Monday, June 01, 2009

Sheila Schwartz

When my UPS guy dropped off my copy of Sheila Schwartz’s novel, Lies Will Take You Somewhere, I was thrilled and put aside my dog-eared Jane Austen so I could immediately begin reading this highly-praised new novel. If you haven’t heard of Schwartz, you’re missing out on a brilliant writer: her 1991 collection of short stories, Imagine a Great White Light, won the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, and in 1999 she won an O. Henry Award. She was a popular professor of English and creative writing at Cleveland State University, a busy wife and mother, and a poetic writer of page-turning realistic fiction. The sad thing is that there won’t be more books, unless her later stories are collected: Schwartz died in 2008 of ovarian cancer.

Her beautifully written, lyrical yet understated, stunning fiction is not odd or experimental in any way, yet both books were published by small presses, which sadly limits her audience. Lies Will Take You Somewhere should have been saleable to a corporate publisher, but perhaps she didn’t have the contacts, or the editors were too busy looking for the next Danielle Steele, or it was too Jewish: the novel delineates the sadness and betrayals in the complicated relationships of a close Jewish family, and is told from the point-of-view of Jane, an intelligent, observant housewife, and her husband, Saul, a popular rabbi who is weary of going through the motions of the routine at his job. At the beginning of the novel, Jane leaves her family to travel to Florida to wind up her late mother’s estate. She is sad and depressed, though there are some hilarious scenes: she gets lost while riding her mother’s tricycle home from the pool in the identical streets of the retirement development, which have four repeating architectural models of condos; she agrees to go to dinner with an elderly neighbor who becomes so involved in showing her his trinkets that he forgets to serve dinner. Meanwhile, at home, Saul seems unable to take care of himself or his three daughters (the oldest, Malkah, is very difficult); and as he performs duties like visiting cancer patients in the hospital, he is bored and despairing, and has to force himself to be calm and cheerful. I keep having this feeling of yearning deja vu as I read it: yes, this is the kind of contemporary fiction I used to love, but isn’t widely published anymore! Antonya Nelson’s witty fiction has some similarities, but Schwartz goes much deeper, her peeople are more real, and she doesn't’ try to be too clever as the story effortlessly unfolds.

I’m only one fourth of the way through, so I’ll have more to report later. Here’s a description of Jane’s first evening in her mother’s musty house.

All the furniture on the porch has been allowed to age. Her mother never bothered to keep it up maybe because she knew it was a losing battle. The humid air drenches everything. It seeps into wood and fabric, loosens the carpet from the floor. Her mother used to find it pleasant to sit out on the porch at night and drink tea as she listened to a horde of crickets scraping the heavy air, but Jane doesn’t. No sooner does she settle herself than she feels restless. Her mother said it didn’t matter what she listened to - bugs or Beethoven - once Jane’s father died, but the crickets get on Jane’s nerves, the crickets and katydids, the sudden heartfelt whining of a high-pitched motor from the canal across the street that starts up almost as soon as she takes a sip of her tea. Who would be driving a boat at this hour?

Although none of her newer short stories seem to be online, I will look them up at the library. And you can read her uncomplaining, ironic essay about cancer, “Three Cancer Patients Walk into a Bar.”


Ellen said...

I'll tell the people on
WWTTA about this one.


Mad Housewife said...

I think they might like it, Ellen.

Ellen said...

I just read your email to me (which I'll answer separately) and came back to read Schwartz's description of her chemotherapy and then her husband and student's description of her life.

Very moving, especially the gallant humor with which she went to her therapy sessions. My experience of hospitals tallies with her in that the nurses don't know what to do if you act outside a small narrow range of "norms" -- including (oddly one would think they'd like cheer) trying to make light of things.

The description of her life which said her life was not like this, not the conventional Jewish life made me want to know what her life really was like. To refer to your letter, if she was the sort who did not go to garage sales, then she ought not (in a way) to write in a way that makes others expect things from them that are not there.

In spite of my complaints sometimes I have an idea on all three lists I run there are a small group of people who don't or rarely post onlist (on occasion write to me) and really do follow advice and the books we talk about.

Brave unlucky lady,

Mad Housewife said...

Yes, her death is a tragedy. And her description of the hospital is very sad: her having to chat to make them feel at home, instead of the other way around. Yet she tries really to understand it.