Off Keck Road

( 5 )

Overview

In this flawless novella, Mona Simpson turns her powers of observation toward characters who, unlike Ann and Adele August in her bestselling Anywhere but Here, choose to stay rather than go.

As a high school student in Green Bay, Bea Maxwell raised money for good causes; later, she became a successful real estate agent and an accomplished knitter. The one thing missing from her life is a romantic relationship. She soon settles comfortably into the role of stylish spinster and ...

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Off Keck Road

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Overview

In this flawless novella, Mona Simpson turns her powers of observation toward characters who, unlike Ann and Adele August in her bestselling Anywhere but Here, choose to stay rather than go.

As a high school student in Green Bay, Bea Maxwell raised money for good causes; later, she became a successful real estate agent and an accomplished knitter. The one thing missing from her life is a romantic relationship. She soon settles comfortably into the role of stylish spinster and do-gooder. Woven into Bea's story are stories of other lifelong residents of Green Bay and the changes time brings to a town and its residents. This pure and simple work once again proves Mona Simpson one of the defining writers of her generation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Off Keck Road should not be read in public places, against the certainty of tears... Continually moving in a wry, Chekhovian way."
--The Atlantic Monthly

Replace bottom two quotes with this quote alone:
"Showcases the gifts of emotional sympathy and psychological observation that Ms. Simpson used to such enormous effect in Anywhere But Here. In fewer than 200 pages it gives us the shape and texture of two entire lives."
--The New York Times
From The Critics
After graduating from college in Madison, Wisconsin, Bea Maxwell takes a job in Chicago at an advertising agency. One day, at the age of 27, she receives a phone call from her mother, who is nearly crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Despite her father's objections, Bea decides to return to her hometown of Green Bay to help care for her ailing parent. Spanning a period of fifty years, this terse, elegant novel subtly reflects the changes that have come over the once small town while simultaneously following the course of Bea's life: "a life spent talking about other people and thinking about love." Though romantic love eludes her, Bea comes to discover that there are rewards to living one's whole life in a single place. On the surface, Simpson's fourth novel seems strangely disjointed. The time frame is erratic and new characters are disconcertingly introduced. However, a connecting undercurrent eventually brings this unusual, almost elegiac novel full circle.
-—Ann Collette
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Simpson (Anywhere But Here) casts her net lightly over the reader in her fourth, uncharacteristically slim work of fiction, a novella, attempting to engage with a quiet plot about emotionally passive protagonists and the risk of staying disconnected. The narrative follows the lives of three women from 1956 to the present in Green Bay, Wis. Bea Maxwell, a practical, efficient woman, seems to have inherited the steadfast, can-do traits of earlier Midwestern heroines found in the landscapes of Willa Cather. The quintessential overachiever in high school, Bea is equally successful during a brief stint working for an advertising agency in Chicago. In terms of love or any risky emotional connection, however, Bea is somehow missing the boat, apparently by choice. She easily gives up her job and returns to Green Bay when her mother contracts rheumatoid arthritis. Once home, she is drawn to June Umberhum, a college friend who grew up off Keck Road. June has returned from an early marriage and is raising a daughter. Always a bit of a town rebel, June puts forth an effort to taste life, while Bea's desires remain submerged. Also telescoped into the neighborhood scene is Shelley, a Keck Road girl who contracted a mild case of polio as a child. The connections between these three women are gentle and unforced. They pass through the years in the eddies of their own interiors as their community expands around them, but the narrative hovers more than it grips. Simpson's signature fine writing renders subtle quirks of character gently and realistically, and she again finds fresh ways of capturing the familiar. Readers who enjoy the "day-in-the-average-life" tales of Anne Tyler will find a similar tone here. The appeal of Simpson's previous books should elicit a good initial response to this one, and her somewhat subdued plot structure may attract readers eager for reflective fiction. 40,000 first printing. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This quiet novel from Simpson (Anywhere but Here), who never throws words and emotions around needlessly, follows the life of an ordinary woman from her teenaged years. Bea is in college when we first meet her, pulling up to new friend June's house "off Keck Road" in a sprightly little Wisconsin town in 1956. From there, we move back and forth in time, watching as Bea negotiates adolescence with the help of a class-conscious, fussy, slightly censorious mother who's only too pleased that her daughter is not the belle of the ball, through jobs, a quavering friendship with June, determined resistance to passes from a married man, and on to near retirement, still unmarried and an accomplished businesswoman--not what you would expect of the restless college student in the red Oldsmobile Holiday. Nothing momentous happens here, but events crowd through Bea's life, drawing in other townsfolk, and the whole story is beautifully rendered. Too low-key for some, but many readers will find this a joy. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Missed the Mark for Me

I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. I loved Anywhere But Here and looked forward to another Simpson experience, but I felt oddly 'left out' of this story. Bea Maxwell started out sympathetic but, in the end, she became so tightly wound and fussy that I just couldn't continue to like her. I actually liked Bea's mother and her best friend much better than Bea. They had lives...they laughed a lot and neither were afraid to live.

