Spectacular Happiness: A Novelby Peter D. Kramer
In his bestselling Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer asked how much happiness we have a right to expect, and how quickly we should demand it. In Should You Leave? he questioned whether trading up has replaced loyalty in intimate relationships. Critics have praised his intellect and writing, comparing him to Roth and Updike, and have anticipated his turn/i>/i>… See more details below
In his bestselling Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer asked how much happiness we have a right to expect, and how quickly we should demand it. In Should You Leave? he questioned whether trading up has replaced loyalty in intimate relationships. Critics have praised his intellect and writing, comparing him to Roth and Updike, and have anticipated his turn to fiction.
Now Kramer has made that transition. Spectacular Happiness is a daring, controversial novel about what constitutes the good life. Chip Samuels is a community college teacher and handyman on Cape Cod, loyal to the radical values his wife, Anais, introduced him to in the sixties. A patient husband and, above all, a loving father, his world has been shattered by Anais's decision to run off with their son in search of a more conventional life devoted to getting and spending.
Spectacular Happiness opens when Chip is named as the chief suspect in a series of anarchist bombings of beachfront trophy homes. Meticulously planned, announced with fireworks, these explosions have caught the public imagination, and the irony is that Chip, now an outlaw-celebrity, is drawn into the publicity-based culture he is aiming to disrupt. His response: to assemble a memoir for his estranged son, a father's attempt to explain his motivations before the media distorts them.
Chip has splendid allies: Sukey Kuykendahl, an upper-class Realtor with weaknesses for alcohol and overbearing men; Wendy Moro, a self-effacing defense attorney thrust into the limelight; and Manny Abelman, an aging psychotherapist disenchanted with his profession. But it is Chip's own voice that dominates the novel, concerned, searching, painfully aware of the absurd behaviors love can demand.
Darkly intelligent, Spectacular Happiness will alter the way we look both at oversized beachfront mansions and at the culture that spawns them, the culture Chip calls the society of the spectacle. Provocative, compelling, stunning in its execution, this is the masterful first novel that Kramer's nonfiction has led his readers and reviewers to expect.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Calling
I saw you today on the midday news: a teenage boy, skinny body draped in an oversized Chicago Bulls shirt, eyes shaded by a Swoosh cap, matching red, with brim curved just so. I knew you instantly, before the label was added to the picture, before you spoke. I was struck by an emotion that had more force than direction. It could as easily have been despair as elation. A phrase ran through my mind: already grown. Words that toward the end of his life my father repeated when he caught sight of me. In the midst of disorientation, what abides is wonder at a child's taking adult form.
You looked thinner than I had imagined. The effect of Ritalin, I suppose. You were taller than the reporter, so it seems not to have stunted your growth. Like a daytime talk-show hostess, the reporter prompted, If you could speak to your dad, what would you say? She held the microphone to your mouth. For a moment you stared at her tongue-tied. Hi, Dad, you said, perhaps because that is the first thing one says into microphones.
The television people were telling a story with your image. It said ordinary, normal, the youngster next door. Not a bad appearance to have in these times when too many try to stand out.
The microphone rested by your mouth, urging further speech. You thought and then asked, Dad, did you do it? After another silence, you giggled, which struck me as appropriate for a young man asked to betray private feelings in public. Appropriate, and wonderful for being so. The reporter pulled the microphone away, so that it did not quite catch your afterthought: Why?
That is the picture the video editor ended with, the lips of the "son of accused bomber" pursing and parting in silent query.
As soon as I could collect myself, I phoned Sukey Kuykendahl. You will remember Sukey. We saw a good deal of her the spring and summer your mother was gone. Sukey was down on her luck then -- booze and man trouble -- but she perked up around you. She had a way of getting you to do things, by saying out loud what was on your mind: Those kids look too big for you. You don't want to play with them. You want to sit on the sidelines and eat cookies.
Once she named your fear, it seemed foolish, and you would head back to the game. The reporters like her frankness of manner and that forceful, high-pitched New Englander's voice, at once throaty and twittery. They have her pegged as a Cape Cod type, the lady realtor, the Yankee straight-shooter. She's the stoutish "longtime neighbor" you see saying, Good Lord, of course I know Chip Samuels. Known him for years. He grew up on my mother's estate. Salt of the earth, honest as the day is long. That man never did a violent thing in his life.
On tape, she sounds something like Julia Child.
