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April 14, 2005

Dawn Powell: A Time To Be Born II


Chapters V and VI of A Time To Be Born are centered squarely on Vicky Haven, and they comprise a sort of aria-and-cabaletta couple, with temperate narrative developments giving way to an emotional madcap. The 'aria' part gets off the ground when Vicky runs into Amanda Evans at Saks. Vicky is shopping for a new look for herself, and is slightly crestfallen when Amanda, who has not taken her phone calls for weeks, decides to play Lady Bountiful and to take over the makeover. Amanda insists on charging everything to her account, but the clothes aren't quite what Vicky had in mind. This is one of many sardonic tweaks to the Cinderella fable.

In the elevator at Saks, Vicky is accosted by one of the Junior League types from the magazine, a girl named Nancy Elroy who wouldn't give her the time of day if Amanda weren't standing right next to her. Nancy and her mother are practically panting for an introduction, and, seeing what's going on, Vicky is bemused rather than insulted.

By the time they had reached the street floor Vicky was aware that the prized nod from Miss Elroy was due completely to the Elroys' desire to meet Amanda Keller Evens, either for her own or her husband's sake. It was astonishing to see what these well-bred ladies were willing to do in order to clinch some future contact. Vicky found their anxiety contagious and tried to ease their feelings by babbling away to Amanda how effective was the full page color ad of Miss Nancy Elroy smoking a Felicity cigarette before the portrait of her old grandmother. Both Elroys brushed this faltering support aside, for to tell the truth they loved the feeling that they were meeting and conquering wonderfully superior people. It gave them a feeling of accomplishment and progress to wear down snubbing, and they felt there was something secretly the matter with anyone who did not make use of his or her own position to be arrogant. The merest Astor had only to step on them firmly to utterly enslave them, challenging them to further humble gestures. As this type of social masochism was unknown to Vicky, she thought Amanda's coolness was wounding the Elroys instead of tantalizing them.

Amanda, of course, declines the invitation to take tea at the Elroys; this only determines mother and daughter to insist that Vicky come along, and, after work, that's exactly what she does.

The Elroy material could really have been pressed into service as a short story. It rests on the contradictions of bourgeois comedy: presenting a tranquil, comfortable air to the world usually requires ceaseless maneuvering. Mrs Elroy is a widow who is dependent upon her eccentric brother-in-law, who for his part is only to happy to pay for the privilege of not having to marry the woman. But Mrs Elroy manages money so badly that she is always working herself up to ask for more, and financial anxieties buzz throughout her household - a suite at a residential hotel - with the low-key insistence of a broken-down refrigerator. Nancy is her older daughter, and about to be married to a just-acceptable chap: Nancy has held out for too-big prizes and now must settle. Mrs Elroy's younger daughter, Tuffy, is different from almost everyone else in the book by not reminding the reader of Hollywood stars (and starlets) of the Thirties and Forties. That's because there were no stars or starlets to meet Tuffy's description.

Her complexion was sallow and bad and, what was worse, Tuffy didn't care. It kept her mother and sister conversationally occupied which permitted Turry to think about other matters such as boys, for she was definitely boystruck. She waggled her small dirty feet in their incredibly battered little brown sandals in complete comfort and thought dreamily of having a terrific love affair with some fiendishly sophisticated older man. This was a perfectly practical dream since her one charm - and that was completely undeniable - was that she was fifteen, and often that in itself is enough to entice an elderly beau.

It's difficult to imagine one's grandmama reading this sort of thing. Over cocktails, Mrs Elroy and Nancy ply Vicky with questions about Amanda's childhood. Uh-oh, we feel, knowing that her childhood has been carefully taped up by Amanda in pretty gauze so that no one can make out any of the details. Vicky honestly doesn't know this, and lacks the sophistication to see that someone like Amanda would take every precaution to sink her dirty linen with stonewalling. It is only the glances that the ladies Elroy exchange when they hear, among other things, that Amanda had the most "amusing habit of always getting engaged every semester at Miss Doxey's to somebody new." We learn, along with the Elroys, that Amanda has studied to be a pastry-cook!

Vicky is beginning to have doubts about her "garrulousness" when Uncle Rockman, the fourth personage in the Elroy ménage, joins the ladies. He keeps a room in the suite but actually lives elsewhere. He is a well-polished dipsomaniac, streams of scientific babble at the ready to stun all comers. That he prefers Tuffy to Nancy might be foreseen; it causes all sorts of sulking and squabbling.

Vicky tried to keep a fixed happy look on her face though she had not been so embarrassed by a family gathering since she left her brother's roof. Mrs Elroy frowned sternly at her younger daughter. She had always considered it a pretty woman's right to be a fiend in private, but to balance this state of society it was up to the plain girls to rigorously uphold the banner of breeding and constant good nature. Unfortunately Tuffy had never seen eye to eye with her on this and she had the audacity to have all the selfishness and ill-temper of a belle.

