It's all too often this blogger has to fudge the premise of your favorite Orange County literary arts blog, stretching to meet the ostensible OC theme by way of history or demographic or subject matter. Sometimes I don't even try, and instead just go on and on about what pleases The Bibliofella. Happily, this week's subject fits both categories by way of the talented, political, beautiful (see photo) “local” author Victoria Patterson, whose third book, a novel about women Olympians of all things, marks her first efforts to write beyond the class and sex critique of our funny county and its glittering gem in the bejeweled cubic zirconian crown of Corona del Mar, Newport and Fashion Island. Patterson's amazing breakout story collection, Drift, told the lives of broken people whose unrealistic expectations somehow persist in the unreal world of privilege, composed with the special vengeance and empathy of somebody who had grown up there, watched, remembered and listened. But somebody with a class critique, thankfully. Then, in the novel This Vacant Paradise, Patterson did for (well, against) Fashion Island what novelist Greg Bills did for (to) Triangle Square in his scaldingly dark and wonderfully disturbing Fearful Symmetry. I see from above that it's time for an OC best of.
I will start working on that one but so far this morning, three (3) OC books by two authors who have written about our area (and beyond!), and not gotten the attention they deserve. But of course sending up the social mores of the weird, the wacky and the wealthy is maybe not the way to get invitations to book clubs or the key to the city. My sometimes hilariously funny wife often drops a deadpan on me, and she once observed that the residents of those privileged pretend zip codes could in fact not survive anywhere else in the world, a quip so richly ironic that I often request she repeat it, just because.
Now, in her third book, OC's own Victoria Patterson has focused her keen eye and significant research skills on a deeper history of both (!) sexism and classism, two themes she seems to have tried not at all hard to avoid, yet embraced them head on, and been rewarded, acclaimed for that bit of political exorcism. The ease with which this talented writer seems to be provocative and entertaining and still popular impresses everybody. Maybe it's because her writing is so good that the rest of it sneaks up on you. Maybe it's because she digs Edith Wharton, credited for some of the inspiration of the first two books, and in The Peerless Four is mentioned by way of literary tradition and the sensibilities and interests of the novel's main character, a kind of lady chaperon or den mother to the four brave Canadian women Olympic athletes who find themselves the focus of all kinds of curiosity, affection, objectification, and hostility when they break a rule and tradition by participating in track and field at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympiad. Patterson has fictionalized the real-life “Matchless Six,” one real-life swimmer and six sprinters. They were the first women “allowed” to participate in track and field. You could go online or otherwise do some easy looking around for what really happened to these amazing athletes at the
Olympics and, yes, later on. No doubt somebody has written careful history or a nonfiction version of the story.
But Patterson has written a story about the psychic, political, romantic and interior lives of women perhaps like them, a “sports novel” only minimally; in fact, a novel about who gets to tell the story of their experience, and how the struggles of the narrator who wraps herself, her mind, her telling around her insider (and outsider) perceptions of what is going on. I began by setting the stage here because it's so easy sometimes to miss the miss the forest for the trees for the parking lot for the fake island, for the accepted truth. Bills and Patterson rely on reporters of what is really happening, strong narrators and close perspectives from characters a lot of people would not perhaps be lucky to meet in what passes for everyday life. Again, in the new novel, Patterson creates the winningest unlikely friend of readers you will want to meet, a woman so conflicted that it seems she can't help but become, yes, a writer. Go figure. A former athlete herself, attached to a powerful and stubborn man in a difficult marriage, attracted to a totally different kind of man, childless at a time when motherhood was expected, and a gal who likes to drink and smoke and “ponder” on all of above. So, yes, both an impossibly perfect companion to young women amateur athletes and also a person exactly wrong for the job. Her name is Marybelle Eloise Lee, aka Mrs. Ross, nickname “Mel” for her initials and, yes, her “masculine” deportment. Mel is our way in, our guide, but as much to what happens in Amsterdam and to her wards as to herself.
So this is really two or three or more stories, all of which in their telling become the kind of documentary meets experiential meets self-conscious literary novel we like so much. In the middle of the book this reader understood very clearly Patterson's bigger ambitions, not that the sports story of a historical moment buried in history wasn't enough. But Mel's own writing, her biography of a distant and also pioneering women relative called startling and beautiful attention to the layering of stories here, and the meaning of peerless (as in voiceless, as in loud voices sometimes not heard or ignored) in terms of a woman-centered and class conscious worldview, well, that's what peerless also means. Here's Mel in a short passage beginning to tell us how she comes to be, to write, yes, to “ponder,” that charming word she uses.
Girls who went to college like me, it was widely believed, were apt to become old maids and bookworms, a dire threat to any girl's chance of attracting a husband and thus having a worthwhile life. The feat turned out to be valid. After the experience, many women decided not to marry. Instead they pursued social reforms and careers, especially within the suffragist movement. But I was not at risk, as Wallace [her husband, Mr. Ross] and I were already married…
Sly, understated, sometimes self-hating or self-doubting, we see in the successes and
failures of the women athletes at the Olympics as told to us by Mel, the deeper and more self-reflective story of women's subordination and discrimination.
Mel enters, or is forced into, her portals of self-consideration, of thoughtful reflection, which she calls “slip aways.” They are for the reader a quietly assuring yet exhilarating place to be, as the novel itself really moves, from Mel's biography and marriage, to the lives of the young women Olympians, to the post-competition collateral consequences: “A heroine one day and a nobody the next. There were no college scholarships for women. There were no women coaches. There were no professional jobs. People were not ready for those things, and they still aren't.”
Except that they are, or should be, and eager by way of Patterson's latest. And, since I was lucky to host her in Studio C recently, for an upcoming Bibliocracy Radio broadcast, I might be one of only a few of her fans to already be looking forward to her next project, a novel about a subject which must have been catnip to her in particular: the notorious ur-OC gang rape case of Gregory Haidl, his dad, and its place in the exit of Haidl, Sr's boss, one corrupt and fascinating and so-convicted OC Sheriff Mike Carona. Gang rape strikes this reader as an irresistible extended metaphor for the behavior of the local political and law enforcement culture that made a hero out of these pathetic man-boys with guns and power and privilege, and their friends and allies who run our county. Don't forget it, Jake, It's Orange County! So looking forward to that book.
Finally, on another local writer who's made very, very good: Peggy Hesketh. She wrote the lovely, tender, difficult and smart Telling the Bees, reviewed here and also featured on The Bibliofella's weekly Wednesday night program on KPFK. If you have somehow missed her mini-tour on behalf of this book, you've got a chance – free admission – to hear Hesketh talk about the novel this Thursday night, November 7 as part of the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation's excellent “Library Live” series at the main library, 7:00 PM. For information visit the NBPLF website.
The Peerless Four, Victoria Patterson, Counterpoint, 212 pgs., $23.00
Fearful Symmetry, Greg Bills, Plume, 336 pgs., out of print but available used.
Telling the Bees, Peggy Hesketh, Putnum, 320 pgs. $26.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.