Sukey is a strategist. If you have been following the news, you know that I have not yet been charged with any crime. When the FBI cannot make a case, they leak the name of a suspect in the hopes that citizens will come forward with evidence. Sukey thinks the FBI's approach has backfired. She tells me that people remember times the FBI stumbled. They remember how the FBI had the press convinced that Richard Jewell set the bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta. In the end the feds exonerated the fellow and apologized, which is what Wendy Moro, my lawyer, is calling on them to do now.
For the meanwhile, I am more or less on home confinement. The media are too intrusive for me so much as to walk down Bridge Way. And there have been threats, some vicious and anonymous, some open and milder, couched in language meant to evade this or that criminal statute. The open threats come from families whose houses have lost value or been destroyed. Wendy says I am safest in the cottage, watched over by the agents investigating me.
I have little need to venture out. The community college has placed me on leave, and there is no question of my continuing with the handyman jobs I used to do. For all that certain neighbors express belief in my innocence, I doubt there's a sober citizen on the Cape who would let me bring a toolbox into his home.
When I phoned, Sukey picked up on the first ring. Is that you? she said. I just saw your boy on television.
Me, too, I said. How did he seem?
You at sixteen.
Did he look thin?
Not a bit of it. Your spitting image. Wouldn't have surprised me if he'd jumped off the screen and tried to shanghai me up to the attic.
Sukey was speaking my mind. I have always considered your resemblance to me uncanny. I once heard on the radio -- I caught only the end of the story but I believe I have it right -- that a child who looks decidedly like a given family member may resemble that relative in talents or temperament, that external appearance provides a fair sampling of the ways the genes express themselves. Overidentification was a word the court psychologist used in the custody evaluation; she said I exaggerate what you and I have in common.
That remark caused me much soul-searching. But on seeing you again, I find my opinion is unchanged. You do have my manner. The shyness, the hesitancy, those are me. Sukey is right, I was wiry as a youngster.
I never shanghaied anyone. That was a little joke. It was Sukey who dragged me to the attic. I will write about that incident in time. I will set down everything if there is time.
Shanghaiing is a concern, I said, believing Sukey would know what I meant. Now that you have been located, you may be in danger. You are in Milwaukee, the reporter indicated. Living in a neighborhood of substantial houses, judging from the background you were shot against. Even in this era of ubiquitous trophy homes, how many such neighborhoods can there be in Milwaukee? I suppose you will be safe while the press keeps an eye on you. But when their attention flags?
Sukey and I talked on about how it was to see you, how a thirty-second video clip enriches and impoverishes the imagination. I wanted the conversation to flow naturally, without rapid changes in topic. After a couple of minutes, I declared myself. I said: Sukey, I need to ask a favor. I'm hemmed in here, by cops and reporters and rubberneckers. I wonder if you could bring by a few bags of groceries.
That is the code we had arranged. If I wanted to sign on to Sukey's next plan, the plan for me to appear in public, I was to ask for groceries.
Sukey suspects the phone is tapped and the cottage is bugged. For important communication, we use key words. Repair means to install explosives. Astonish indicates a project has come to fruition. When a house has been blown, I may phone Sukey and mention that I find this or that news item astonishing. Groceries means a new phase of the Movement.
Sukey said, I imagined you might need groceries. Is that all? Do you want company? I can bring round some friends.
No need to involve others, I told Sukey.
She had in mind a media event, I suspected, a parade of well-wishers to give visual confirmation to the claim that I am a regular guy. I have resisted the temptation to engage in conventional publicity. I believe our success to date is due to our invisibility. To what the old anarchists called propagande par le fait. Letting the explosions speak for themselves. Sukey has said that in the end human faces are always needed, faces and words. She tends to be right. I hope she is right now, that if I break my silence, there is a chance of keeping you safe, even bringing you home. Safe home, most desired of endings.
By home, I mean the cottage where you spent your early years. I believe you found it cozy. I did, and do still. But a person can feel exposed on the bayfront.
Your mother never adjusted. She complained of the freight-train sounds of the north wind on winter mornings and the stink of rotting shellfish at ebb tide on summer afternoons. Sometimes I think she left the marriage because she could not bear to live on this sandbank, and she could not bear to ask me to live anywhere else. I would have moved, of course, would have done anything for her and you.
But I am at home here. In the Vietnam days, boys I grew up with went AWOL from basic training because they missed the sea. I always felt a bit like them, lost away from this bay. If the cottage has its shortcomings, I overlook them as we should overlook the failings of those who sustain us. I do not know how I would endure prison; I fear that I would find myself unable even to do what I am doing now, put my thoughts in writing. But I am comfortable for the moment, with my view of the small boats at anchor.
