Clemons by Hilary Masters (Godine: $15.95)
Clearly, Hilary Masters has got inside his protagonist, the facile, fuzzy A. W. Clemons, a one-time entertainment flack and later a successful real estate developer. He is so far inside him, in fact, that we don’t so much see into him as out of him. Clemons has achieved both a certain success and a certain panache, but he has lost his own thread. He has handled many things but has gripped none. To grasp life, it is not enough to have a sense of life; you need a sense of your hand, as well.
When Clemons was young, somewhere in the ‘50s, his wit and fluency earned him a fair success as a public relations man in the New York art world. His real success, though, grew out of his habit of keeping part of himself aloof from whatever and whomever he was engaged with. To get away from New York, he would take weekend trips upstate, buying bits of property in an area he had once visited.
This semiserious accumulation paid off. Clemons wheeled and dealt himself into buying up an entire village, renting part of it back to the locals and developing the rest in the strictest good taste as summer homes or bolt-holes for frazzled New Yorkers.
It is a success, and also an unreality. Clemons’ endeavors flourish but don’t take root. Irondale, his restored village, is a frail and artificial place. The local population views Clemons with a blank, appraising eye, and conducts a retreating guerrilla warfare with him from its seats on the village planning board.
The old general store, which once carried hams, cheese, coffee beans, spices, rope, nails--which bore, in short, the material life of a real community--now deals in soda, beer, cold cuts and lighter fluid. When Clemons wants to buy aspirin for his visiting mother, there are only a few small tins; and he buys fewer than he needs, “thinking that his one purchase could wipe out the entire aspirin supply of Irondale and no telling when it would be replenished if at all.”
Irondale is both background and symbol for Masters’ tale of a struggling but partly invisible man of our time. The tale revolves around the relations of this insubstantial Job with his estranged wife, Olive, his flower-child daughters--one is called Daisy, the other is more of a thorn bush--a most substantial mistress, Claire; and a former mistress, Jenny, now dead.
The story begins when Clemons’ comfortable life in Irondale, enlivened by periodic visits to Claire in New York, is disrupted by a call from Daisy. Milly, her thorny sister, is to marry the leader of a rock band called the Stanley Livingston. The wedding is to take place at Clemons’ house, and he is to get Olive up to organize things.
Through the following weeks, Clemons’ agreeably separated partitions are holed. He goes to see Olive, a former Southern belle who works as an aide to her politician brother. The portrait of Olive, sensual, indolent and kind and with a gritty substratum, is one of the better things in the book.
Even better is Jenny. She appears only as a recollection while Clemons is chugging around, alternating his dealings with Olive with a visit to Claire. Jenny was a fairly successful show and nightclub singer, a free-spirited gamin whose struggle over the years to achieve something just short of a breakthrough is, in memory, a pungent reproach to Clemons.
Clemons gets more than he can handle. Olive arrives in Irondale; so does his cool and ferocious mother; so does the affectionate and disorganized Claire. And so, finally, do Daisy, Milly and a whole troupe of rock singers and groupies. Clemons falls off his own roof. Sore and semi-immobilized, he is a spectator at the wedding.
The ending is ironic, though not heavily so. Masters’ book has its unevennesses. Some of the minor characters are cartoon-like. Clemons swims in and out of focus; a willed effect, conveying the disquiet of the times. The writing is lean and controlled and works to give force to the book’s better moments, particularly its splendid depiction of Jenny as a small spark of valor in a world of evasions.