Old School, Old Hat
Carolyn Cooke’s novel is a study in jumbled nostalgia
Daughters of the RevolutionCarolyn Cooke
(Knopf · hardcover · $24.95)
Daughters of the Revolution is a book about a private school in New England during the ’60s.
It reminds me of a corny Saturday night drama on NBC that's on for 10 years because it gets the nostalgia crowd, even if it is insipid trash. There's one coming this fall: “Pan Am.” I think it's about Panamanian stewardesses fighting American-backed right-wing death squads in the jungles of Costa Rica.
Though Daughters initially smacks of “remember when,” writer Carolyn Cooke uses words like “lugubrious.”
If they aren't used exceedingly, 50-cent words help raise a writer’s dirty mouth up out of the gutter. At first glance, Lolita is about a child molester. But it's really about a guy with a good vocabulary.
I take back what I said about Daughters being akin to corny nostalgia shows. I doubt anyone's cervix got examined in “Happy Days.” Unless I missed that episode. Talk about jumping the shark.
The story begins with husband Heck Hellman, wife Lil and phonetically spelled daughter EV (EeeVee) at home one morning. Elaborately disjointed at first, the scene layers a missing kitten named Graham Greene with Heck’s medical school cadaver, a child with adenoids and the wife, who perhaps drinks too much. How are their narratives connected?
We are invited to wonder, though clearly no answer will soon be offered. Heck will go on an ill-fated boat ride with a friend whose newly liberated wife is sleeping with the dean of an all-boys academy. The dean will get pissed off about a female student getting admitted to his school.
While this is going on, a character may slip into thought unexpectedly. It's all a little too dreamy, more poetry than prose. Sometimes it's hard to gauge what's happening. An early passage finds the dean walking down the street and something explodes. But you never really know what; a trash can maybe. It's like a hallucination.
And the book is a tad overwritten, like it was edited a million times rather than allowed to flow where it wants. But at the same time, Cooke wants it to sound like it's freewheeling. She seems to strive for moments of On the Road, if Mr. Kerouac had written that book and not simply typed it. (Yes, that was a dis on Jack Kerouac.)
Daughters is more MFA than crazy beatnik hopped up on Benzedrine; more writer’s workshop than writer on a lithium vacation. It often reads like it was passed around a table, critiqued, fine-tuned; a mechanized version of the original manuscript. It adds up to a literary conundrum—a work that’s painstakingly stream-of-consciousness. This is just one of several ways Daughters can't seem to make up its mind as to what it is.
But there are good flashes scattered here and there. Sometimes it’s beautiful. The first half of the opening sentence, “Heck Hellman, walking home from gross anatomy and his basement cadaver, felt buoyed by the sleazy promise of spring,” reads like a foot massage. It pulls you right in. “Heck Hellman” is too obvious of a fiction name, but it doesn't spoil the proceedings. Fake names always seem to be a problem in fiction, anyway. Atticus Finch. Humbert Humbert. Clare Quilty. Writers take plenty of liberties with names. (Cooke's next novel is called The Adventures of Melody Fuckwater. Not really, but you get my drift.)
Clocking in at 192 pages, it's hard to call Daughters a novel, but not just due to its brevity. Cooke has one collection of short stories out and this seems like another. With a new hardback book costing as much as oral surgery these days (at least in Mexico), some might feel ripped off. Not me. As a person with the attention span of a trout, I appreciate being caught and released.