There is a spot at the crest of the bank where reporters like to be videotaped. From that angle, the cottage looks ramshackle. In truth it is sturdy. Whatever his shortcomings, my father knew the ways of buildings. This one will last until the land beneath it is worn away. The television image is political, meant to make a visual comparison to Theodore Kaczynski's cabin or Randy Weaver's -- though I believe I am no more like those men than Sesuit, Massachusetts, is like Lincoln, Montana, or Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
You can see from the same shot how much the bay has encroached. They say we lose a foot a year, but the losses are so irregular that they have the power to surprise and dishearten. Some seasons beach builds at the foot of the bank. This past March a no-name storm -- the same storm we took advantage of toward the start of our campaign, when we breached the seawalls on Quivet Cove -- took a bite ten feet deep and fifteen wide, to the far side of the path. A chance event, perhaps, though nowadays people connect bad weather with the cataclysms we humans have brought upon ourselves, the rash of tornadoes and floods and mudslides that plague the planet as it warms.
On the sandbank, I did the tasks you used to help with. Replaced storm fencing, planted plugs of American beach grass, strewed seeds of weeping love grass. I fear the trampling of the press corps -- human erosion -- has undone my work. And to think that your mother used to scold you for running down the bank with your kite! I have never been one to feel outrage. All work is Sisyphean. We make our fruitless contribution, playing at shaping chaos. At the shoreline, planting grass, like planting explosives, is mostly symbolic. Wind and waves do what they will.
Despite the isolation, my life has assumed the breathless pace the media imposes on its chosen subject. Revelations intrude hourly. I learn on the news that hairs believed to be mine (and so few are in evidence on my scalp!) have turned up in the Altschuler house. I learn that in my college years I worked on the fringe of a radical clique. That I have reason to be bitter over the circumstances of my divorce. That I am a local boy with community ties and no history of mental illness. That I fit no profile. Half of what is said is false, and the rest is not quite right. Having seen your face, I feel a need for time. Time to write the story as I know it -- so different from the public version, moralized by television.
Last week, Wendy Moro presented me with the leather-bound blank book in which I am writing. She wanted me to use it as a place to gather memories that might help in my defense. Fill it with thoughts, she said. The form of the recollections did not matter, so long as I set them down while they were fresh. If I was reluctant to share the memoir with her now, I might want to do so later. (By later, I suspect she meant in the "sentencing phase," after I am convicted.) All would be confidential, protected by attorney-client privilege.
I wanted to oblige but found I could not. Any account of my activities would reveal past crimes and -- surely these Wendy would not want to read about -- preparations for future ones. I understood that certain details might prove useful. Evidence that I was here when a witness claims I was there. Sukey says that the right wing has made the public so mistrustful of the government that the state cannot win any prominent case where there is room for doubt. I could, perhaps, generate doubt. But the work should do that on its own. Crafting installations, Sukey and I took care to introduce red herrings, to cast suspicion away from me.
I do want to please Wendy. In person, she is the way she looks on television, patient and reasonable. I believe her presence conveys humility, a modest hope that in time the rest of the world will arrive at her viewpoint.
News analysts have asked why I do not hire seasoned defense attorneys. Many, seeking publicity, have offered their services. My policy is not to explain myself to the press. But I can tell you that I think we all might benefit from less brash assertion of our individual rights. I like that Wendy has nothing in common with the slick men we are used to seeing -- Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Stephen Jones, Barry Shenk, Gerry Spence, F. Lee Bailey. I like how slight and fine-boned Wendy is, as if she were intent on not taking up space in the world.
Sometimes I think it is an odd thing for a man of my age to place his faith in women with girls' names, Sukey and Wendy. But that is what I have done, and without regret. When Sukey was recovering from drink, I found myself speaking with her psychologist, Emmanuel Abelman, a quirky and unhappy old gentleman whose opinion I came to respect. Manny said that I have a talent for faith and that I should rely on my talent. I have tried to do so, though it would take someone of greater capacity than mine to sit sequestered with the FBI at the door and not worry at all.
Much of this I said to Wendy. Not the bit about girls' names -- I am sure Wendy finds it equally odd that her fortunes should be tied to those of a community-college teacher named Chip -- but about my mixture of faith and doubt. She asked only how she could make it easy for me to set down my recollections. I had no answer. Manny often said I was dogged in my efforts for others but resourceless when it came to helping myself. He worked to change that in me, but the transformation went only so far.
