Phillip Lopate is an engaging and refreshing writer who departs from the mainstream of serious contemporary literature in several ways. Although he is a perceptive and thoughtful person, he approaches life with a certain zest and he tends to celebrate the human condition rather than to deplore it. Lopate views himself as a realist and finds little validity in surrealism, savage pessimism, or the clichés of existentialist absurdity. He is sensitive to both the comic and the tragic in everyday life and he translates his perceptions into prose of commendable warmth and energy. He does not subscribe to the accepted axiom that serious writing must be an act of depression, that it must convey a sense of hopelessness, that in order to be meaningful it must assert that life is meaningless. Ritual despair is not part of Lopate’s nature. He is a man who enjoys living; he likes other people and seems to understand them very well. His vision is a true one in terms of life as it is actually lived, the good together with the bad, joy and sorrow providing respites from each other. As he suggests in one of his essays, boredom would be inescapable in Utopia.
These positive and sometimes ingenuous qualities are found in Lopate’s first published work, Being with Children (1975), a delightful account of his experiences as a teacher of creative writing in one of the New York public schools. Now considered something of a classic, it has been followed by a related but more formal report of his work with the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, two books of poetry, and a novel, Confessions of Summer (1979). The present volume, according to its Preface, arose from Lopate’s interest in the personal essay—an art form of established reputation that is generally neglected at the present time. This is not to say that Bachelorhood is a collection of essays. Although there are several essays of excellent quality in the book, it also contains poems, vignettes, anecdotes, and several pieces that can most accurately be termed short stories.
Lopate is an experienced urbanite and he writes of life in the city, but he deals with universals and his readers can relate them easily to individual experience within any community. His observations and experiences will remind his readers of a truth that is often forgotten: people are much alike, regardless of habitat or circumstances, and life is much the same everywhere.
Of the selections that can be called short stories, the most moving, and in its way the most powerful, is one entitled “Willy.” It details one incident in a troubled marriage and presumably re-creates an episode that occurred in the author’s family when he was eight years of age. Both parents are employed full time; the father is preoccupied with his work and with the darkly serious novels he reads after he comes home; the mother works for wages all day, then cooks the meals, does the housework, rears the children. The father has become slovenly and withdrawn, and has gradually become contemptible in the eyes of his wife—who has resorted to the ancient tactic of humiliation and has merely baffled him. She has at length found a lover, a cheerful and far more exciting person than her husband. Willy never actually appears in the story, but he stands in sharp contrast to the highly intelligent man who has never used his gifts or bettered his family’s poor economic status. The prospect of going to California with Willy is far more attractive to the mother than life without any future, on the fifth floor of a tenement.
An inevitable process follows in which both parents manipulate the children into choosing sides, a game the father loses decisively when, in an admission of ultimate defeat, he beats his wife. The children are terrified and it is the narrator’s older brother, who has consistently sided with the father, who stops the violence by threatening to call the police. The marriage is saved and Willy is finally rejected, but the father must forever after accept an inferior status within his family.
This is a painful episode, circumstantially and conscientiously related, and the child’s viewpoint is carefully maintained. A common occurrence is seen here with deep insight and with a certain sympathy for all the participants. The question that will occur to Lopate’s more inquiring reader is, why did he include it in a book about the life of a bachelor? Was the experience so powerful that it made him distrustful of the commitments required by a permanent relationship? Did he learn from it or was he merely marked by it? Finally, how much is personal experience and how much is art?
The same inquiring reader will be interested in Lopate and will be inclined to check up on him. There is a brief biographical sketch in Contemporary Authors (Gale Research Company, 1981), together with an interview in which Lopate describes his philosophy and his work. The biographical statement identifies Lopate’s father...
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