The Story of a Marriage
The year is 1953, and when Pearlie Cook, the narrator of Andrew Sean Greer’s quietly affecting novel, The Story of a Marriage, sits down each morning, she dutifully clips the bad news from the paper to prevent her husband, Holland, from reading anything that would upset his supposedly delicate health. There is, at this time in America, much that she needs to censor: the Korean War and the Cold War spread of nuclear weapons; the House subcommittee hearings on Communist sympathizers and the entrapment of sexual deviants who might prove a special threat to national security; the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of spying for Russia, and Eisenhower’s refusal to commute that sentence; the regulations against burying Negro soldiers in certain cemeteries, Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, and racial discrimination in housing. The last items are of interest because Pearlie and Holland are black. Greer masterfully limns this background against which the story of the Cooks’ marriage plays itself out, reminding readers that the early 1950’s, with their fear and paranoia, were not nearly as placid as they often have been portrayed.
Pearlie and Holland met each other when they were growing up in rural Kentucky during World War II. A bright girl who memorized poetry but accounted herself as less than attractive, Pearlie was smitten by something as simple as Holland holding her hand. When Holland’s motherfor this is partly a story about how women try to keep their men from having to go off to warhid him from the draft until an illness necessitated calling in a doctor, Pearlie visited and read to him. After he was drafted, a government official persuaded her to go to California and work in an airplane factory, where she could gather evidence of any unpatriotic behavior. After Holland returns shell-shocked from a naval attack in the Pacific, they meet again by accident in San Francisco, where Pearlie immediately feels an urge to care for the ashen-faced, despairing ex-soldier, who still exudes “masculine grace” and seductive beauty. Holland, like many soldiers craving the normalcy of civilian life, has a desperate need that she marry him. So they do marry and settle down in the barely integrated community of Ocean Beach. His maiden “aunts,” Alice and Beatrice, who fabricate a Hawaiian rather than an African American ancestry and prefer to live in a segregated area, hint at Holland’s “bad blood” and “crooked heart” that must be protected. By 1953, after having fathered Sonny, who contracts polio, Holland is sleeping in a separate bedroom.
It is not until a mysterious white stranger, Charles “Buzz” Drumer, appears on their doorstep bearing a gift of silver top-hat cufflinks for Holland’s birthday and confesses to having been “together” with Holland as lovers during the war that Pearlie finally understands what has been eating at her husband’s heart that the two cousins refused to name. It is recalling the shock of this newfound awareness that propels Pearlie’s retrospective meditationby the time she tells the tale, Holland is long dead from kidney failure and Sonny is fifty years oldon how lovers, at base, remain always strangers to one another. Greer has Pearlie assert this insight at the novel’s beginning and reiterate it several times throughout. As the story opens, Pearlie remarks about being able to love only “the poor translation” she has made of the other, without being able to “get past it to the original.” Later she comments on the loneliness and heartbreak that come from the “silence and lies” between even husband and wife that make their life at best “a fiction.” Still later she muses about how, in the face of the heart remaining hidden, the lover re-creates the loved one according to how she wishes him to be.
Pearlie, in fact, comes to know Buzz Drumer better than she ever knew her husband, though perhaps she just failsor consciously chooses notto report more of what goes on behind the closed doors of their marriage. If Holland fought in the war only because he was dragged off to it, Buzz, who now owns a profitable business that makes women’s foundation garments but lives sparely in a rooming house, was a conscientious objector. Sent to a Quaker-run work camp rife with bigotry and prejudice that was as much a...
(The entire section is 1766 words.)