Then I saw you on the screen. Wendy's notebook came to hand, and I felt moved to write, justify, explain. To the son I have followed in imagination all these years.
I have come to respect these drives, to respect the absurd -- a posture that has served well this past year, the year of installations. It is absurd to write you. I do not imagine this journal in your hands. The stories I need to tell would only disturb a boy of (almost) sixteen. Too many explosions. Too many delicate family matters. Even if you were here -- fond wish -- I would hold back. The understanding I have with Sukey is that we will keep the secrets of the Movement to ourselves. As for the separation, mine from you, I would want my version to emerge gradually, gently, alongside your mother's, in the course of our efforts to create a new life together: wife, husband, child.
Only from this standpoint does the compulsion make sense: I write you anyway, compose letters in my mind, incessantly. The way Herzog writes his former wives, I write my absent son. About events of the day, stray ideas, foolish jokes. The latest on Leno: Good news and bad -- you just inherited a waterfront home...in Sesuit.
If I am to respond to Wendy's request, why not in this form, the form of my thought? It occurs to me that Herzog often writes on paper, too, unsent letters, a precedent that though it is fictional makes my compulsion seem less strange to me. For as long as I can remember, I have found literature a reliable companion, surely the best guide to how we live when we are by ourselves.
In his essay on walking, Thoreau makes a quiet pun. He writes of returning to his senses, when he means his sight and hearing and smell, as if it were only when we take in the world with intensity that our judgment is trustworthy. The week you were born -- in this cottage, with the help of a midwife -- your mother was hospitalized, and you and I were left alone together. I was fiercely alive, suffused with love of you and worry over her. Without error, I heard in your breathing whether you wanted rocking or swaddling or burping or being let alone. Once I had an inkling that my own father was near. I smelled the sourness of liquor, as if he were leaning over the bed toward me. I prayed to my dead father as a religious man prays to a saint, for your good fortune.
I needed no sleep. I lay in bed with you resting on my chest. I hummed you a hum that seemed to come from beyond me and that said, All will be okay. My job for that brief while, beyond the diapering and feeding and bathing, was to will health for you and your mother. I tried to be an antenna for the good luck in the cosmos, to direct that luck into you and let you broadcast it to her. Your mother did return to us, and I slept for twelve hours. When she let me, I slept for another twelve, and then I no longer heard the harmonies of the world or the messages in babies' breath. But neither did I fully revert to my former state. I felt alive in a new way.
How does one come to one's senses? In high school, I read a play where Helen of Troy explains herself. She says that she sees the world in black and white except when men are at war. Then she sees color. I don't suppose you will have encountered that play, though in my imaginings you are a voracious reader. I was, from an early age. I was a child saved by reading.
When I came across the play about Helen, I was searching in literature, as certain teenage boys will, for clues to the nature of women. I thought Helen's lines were meant to lay bare her cruelty. I was ready to believe women could be exotically uncaring. Now I see the matter differently. Helen had found her calling. Her calling was to inspire war. I believe fatherhood might be a calling for me. Not that I claim to be expert at fathering, but I was alive when I was engaged in it.
After your mother took you away, the world turned gray. Later -- a year ago -- when Sukey led me to the Giampiccolo house, I began to return to my senses. I mention that house now, up front, because I remember you as a child who, when you were very young, could not tolerate suspense -- could not bear waiting to discover whether the bunny found his way safe home, whether the elephant came to love himself as he was. As the tension built, you seemed almost unable to stay within your body. Daddy, you would demand, tell me how it ends. I would, and then you could stand to listen to what we had skipped, the heart of the story. (How can you call it an attention deficit? I would ask the teachers. He has always been possessed by what he hears.)
In case you are still impatient, I will start by answering the question you posed on television. Yes, I did it. I am responsible for the explosions that captured the public's imagination, though Sukey deserves the lion's share of credit. Sukey was the producer. I favored quiet, limited destruction. Sukey planned extravaganzas. She was the one with the energy, the matériel, and the methods of accessing the media. Sukey supplied the vision. I did the work.
I did the work and returned to my senses, which is what makes me imagine that terrorism, the fastidious version I have practiced, might also be a calling for me. The two tasks, parenting and sabotage, are not so distant as one might imagine. Both express love and devotion. Both demand the exercise of every talent a man might possess.
