Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sue me. I love Peyton Place.

Our friend Leila often spends holidays with us and brings interesting videos when she comes. On Christmas day this year, after the Big Dinner with my folks, we came back and watched an episode of David Halberstam's documentary series, The 'Fifties.

Specifically, we watched the episode about Grace Metalious and her phenomenal bestseller, Peyton Place.

I'd never before felt any interest in Metalious or her book, but her personal story grabbed me. Her complete lack of emotional or educational background for writing, and her determination to do it anyway, drew me in. And then, she didn't just do what her soul longed to do, she did it successfully, at least in terms of sales and celebrity. And never had more than a moment's happiness from it.

Possibly because of the endless TV series, which seemed to be on nearly every night when I was a kid and bored me then, I'd also never had any desire to read the novel. My assumption was that it was both trashy and tame, an artifact of its time that may have been an "adult book" in 1956, but had neither the wickedness nor the literary merit to make it interesting reading now.

I was wrong.

Not entirely. The book is amazing and often awful. It's a crazy-quilt of the lurid, the overly campy, and the insightful. Some of the vignettes in it delighted me, and the best of those are the smallest, not big plot points.

In an early one, two friends, twelve-year-old girls, spend an afternoon together. That's it. Allison is from an (outwardly, but with secrets) proper home. Selena is from an abusive home in a tarpaper shack on the wrong side of the tracks. Their friendship depends on their shared dream of a someday in which each can control her own destiny. But on this occasion, Allison wants to share with Selena a previously hidden aspect of her inner life. She wants them to take, not the usual walk downtown where they buy Silver Screen magazine and dream of pretty dresses in store windows, but one to the wooded glen where Allison goes to daydream about a bohemian literary future. Allison and Selena both feel like outsiders. The glen, outside of and above the town, is Allison's symbol of how outsider status can be superiority, a breaking away. Selena wants to achieve insider status, and can't relate at all to this place or its meaning for Allison.

The afternoon is a disaster. They wander back downtown. In a little chapter in which the pacing is crucial to the depiction of these two mending their friendship by reentering the part of their lives that they can meet in, Metalious nails it. Through ordinary window shopping and ice cream, they gradually find common ground again and part as friends, but as friends who have grown up a small notch by confronting their separateness.

This isn't the only passage in the novel that Metalious handles with intelligence and delicacy. Sometimes she takes you through a character's thought processes, as he or she wrestles with a big inner conflict. The town doctor, a good man, has to help the completely innocent Selena, who has been raped by her stepfather, and faces the ugliness of both of his choices. The nurse he enlists to help him has a little chapter of her own, the only few pages she gets in the book, but the whole interplay of her religious faith, her professionalism, her admiration for the doctor, her astute perception of his conflict, her knowledge that she's made a decision herself and can't pin it on anyone else -- all this makes her real.

This isn't a book review, in the sense of my trying to be Fair and Balanced. I'm neglecting the novel's flaws. It's intentional, because they are well-known, its reputation bad and its merits neglected.

So. I love Metalious's affection for her main character, Allison, yet her willingness to make gentle fun of Allison's earnestness, immaturity and melodrama.

I love the dialog between Allison and the repressed, pale, poetic boy she likes, on a picnic, where their conversation is about beliefs, plans, picnic garbage, sex information from a secretly-purchased mail-order book, all braided together with skilful naturalness.

The violent and awful passages can range from so-so to ghastly, but Metalious did know how to weave such passages over and then under again, with a quiet aftermath. Selena has worked hard to make their poor little shack into a home, and places a fresh log on the fire one winter night -- then gets attacked by, and kills, her stepfather. As she comes out of that trauma-induced altered state, she notices that "the fire made a crisp, crackling, friendly sound as the log she had placed across the andirons began to burn," and that this was all the time that had passed.

There aren't a whole lot of such nifty little passages. She was no Harper Lee, and the weird and grotesque in this little town don't come off with anything like the insight or compassion that a better novelist could have brought to it.

The deck was stacked against Grace Metalious from an early age and still she fought to become a real writer, and had the brains to do it. She set out to be sensational, and succeeded, but she also set out to write well, and did in places. She understood both description and dialog, and how to flesh out character and event using both. I read this thing and it nearly breaks my heart, the "if onlys" of her life and her achievement. With the support and direction that guide and train a writer, she could have been absolutely fantastic, and it shows in her awful-yet-wonderful, rather amazing novel.

So maybe I don't love Peyton Place so much as I love its author for her determination to be who she wanted to be against all odds, and for her even succeeding at it, not in fame but in the novel's Yes! moments.

OK, maybe I really do love Peyton Place.


southernyankee said...

Makes me want to read the book, humm

ronnie said...

Ditto! Although I'm backed up on good books now (a happy place to be) I'm adding this one to the queue.