Maureen Howard Essay - Howard, Maureen (Vol. 5)

Howard, Maureen (Vol. 5)

Howard, Maureen 1930–

Ms Howard is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Maureen Howard's Before My Time … seems to me a very good novel indeed, one of the best I've read in quite a while…. The tone is breezy, pushy enough to give us a sense that Laura's story will be a story, but so scrappily involved with itself, with the implications of the previous sentence, that it may need no plot to get that story told. Anyone who has read Howard's first two novels, Not a Word About Nightingales and Bridgeport Bus, will recognize this as her distinct voice, but it also bears an easy unselfconscious relation to the great monologuists of the last decade: Bellow, Mailer.

The great difference between Maureen Howard and anyone else I can think of who is remotely like her is that her assurance, her breezy way of letting one sentence twist off from the one before, carries with it no heavy burden of self. Here is Laura Quinn, and Jimmy Cogan, and Laura's husband, and Jimmy's mother, father, brother and sister, girl friend—here they are all, the book is like a series of short stories—but Howard not only doesn't work to give them distinct voices, she doesn't work very hard, in the normal sense, to make them characters. What they have, more precious almost than voice or self, is lives they are leading. (pp. 221-22)

In a book that just keeps moving off its own energies, that spins off stories with abundance, there are problems, no matter how wonderful the writing is page by page. The obvious one is focus, and if Howard rightly knows she must abjure big scenes that will smell of the lamp and inkhorn plots, she also wants it to come together…. There's not a page in this book that I could point to and wish it were different, yet I did not feel it all working out quite right at the end. Perhaps all I really hope is that she has or will soon have a novel called My Time to follow this one, because my dissatisfaction here was certainly no greater than what I felt finishing the separate books of other sequences I've liked very much, like Frederic Buechner's and Robertson Davies's. Howard has taken fifteen years to write her three novels, so that we know the apparent case of her prose is not something she finds easy, and her books are so good, so capable of lingering in the memory, that perhaps one must not press the point. But I do hope she hasn't finished with Laura Quinn. (pp. 223-24)

Roger Sale, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Winter, 1975.

"Before My Time" is both a direct descendant of [Maureen Howard's] first two books ["Not a Word About Nightingales" and "Brideport Bus"] and a departure, a sport, an evidence of how many unrepetitive subjects and persons Maureen Howard's head is capable of imagining and then fixing in perfect language for our understanding. As in the others, there is no message, only an urgent, desperate meaning; the medium in which it grows is a further display of her sane, evocative, simple and exact prose. The story's overall coloration is once again Irish-Catholic, because that world seems to be the American world Howard knows best, but it is in no sense limited to that milieu.

"Nightingales" was a paradox of a novel. It convinced through the originality of its parts, at the same time that, throughout, it seems to echo familiar fictional themes…. What is not reminiscent … is the writing, the creation of memorable characters….

"Bridgeport Bus" is another matter. For the richness and complexity of its extraordinary central character, Mary Agnes Keely, 35-year-old virgin, novelist-in-the-making and figure of fun, who escapes her mother and life in Connecticut aboard a bus to New York, I can think of only one parallel: Gulley Jimson in "The Horse's Mouth." Both characters are word-mass creations whose creative spirits are not so much talked about as displayed by the force of the novel itself. Mary Agnes is one of the few characters in recent fiction (she tells the novel herself) to persuade me that she is the gifted, original, talented person she is depicted to be….

There is no story to "Bridgeport Bus"—unless it is the picaresque tracing of a tragic parabola, the journey of the gaunt, self-educated, superbly aware and talented woman in search of life and art…. The women in this novel are as good as any I can think of: consider the thin and often anemic, thinly disguised self-portraits that novelists often give us….

After Maureen Howard's latest novel has been properly noticed, its admirers will want to go back to savor Mary Agnes's cruel wit, her mixture of "cool intelligence and fire."

In "Before My Time" we meet two interrelated Irish-American families….

What happens in these lives (the thematic pattern is so much the same in the three books that one comes to see that Maureen Howard is using all her ingenuity to the same inexorable end) is precisely nothing….

Again the theme of an uneventful, deeply felt, nonprogress, of captivity in the sacrament and ritual of marriage, of life as a series of inconsequential events, poignant and terrible, signifying little. And again it is an unremitting catalogue of the snares and delusions of family life: it "is like the classics played in modern dress by an amateur troop. Vulgarized versions of the old tales."…

Maureen Howard has the gift of being unobtrusively present in her fictions, like the good children who are neither seen nor heard. But her hand is felt, controlling events, keeping them in their assigned comic or poignant rings, preventing excess and promoting restrained yet agonized, circular movement. Reading her, one is made to return to the inevitable, to the conclusions that things do not end satisfactorily so much as they happen; they seem to mean something for the moment and then disappear into memory, which is what fiction is to this extraordinary talented writer…. (p. 5)

Doris Grumbach, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1975.

Certainly Miss Howard's stylistic virtuosity cannot be disputed; every inch of her prose [in Before My Time] is trimmed and polished with meticulous skill. Yet from the first, the principal thread of her narrative is yawningly familiar: still another invasion of middle-aged suburban order by rude youth….