In college, your mother poked fun at me: The revolutionary who reads directions, she would tease. I yearned to be loose and laid-back -- and ever more so as, in time, her joshing turned to open annoyance. Not until years later, in my talks with Manny, did I achieve a level of comfort with my discomfort. Use what you have, Manny taught. What I have is the standard my father passed on, perfectionism. Hank, if you are built that way, I hope you will find, as I have, that meticulousness has its merit.
Care in planning, care in execution, these are what have allowed our deeds, Sukey's and mine, to shape a new story. The old story of anarchism is the death of children. Even in Zola -- Zola with his anarchist sympathies, Zola unique among the greats in his appetite for change -- when a bomb goes off, a child dies. A lowly errand girl, pretty, slim, fair-haired, her stomach ripped open, her delicate face intact. Hers is the tale the culture must retell continually. Be the terrorist young or old, man or woman, idealist or cynic, the result is identical. And so in Joseph Conrad, there is poor Stevie, a mentally defective boy, delicate, like Zola's errand girl, as if a child's delicacy were the inevitable target of a bomb's brutality. More recently, in Doris Lessing -- The Good Terrorist -- a timer is misset; of the dying innocents, only one is identified, a girl of fifteen.
Putting obsessionality to use, I checked and rechecked in order not to tell that story. I practiced an anarchism of overcaution. I believe that uptightness can lead to explosions with their full measure of wit. Terror may be the wrong word for what I have practiced -- many people seem less frightened than amused.
Our story, the comedy produced by Sukey, is a satire on the fruits of capitalism, satire epitomized in the collapse of the Giampiccolo house. By now everyone has seen the video: the monstrous mock-Victorian, a seaside abomination, imploding on itself and slumping ignominiously to earth, like a condemned Atlantic City hotel. The sequence has become a visual word in our national vernacular.
The inherent humor and rightness of that word, the incarnation of haughtiness going before a fall, the self-evidently overweening brought to its knees -- all that is the fruit of Sukey's talent for what your mother used to call détournement, diverting an object from its conventional purpose, allowing it to be seen afresh. That was what we talked about in the sixties, your mother and her friends and I, gestures that might use the products of capitalism to strip capitalism bare, though we never made those gestures. To cause the Giampiccolo house to quake and totter and capitulate is to ask what it was doing on the sand in the first place. By what right had it desecrated the water's edge?
Sukey knows that I have always felt inadequacy in the face of my father's work. Heinrich "Sam" Samuels, the man after whom you are named, was a fine finish carpenter. Sam could replace a scallop on a Goddard highboy with such precision that an expert might not know the chest had been damaged. When the Kuykendahl collection went to auction, more than one piece he had restored was cataloged by Sotheby's as Excellent condition, no repair or replacement. He could dovetail joints that met at odd angles, measuring by eye and using hand tools to make the cuts.
My father never taught me his trade. He meant to. Beyond starting me off as a real American, his naming me Chip was a joke that contained a father's hopes. But my clumsiness frustrated him.
I learned nonetheless, in the way that a child whose parents speak another language to each other will pick up the accent, even if the words remain foreign. What I got from my father was familiarity with clamps and jigs and bench vises. My particular knowledge comes from public television, The New Yankee Workshop and This Old House and The Woodwright's Shop.
Seeing my father at work made me aware of the importance of skill, persistence, and exactitude. But I am not certain that carpentry was Sam's calling. Perhaps drink was, or romance -- he was a gruff man who was capable of devotion to women. The sign of a calling is the life it brings. I think of those lines from Henry James: We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.
Comforting, to know that our most masterly writer understands doubt rather than abundant talent to define calling. My recent work has taught me the importance of passion and of tolerance for uncertainty. I say this to you as one whose skills, when you were a young child, were often called into question.
When Sukey signaled that we had found our time and place, I thought she meant merely that Johnny "Little John" Giampiccolo was a storybook villain: bully, polluter, manipulator, Mafia front man. Ruthless, with a facade of charm. In the 1980s, Giampiccolo headed a company suspected of dumping hospital needles in the waters off Long Island beaches. He was someone the press could revile even when he was wronged. In telling a story, it helps to have a bad guy. But Sukey's wisdom went deeper. She knew the bind Giampiccolo was in. And she knew how the Giampiccolo house would affect me.
I had been there in the construction phase. Anyone on the Cape who could swing a hammer had been there. Part of the fun of building, for Giampiccolo, was fighting with contractors and firing them, unpaid. Then he would flog the next hapless fellow to speed the schedule, to the point where all sorts of incompetents were hired including, for a brief stint, your father. No one person was on the job for long. I had not seen the inside of the finished house until Sukey took me there.
