Friday, May 16, 2008

`Something Plausible and Coherent'

Last night we spent our first night in the house we’ll occupy for at least the next 12 months. In local parlance it’s a “rambler” – one floor, no basement, supposedly a scaled-down postwar variant of the ranch-style house, though ours is laid out like the shotgun shacks I first saw described in a Eudora Welty story. The movers were relieved when they saw it – no steps. The houses on our narrow, winding street are close, within hollering distance. The sloping lawn is more moss than grass, which makes for spongy walking. Small, fearless birds with black executioner-style masks make a rhythmically regular clicking sound, hardly a song, in the rhododendrons outside the front windows, and drive the cat nuts. Our landlady, Irina, is Russian. She is young, her English is excellent and she claims to like children. At our request, she removed the trampoline from the backyard before we moved in.

The neighbors across the street, the ones with white Christmas lights hanging from their eaves, are also Russian, a clan of indeterminate size. The women favor bathrobes accessorized with babushkas and tall black rubber boots. Earlier this week I watched – discretely, from behind the curtains I had just hung – as the entire family tried to pull a stump from the middle of their front yard. They labored with shovels, axes, wrecking bars and a white Honda pickup truck. The lawn is trampled, rutted and muddy; the stump remains.

In short, we dwell in the much-coveted, much-maligned suburbs, or at least one of their modest, working-class mutations. I grew up in a suburb, in the decades when Cheever, Updike and Yates were flourishing. I resent Richard Wilbur’s lines in “To and American Poet Just Dead,” from 1963:

“In summer sunk and stupefied
The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death.”

Once that was a fashionable pose – all that guff about conformity, phoniness and angst. Worse still are suburbanites compelled to tell you how much they hate the suburbs; that, though they live in one, they recognize their awfulness and repudiate it, for their souls are made for (and of) finer things. As though living in a ghetto were somehow more authentic. In fact, suburbs are the preserve of contemporary yeoman farmers. They give city dwellers a second chance at self-reliance – a piece of land, a decent house, a garden, a neighborhood. I like what Cheever writes of Will Pym in “Just Tell Me Who It Was,” even with its suggestion of gentle satire:

“He did not ever like to see the signs of poverty. He took a deep pleasure in the Dutch Colonial house where he lived – in its many lighted windows, in the soundness of his roof and his heating plant – in the warmth of his children’s clothing, and in the fact that he had been able to make something plausible and coherent in spite of his mean beginnings.”

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