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The Body of Jonah Boyd: A Novelby David Leavitt
Leavitt drops you into this family, allows you to muck around in its glorious dysfunction, and then extracts you in an ingenious way.-Entertainment Weekly See more details below
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Leavitt drops you into this family, allows you to muck around in its glorious dysfunction, and then extracts you in an ingenious way.-Entertainment Weekly
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The Body of Jonah BoydA Novel
By DAVID LEAVITT
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2004 David Leavitt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEvery thanksgiving, the Wrights gave a big dinner to which they invited all the graduate students-the "strays," Nancy Wright called them-who happened to be marooned in Wellspring over the holiday. Glenn Turner was usually one of these, as was Phil Perry (later to cause such grief and uproar), and a shadowy girl with bangs in a plaid skirt whose name, for the moment, escapes me. Also me. My name is Judith "Denny" Denham, and I was unique among the strays in that I wasn't any kind of graduate student. I was Ernest Wright's secretary in the psych department. Since the Thanksgiving about which I am writing-1969-thirty years have passed, which is as many years as I had then been alive.
In Wellspring, California, many of the street names combine the front and back ends of different states. Calibraska Avenue is the main shopping thoroughfare, rising at a steady eastward incline from the university and then crossing under the 420 freeway to Springwell, where I lived, where most of the secretaries lived. Springwell is Wellspring's service entrance, its mirror twin; it is where you go for the best Mexican food, or to visit your children by a woman you have long since abandoned; it is the wrong side of a freeway the chief function of which, I often suspect, is to give people something to live on the right side of.
Florizona Avenue, where the Wrights lived, is on the university side of the freeway-the right side. It begins its brief, three-block trajectory as a sharp left turn off Minnetucky Road, then winds upward amid rows of capacious houses, most of them two-story, shingled or stucco, with somersaulting lawns and old oaks-and then, just at its point of greatest glory, where the view opens up to reveal all of Wellspring, the university with its tiled roofs, and the arroyo, and on sunny days, in the remote distance, the Pacific, it comes to an abrupt end at Washaho Avenue, the name of which has for generations been the subject of crude undergraduate jokes. Today, due to the university's peculiar charter, this neighborhood remains the exclusive domain of tenured professors and senior administrators, even as the rest of Wellspring has been colonized by movie people and software engineers from the "campuses" of the tech firms that have sprung up of late in the hills, as if in parody of the real campus to which the town owes its name. The reigning provost, Ira Weiss, is at 304, formerly the Webb house, while at 310, where Ken Longabaugh from Math once lived with his wife, Hettie, there's a Russian biologist named Federov. Francine Chambers from History has replaced Jim Heatherly from Geology at 307. 305 still belongs to Sam and Bertha Boxer-"the bizarre Boxers," as we used to call them, Sam long retired from the Engineering department and their yard more dilapidated than ever.
As for the Wrights' house-302-after Nancy Wright died in 1981, it went through three more owners, the price doubling with each resale, until Ben Wright, by then a famous novelist, managed at long last to buy it back in the late nineties. He lived there until his own death last spring.
I remember that when I first started working at Wellspring, I used to sometimes take Florizona Avenue on my way home from the office, just so that I could admire, for a moment, its easy affluence, the fruit trees and rose gardens and winding stone paths. After school, if it wasn't raining, there would be children in the street, playing Capture the Flag or Red Rover, though Ben Wright was rarely among them. His allergies kept him indoors. In those days I thought the name "Florizona" exotic and colorful; it brought to mind some tropical tree, a palm or a banyan, growing out of hot sand, in a landscape as crooked and severe as the one through which the Road Runner chases the coyote.
Ernest Wright was an authority on Freud, and also maintained a small private practice as a psychoanalyst. Although he had been born in St. Louis, where he had met and married Nancy, his ancestry was Eastern European, his parents having emigrated from Poland around the turn of the century and adopted the name "Wright" in honor of the brothers who made the first successful airplane flight. (His father had ambitions to be a pilot.) For much of his professional life, Ernest taught at Bradford College in Bradford, New Hampshire. The Wrights only moved to Wellspring in 1964, two years before I went to work as his secretary.
They had three children: Mark, Daphne, and Ben. In 1969, Mark was twenty and living in Vancouver. That summer, he had fled over the Canadian border to avoid the military draft. His draft number was four. Daphne was seventeen in 1969, and in the throes of her first real love affair, with Glenn Turner, who was her father's protégé. (This had to be kept secret from Ernest, who wouldn't have approved.) In those years, she and her mother were waging a constant war the chief purpose of which, or so it seemed to me, was to allow them to collapse, at battle's end, into a cozy mess of tears, hugs, and chocolate ice cream. To prolong the ordeal of fighting in order to intensify the pleasure of making up-this was classic Wright behavior, and worthy of just the sort of Freudian analysis that Ernest was so skilled at doling out in every context except that of his own family.
