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Friday
Dec182015

A Month of Sundays

Women are cellos, fellows the bows.

For what is the body but a swamp in which the spirit drowns?  And what is marriage, that supposedly seamless circle, but a deep well up out of which the man and woman stare at the impossible sun, the distant bright disc, of freedom?

                                                                                                                 Tom Marshfield

There is a fine quote from an old film which will be admitted here in paraphrase to ward off the Google hounds: there is a time to frolic, and a time not to frolic, and this is not one of those times. Readers of these pages know there are works that make it here and many, many more that do not, for a variety of criteria, the simplest of which is that they do not induce the back-chilling aesthetic bliss necessary to be memorialized. For reasons that will become abundantly clear, this novel is really neither one of those works, in no small part because it is hardly a novel at all.

We begin – I take that back, we do not really begin anywhere at all. Our narrator, who introduces himself through the generally dishonest tactic of self-deprecation and martyrdom, has been shipped to a rehabilitation clinic somewhere amidst the sands of the American Southwest. He is a wiry, nervous Anglo-Saxon in his early forties (in the opening chapter he declares himself, "41 this April, 5'10", 158 lbs"), apart from his calvity almost feminine in his shape and shadow, a father of two and in principle – in fact, very much in principle – a married man of the cloth. We do not yet know the crimes that precipitated his commitment, but they will be revealed by the man itself with glee bordering on malice.  He looks around his sanitarium, for that is indeed where he is housed, if a nice sanitarium with golf and tennis available to its inmates, that is, its guests, and rightly contemplates what on earth or beyond he could have in common with this pack of rats and their keepers. His description early on affords us a hint or two:

All middle-aged men, we sit each at our table ... suppressing nervous gossip among the silverware. I feel we are a 'batch,' more or less recently arrived. We are pale. We are stolid. We are dazed. The staff, who peek and move about as if preparatory to an ambush, appear part twanging, leathery Caucasians, their blue eyes bleached to match the alkaline sky and the seat of their jeans, and the rest nubile aborigines whose silent tread and stiff black hair uneasily consort with the frilled pistachio uniforms the waitresses perforce wear.

The era, in case it mattered to you, is late Nixon, a time of paranoia and penitence and a convenient excuse for our narrator's tone. Soon it becomes evident that he has been confined for a month owing to an acute case of satyromania, which may conjure up a picture of a man-goat in our beclouded minds, but which could make for some interesting insights on what has led our man of God to become a man of the insatiable flesh. The Reverend Marshfield cannot really tell us why; but at least we may empathize with his diminishing faith in his own convictions (hearing out a sobbing parishioner he deems, "but as an act of fraternity amidst children descended from, if not one Father, then one molecular accident"). He feels enslaved by his chosen path, which at once must have been chosen for him by some Other force and must not have been. His wife Jane, herself the daughter of a clergyman by the name of Chillingworth, his two teenage boys, his weekly sermons, the lonely, broken women who sit through those sermons and gaze unknowingly at a spry, sexually perverse minister and suggest with their bodies' lack of movement the consent Tom seeks with his roving, raving mind, his sporadic visits to his father deep in the throes of dementia – all this conspires to drive our holy man away from both the Holy and mankind for all its flaws and stigmas. His solution, at least for the lower half of his mortal frame, is a wonderland where everything that should not be is, and everything that should be is not. And not surprisingly, the heroine of this land is a single mom by the name of Alicia Crick.

Alicia is also the musical director at Tom's small church, and on Sundays they are united if not in common purpose then in melody. When Jane and Tom were courting, he saw his future wife "walk[ing] a cloistered path to me, [and] it was as if a lone white rose were arriving by telegraph," a Beatrician image for those who believe in beatitudes. Not so much with Alicia, whose "jaw wore a curious, arrogant, cheap, arrested set, as if about to chew gum." Jane is portrayed as equally lithe and fragile as her husband, even if her husband's fragility is only manifest in the cavities of his conscience. Mrs. Crick, however, possessed "small ... smartly tipped breasts," a "comfortably thick" waist, "homely" and "well-used looking" feet, and "active hands, all muscle and bone." Mrs. Crick swiftly turns out to be such a "revelation" in bed – our novel is saturated (Tom might say satyr-ate-it, and be almost funny) with puns and footnotes on puns, and puns on footnotes – that life with the "good wife's administration sex," that "solemn, once-a-week business, ritualized and worrisomely hushed," becomes absolutely unbearable. One evening, the horrible truth descends upon Tom like the rain upon a lost hitchhiker along a lonesome midnight road:  

My porch. My door. My stairs. Again the staircase rose before me, shadow-striped, to suggest the great brown back of a slave; this time the presentiment so forcibly suggested to me my own captivity, within a God I mocked, within a life I abhorred, within a cavernous unnameable sense of misplacement and wrongdoing, that I dragged my body heavy as if wrapped in chains step by step upward.

We will not say much more on the matter except that Alicia, bless her soul, is acquired and discarded early on in our fragmentary flashbacks, and cannot be considered happy about such a reversal of fortune. And so Tom begins his real journey, his journey back to Alicia that merely re-captions his journey back to his lost youth of irresponsibility. This involves prurience to a degree found only in erotic trash, cussing of the kind found only in popular trash, and an apotheosis from both of these hellish straits through the occasional visits to his Alzheimer-ridden father, who alternatively does not remember Tom, or confuses him with his brother, thus erasing Tom's childhood and innocence in one fell swoop. Without first, of course, causing him and us a great deal more grief.

As a stunning exception to the vast majority of his peers, Updike was very public about his religion and religiousness, even if he migrated congregations more than once. Consequently, he was essentially obliged to make any protagonist clergyman a skeptic (what then would be the fun if not?) to avoid the execrable label of zealot. At some point I remember reading that Updike was Hawthorne's literary descendant (the ballad of Tom Marshfield begins what would be known to Updikeans as “The Scarlet Letter Trilogy"). In hindsight this claim seems less far-fetched, although Updike was far more prodigious than any other serious author and Hawthorne was, like so many, rather fussy about his prints. The problem with such productivity is not leaving yourself enough time to reflect and reconsider, and there is also such a thing as leaving yourself too much time. So does a novel like A Month of Sundays get nearly ignored by posterity by virtue of its rambling, pointless beauty – the rambling, pointless beauty of life itself – a novel, admittedly, in binding and bookstore category alone?  There are overwritten and overwrought passages, surely, and sometimes one wishes there were fewer (occasionally they begin to crowd against our sunset), and the book cannot be read in one or two sittings. It is more properly a patch of poems, a purple, thriving, majestic patch, with real genius, a rarity in our era of half-baked hallucination and urban rage. Consider: "From the far end of the house sounded the electric sloshing of television's swill";  "That money, green and golden money which instinctively seeks the light"; "I loved shedding each grade as I ascended through school"; "Children returning from school shout in the acoustic wet street"; and Frankie, one of Tom's conquests, long since rich but undersexed, "lets out ... a giggle even older than the mink" (this same woman would later be "feeding mosquitoes on the nectar in her veins [and] admiring [her husband's] dragonlike skill at igniting brickets," perhaps the novel's most sensational passage). Only the artistically obtuse would complain that there is no plot, structure, or even point to Tom's peregrinations, apart from the very acceptable excuse of wanting to create more purple patches. And maybe like Alicia, we won't mind the hypocrisy, just the unhappiness.

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