Miss Howard tries hard to freshen her tired scene with an abundance of eccentric characters, whose outlines are cleverly suggested but whose substance is perilously vague, and whose place in the scheme of the novel is irritatingly fuzzy. Only one of the portraits acquires incisive clarity—Jimmy's mother, a disappointed and blowzy Irish beauty tied to a chronic gambler for drab life, tippling herself away in a squalid Bronx tenement with secret nips of gin and yearning. Everyone else, including [the protagonists], remains hazy and dim, though Miss Howard's prose is never less than elegant.

Before My Time, alas, is impaled on its very perfection; in the end there is almost nothing to grasp and hold and savor. One feels consistently cheated by the "fine" writing, the artfulness of all those tentative ambiguities, the ornate fretwork of dissonance and dependence that registers so little thought and feeling about the ongoing war of American generations. At no point does Miss Howard take any chances, make the kind of reckless flying leap that Diane Johnson carries off with splendid bravura on practically every page…. Before My Time is merely an exquisite bore. (p. 18)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 20, 1975.

The tricky construction of [Before My Time] partly damages it: the relationship between woman and boy never gets fully dramatized. It remains a muffled, theoretical "given"—the peg on which family stories are hung. But the family stories are a glinting lantern show of American success and failures—primarily Irish (contrasting Boston and New York subspecies, '40s and '70s generations), with supporting Italian and Jewish examples.

Two stories, out of many, are particularly moving. Jim Cogan's younger brother and sister, secretive, inseparable twins, enjoy a friendship with a neighboring Italian baker whose in-laws went back to Calabria to buy a husband for their unmarriageable Angelina; the twins, quizzing the immigrant about his life, "learned … about their own world though they never suspected it. The kids thought they were listening to tales of another land." Equally absorbing is the tale of the Cogans' luckless father making his salesman's calls on a patriarchal Jewish tycoon, retained as a decorative artifact in his sons' new office building: "They should put me out in the lobby with the Lipchitz," says Hoshie Feinmark. "I'm part of the museum. A work of art. This old man in the cashmere jacket and silk shirt is Poppa, a success. They never called me Poppa when they were little but it's quaint now, Jewish. Sometimes I want to laugh." Maureen Howard is subtle, oblique and precise. I like her novel a lot.

Walter Clemons, "Lantern Show," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 20, 1975, p. 76.

Traditional novelists toss pebbles into domestic pools and then take notes. The postwar fashion has been to track these projectiles directly into the muck below, but there is another, older way. As masters like Henry James and Virginia Woolf knew, the ripples on the surface can bedevil the eye and engage the mind. Before My Time brushes up this earlier technique. It transforms a brief disturbance of hearth and home into an age of anxiety….

Before My Time conveys a range of details and events that would be impressive in a novel twice as long. Although the design appears casual, the book's power is in its language. Time and again, a part is successfully substituted for a whole. One swallow can a summer make, if described with enough care, just as one scene can conjure up a lifetime. So a costumed hippie wandering the streets is pinned with words: "A child who has lost its role in the Christmas play." Quietly dropped epigrams cause wide ripples: "Family life is like the classics played in modern dress by an amateur troop. Vulgarized version of the old tales."… "I would like to write faster," [Maureen Howard] says, "but life intervenes." That, triumphantly, is exactly what happens in her novel.

Paul Gray, "Lost Generation," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 27, 1975, p. 78.

In … Before My Time, Maureen Howard deftly and movingly captures the feel of family life most of us have experienced, its contradictions now so deep within us that we forget how they shaped our growing up and growing old. Howard's art helps us to remember. (p. 25)

Before My Time begins and ends with Laura Quinn; her history, and her encounter with Jim Cogan, frame and focus the novel. They do not make up the whole of it. Before My Time is also the story of all the Murrays [Laura's family]. (pp. 25-6)

The Murray saga, Boston and the Bronx, is virtually a novel itself. It unfolds in fragments, set pieces, short story-like chapters … that fascinate in their own right, interlock, overlap and create a very special resonance for the Laura-Jim plot. Howard is not using technique simply to play a Rashamon game with her readers, though we can surely delight in her craft as mysteries are explained and episodes intersect. The structure and detail of Before My Time establish a world of family relationships—between siblings, between generations, with those important adults who are not one's parents. Even minor characters in this novel (neighbors, housekeeper, secretary, clients and boss) are shown in some family role, as Howard dramatizes from multiple perspectives that mix of intimacy and isolation, safety and competition, present and past the family provides in our time.

Howard's last novel, Bridgeport Bus, was a funny, sad work some readers were fortunate to discover and then eager to pass on to friends. Before My Time is a richer, more complex, perhaps more difficult novel, but also funny/sad….

Howard knows that all her characters are ordinary, and very precious: women and men, old and young, post-Kennedy liberal intellectuals and barefoot seekers of revelation. She knows that the personal truth of each is to be found in the meeting of private experience and historical moment, lets us see those truths, and then reminds us that we see them because she has trained our vision. (p. 26)

Elaine Ruben, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 8, 1975.