She brought me on a blustery September afternoon, unseasonably cold, the kind of day your mother could not abide. The tide was low, and we could see the perches and groynes scarring the flats. Those were the names my father used for them -- sunken posts and boards crisscrossing the beach below the high-tide mark, holding sand and slowing erosion. You may remember the truck tires people on Harm's Way set in front of the dunes -- marsh grass grew in them. You and I used to gather the mussels that attached themselves to the tires, and the occasional oyster in the grass. After you left, the Audubon group sued to have the tires removed, on the grounds that they trapped sand that should have swept northward toward the piping-plover nesting grounds. Same thing -- perches and groynes. Ways for a man to hold sand in front of his home while starving the downcurrent beach.
Nationally, Giampiccolo became known because his house went down in spectacular fashion and because he was nowhere to be found. But the local story, like every story on Cape Cod, concerned real estate. Here, Giampiccolo was famous for getting permission to build perches and groynes at a time when neighbors were fighting losing battles to erect a seawall. There's the real measure of power in America, winning the right to mess with nature.
In the early nineties, Giampiccolo bought a plot of unbuildable land on the Sesuit beachfront, a long, wide strip of dune. Then he hired engineers and lawyers to say the dune was not a dune but a sandbank and therefore buildable, and more engineers and lawyers to say the septic systems would not affect the bay, and then architects and lawyers to say that height restrictions should not apply since he was reproducing a structure of historic importance, a Victorian building that had once graced the King's Highway at the Sesuit crossroads. What was rumored must surely have been true, that Giampiccolo's finagling was enhanced by bribes and corrupt promises and, when necessary, strong-arm tactics. In the end, Giampiccolo had permission to build a seafront monstrosity and a seawall to protect it -- an ecological and aesthetic nightmare, complete with perches and groynes the lawyers claimed as an ancient right attaching to the property.
I don't suppose Sukey felt moral outrage at Giampiccolo's having skirted communal rules. She was a realtor, she had seen it all. As for me, I had been too well schooled in political skepticism to worry over planning boards. I assume laws will favor the rich or be broken by them. But it is true that I did not like to see the beach scarred, did not like seeing a selfish man's imprint on what should belong to all of us in common.
Unfair, I protested. I was referring not to the perches and groynes but to Sukey's marching me past them, knowing how they would disturb me. She answered by wrapping her arms around mine and sliding her hands into my coat pockets. Funny, how a woman can slip a hand into yours and mean almost anything by it. Your mother would press up against me when we walked on cold days. With Anais -- that was how your mother used to spell her name -- the gesture asked why I had brought her to a home where the elements are harsh. Sukey's hands say only, we share. Warmth, adventures. Like musketeers, all for one and one for all. My pockets are her pockets; she takes without asking.
Come along, Chip, she said. Can't a body take you for a stroll?
Two hummocks of dune met at the beach side of the Giampiccolo house. Stairs ran between them. The beach juts eastward at that point. As you walk up the strand from the cottage, you round the bend and disappear from view. That was one of many promising aspects to the Giampiccolo site. From any distance, there was no way to see me enter or leave. What characterizes successful gambles is favorable odds. Sukey is a master gambler.
Turning in to the house, we headed up the beach stairs and then passed beside fat pilings, sunk deep through the dune, anchoring the deck and great room above. Sukey punched in the code to the outside alarm and admitted us to a ground-level mudroom -- more exactly, a sandroom -- that would later be for me what a space station air lock is for an astronaut in the movies, a place to brush off and don work clothes. She disarmed the second system, from a keypad in the mudroom closet, and we climbed the steps to the main floor.
I felt no fear. I do not want you to imagine that your father is a brave man. You have nothing to live up to on that score. But for a long while after you left, my capacity for fear was muted. What more had I to lose?
Though the exterior looked Victorian, indoors all was modern -- cavernousness meant to denote wealth. The great room was vaulted in limed red oak, the walls held apart by enormous rough oak beams, salvaged timbers from old ships. Hanging from them incongruously were chandeliers made of Chihuly glass -- translucent purple cones melting over one another, like a braid of radioactive jalapeÑos. The effect of the whole was bombast. Bombast and shoddy workmanship. The framing did not sit tight on the windows, the floor had already settled to the north side. The floorboards were face-nailed, but they had not been properly spaced and the sealant had been applied too thick, so that the boards were panelized and had begun to cup. The baseboard molding had not been scribed to the floor. Sand was finding its way under a door, and two skylights leaked. I thought, It wants to come down. There was Sukey's genius, knowing that I was sensitive to place. The Giampiccolo house spoke to me. It asked to be destroyed.
