|Hope died in the opening lines of “In the Wrong Rain,” and optimism succumbed a few pages later. Duty ground stubbornly ahead for a chapter or two before collapsing as well. Curiosity thumbed randomly through the book and then tossed it aside with a sigh of regret. It is often said — at least by me — that failure is sometimes more interesting than success, rather like reassembling the wreckage of a jetliner to determine why it crashed, killing everyone on board.This is not one of those times.
“In the Wrong Rain” is dismal union of two musty themes of the 1950s. Think of it as “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Meets Lolita.” If this were to be made into a film, it would star Jeff Chandler, Laurence Harvey or some other wooden leading man of the era as the inwardly tortured postwar executive; June Allyson or Donna Reed as his two-dimensional, cardboard wife; and Sandra Dee as the teenage jailbait daughter of an old college friend who comes to town.
I suppose that seems overly harsh. Then again, since I picked up “In the Wrong Rain” from the Los Angeles Public Library last week, I’ve been referring to it as “In the Wrong Business,” because, frankly, it is that bad.
First, there was hope. Matt Weinstock praised “In the Wrong Rain,” saying of Kirsch: “He has written a serious, mature book, sparing nothing. It bears the mark of the old pro. Look for it on the best seller list.”
Then optimism collapsed as the novel’s problems quickly became apparent — and then overwhelming. The book is set in West L.A., on the fringes of the movie industry, so there’s lots of parties and drinking, all described in stupefying detail. In fact, one of Kirsch’s problems is that you can count on him to describe the wrong thing. If he were writing about an apartment dweller watching a gunfight in the street, he would write paragraphs about a flowerpot on the windowsill.
After I lost hope and optimism, duty kept me going. Kirsch (d. 1980) was The Times book editor for 23 years, and the paper gives an annual Robert R. Kirsch Award that “honors a living author with a substantial connection to the American West whose contribution to American letters deserves special recognition.” I felt an obligation to do more than take the book back to the library and forget I ever cracked the cover.
Finally, there was nothing but curiosity. Maybe if I randomly flipped through pages I would find something worthwhile. Instead, all I encountered was tedious emotional thrashing.
I will leave it for someone else to seek a lesson in the tale of a distinguished book critic who goes off the rails trying to write a novel. Fortunately, Kirsch is remembered today for raising the caliber of literary criticism at The Times from the shabby work that was routinely published in the 1930s and ’40s.
Here are some selections, courtesy of the optical character recognition software on my scanner.
The sand was blown into clean dunes by the winds of the night and a slight crust had formed on the surface. The surf was a slate-gray mass bubbling into white, almost a solidification of the colors of the day. . . . He called out her name, but the call seemed weak against the sound of the waves and the enormous vault of the sky. She did not answer, nor could he see her anywhere. . . . Footprints led nowhere and his eyes ranged the shore and water. He saw only the timid birds and the gatherings of kelp floating. He tried to reason but his reason brought in its wake pale, frightening visions. She was dead. Suddenly the sea appeared both weapon and fate, mocking him with its mindless motion and its sounds. Christ, was she dead? He had wondered so many times before whether she was capable of that final act, that act to punish at last the entire world by assessing the final punishment on herself.
Once you invade or are invaded, he realized, there is no turning back. The aggression committed, it is only left to wander in the breached fortress and the bombed streets of the soul… .
THE letter looked like something out of the past: a brittle blue envelope of good quality, quite thick enough to be interesting. And the name on the return address was not familiar: Mrs. Ernest Putnam, Scarsdale, New York. It was addressed to Sue in the hand of a woman who affected a thick nub pen and the blackest of ink. Frank Chesney carried it in with the usual assortment of bills and circulars and the smooth bulk of Life magazine. Had it been his letter, he would have opened it immediately, but he knew that Sue would be able to wait. That was Sue, and he supposed that was one of the reasons he loved her.
Lunch was set on the kitchen table with the best silver and linen napkins. Three camellias floated in a shallow ceramic dish in the center of the table. At his place was the morning paper and a glass of tomato juice. That is, it looked like tomato juice. He knew, in fact, it was a Bloody Mary and a good stiff one at that. When he lunched with clients he avoided liquor, but when he lunched at home, which was two or three times a week, he relished this drink. It warmed him as the ceremony of lunch with Sue did. He heard her upstairs with the slight tinkle of a tray. Marv, their middle son, their ten year-old, was home with German measles and Sue fixed his….
By 9:30, the children were all in bed, Marv and Sid asleep, Tom reading. Sue was in the kitchen making potato salad for the birthday party and baking the cake. Frank read fitfully for a while but the house seemed to imprison him. He called in to Sue to ask for a cup of coffee. “It’s your third,” she said. “You won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
“I know,” he said impatiently. “But I need something. I feel shaky.”