I can't recommend this book. Wish I could, but I just can't. — Maybe next time.

New Yorker
It's not easy to write a novel in which the central tragedy is that nothing happens, but the author uses the cumulative power fo small details to convince us that Bea's stalled life is a life worth knowing.
Michiko Kakutani
Off Keck Road showcases the gifts of emotional sympathy and psychological observation that Ms. Simpson used to such enormous effect in Anywhere but Here and The Lost Father. In fewer than 200 pages it gives us the shape and texture of two entire lives as well as a dozen cameo portraits of the friends and relatives and acquaintances who make up these two women's intersecting worlds.
New York Times
Hewett
Simpson is a powerful writer who refuses to indulge in literary or analytic excess...At its best, Simpson's economy of words allows her to limn characters with just a few clean brush strokes.
Time Out New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375709067
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/11/2001
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 609,401
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Mona Simpson
Mona Simpson is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim grant, and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. Since 1988 she has taught at Bard College, where she now holds the Sadie Samuelson Levy Chair of Languages and Literature. She recently received a grant from the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Foundation. She lives in Santa Monica, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

Bea Maxwell remembered the first time she'd driven out to see the new part of town. It was 1956 and she was home from college for the winter break. After Christmas, though, she had to get away from the house. Her sister and her sister's entourage had taken over the place. Her sister always traveled with an entourage. And it was still nine days before Bea could return to the sorority in Madison.

Bea had friends from high school, too, quiet girls who were back from other colleges, even a few who had stayed in town, working in the kindergartens or at the hospital or for Kendalls, the big department store, but these were not the people she wanted to see. She needed someone from Madison, to touch that part of her life. So she'd called June Umberhum.

June sounded glad to hear from her. She was going stir-crazy, too, she said.

Just then, someone else came on the line. A farmer's wife June said she'd never even seen, who lived somewhere farther out.

"Well, how much longer are you going to be?" that woman asked.

"Just a jiff," June said.

"Already been on a quarter hour."

After she hung up--rather loudly, Bea thought--they hurried to make their plans.

June wanted downtown. They agreed on Kaap's, for ice cream.

But Wednesday morning, June telephoned. Her brother and his awful girlfriend, Nance, had driven the only car up north. Both her sisters were working. No one could run her in. Bus service from Green Bay didn't reach that far out yet.

Where she lived was not part of the city proper. It was still Prebble, but there was already a motion to incorporate the village into the city charter.

"Probly never happen," June said. "Or when we're forty."

But three days before, Bea had got her own car, a 1956 Oldsmobile Holiday, red, her Christmas present. She could go and fetch June.

On the party line, though, June sounded stingy giving directions.

"I can walk to the highway and meet you somewhere. Or should we just make it another day?"

When Bea insisted she wanted to take the car for a spin anyway, June sighed. "Oh, okay."

It was a bright cold day with a weak blue sky. It wasn't snowing anymore but it had and the white was everywhere, glaring off in planes, making flat surfaces of things ordinarily rounded. Bea wore driving gloves with holes cut out for the knuckles--her other present, from Elaine, although she was sure her mother had picked them and seen that they were gift wrapped--and her mood lifted as she drove past the stately houses, away from the quaint, pretty downtown. The specialty shops (Vander Zanden's Fine Jewelry, Jandrain's Formal and Bridal) had the ravaged feel of the boxes still under the Christmas tree in her own house. She knew their contents.

She heard the regularly spaced girders of the bridge click under her new tires. Once you came down off the ramp on Mason, you passed a number of old buildings that happened to grow up near one another; they were clearly not built to look any way together or to make up a "downtown." There was a cheese factory with a sour smell and a canning plant, with small windows and two large chimneys, operating today, judging from the squiggles of white smoke on the blank sky. They'd reopened already or perhaps the factories didn't close for Christmas, as the small shops did.

Then there was a low bank of brick storefronts; Bea spotted a selection of electric organs, sparkly green and gray, inside one--the Music Mecca, where people also went to take lessons.

She drove farther east on Highway 141, which was what Main Street turned into.