But when Tuffy's unprepossessing boyfriend shows up, tensions abate, except in Vicky's chest, which is suffering from the certainty that her candor about Amanda has been terribly misguided. She makes her escape from the ladies, but not from Uncle Rockman, who follows her to the street and offers to give her a lift somewhere.

Vicky was afraid to ruin this fine impression by a spoken word and her silence spoke so well for her that after a ten-minute monologue on the atom Uncle Rockman left her, repeating the compliment again and again.


Before the antics of Chapter VI get going, we spend a little time getting to know Ken Saunders better. Although one has never met anybody with his problem, exactly, Ken is a figure often encountered in the fiction (and the movies) of the period: The smart, good-looking able-bodied American who's hopelessly in love with a no-good dame - in this case Amanda Keeler Evans. When she left him three years ago, he lost his compass, but instead of satirizing Ken, Powell is very tender with him. After some gentle ribbing about missed but improbable aspirations, Powell burrows into a scary description of the existential anxieties of making the passage from easy youth to complicated middle age.

He was thirty-three. Sometimes people were through at thirty-three. Thirty even. They become old drunks. The World was full of old drunken failures. Has-beens. Warnings. Men who didn't realize they were never any good anyway - just lucky enough to hold a job a few years and then - zoom! He, at least, had been wise enough to take whatever job had come up, a thought that was at least a comfort on payday no matter how unpleasant such compromises were the rest of the week. But, unless he went to bed tight, he stared at the ceiling all night, smoking cigarettes, waiting for Tomorrow to spring.

What did other men do whose lives suddenly came apart like a cheap ukulele? What did they do when they realized that perhaps there would be no second chance, no reconsidering, no retrieving? What did they do when the hopes that push the wheel stopped, when magic failed, and fear alone remained, rusting the soul; when the days rattled off like dried beans with no native juice, no hope of flavor, when fears, batted out the door like flies, left only to return by window? What did other men do, suspecting that what was for them had been served - no further helping, no more love, no more triumph; for them labor without joy or profit, for them a passport to nowhere, free ticket to the grim consolations of Age? Was it true, then, that this world was filled with men and women merely marking time before their cemetery? When did courage's lease expire, was there no renewal possible? What specialist in mediocrity determined the prize-winners and ruled what measure of banality was required for success? These were the thoughts that brightened Ken's nights, and since they were very similar to the dark queries that clustered around Vicky Haven's pillow, it was the most natural thing in the world for them, these two frightened people, to have the merriest lunches together in the Peabody Building. Since neither Ken nor Vicky was the sort to reveal private problems, each found the other most comforting, and almost disgustingly carefree.

Notice how adroitly Powell pulls the reins on Ken's misgivings and leads the narrative back to romantic comedy. The shift begins with "brightens," a surprise that prepares us for the equally ironic "merriest." The image of the two troubled young people envying one another through their stiff upper lips is funny and bleak at the same time.

The run-up to Vicky's wild night at home is brisk. Vicky asks Ken to come to her studio (which is of course the site of Amanda's trysts with him) for a curry. As it happens, Ethel Carey will be in town, and Vicky is sure that the two would hit it off. But when Amanda gets wind of the date, she decides to interfere, even though she has no fear whatever of Vicky's rivalry - that comes in the next chapter. She insists that Ken and Vicky run uptown for a fun-filled evening at the Evans's, but no matter how impatient and even angry she becomes, she cannot move Vicky's stubborn determination to stick with her initial plans. Ken, however, rather cravenly caves in. Walking home, Vicky is sure that she'll lose her job for insubordination to Amanda, but when the bad news comes, it has nothing to do with work. Ethel Carey calls to say that Tom and Eudora Turner decided to come out to New York with her, and that she's "tied up for dinner with them." Ethel passes on Eudora's invitation to join them, but is not surprised when Vicky says that she has dinner guests of her own. This lie becomes problematic when Ethel suggests that she and the Turners might stop by after dinner.

Vicky's head buzzed so busily with the necessity for doing something devilishly shrewd and effective that movement was practically paralyzed, suggestions popping up so fast that they cancelled each other.

Eventually, she orders a seafood dinner from Longchamps and wriggles into her new clothes from Saks.

Vicky sat down to the coffee table where her dinner was spread, still undecided which façade she should present to the Turners. One thing was certain, whether she was haughty or whether she was effusively friendly, she must show that Manhattan was her natural background, and if anything had gone wrong in her Lakeville career it was merely because she was too big a person for the place.

Jane Austen for our times. Vicky is about to eat when the doorbell rings. Ethel and the Turners already? No - Ken Saunders, "looking rather sheepish" but right on cue. He says that he walked around the Evans's town house but couldn't go in; now he wants to take Vicky out to dinner. In a funny little scene, he regards the dinner on the coffee table with dismay ("You can't eat that horrible stuff."), directs Vicky to get her hat and coat, and, while she arranges herself, wolfs down the meal himself and loses all interest in going out. We are on the frontier of screwball country, with two people who are falling in love but, because of their other relationships, don't know it, but that's where we'll stay, because the only genre that Dawn Powell worked was her very own, and her sense of humor is much darker than any screwball's director's.