Sue brought the coffee. He tasted it, the dregs of the dinner pot.
“You’ve been pacing like a tiger,” Sue said. “Is there anything the matter?”
“Not a thing,” he lied. “I guess things went too well tonight. Dinner quiet, bedtime perfect.” He forced a laugh. “I’m not used to it.”
“Why don’t you go to a movie?” Sue asked.
He knew that he wanted to see Pat. He had been thinking constantly of her since the afternoon. No calls came although he had waited late at the office. He had even walked back home on Santa Monica hoping that he might see her coming out of the lab, had considered for a moment going in there. But he hadn’t. He resisted the impulse for some deeper reason.
“No. No movies,” he told Sue, regretting that he had thrown away a chance to go out. But something had forced him to say it. Sue said, “Well, I’m no help, I know, but I’ve got to get the cake done.” She went back to the kitchen.
In twenty minutes, he knew he had lost the fight. He had to get out. Frank called into the kitchen, “Sue. I need some fresh air. I think I’ll drive out to the beach.” He said it quickly before he could change his mind.
“I think you should,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he asked, a challenge he had not intended in his tone.
“I mean it’ll do you good to get away,” she replied.
“I just want some fresh air, some time to think,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “I’m not objecting. Go ahead.”
He put on his jacket and left hurriedly. Frank felt as though his actions were directed toward some predetermined path. It was a strange sensation, as though he were an iron filing dancing into the pattern of lines of force. He remembered seeing such an experiment in a college physics course. The instructor had placed a paper over a magnet, poured some filings on it and then tapped the paper once or twice with his finger. An inevitability, he had thought as he sat there. Physics had not interested him at all. He had had to take two science electives in his undergraduate work and physics was one of them. The immutability of physical laws had somehow offended him. Did they apply to man? Could they apply to man? Some finger tapped and within man a residual force, uncontrolled by him, compelled his role in a pattern. Frank had decided that this was an untenable view of the universe. Man felt compelled to resist but he was most of all a rationalizing animal. And this produced the worst irony
She listened but it was evident even to him that he was not reaching her in any way, even though he had turned himself inside out trying to move this woman of stone, begging her to love him. She had remained there as though grateful for the brief respite. When he had said, drunkenly but with more fervor than ever before: “You are the woman I want. You. Love me. Do you understand?”
She had stood up and undressed in the dimness of the room; then she had helped him to undress with the detachment of an old nurse. She had walked with him to the bathroom and in the bright, tile-reflected light had examined him. In bed, he had tried to touch her breasts, to kiss them but she would not let him. Throughout the act that followed, this had hurt him. She had told him to lie back and relax. She would do all that had to be done. She did, pressing switches and buttons in the machinery of his body, deft, responding, and in the moment of release he had called out in agony: “I love you.” She had said nothing. Nothing, warm or cold or faithless or fabricating, and he had slapped her face so hard that his hand came away, he had thought, with the warmth of blood on it. And she had begun to sob. He had wanted to beg her forgiveness; one part of him. The other wanted to flee. She cried for a moment, reached out to take his hand and kiss it. He had pulled his hand away, in a movement somehow crueler than the slap. She stopped crying, raised herself from the bed and dressed as he lay there in the murk of the room, hating himself, hating his life, hating when moments before he had spoken only of love. When she had dressed and was ready to go, he had gotten out of the bed and gone to the dresser to give her more money (vaguely, he had felt that he should). She had left. Frank had never seen her again.
The next day he had spent working, a miserable day, perhaps the worst of his life. When he had returned to the hotel, there were half-a-dozen messages from Anne, asking him to call, urging him to call.
The carhop brought his tray, clattering it as she hooked it to the side of his car. The coffee at least was warm; the shrimp, crisp and dead, the potatoes, limp, a heavy biscuit, and a soggy tomato slice lay in the plate, looking like a still life by an inferior painter.
“Want some catsup?” the carhop asked as though aware that something was needed.
“No. This will be fine,” Frank said. “What is your name?”
“Libby,” she said, pointing to a badge on which her name was printed. “Turn your lights on if you want me,” she said. “It’s getting a little busy. But I’ll be back.”
He bit into the shrimp, mechanically chewed the food. The coffee at least was good.
He had met Anne in the lobby of the hotel later that second night. She had lost weight and her hair had been dyed blond. He had barely recognized her; she looked like a fugitive woman, disguising herself against the past. They embraced like cousins who had not seen each other since childhood days, each wary and changed, each holding whatever warmth they were willing to display in that public place. They had dinner together in the hotel restaurant, where they spoke to each other in words as well-used and as limited in meaning as the words on the menu.
Frank had described the apartment in which they lived, Sue’s cooking, the look of Tom, the work he did.