Ben was the youngest-fifteen in 1969. He wrote poetry, and was a picky eater. At Thanksgiving dinners, if any one of the foods on his plate touched any other-if the peas touched the turkey or the gravy got onto the marshmallow-crusted sweet potato casserole-he would refuse to eat altogether. His eating habits were a source of great distress for Nancy, who seemed incapable of getting her son's meals arranged properly, and eventually had to buy him a special plate divided into sections to keep him from starving himself.
My friendship with Nancy was in certain crucial ways remote from my relationship with her husband. Having heard that I could play the piano, she had asked me to be her four-hand partner. And though, as a four-hand partner, I didn't prove to be very good-I was inclined to play wrong notes or fall out of step with her scrupulous metronome-still, she kept at it with me, and kept inviting me to Thanksgiving dinners, in part, I think, because I could be counted on to make gravy without lumps, as my mother had taught me, and to take on the more onerous of the cooking chores, the ones Daphne disdained, such as chopping the carrots. Our friendship, which lasted almost fifteen years, was fractious and sometimes maudlin. Nancy resented me for not playing the piano as well as Anne Armstrong, her four-hand partner and best friend from Bradford; I resented Nancy for treating me as an unpaid servant, inviting me to the parties and faculty wives teas that she sometimes hosted and then expecting me to wash the dishes or pour the coffee. And yet I also adored her, and craved the maternal solicitude she dispensed, as I had lost my own mother when I was fourteen. And she, if nothing else, seemed to feel that she could talk to me as she could to few others, that I would listen to her complaints and worries without judging her or ignoring her, as Ernest was wont to do. Friendships between women are often like that, made up of blame and neediness in equal portions.
Nineteen sixty-nine was the third Thanksgiving that I spent with the Wrights-an exceptional Thanksgiving, in that Mark, for the first time, was absent (Nancy wept about it), while two honored guests were to be in attendance: the novelist Jonah Boyd and his new wife, the former Anne Armstrong, Nancy's erstwhile four-hand partner and best friend from Bradford.
It was difficult to imagine Nancy Wright away from her house. It seemed to be a part of her, her very soul bound up with its beams and plaster. Yet the first time she walked into the kitchen, she sat down on her suitcase and wept.
This was a famous story, one she told many times. "Well, you know that before we came to Wellspring, we lived in Bradford," she'd begin. "We'd already been there a dozen years, Ernest had tenure, Mark and Daphne were in school with kids they'd known their whole lives. Also, we'd just moved into our dream house-I mean that literally, because I saw the house in a dream. I woke up and drew it before the image faded, and gave the drawing to the architect, and that was the house he built, more or less. It was three stories, but you entered on the middle story. One staircase went down, to the family room and the kids' bedrooms. The other went up, to our bedroom and Ernest's study. We had a fountain in the front and glass all around the front door-gorgeous, except that the birds couldn't tell that it was glass. I'd be practicing Mozart on the piano, when suddenly there'd be this thwacking noise, and a bird body would drop to the ground. Dead. Horrible.
"After we built that house, I hoped we'd stay there the rest of our lives. And why not? You took settlement more for granted in those days. But then Ernest got the offer from Wellspring, and it was that proverbial 'offer you can't refuse.' He asked me if I minded. He said that if I minded, of course he'd turn down the offer. I said that I minded, and he called to accept.
"We put the house in Bradford on the market. The kids were miserable. They didn't want to leave their friends. And then at the end of the summer, we made what my best pal Anne Armstrong liked to call 'the great migration'-as if we were crossing the prairie in a covered wagon! In fact, Ernest went first-he drove-and then a couple of weeks later, I flew out with the kids. He didn't ask my opinion about the house on Florizona Avenue. He just called me up one day and announced that he'd bought it. Case closed. Never even bothered to send me a photograph.
"I remember that when we arrived at the airport, he had a new car waiting for us, a Ford Falcon station wagon with a red interior, which I guess was supposed to make the kids feel better. Even though we were booked to stay at a motel for a couple of nights, I made him drive us straight to the new house. Today it may be hard for you to envision, because of course we've done so much redecorating since then, and put in the pool, and landscaped, but the first time I saw it, the house was a total wreck. The window frames were rotting. There were birds' nests between the screens and the windows, and all the gutters were clogged with pine needles.