"That road was never any good," Bea's mother would say, and as long as Bea could remember, it had not been.

In 1956, the highway had a junk store, a truly immense dilapidated place that reminded Bea of a banked ship. She could vaguely make out a man inside, carrying a stick, moving amid the dim jumble.

She passed a motel, two-storied, with a slim twirled railing along the top floor. The son of the people who lived there, behind the lobby, had gone to high school with June. He was also the Maxwell's paperboy.

The Starlight Supper Club had a ball revolving on top of a tower, set over the octagonal dining room. There was a drive-in movie theater, which advertised friday night fish fry on a home-painted sign. And of course Kroll's, a rectangular building of yellow and maroon tiles, where teenagers for two generations had gone for malteds and chili dogs. Bea's mother had been taken there on dates, in her youth. "When I was dating" was as clear an era in Bea's mother's life as when she was in grade school or when her own children were still in diapers.

By the time Bea came to the part of the highway that ended June's road, she felt she'd already left town. There was a deep snow over everything, and when she turned onto Keck Road, she had to slow down. It was cleared out by hand. She could see the rows a shovel blade had made, two feet wide.

The city snowplows wouldn't come this far, either. On one corner, there was a white farmhouse, and on the other, a small tavern, pink and gray, that looked like an ordinary house during the daytime. Children's boots drooped on the porch. A little farther up, the plowed middle of the road narrowed, and on top of the icy snow were sprigs of hay.

The road was paved only as far as there were houses, eight in all. From where she was, Bea could see the road ending, and beyond that, fields led down to the railroad tracks.

The houses looked small and hastily built, but the land out here was magnificent. Her mother would have loved to see the trees. A Norway spruce was half again as tall as the tree in front of City Hall, the one lit with candles at the annual Monk's Charity Carol on Christmas Eve.

Sun glittered on crusted snow, a forbidding brightness. Even in the intricate construction of ice and crystals, there was the promise of a green melting, change.

. . .

And everywhere here, there were children, children running, children rolling snowballs, children on lumber they used as toboggans, children jumping off a shed into banks of snow so deep they turned invisible to Bea when they landed.

They seemed scantily dressed and altogether unattended, some downright wild, such as the one swinging from a bare hickory branch, which looked like it could break any minute, some fifteen feet above the snow. That child, like many others, was not wearing mittens.

The claustrophobia Bea had felt since the indoors day of Christmas swept out of her. She rolled down the new car's window (inside the chrome handle, a circle of red leather). This vigor outdoors looked to her like a painting she had seen projected up on the auditorium screen at college, a Brueghel sparked to life.

A thin-ankled, pregnant woman stepped out of one of the small houses, carrying a baby. She walked down the driveway and put a letter in the mailbox, just a few feet away from Bea's car. The baby, with a brown mark on its eyelid, couldn't have been more than a few months old. Could she have been that pregnant again already?

Bea felt like getting out and tromping in the snow. She thought of her cross-country skis leaning in the garage at home.

June, the sorority sweetheart (literally, she was that; Bea had voted for her in Green Bay solidarity), June--who wore a sparkling blue-and-gold sari to the house invitational--lived here! Perhaps she'd been one of these antic children.

Bea would not be invited into June's house, not this time. On the other side of the road, there was a semicircular driveway before a pretty two-story white house. There, under the most spectacular tree Bea had ever seen, June stood like a tiny queen, stamping her feet in fur-trimmed boots.

Her whole body leapt into motion as she opened the door and flew into Bea's new red car.

"Let's go," June said.

From there, they talked a mile a minute--nothing about their Christmases, nothing about their homes, only about people they knew in Madison.

But Bea wondered, in a scant way, as she glanced in her rearview mirror, about to turn onto that bad highway, what would become of these ruddy, unminded children.

Chapter II

In the obituary for Jonas Salk, run by the Green Bay Press Gazette, the wire service reporter said that by 1963, we had wiped out polio in the United States.

Except Shelley. She must have been one of the last people to contract the disease. Now, they said in that same article, polio is coming back again.

Shelley knows the exact day she got it. It was a May Saturday in 1961, the year the oral vaccine was introduced. She was five years old.

On Saturday mornings, Shelley's father would corral the kids, give the wife a chance to rest her feet.

Not that the wife did. She usually went on a long walk with another lady so they could yak, yak, yak. When Shelley's father said this, he'd shake his head to mean he didn't understand it. A favorite joke of his was, "Too bad the two of youse can't get married."

The vaccinations were given in a high school gymnasium, free, over on their side of town.