The doorbell rings again, and again it is not the Turners. It's Uncle Rockman!

"Nancy told me you had invited her to dine tonight," he said, as if this would at once explain his unprecedented visit. "Inasmuch as she could not come I thought I myself would pay a call. Here."

With the "Here" he thrust a large coffinlike box in her arms.

More chrysanthemums, of course, and no place to put them. Mr Elroy stood uncomfortably watching his flowers being carried tentatively from cocktail glass to double boiler and finally stuffed into a tall wastebasket with an ash tray of water at its feet.

In true screwball fashion, Ken Saunders flares up like Brünnhilde's fire at the older man's arrival, and in fact the scene is a virtual double of Tom Jeffers's scene with the Wienie King in The Palm Beach Story until Vicky gets enough rum into him to soften his hostility. By the time the Turners do arrive, "Uncle Rockman was nestling back half-asleep on the sofa laughing fondly at everything Ken Saunders said."

It doesn't take long for Vicky to feel the advantage of her admirers' visits.

So here was Tom Turner, who had broken Vicky's heart to run away with her business partner, Eudora Brown. Here was Eudora, once a bosom friend, now holding her hands over her convex lap, looking enviously around Vicky's living room. Desire makes its object worthy of desire, and for four years Tom Turner had been the worthy object of Vicky's affection. Now he belonged to somebody else and desire had been shocked by frustration into numb despair, which Vicky discovered was modulating into a hostile disparagement of the man. All right, it was sour grapes to sit there silently criticizing everything about him - what was the matter with sour grapes? Sour grapes was as comforting a philosophy as any other, and a lot better than tearing your heart out with undying passion. He was as handsome as ever, in his dissipated ham actor way, and his voice was a richly effective as ever, but both of these hollow charms irritated the new Vicky.

This is the first that we've seen of Tom Turner, aside from a very brief attempt to say goodbye to Vicky when she leaves Lakeville for New York, and we see him with Vicky's new eyes. We also see what we had only guessed in that earlier chapter: Eudora is painfully vulgar. She asks Vicky for a loan of five hundred dollars, and she complains about being "high-hatted" by Amanda Evans. "Amanda stinks on ice," she says. And after Uncle Rockman's hasty departure - roused by the conversation, he remembers that he's supposed to be giving a speech in a paper factory (!) - she taunts Tom about still being in love with Vicky. To great effect:

"Certainly I'm crazy about Vicky," said Tom Turner coldly, without looking at Vicky. "I always have been - always will be."

"There - that's all you wanted to hear, isn't it?" Eudora sobbed. "God knows I hear it often enough - you might as well."

Tom Turner planted himself in front of his wife.

"All right, let her hear!" he shouted. "I couldn't get Vicky to sleep with me - that was the only reason. I walked out on her. No trouble like that with you. So what are you kicking about?"

At which point Ethel, almost as shocked as the reader, bundles the Turners off in a cab. Ken doesn't leave, however. He rumples his hair in perplexity.

"And the guy is still crazy about you?" he wanted to know.

Vicky wanted to say yes, for that was after all what Eudora had insisted and what Tom had said, too. But the instant they began torturing each other before her she had sensed that the truth was much less flattering - they only used her as the whip for their relationship. Eudora and tom understood each other, counted on no nobility in each other, relied affectionately on each other's vulgarity, lashed at each other's weaknesses and bound themselves together by these. They belonged together. She had always been left out. They hadn't even looked at her when they were shouting about Tom's continued love for her. They didn't think of her as a person, hardly, but merely a name they used to excite themselves with. If Tom had really still been in love with her, Vicky thought, he never would have said so.

When Vicky tells him the story of her thwarted love for Tom, Ken concedes that he, too, has fallen in love with the wrong person. The chapter concludes with a lightheartedness jest that reminds me of Der Rosenkavalier.

They sat up in her kitchen till four o'clock comparing mistakes in their lives, holding hands and bewailing the thought that they could not fall in love with each other. Later he scrambled eggs with anchovies sprinkled over them and made coffee most competently. He had a knack for knowing where everything was - cigarettes, liquor, salt coffee. In fact, Vicky wondered about it after he left. She decided that either his lost love's place must be very much like hers, or else there were a lot of apartments around New York fitted exactly like this one.

What fun this is to read!



High on the list of my bad balls is an afternoon in town with my father (something that can't have happened five times altogether) when I was offered the choice between lunch at Longchamps, in the Empire State Building, and lunch on the United States, tied up that day at a pier on the Hudson. A Titanic nut in my fashion, I was shaky about boats, and what could go wrong in a tall building? Parents oughtn't to offer children such choices.

Posted by pourover at April 14, 2005 03:29 PM

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