Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1766
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...
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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 prison as a site for enforced labor clearing tree stumps, he apparently found there gay companions before he was chosen to participate in a medical experiment designed to see how little food war refugees needed to survive. Starved and emaciated, so that no one could possiby love him, he eventually plunged into a kind of madness, finally eating off his little finger. It is thus that he comes to share a room in a veterans’ hospital with Holland and their affair begins. Now he reappears in Holland’s life and tries to wrest him away from Pearlie.
Instead of demanding that Holland reject the interloper and throw him out, Pearlie somewhat surprisingly insists he make a choice between her and his former lover. Knowing that Holland, whom she describes as physically “beaten out of gold,” has always been an object of admiration and alluring to the eyes of both sexes, she wants him to name his desire rightly. The “aunts,” who have always known more of the truth than they let on, caution her against jealousy and counsel her to avert her eyes from the unpleasant facts. Pearlie, who feels that she has at times tried to pass for white, even surreptitiously visits a gay bar in North Beach to see what she calls “the changeling boys,” transvestite dancers forced to wear badges announcing their true gender to ward off being arrested. Ready to be won over by Buzz’s need, she entertains his offer of financial security for her and Sonny, which makes her feel little better than her “husband’s procuress.” She and Buzz even concoct a plan to turn Holland’s attentions away from a white woman, Annabel, to whom, in his sexual uncertainties, he seems to be attracted. They report her fiancé Walter, who has been excused from the draft because of a clerical error that lists his brother as already serving overseas, to the authorities, only to suffer guilt when he is seriously injured in boot camp and returns home permanently disabled. Given the chance, however, to be free of his marriage, at the last minute Holland, after a physical altercation, decides to stay with her and Sonny.
If Holland remains unknowable to her, so, too, was Pearlie a “greater mystery” to him: Believing she wanted what only Buzz could give her, he “got [her] wrong.” When thinking back on how she defined her role, Pearlie calls upon the example of two of “history’s wives” who also did not speak out against their husbands: Eslanda Goode Robeson, who took the Fifth Amendment rather than incriminate her actor husband Paul, and, especially, Ethel Rosenberg, who was forced to bear with her husband the shame of the whole affair and to see her silence blamed for war, communism, death, and possible annihilation. Pearlie, who shed tears that it took two shocks to kill Ethel (after she had bloodied her hands on the mesh screen that kept her apart from Julius), wonders why she did not confess to save her life, concluding that Ethel remained steadfast to the principle of “the smallest atom of a wife that cannot be split apart.”
More than forty years later, Buzz unexpectedly reenters Pearlie’s life, through a chance meeting of Sonny, long after Sonny had been called upon to make his own difficult choices during the tumultuous period of the Vietnam War, whose peace demonstrations and draft card burnings are tellingly sketched in by Greer. Pearlie punctuates her narrative by remarking that although it began as a story of love and marriage, “the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass,” providing a perspective on three different conflicts: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Holland’s mother tried to keep him safe from a war that was not “our war,” referring to the fact that blacks were even segregated in the armed forces. Pearlie, on the other hand, in a misguided moment, effectually sent Walter off to fight in Korea. When it comes time for Sonny to be drafted, however, she supports his decision to flee to Canada, where he has a child by a Chinese woman. Men either go to war or do not go to war: During World War II, men felt both fear of and shame over not serving, and threats to their manliness on both counts; during the Vietnam War, personal integrity might require a quite different response. Women either send their men to war or, in Greer’s hands, do everything in their power to protect them from it. In this case, Pearlie decides to shelter Sonny from something else as well. Now an executive with a nonprofit agency in the East, married to a white woman, and father of a son, he comes to San Francisco on business, inviting his mother to breakfast and to renew her acquaintance with Buzz. Questioned by Sonny about the nature of her relationship with this other man, she is unwilling to admit the truth and does nothing to disabuse her son of the notion that she and Buzz must once have been lovers. And so the true nature of Holland’s sexuality remains hidden, even to his son. She cannot confront Buzz again after all these years, unwilling to tell him that Holland “loved [her] more.”
Of the three central players in Greer’s triangle, Holland is the most elusive, with the reader never really let into his lifeeven though it is told by the one he chose to stay with and who remained with him until his death. This, however, may well be a deliberate strategy on the author’s part. Not only does it reemphasize the unknowability of the loved one to the lover, but it foregrounds the closeted nature of Holland’s existence in mid-twentieth century America. He was black, and being homosexual as well made him doubly the outsider. So the nature of Holland’s love puts him at war with himself. Forced into a heterosexual marriage that accorded with society’s norms, he could never truly be himself or articulate an identity in keeping with his nature. As Greer writes in a haunting line that introduces the final section of this understated short novel with its masterful control of first-person viewpoint, “America, you give a lovely death.”