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Book Review : ‘50s-Oriented Novel Gives Motherhood a Bad Name

False Starts by Terri McFerrin Smith (Knopf: $17.95; 171 pages)

If anyone doubted it after sitting through this political season’s bipartisan, televised orgy of baby-kissing, the ‘50s are with us again. Down with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; up with Motherhood and Highway Safety. It gets a little scary sometimes--it gets a little ominous, as when Mara, the young lady protagonist in this novel, still living at home at this point in time, mad as hell and not about to take it anymore, has this chat with her father about her own lovers: “Well, I’ve found out the hard way. You shouldn’t hop into bed with someone who isn’t willing to commit himself.”

When her dad, still hopelessly plugged in to the passe pleasure principle, protests that sex is “fun,” Mara takes this position: “I just stopped using birth control. I tell them that . . . it’s amazing how often they change their minds. They put on their clothes and go home. Not using birth control is the best contraceptive . . . I’m simply asking my lovers to be as fearlessly human as they can be. For love to be all it can be.”

Ooo-eee! Look out ! Beautiful Mara is riding for a fall. And to any reader with an IQ over 100, it can’t help but seem strange that a girl so dead set on having a kid ends up trailing along after some wretched piece of Montana gutter scum named Mac, the kind who gives white trash a bad name. Mac and his buddies, Rick and Lane, hang out in the Hideaway Club, playing pinball and talking about going North to the Alaska Pipe Line. (At least Lane is gainfully employed, a taxidermist who lets maggots chomp on flesh from dead animals so that he can stuff them for later money.)

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A Lump-Fish Interlude

The point is, why does Mara look for a “fearlessly human” lover among the unpleasant failures in the Hideaway Bar? Hasn’t she ever heard of community college? Doesn’t she know any nice doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen? No. The subtext here, far more depressing than the text, is that the only way a woman of sensibility and intelligence can live life to the fullest, is to find an illiterate, unethical slob who won’t even give her a ride to the Planned Parenthood Counselors, since naturally Mara gets pregnant (a second time) by this lump-fish Mac, and the reader can’t help but feel: If you don’t use birth control with a person like Mac, you deserve everything you get.

This whole book is a little extreme. It’s based on a reality that certainly exists in the author’s head, but is hard to back up with facts in the “real,” external world. In an ill-fated visit to a churlish gynecologist, when he asks her whether she uses birth control, Mara simply shakes her head, “not bothering to explain her problems with Pills and IUDs--how the pills had made her bleed 30 days out of the month, or how her body had rejected two IUDs.” Tell it to the Marines, Mara! Your mother never told you about diaphragms, or spermicidal stuff that comes in tubes? Or about the simple art of abstinence?

The Kindness of Strangers

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No, because this is a nice story about female martyrdom that could have been written in the days of President Eisenhower. Mara has the baby, somehow gets into graduate school (we never knew she was an undergraduate), is advised not to keep a car so that she can walk long miles with her baby, almost freezing in the snow. Mara relies on the kindness of strangers, and writes her mother primly, “A girlfriend called, wanting me to march in a pro-choice rally tonight. Can’t go, I have a week’s worth of dishes to do.” Finally, Mara meets a man, known for a long time in this text simply as “the baby sitter,” and the story ends with the baby holding onto the man and to Mara and pretty soon there’s going to be a family there.

Well, that’s fine, as long as I don’t have to live in it. I found Mara infuriating as a heroine, living her life by false dilemmas (the Kansas City scenes, where a poor gay guy is set up as the only alternative to the brutish Mac; the IUD versus sure-and-certain pregnancy--all this stuff is purely wacko). I can’t believe this book was published. But then I can’t believe those politicians kissing babies again on television either.


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