This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass. Not an ordinary story of men in battle but of those who did not go to war. The cowards and shirkers; who let an error keep them from their duty, those who saw it and hid, those who stood up and refused it; even those too young to know that one day they would rise and flee their own country, like my son would, when his time came to go to war. ” (Part IV, p.156)
In 1943, Pearlie and Holland are best friends who walk home from school and read to each other in Kentucky. On the eves of war, Pearlie helps Holland’s mother protect her son from the draft. When a medical emergency interferes with the plan, Holland ends up serving in the army, but is severely burned after his ship is sunk. Pearlie is recruited to work in a California factory where she will spy on her coworkers. Shortly after the war, Pearlie and Holland reunite in San Francisco. Against his aunts’ advisory, and despite the fact that she knows nothing about him, Pearlie marries him because he is the only boy who ever holds her hand and—he is too beautiful a man to lose.
What is it like for men? Even now I can’t tell you. To have to hold up the world and never show the stain. To protect at every moment: pretend to be strong, and wise, and good, and faithful. But nobody is strong or wise or good or faithful, not really. It turns out everyone is faking it as best they can. (Part IV, p.175)
So Paerlie finds herself married, being a dutiful wife who takes care of her frail husband, who is stricken by post traumatic stress disorder. In deference to his supposed fragility, she pampers him to the extent that she would cut out newspaper that might remind him of war. She is also devoted to her son who is afflicted with polio. Although they are the only black family in the Sunset district, where new houses are put up for returning soldiers and their families, she feels at home in this neighborhood that is separated from downtown by a mountain and a tunnel. But all seems relatively well until, in 1953, an elegantly dressed white man, with a broken nose and missing finger, rings at the door; he introduces himself as Buzz Drumer and, before long, tells her that he and Holland met in an army hospital and fell in love. Buzz has come to get his former lover back. A rich man, he offers to recompense Pearl if she conspires with him in his lovelorn plan to carry Holland off. She hates the idea, but she feels helpless. “It seems what binds one human to another is pain.,” (71) and “I did not know how to fight a white man; I was born without that muscle.” (73)
If, like the rest of us stepping toward the edge of thirty, he would figure out at last his heart’s desire . . . He was so used to being all things, pleasing all people. (Part II, p.108)
As Buzz insinuates into the family’s carefully managed existence, the novel takes on an increasing sense of foreboding. It settles in as a murky triangle and takes up the ambiguities of intimacy and bisexuality. Between divided loyalties and dangerous affections, a woman, one who always feels like she needs an extra armor to protect herself, perseveres in her duty as a wife and a mother. Heightened the predicament are complication of races and all the contemporary goings-on: Second World War, Korea, rationing, McCarthyism, homophobia, racial discrimination, war objectors—with which Greer sketches the background of the story. The Story of a Marriage is told in Pearl’s first-person narrative, in a voice with tense reserve and keen awareness. In her reflections, seasoned sentences often pass through her mind. Greer’s writing is simple and affecting, but his plotting doesn’t always live up to Pearl’s commentary, whose interests in silences, misunderstandings and people’s many-sideness, and indecisiveness, acquire a historical dimension.
195 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/
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Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature Tagged: | African American Literature, American Literature, Books, GLBT Literature, Literature, The Story of a MarriageAndrew Sean Greer