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Book Review : Creating the Family Elements of Style

Rain or Shine by Cyra McFadden (Knopf: $16.95)

I was in a room with Cyra McFadden once, but I don’t remember speaking to her, because I was too scared. She was lean, beautiful, educated, articulate, expensive, sophisticated--I suppose, above all, she seemed East Coast. Part of the amazing, enlightening delight of reading “Rain or Shine” is the discovery that “Cyra McFadden,” like almost all Americans, is invented, an exquisite invention as beautiful as this book.

There must be a place in the mind where great pain and great craft intersect. Then--if everyone gets lucky--pure art emerges. “Rain or Shine,” McFadden’s reminiscence of her family life, is as thrilling and resonant as “The Great Gatsby.” If it were a novel, it would be a great one. This is a supremely tense, thin, strong, little book--a latchkey to understanding a whole roomful of things in contemporary American history: The Great Depression, “show business,” the West, the right wing, the left wing, cars, motels, life-on-the-road and life-in-houses, and the difference between these lives. Above all, this is a story about how America builds families, destroys them, builds them again.

Memoir of Early Life

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Cyra McFadden, it turns out, is the daughter of the late Cy Taillon, “Dean of the Rodeo Announcers and a living Western legend.” “ ‘Rain or Shine’ is a memoir,” McFadden writes, “of my father’s life on the rodeo circuit, his marriage to my mother and my effort to understand the ways in which I am their daughter, who left the West and the world of rodeo behind, full of fear and loathing, to find that Cy Taillon’s imprint was indelible.” But again, beyond any characters who appear here, the larger questions of abstraction, invention, “style” (which must, after all, be the poor man’s art--his only means of turning leaden daily life into shining gold), are raised here, and raised again.

When Cyra was a kid, her dad was a handsome cowboy and her mother a wasp-waisted hoofer, a bitingly beautiful, self-styled chanteuse and soubrette, who loved to do the splits up the side of a wall. All through the ‘30s, Pat and Cy swooped through the West from rodeo to rodeo in a midnight-blue Packard that was “our announcement to the world, and ourselves, that we Taillons were winners. It had style, that ephemeral thing Pat and Cy valued above all else.” But earlier in the narrative, just whirling her lasso, so to speak, Cyra has tossed off sentences like this, about Paragould, Ark., from whence her mother had fled as an adolescent: “Paragould is poultry-raising country. Cold in the winter, it swelters in the summertime. A few years ago, a Deep South heat wave killed off the chickens by the thousands. An Arkansas cousin wrote that they were ‘Keeling right over, already roasted . . . .’ ” Style! “Style to burn” should be the subtitle of this book.

After Paradise

Pat and Cy Taillon batted around the West from motel to motel in what Baby Cyra saw or perceived as an Eden. But drink and violence separated her beautiful, irrational parents. Both quickly remarried--to quintessential step-parents. Pat, the soubrette, married Roy, Cy’s former best friend, who by the time he was 30 was already balding, dim, dull, and a health food nut. In the artistically perfect manner of second husbands and artificial fathers everywhere, he tried to lay claim to a paradise he could never possess, dressing his pretty wife in hideous house dresses, locking her indoors, reading her mail, tacking his last name on young Cyra as a stamp of ownership. Cyra retaliated by giving him a pair of military hairbrushes for his dull bald head; her mother retreated into a series of nervous breakdowns and lost her sparkle, her beauty, forever.

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What of that meanly handsome cowboy with the perfect cheekbones who disappeared in his midnight-blue Packard from Cyra’s life? He wrote her letters, for a while, and went through hard times. Then the war came and he joined up. He met Dorothy, an auburn-haired nurse. They fell in love and got married--but not until she made Cy get down on his knees and swear to give up booze and other women. Dorothy had a baby and Cyra went for what turned out to be a very long visit: Pat had had another nervous breakdown and Cyra, “through no fault of mine or anybody else’s became a burden on Cy and Dorothy’s marriage that both of them deeply resented.”

The New Families

So the two new families slither about, in an uncomfortable infinity symbol. Roy calls Cy “a bum.” Dorothy buys Cyra a mustard green sweater that makes her look like a corpse. Cyra realizes her dad is short! Pat’s older sister, Ila Mae, writes repeated warnings to her little sister that her body is a temple. Dorothy has another baby--so Cyra has two little brothers she’s yearningly crazy about. (But with her new education and sophistication, she sneers at her gaudy dad with his high-heeled boots and pearl-trimmed gewgaws.) And Terry and Tommy, those two fresh-faced boys, break their bodies in rodeos and in Vietnam. Pat becomes a dowdy old woman. Cyra marries once, and again, and within the same year her second husband and her father die, leaving her to search out those half-brothers, and reconstruct a family history.

I first read this in galleys, without the photographs, but they are a separate revelation. To see them is to see “life as art,” to see how we choose our lives, our roles, our styles. From the picture of Cyra, defiant and desperately unhappy, child of divorce, locked between her dimming mom and dull new dad, to Cyra, widowed, but dazzlingly beautiful between her two darling rodeo brothers--you get an incredibly American message: Style rules! (And, in fine print, if you have to live in an unhappy family, be sure you’re the one who turns out to be the writer.)

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