I remember when you were five bringing you to the home of a classmate who was new to your kindergarten. The house was a sterile, barnlike affair in a development at the far northern tip of Sesuit, a cluster perched atop a hostile bluff no one had thought to build on until the Cape became so popular that every inch turned valuable. I walked you up the path and into the entry. Your friend was there, armed with a Nerf gun and ready to play. But you looked around the house and out the sliders to the bay in the distance, and you began to cry. It was the vastness, I think, in contrast to the snugness of our cottage. Your friend's house did not feel to you like a place where people should live. Take me home, you insisted. I could not calm you. You left and would not return. So I suspect houses have spoken to you as well.
Perhaps they should not. When I was in college, the essays of the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet were required reading for young radicals. Your mother lent me her copy, to bring me along ideologically. Robbe-Grillet's theme was the danger of investing objects with metaphorical meaning. Man must face the unresponsiveness of his surround. The world is not significant. It is simply other.
Robbe-Grillet's own method was to fill a novel with objects and then render those objects unreliable. Obsessively, repetitiously, he would describe a set of window blinds, or an eraser such as a child might carry in a pencil box. These incidentals were at the center of his work, but the depictions of them were inconsistent -- neither the eraser nor the novel's plotline could be grasped. That was Robbe-Grillet's principle, construire en détruisant, creation of meaning through destruction of expectations.
Robbe-Grillet was especially dismissive of old novels -- Zola's or Balzac's -- in which house and owner suffer identical fates. No matter how progressive the novelist's ideology, the old false realism sustains overly reassuring beliefs about man's place in the material world. For the new novelist, a house is only a house, incomprehensible, external, opaque.
I was poisoned young by the old novel. Sukey's mom's house had a library whose walls were lined with leather-bound sets: Dickens and Trollope, Eliot and Hardy, and, yes, Zola and Balzac. It would be understatement to say that those books were more real to me than daily life. They were what made daily life real. Daily life made no sense to me until I saw it through the lens of those books.
For years I thought I was living in Great Expectations. (Lady Chatterley's Lover might have been more to the point, but I had not yet read that book, and it was some time before I understood the relationship between my dad and Sukey's mom.) I expected to be scorned by the pretty girl in the big house. I expected the houses of the corrupt to fall to the ground.
For me, houses have always been noble or degraded, humble or overbearing. Or think of the ocean. It is freedom and comfort and danger and return and tedium and cleansing and renewal and power and endlessness and indifference and home. What would it be to see the ocean and not find meaning? Hardly human. That is why the Free the Beaches movement has succeeded, because the ocean signifies. The ocean is what is beyond man. We may be on the ocean or in it or beside it, but it is never ours. Someone blows up a beachfront house, and no matter what the pundits say, the public thinks, By golly it is strange to believe a strip of ocean belongs to a person. The idea is precisely absurd. And if this nugget of capitalism is absurd, perhaps we should reconsider the whole.
Which is not to say that in struggling to devise a narrative style for the Movement I dismissed Robbe-Grillet. No modern storyteller can ignore what he has to say about the importance of inconsistency. Neat patterns, even within a program of explosions, are too reassuring, their message too easily debunked or co-opted. We chose certain houses at random, so as to cede control of meaning.
And though I know I do not use it as Robbe-Grillet intends, I admire that phrase, to create through destruction. Its influence is evident in our well-wrought dramas, the ones that contradict Robbe-Grillet. A house sits presumptuously on a fragile dune, overlooking a bay. The house is a character, reflecting aspects of its builder, its owner, and the society that sanctions its use. The dune and bay are characters, too. When the explosives go off, we are satisfied because we know, all of us, that this story evolves from the characters' nature. Destruction brings forth a tale that has wanted to be told.
In Giampiccolo's great room, I had an inkling of that tale. I did not yet know how perfect the setup was. Sukey had not shown me the woodshop. She had not told me of Giampiccolo's circumstances nor how she had influenced them. But as I stood beside her, I experienced a change in my apprehension of my surroundings. The room was gray, but now the gray had nuance. It was dove gray, or rather pigeon gray, brightened by iridescent pinks and purples. I was like one of those people whose sight or hearing has been restored, the type you read about in popular medical essays. I enjoyed a pleasant incomprehension of the familiar. What were these goods arrayed before me?
