Yours, Jean

Lee Martin

reviewed by

Joseph Michaels

Though it’s continued to exist in a deformed, largely nostalgic state since a takeover by Beurt SerVaas in the 1970s, the Saturday Evening Post essentially died from a kind of suicide in the early 60s. A staunch conservatism in its veins, the magazine’s right-of-center politics had always been an existential issue—George Horace Lorimer, perhaps the editor most closely affiliated with what would become the publication’s house style, eventually retired in 1936, sick with a recently diagnosed cancer and dissatisfied at the reelection of Roosevelt after what he deemed the constitutional revisionism of the New Deal, or as he called it in an editorial, “the New Deal regime”—and it was in the early 60s that the magazine all but ate itself, turning so far against its own firmly traditionalist mien that an endorsement of the Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 is said to have alienated its audience so much that it cost the publisher $10 million in ad sales.

     In the fallout of the loss, and after a damaging libel suit following an article that accused of rigging games no less of an American god than a college football coach, the industrialist SerVaas took over the magazine’s publishing company as a sort of pet project for his wife Cory, and if the change in command foreshadowed a retreat to the non-confrontational glory days of the Post, fitted out with the old masthead of the 20s and new ripe-for-parody celebrity profiles by Pete Martin, it was nevertheless a cynical backpedaling, with ads taking up a little less than a third of the 160-page revival issue. “All businesses are alike,” said SerVaas in a 1971 profile of the magazine’s return, and the very innocence of the Evening Post, no more calculated than it had always been, perhaps, could not help but feel a little bit hollower, while the fiction found within the magazine’s pages, and which could occasionally be appreciated for a quiet subversion with a stable of more ambiguously aligned authors running back all the way to the Lorimer years, now seemed to have dried out and withered, having less a genuine politics to move against than the cynicism of a characterless machine.

     What’s intriguing, then, about Yours, Jean—the new novel by Lee Martin out now from Dzanc Books—is the way it seeks to replicate the white-picket prose of the Post, overcoming in one sweep the souring of its pedigree and the almost-demand that any writer working in such a mode ought to do so largely out of either a camp-parody or nostalgic impulse. It’s a challenge Martin sets out for himself, no mean hurdle, to be sure, and it’s to his credit that the novel appears to ask and answer a genuine aesthetic question about the contemporary use of such a prose style without resorting to the often worse-than-nostalgic manipulation of a previous era’s stagy eccentricities only in order to make some kind of claim about “the way we live now.”

     Taking as a spine the real-life 1952 murder of high school librarian Georgine Lyon, as perpetrated by her former fiancé Charles Petrach, the novel’s first one hundred pages detail in occasionally rigid, period-specific language the lead-up and short-term aftermath of the crime. In these opening pages, the unmistakably named Jean De Belle, this novel’s version of Ms. Lyon, goes about her morning in anticipation of her first day as the new librarian and English teacher at Lawrenceville High in Illinois, “a woman setting out on her own,” innocent and almost absurdly optimistic about the world beyond her surrendered engagement, “ready—more than ready—to step into it.”

     Spidering out from Jean, the novel further introduces a network of supporting characters tightly connected by coincidence to the events about to take place. There’s Mary Ellen and her daughter Robbie, the inhabitants of the house where Jean rents a room, with Mary Ellen herself another English teacher at the school which Robbie also attends. There’s Grinny, the working-class taxi driver, whose daughter Millie has been knocked up by Robbie’s boyfriend, Tom Heath, this latter character initially introduced as a kind of bad-boy greaser waiting outside Mary Ellen’s to pick up Robbie and revving the engine of a brand new “gold Chevy Fleetline, a fastback with fat whitewalls and tons of chrome,” but who’s actually “an Eagle Scout, editor of the Toma Talk [the Lawrenceville High newspaper], president of the senior class,” and, most damagingly of all perhaps, someone who’s forced “to wear eyeglasses that made him look like an old man to read the blackboard at school.”

     The list goes on and on, including Norville Rich, a lifelong bachelor with a romantic streak who writes in a private ledger such stuff as, “Wednesday, September 3, 1952: Sunny and clear with temps approaching 83 degrees. First day of school. A perfect day to begin [italics Martin’s],” and the night concierge at the Grand Hotel, which has recently acquired a new occupant in the form of Jean’s spurned ex, the half-pathetic, half-portentous Charlie Camplain.

     As the descriptions above might suggest, even when his characters shift in form unexpectedly, Martin is nevertheless playing with familiar types: child brides, stoop-backed workingmen, sweet women of modest ambition and the physical or principle danger even that small desire for independence threatens to bring upon them. These are the sorts of characters who wouldn’t be out of place in the Saturday Evening Post or yet another white-bread fiction outlet from the novel’s specific timeframe, and at first, in these opening one-hundred pages at least, it can often be difficult to see where Martin is going with such hoary material. With a large enough cast already, and leaning deeply into the archetypes of 40s and 50s newsstand literature, Martin risks spreading too little too far, and problems crop up potentially, as when, at one moment, characterizing the solitary lives of two bachelors, the prose does little to differentiate the men beyond whether they eat a lonely canned soup dinner with sardines and crackers or simply enjoy it enough on its own.

     What holds this opening half together, rather, is Martin’s style, his language at once indulgent in the tones and textures of American melodrama while at the same time containing, in retrospect, an extraordinarily incisive critique of same. Here’s an example from quite early in the novel, detailing Jean’s commercial preparations as she suits up for the role of the newly-single schoolteacher in town:

     “Rayon will wash and dry much faster than cotton,”   

     the clerk told her, “and I know how important time 

     will be to a busy gal like you.” The clerk was a tall, 

     angular woman who wore cat-eye glasses with silver 

     flowers etched onto the black frames. “Sweetie, just 

     feel it. Now isn’t that soft? Imagine how that’ll feel 

     against your skin. Ooh la lah.”

