
I don’t understand.”
“You’re not tired enough to understand.” The dark eyes settle on her.
“Are you putting me on?”
Again the woman studies her palms. “Your journey began last night.”
“What?” She hears her own quick breathing.
“You manage without being prepared. that’s your strength. It always will be,” Suddenly the woman sits back, plucks out a cigarette, sticks it between her lips, takes it out again. “If I concentrate, I can imagine a few puffs.”
“Why not smoke the real stuff?”
Sara-Jo feels around inside her jacket pocket, pulls out a twenty dollar bill and hands it to her.
“I’ll bring you coffee. It costs nothing.”
She watches the woman shuffle towards the counter, then her eyes slide to the window, to the flat unbroken gray sky, to the naked tree limbs between tall black telephone poles. When she reaches the top of the hill, her view is going to be spectacular. That’s for damn sure.”
It could be the author meant this last image as a way to express the potential of a different, wiser America. A kind of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Thoreau America where once, long ago, retreating into a solitude of silences, building an individual castle filled with family and bonds -- a Walden Pond of the spirit so to speak -- was our political isolationistic life. And not the political expansionism, the unwelcome penetration, and invasion of other people’s lands.
But, however, the author meant her ending; it left me with the sense that an open road was being illuminated with the possibility of hope. And in every way, emotional and literary, this is a novel to cherish for its openness. It deftly awakens us again to the spoils of war. And to an awareness of how the suppression of truths about the lives led after war has stopped us from examining war’s long-reaching, more subtle devastations. This theme is more urgent now, the lessons in the novel all too vivid and threatening, especially if we do not heed its warnings.