Perhaps it was only that the light was dim. The broad panes of glass had been shuttered against the autumn wind. Clouds showed through skylights, and fog through transom windows above the French doors. In the sitting area at the bayside end, track lights flooded the occasional sculpture. A timing mechanism had gone awry. From a second sitting area, behind the dining table -- bowling-alley length, to entertain who knows what obscene crowd -- a television added its glow. Another precaution against burglars, or a mistake by whoever was here last. On-screen, a businessman described how he had made a fortune in telemarketing. The interviewer looked bored. She wore a mauve jacket with pointed lapels. Her lips, also mauve, were like pillows. The man planned to bring telemarketing into inner-city tenements, so welfare mothers could enter the job market from their own apartments. Close-up on the mauve lips. It could have been a student video project, The Way We Live Now.
Sukey and I stood near the kitchen amidst a welter of displayed possessions: cookware and crystal, porcelain and paintings, CD racks and speakers. No doubt models that bespoke power, though not in a language I understand. I did recognize a pair of John Dowds. No reason you should know him -- a landscape painter who is in his own way a name brand here. Tawdry cottages against vibrant skies, the old Cape. To hang them in this obscene behemoth of a house -- perhaps a joke on the part of a decorator.
To my new senses, a single feature was vivid, those oaken beams. Though they were four feet above my head, I could all but feel their texture, wood dry and splintery under my hands. Hewn by what lumberjack, squared by what sawyer? Timbers that had groaned under the pressure of storms, borne honest work, carried men at sea. Objects are not silent.
I put my hand on Sukey's shoulder, to steady myself. Her breath was slow and deep, as if she, too, were entranced. Here is the strange part: In her breathing I heard yours. Yours at age seven, on a night when your mother was away on her private journey. How I loved to kiss you one more time and slip your leg back under the covers. From Sukey's damp parka came your puppy-dog smell, and I felt that you were with me. For weeks, I continued to feel your presence in that house, as if you were a worksite companion, as I was for my father. Which may be why your appearance today on the television -- older, and yet yourself -- struck me with such force.
In the grayness of the great room, Sukey and I stood side by side, looking, listening. At last I said: I think those beams are structural.
Sukey laid her head on my shoulder, as if she were a teenager saying, You are my man.
You will wonder, I suppose, what I felt for Sukey, what there was between us. Hard for the young to imagine the poignancy of memory. Sukey's thighs and arms have taken on weight, and her bosom has turned from ample to matronly. Years of sun and Scotch and cigarettes have given her face excessive character. The hair that was her glory has faded from spun gold back to straw. I am capable of seeing her as the world does. I am capable of seeing most matters
as the world does, though generally I do not. I have always been attracted by the stigma of mortality in a woman's face. The memento mori of European actresses in the art cinema your mother favored. From adolescence, Sukey has had that worldly beauty, has been careening toward the grave. Besides, for me, Sukey as she once was shines through in who she is now.
What she sees in me is less clear. Whatever her recent politics, Sukey's sexual tastes are of the late twentieth-century American variety; they run to power and status and full heads of hair. She returned to me as a friend. She allowed me to help her through her hard time, and I believe she has tried to help me through mine.
You may wonder, too, about the gap between the father you remember and the man I am asking you to imagine, the one who blows up houses. I know you have an image of me, else why say Hi, Dad? Can you call up our mornings in the cottage the summer we worked so hard on reading? I would like to hope I am with you when you turn to a book for consolation. I am sure you experienced me as mild. Too gentle, too stable, those were your mother's complaints. By now you may see me through her eyes.
She may have been right, about stability. To me, it sometimes seems that I have changed the least of any man I know. Sukey likes to say that I am coming into my own, which I hope is true, though I am not certain what that expression means. Lately, it has been hard to avoid self-aggrandizement, in the face of the Movement's success. I have tried to hold steady. Perhaps a man who comes into his own is one who (as Manny advises) lets his character play itself out, in which case you know me still. I would be glad for you to know me. Shakespeare had it backward: It is a wise child, and a lucky one, that knows his own father.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer
Meet the Author
Peter D. Kramer, whom The New York Times has called "possibly the best-known psychiatrist in America," is the author of Should You Leave?, Listening to Prozac, and Moments of Engagement. He has written for The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, The Washington Post,Book Review, The Washington Post, the (London) Times Literary Supplement and U.S. News & World Report, among other publications. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University.
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