          Why not, Jean thought. Why not ditch the kid 

     pajamas and wear something more womanly.

          The clerk’s name was Mildred. “But most folks  

     call me Midge. Sweetie, I’m going to take good care 

     of you. I’m going to set you up with exactly what you 

     need.”

          Jean let Midge guide her through the purchase of 

     dresses and skirts and blouses and sweaters—even 

     stockings and shoes and gloves and scarves, and a   

     winter coat she didn’t really need, but it was a swing 

     coat, Midge said. “Very chic, sweetie.” And like that, 

     it was hers.

The buoyant tone here, anchored by trope-ish characterizations and a montage-inspired, fluid interaction between the narration and dialogue, is right on the knife-edge of parody, so much so that one can miss the twofold skill of the writing. Martin locates in the style of popular fiction from the era a lush materialism so often the focal point of scenes and characters’ motives (“You Belong to Me,” we’re told, is Jean and Charlie’s special song), yet he avoids the easy danger of treading with too cumbersome a foot into the specifics of period fashion, brand names, etc., achieving an interesting, even somewhat melancholy balance between the glamorous upbeat tone of the sentences and the flyover desperation in Midge’s attempts at passing French casuistry, all of it sailing so quickly over Jean’s head as she enters her life for the first time as an independent adult, yet seems more so than ever at the hypnotic mercy of her environment. A million versions of this type of scene exist, but very few of them possess this level of restraint (as rare as a New York writer content not to call by name the streets and avenues which appear in his fiction), a comportment fundamental to Martin’s aims, creating an uncanny middle-point between ground-level realism and out-and-out cultural satire, in effect weaponizing the novel’s aesthetic and its characters’ relation to the material.

     To be fair, the prose isn’t totally perfect in this regard and one can feel the inside position of the author slipping a little when, for instance, Mary Ellen must later on defend herself against a fast-spreading neighborhood rumor that she and Jean were lovers: “‘Am I now, or was I ever, a lesbian?’ Mary Ellen couldn’t help but parrot the question Senator McCarthy had put to so many people during his Communist witch hunt.” A somewhat irritating cleverness aside, the timeline doesn’t quite add up here. McCarthy was already a notorious figure in 1952, though not as much of one as he would become with the televised Army hearings in 1954, and Martin’s use of the past perfect tense with “had put to so many people during” almost implies an “over-and-done-with” approach which, beyond its subtle anachronism, actively contradicts a great deal of what the novel does by embodying not even so much the lived lives but the cultural fantasies of the era rather than simply looking back on them from either a nostalgic or clinically modern point-of-view.

To this same end, the murder itself, once Martin finally reaches it, dominates the novel’s language for a spell, and one can sense a hard-nosed, reportorial “true crime” style filling in the gaps and speeding along the plot, uneasily mixing with the folksiness of his dominant mode, creating some dissonance in such sentences as, “Dick Dollahan was not a man who took kindly to a patron brandishing a gun in his establishment. He kept a baseball bat and a sawed-off shotgun behind the bar to discourage such behavior.”

     For the most part, though, Martin keeps his head tucked within the frame provided by his prose’s mock-quaintness, and just as Fitzgerald before him—a frequent Evening Post contributor at that—once rooted around in the toolkit of popular fiction to seek out structures sturdy enough to mount the outrageous abstraction of his sentences, so does Martin appear to use both the structure and language of newsstand literature to mount his own moral inquest into the damages wrought by nostalgia and in part perpetuated by those exact cultural influences employed to craft his vehicle’s expression.

     Floating ahead to roughly six weeks after the murder, the novel’s second half proceeds to examine the large cast’s shifting relations, sidestepping the more obvious choice of a small-town murder revealing the corruption that’s already present and, instead, dialing in on how the locals see in the murder’s blank violence a chance to recreate themselves, if only to jump from one hopeless trope to another, trapped still by the demands of their surroundings.

     The Grand Hotel clerk Norville, for instance, turns from a sadsack into a man-about-town, spouting off to anyone who will listen a half-realized version of his role in the tragedy:

     When he was sitting in the police car on Main Street 

     telling the officer with the curly hair about Charlie 

     Camplain, a call had come in over the officer’s two-

     way radio telling him to make tracks—that’s how 

     Norville chose to characterize what he’d heard the 

     dispatcher say, when he told the story, again and 

     again, to anyone who was interested in hearing it—to 

     make tracks pronto to the Showboat, where a 

     murder suspect had last been seen.

The exaggerated cop dialect slides Norville’s characterization down the field, as if into a whole other genre (and in far more deliberate a way than as seen earlier in the dissonance in Martin’s pacing out the murder proper), as Norville abandons his former romanticism for a rough-edged language to better match the town struck by violence and newly stark, while the cab driver Grinny, hard for money and absorbed in guilt re: his having driven Charlie to the murder’s destination, flirts alternately with criminal acts and a deepening of his Catholic faith, as though moving in two directions at once, in either case unsure of how to accommodate for where he’s been. “He could barely stand to be inside his own skin,” writes Martin, while in a telling moment late in the novel, Norville says of the murder’s effect: “A thing like that happens, and you think it’s got nothing to do with you. Then you find out you were wrong.”

     This is the moral bind of the novel, perhaps, the responsibility one owes to the past, even a past that is ugly with innocence. So the characters shift and shift back. They rely on archetypes and standard roles because they are afraid of the honesty that lies outside them. And the tragedy of it all, it seems, is that this is, still, a kind of movement, the positive side of a material culture, even as the true victim, Jean De Belle, Georgine Lyon, fades away slowly into an immobile object, a memory—possessed, cut off from opportunity—yours, Jean.

Yours, Jean

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