(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks was one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of 1976; it was, therefore, widely reviewed, and the reviews were unanimous in praising the thirty-one-year-old author for the buoyant vitality and good humor of her first book—though some thought it lacked disciplined form and was sophomoric in tone and content. Kinflicks is the story of Virginia Babcock Bliss, told mostly in alternating first- and third-person style, and of her bumpy trek toward self-knowledge during the decade of the 1960’s. Images of her past flicker before the reader—hence the title—and counterpoint the present. Most of the past images have to do with sexual initiation, while those of the present deal with the illness and despondency of Ginny’s mother as she lies dying in a hospital, and with the touching attempts of mother and daughter to estabish rapport while there is still time.

The book jacket encomium by Doris Lessing, perhaps the most respected woman novelist writing today and an acknowledged feminist, praises Kinflicks as a book that “no man could have written,” but suggests that it has affinities with Tom Jones. The comparison is apt, because like Tom Jones, Alther’s heroine is a charming, bright, and innocent wayfarer with remarkable resilience—considerably more resilience, in fact, that her male counterparts in twentieth century American literature such as Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) and Dean Moriarity (On the Road). These characters are rebels or victims and end up immobilized—unmanned, as it were—by modern society. Ginny Babcock passes through crises of initiation equal to those of her male counterparts, but ends up with her identity intact and her sense of humor heightened. Her real counterpart is not the tortured adolescent of the twentieth century, but Huckleberry Finn; she is the kind of character whom a reader would be delighted to know, rather than merely know about.

The ingenuous quality of Alther’s heroine, the length of the novel, and the picaresque quality of the narrative have led some reviewers to dismiss Kinflicks as disorganized. While there is no question that the book, like many first and presumably autobiographical novels, is too long, it does not suffer from lack of structure. Quite the contrary: Ginny is derided by her counterculture friends for having an “accountant’s mentality”; the charge is truer than they know, for her story is a balancing of the books, or, more precisely, a series of oppositions between conflicting forces of life and death.

The key to the book’s structure in terms of theme is found in the second major section, when Ginny is a student at “Worthley College,” an elite woman’s school near Boston. Here she comes under the influence of Miss Head, whose speciality is the rationalist philospher, Descartes. Miss Head, as her name implies, is the embodiment of intellect, a model of lucidity and pose. Moreover, her background is roughly analogous to Ginny’s—the daughter of an Oklahoma dirt farmer, she transformed herself into a sophisticated woman, and hopes to do the same for Ginny.

Opposing Miss Head is a girl named Eddie (Edna) Holzer, a scholarship student from the slums of Boston who challenges Ginny to read Nietzsche, the romantic philosopher, instead of Descartes, the rationalist. At the same time, Ginny is introduced to the thesis-antithesis-synthesis concept of Hegel. The opposition between thesis (Miss Head’s classicism) and antithesis (Eddie’s romanticism) should produce a synthesis in Ginny’s mind and heart but the conflicting claims are too strong: one mode of perceiving existence has to be rejected entirely.

The turning point comes when Ginny is stricken with a profound terror while reading a famous passage from Kierkegaard; the point of the passage is that we are all condemned to experience life as eternal Nothingness, and that suicide is its only logical end. In a brilliantly realized scene, Ginny is comforted and rescued from despair by Eddie; Ginny rejects not only Miss Head but, for a time, heterosexual love, and goes to live with Eddie in Boston and then on a run-down farm in Vermont.