"We didn't go in through the front door. We went up the back staircase-there was a hole in one of the treads-and then Ernest put the key in the door, which wouldn't budge because the lock was rusty. So we all just stood there in the cold, until finally he got it open and let us inside. 'Ta-da,' he said, and I just stared. The kitchen floor was this hideous linoleum, printed to look like terrazzo. There was no refrigerator, just a gaping hole where a refrigerator ought to be. The cabinets were made of this awful old rusty metal, painted red. You see, before he'd signed the papers, Ernest had let the contractor convince him that all the renovation work, or at least most of it, could be finished by the time we arrived. You know how contractors are, they'll say anything to get a job-and you know how gullible Ernest can be! As if that much work could be done in such a short time! Visionary, but no common sense. And so we stood there in the middle of the wreckage, the kids flying around like moths, and Ernest says, 'So what do you think?' And when I don't answer, he says, 'It'll be gorgeous once it's finished.' And that's when I sit down on my suitcase and start to cry.
"Whenever I tell people this story, I know they think I'm exaggerating, because-well, the house turned out to be so wonderful, didn't it, and now we've had so many Thanksgiving dinners here, and beginning-of-semester cocktail parties, and pool parties? I think back to the house in Bradford, and it's hard to imagine I ever assumed we'd always live there. You know, I really believe that for some of us, there is a house that is a kind of destiny, a place that, once you arrive there, you say, 'Yes, this is where I belong,' and you stay. That's what this house is for me. And yet I was forty-four years old before I even saw it. I'd lived in six houses already, including my parents' house. All of which just goes to prove that you should never try to second-guess the future."
Perhaps at this point both the house and Nancy ought to be described. The house dated from the early 1920s and had begun life as a country cottage, back in the days when this part of California was still country. At first it had consisted of a simple shingled rectangle, a dash, but then each successive owner had added a wing, so that over the course of decades, the dash became a sideways T, then a lowercase h, then a capital H-the shape it bore when Ernest Wright bought it.
It had some wonderful, odd features. Just to the left stood an old-fashioned garage, a separate building with a weather vane and its own attic, which Ernest later made over into the office where he saw his patients. In the backyard, near the pool, there was a sloped, grass-lined depression where an earlier pool had been dug in the twenties and then abandoned, victim of the stock market crash. Later, an intermediate owner had tried to make a virtue of this strange declivity by building a turreted barbecue pit at the deep end, and lining the sides with brick benches. Because the chimney smoked, no one used it-yet what a wonderful place it was to run, and turn somersaults, and imagine yourself the protector of a medieval keep in the midst of battle! Dame Carcas throwing the pig over the wall of Carcassone ... I never played such games, only fantasized about having played them, when I pretended that I had grown up in that house.
What else? The house was shingled, and during most of the years I knew it, painted red. It was one story, but because the lot sloped down, its rear end rose up over the garden. Although the brick path from Florizona Avenue descended to a veranda and a rather grand front door inlaid with stained glass, no one in the family ever entered that way. That door was used only by party guests and delivery men; the Wrights themselves went in through the back, by means of that rickety wooden staircase that led from the garage to the kitchen, which was big, with a Saarinen tulip table, a faux-brick vinyl floor (to replace the old linoleum), and oak cabinets painted robin's egg blue. The kitchen was really the hub of that house. It was here that the Wrights ate their weekday dinners, and that the children did their homework, and that Nancy fumed and fretted as she polished the copper bottoms of her Revere-ware.
Excerpted from The Body of Jonah Boyd by DAVID LEAVITT Copyright © 2004 by David Leavitt. Excerpted by permission.
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I read THE BODY OF JONAH BOYD in one sitting. I have always enjoyed anything Mr. Leavitt has written. He's one of those writers whose work continues to grow and evolve. The art of the jacket of the novel is reminiscent of the cover of the first edition of FAMILY DANCING. I loved the sub-plot of the connection to houses in the novel: I too still feel a connection to my childhood home, and at age forty-five, still dream of it. The main character/narrator is Judith 'Denny' Denham, secretary at a university, and she carries this story well. She recounts the story in flashback, of her relationship with the Wright family; her affair with the husband Earnest, an academic/psychoanalyst, and her friendship with the wife, Nancy, and the children, especially the youngest, Ben, with whom her relationship takes an unexpected yet logical turn at the end of the novel. Denny is a well-drawn character, but I was drawn to one of the lesser characters in the novel, Ben: his quirky eating habits (idiosyncrasies that make characters real) and the fact that he grew up to be writer. I almost wished the novel could have been from his point of view, but that would have been a whole other story altogether. Denny is the right character to tell this story. I adored the 'homage' to JANE EYRE at the end, one of my top ten favorite novels: '... reader, I married him'. Hurray for Denny! Families and their relationships are a staple in Leavitt's writing. If you want a literary novel about families, this is the book to read. I only have one problem with Leavitt's latest work: it is too short. When I reached the last page, I wanted more.