Carter Clay: A Novel

Carter Clay: A Novel

by Elizabeth Evans

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060929824
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/07/2000
Series: Harper Perennial
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Evans has received many grants and fellowships for her writing, including an NEA Fellowship, the James Michener Fellowship, and fellowships at Yaddo and MacDowell. She is the author of The Blue Hour and lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Whenever M.B. Milhause has found herself in a group in which people trade stories of their lives' most dramatic moments--such stories used to arise often in the box-cramped room where M.B. and her work chums took coffee breaks, and M.B. still hears them at the hairdresser, at the doctor's office--at such times, M.B. has always trotted out her Ferris wheel story.

In the late 1940s, M.B. told her Ferris wheel story with shivers, all the while hugging at her skinny arms. Back then, she was the youngest girl working a Marshall Field's makeup counter, and while she told her tale she shook her head back and forth, auburn pageboy whipping across her face a la Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis: "Oh, kid," she said, "I was scared!" In the fifties, her delivery became languorous--perhaps an effect of the more elegant look she took on when she married Lorne Milhause and Field gave her Elizabeth Arden. In the late sixties, M.B. cut her hair short and tried to quit smoking and ran the less chic but much larger Revlon unit. The Ferris wheel story grew zippy. In 1982, Field eased her out. That was when the story turned grim. That was when M.B. began to use the recent death of her mother as a lead-in. Sometimes, after she finished, she felt that she had tainted her mother's memory, and she had to leave the room.

Why'd I tell that old thing again? she would wonder. Really, she never felt that she got the story right. Really, at least half of the importance of the story lay in her memory of the stars that night--whirlpools of color, though surely some of the color had come from the lights of the Ferris wheel.

M.B.'s Ferris wheel story involved a night inher childhood--back when M.B. was still "Marybelle." Marybelle and her brother, Dicky, and their mother and father were finishing a tiresome visit to relatives in Miles City. On their way back to Sheridan, for miles and miles, the children watched a brightly lit Ferris wheel slip tantalizingly in and out from behind Wyoming's late-night hills and buttes. Couldn't they stop? Please, couldn't they stop if they passed it? Marybelle and Dicky were terrified that the Ferris wheel actually sat on a road other than the one they were driving on, or that it would be closed before they arrived; indeed, by the time their father finally pulled off onto the bumpy bit of rangeland where the thing sat, the operators--two men living out of a trailer--were about to shut down for the night.

Marybelle's mother--a tiny woman; slap of a red birthmark on one cheek--would later lament: "We shouldn't never have got on that ride. I smelled the alcohol on that fellow's breath! What was I thinking?" But the ride was lovely at the start--the red and blue lights, the stars, the music, the warm breath of summer air that played over Marybelle's bare legs and arms. She wanted the ride to go on and on, never end. But then, when it did go on and on, the fun began to drain away because, somehow, she knew that such pleasures ought not to last so long that a person began to wonder: how long can a pleasure last before it stops being a pleasure?

Even then, Marybelle was good at pretending, and for quite a while she acted as if she had not noticed that her mother had turned around in the gondola that the two of them shared. Eventually, however, Marybelle's mother poked her, and demanded, "What's Dad saying?" and so Marybelle had to turn and look, too.

In the gondola at her back--their faces both lurid and shadowed with lights and fear--Marybelle's father and Dicky shouted words that could not be heard over the Ferris wheel's music and machinery; still, it was clear that the pair made gestures toward the ground.

What was it?

Because of the dark, and the thick growth of sage, Marybelle and her mother required several revolutions of the machine before they spied the white socks of the Ferris wheel operator, and understood that he lay in the brush, knocked there by one of the gondolas.

"Hey!" they shouted. "Help!"

Though visible through the window of the trailer, the other operator did not hear their cries, and later, when she was grown up and told her Ferris wheel story, M.B. always said, "Who knows what would've happened if some joyriders hadn't come along and stopped?" She imagined her family going up in flames, ignited by the Ferris wheel's constant turning. She imagined them hurtling off into outer space. Or the Ferris wheel tearing away from its bonds, rolling across the hills of Wyoming, faster and faster, taking the family toward the crash of death--

None of M.B.'s versions of the Ferris wheel story mentioned how the joyriders laughed when the ride was finally brought to a stop, and Marybelle and her mother had to hustle straight to their own automobile because, in her fright, Marybelle had wet the seat of the gondola, and both her own skirt and her mother's were soggy across the back. That was M.B.'s secret; and besides, it always turned out that her audience was scarcely interested in M.B.'s role in the story. What people really wanted to know was: Did the operator die? Recover?

When she first began telling the story, M.B. answered truthfully: she did not know. She did not even remember the man's being retrieved from the brush. She remembered only her sense that she and her family had been saved from death, and that she had been embarrassed by her wet skirt. In time, however, she came to see how her audiences' needs shaped their response to her tale, and when people asked, "What about the operator?" she learned to answer, almost as if surprised, "Why, he was killed instantly, of course."

What People are Saying About This

Jill Ciment

Once in a great while, a writer is able to evoke the true enigmatic complexity of redemption. Elizabeth Evans's novel not only offers us grace, but it does so in exquisite and heartrending prose.

Jill Ciment

Once in a great while, a writer is able to evoke the true enigmatic complexity of redemption. Elizabeth Evan's novel not only offers us grace, but it does so in exquisite and heartrending prose.

Nancy Mairs

In this absorbing tale of sin, suffering, and redemption, at once poignant and grotesque, Elizabeth Evans has proved herself worthy--as few writers do--of comparison with Flannery O'Connor. But hers is the more generous vision, I think, and the more compassionate."

Ann Patchett

Carter Clay is thrilling in its enormous ambition and intelligence. Elizabeth Evans is a fearless writer. After reading this novel, I'm convinced that there's nothing that she can't do.

Oscar Hijuelos

Beautiful, mysterious, and superbly written, Carter Clay is an enthralling and profound meditation on the accidents of fate that can often cause life to slip beyond our control.

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