The gym doubled as the auditorium. At one end of the big room, there was a stage where the nurses stood, injecting for tetanus and passing out small paper cups with the polio vaccine. The front half of the line received the vaccine in sugar cubes, pink or blue, one inside each Dixie cup. After those ran out, the nurses poured a certain measured amount of a sweet liquid. It was all very matter-of-fact. The disposable needles came wrapped in paper, like tampons, packed in square boxes. Beside each nurse was her own wastebasket.

Kids waited in a long line on the part of the floor painted for basketball. Against the wall was a half-built float, a covered wagon, the cloth made of square school-issue toilet paper stuffed into the hexagonal openings of chicken wire. It would take hundreds of hours to fill the wire honeycomb with white paper blossoms.

"Girl work," Shelley's middle brother said with a downturning mouth.

High school girls did it, probably all the while thinking of themselves sitting on top, dressed up as pioneer women or some such thing, waving to a big crowd. Nell Umberhum would most likely be the one to ride on it. And she wouldn't have helped build it, either. She had a paying job already, waitressing at Kroll's.

Shelley's older sister, Kim, drifted over to touch.

They were four children then. Dean hadn't been born yet. He came five years later, a last surprise, and, like a present, he was the one who always was so handsome. Bea Maxwell had been wrong that afternoon in 1956. Shelley's mother's belly still looked full from having been pregnant with Shelley.

She'd been wrong about another thing, too. It was not the first time she'd seen Keck Road. Once, in elementary school, she and her best friend had collected food for the poor. They'd been driven out to hand the grocery bags over to a family in an apricot-colored house with all kinds of junk in the front yard. That time, the street had looked different, terrifying.

It seemed to Shelley and her sister and brothers that they could move about and still keep their place in line. Their mother would've let them. She tried to give them every advantage of being a four-kid family. She believed that small families were sad--in all cases, the result of selfishness or medical tragedy. And she trusted the world to help raise her children. If she'd been there, she would have already been talking to another mother. Her main public service in the world was that--being a mother--and she felt she was a good one.

But her husband stood with his arms folded tight. He didn't want anyone to suppose his kids were cutting in line.

Shelley's brothers signaled to other guys who ran track and to Petey from across the road, standing on his head twenty yards in front of them, next to his mom.

The line moved, but it was so long. Shelley kept looking at her feet, happy because she had new sneakers. She was already as tall as Kim, but two years younger. She got these shoes because she'd grown out of last summer's already. Her goal was to get so that Kim would have to wear her hand-me-downs, even though Shelley was the youngest, a goal she would soon achieve.

Kim tried to step on Shelley's tennies to make marks. Their mother would have noticed, even through her conversation with the other mother, would've turned to say "Stopit," but their dad just lifted a hand, as if they were each equally to blame.

Shelley's feet kept dancing to miss her sister's. So far, she was doing it. Her sneakers were clean.

When they were getting close to the front, three S's away, June Umberhum rushed in with her daughter, Peggy. They all knew Peggy because June often left her with the grandma, and sometimes the grandma paid Kim and Shelley a quarter to keep an eye on her while she did her housework. They watched for June's white Volkswagen coming down Keck Road.

Peggy tiptoed ahead of her mother, but not too far, like dice or jacks thrown from a hand.

She was in white: white shorts, a white top, white anklets, white tennies, and a white bow in her hair. She was only two years old and everything she had on was new.

Looking at her made Shelley not care much anymore about marks on her shoes. They would come anyway, sooner or later. Soon.

When June first returned to Green Bay, their mother had given her their hand-me-downs for Peggy. June had stood by the open door of her white VW (the seats covered in red plaid!) and said, "Oh, thanks. These'll come in handy." But they never once saw Peggy wearing anything of theirs.

Now their mother gave their old clothes to the church.

But June still fascinated them. Especially Kim--who tried to make her own hair curl up at the ends the way June's did. (June probably copied it from an actress on TV.) "I bet she has a standing appointment at the beauty shop," Kim said.

That day in the high school gym, June was wearing sunglasses and high heels and pants. Shelley hadn't ever seen high heels before with pants. And sunglasses! She stood out in the underwater gymnasium light.

She went right up in a movie-star way to their dad and said, "Hi, Tommy," and just started standing with them, her arms crossed like his.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2001

    Mona Simpson?

    To tell you the truth, the book was, how do you say, OK. I wasn't wild about it, but it wasn't the worst book I've read. If you are a diehard Mona fan, you'll find someway to like it, but as for me, it won't be on my Christmas list.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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