Once perceived, the pattern of thesis and antithesis is obvious: Joe Bob, the lumpish high school football hero, is opposed by Clem Cloyd, a motorcycle hood; and Ginny ultimately marries Ira Bliss, a Yankee small-businessman. The rural Tennessee of Ginny’s high school years is opposed to the urban New England college town, followed in its turn by rural New England—Stark’s Bog, Vermont. Ginny herself goes from being a cheerleader to a motorcycle moll to a commune freakout to a model mother. The problem with this kind of organization is not, as noted before, that it is chaotic, but that it is almost too symmetrical, too insistent on identifying and developing equally all the opposites perceived by Ginny. Thus Hawk, the demented deserter who introduced Ginny into mystical sex at the end of the book, gets as much space as does Joe Bob Sparks in the beginning. Joe Bob is a wonderful creation, a comic original, while Hawk is a type, well-done but not particularized—one need only compare a page of dialogue dealing with each character to perceive the...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Hullsport. Fictional town in east Tennessee, modeled on the real Kingsport, Tennessee, Lisa Alther’s hometown. Alther’s protagonist, Ginny Babcock, grows up in Hullsport, where the local chemical plant owned by her father, Major Babcock spews smoke as it manufactures munitions to support the Korean War effort and ships top secret materials to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

When Ginny was growing up in Hullsport, debutante balls, bouffant hairdos, southern drawls, and flag waving were as much a part of town life as kudzu vines, Harley Davidson motorcycles, moonshine liquor, and cockfights. There country music blared from radios while Ginny and her football-playing boyfriend, Joe Bob Sparks, made out after a Southern Baptist revival meeting; however, after she lost her virginity to a boy from the wrong social class, she was shipped off to a college up north.

In the novel’s present time, when Ginny returns to Hullsport and attends her mother, she sees the town as it now is—with new developments, new roads, and a new McDonalds. However, the town’s river is still polluted, the flag-waving routine for the band is still the same, the medical profession is just as impersonal as ever, her former friends have grown older and heavier, and she herself still does not fit in. She and the townspeople have little in common except their shared past; moreover, their memories of that past are very different.

Worthley College

Worthley College. New England college in which Ginny is accepted because she fills the Appalachian slot in the college’s quota system. (Alther models the fictional college on Wellesley College, near Boston, where she earned a bachelor’s degree.) At Worthley, Ginny is exposed through her...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kinflicks alternates between satire and seriousness, with mixed success according to most critics, who nevertheless were impressed by...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Several critics, including the New Yorker's, have compared the book to The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951), a much shorter...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Other Women (1984) Caroline Kelley, a confused, often tormented lesbian nurse, is a "bleeding heart" liberal who suffers for every...

(The entire section is 714 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Braendlin, Bonnie Hoover. “New Directions in the Contemporary Bildungsroman: Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks.” Women and Literature 1 (1980): 160-171. Asserts that Alther’s book is a new type of maturation novel because it emphasizes the woman rather than the man. She says the book alternates between the picaresque and the confessional modes, the first being patriarchal and the second matriarchal, as Ginny struggles between freedom and security.

Brown, Laurie L. “Interviews with Seven Contemporary Writers.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

Ferguson, Mary Anne. “The Female Novel of Development and the Myth of Psyche.” Denver Quarterly 17 (Winter, 1983): 58-74. Discusses the myth of Psyche and Cupid in Kinflicks and works by Eudora Welty and Erica Jong. She discusses Ginny’s relationship with her mother as it parallels Ginny’s development as heroine.

Ferguson, Mary Anne. “Lisa Alther: The Irony of Return?” Southern Quarterly 21 (Summer, 1983): 103-115. Ferguson discusses Ginny’s relationship with her mother, including Ginny’s attempt to imitate her mother by following her into death. She also focuses on Ginny’s rebellion against the South and her return to it.

Hall, Joan Lord. “Symbiosis and Separation in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks.” Arizona Quarterly 38 (Winter, 1982): 336-346. Hall examines Ginny’s behavior as symbolically related to her mother’s blood: As Mrs. Babcock’s blood cells turn upon themselves, Ginny wonders whether she is like a cell functioning in a larger organism. Hall asserts that Ginny can find freedom only when she becomes part of a larger community.

Leonard, John. Review of Kinflicks, by Lisa Alther. The New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1976. Compares Alther to Doris Lessing. Discusses Kinflicks as a comic maturation novel, putting Ginny Babcock in company with Holden Caulfield, Augie March, and Huck Finn.

Peel, Ellen. “Subject, Object, and the Alternation of First-and Third-Person Narration in Novels by Alther, Atwood and Drabble.” Critique (Summer, 1989): 107-122.