Lynn Caraganis' "Cousin It" is set in the 1950s.
It is not about the '50s. It impersonates them.
Told in the first person by 17-year-old Vickie, its language, sentiments and preoccupations are those of a teen magazine of the time. One section, in fact, is an imaginary exchange of correspondence with "Seventeen."
Sentimental and cliche-ridden, Vickie's account is laced with mottoes and self-adjurations about how a 1950s teen-ager should feel, dress and behave, and what her notions of love and sex ought to be. Vickie does not believe in going all the way--though she did once--or more than a step or two along the way. Her ambitions are a wedding, a pretty home and a starting job in a department store, though everyone tells her to go to secretarial school.
Her voice is that of a waif struggling to measure up and usually managing. Only once or twice do we hear a subterranean shriek under the chirruping--and it is so faint that maybe we imagine it.
An orphan, Vickie was brought up by dour Mormon Cousin Ruth and Ruth's husband, Cousin Debs. Ruth lives in a world of old-fashioned piety, hard work and self-denial. A Seventeen magazine-style teen-ager, however innocent she seems from our vantage point in the 1990s, is more than Ruth can stand.
After a quarrel over Liberace--part of the author's irony is that to Ruth he stands for wholesomeness--it is decided that Vickie must move out. Another cousin, Itzek or It, who is rich, lends her his empty redwood-veneer suburban house, complete with food and housekeeper, while she gets on her feet.
It is a seeming paradise. Vickie describes it:
"The floor was a shiny light gray linoleum tile with a modern black and white splash design. There was a small settee with royal blue cushions, cunning round red throw pillows on it and floor-to-ceiling fiberglass drapes in a lovely pattern of black trees on a white background. On the floor beside the door stood a huge vase of blood-red glass, shaped exactly like a beaker!"
And she describes her feelings:
"I almost felt a pang in my heart when I thought of how Cousin Ruth and Cousin Debs would love this. I knew they'd never been in the house and I hoped that eventually we could all be on a visiting basis, or my life would be lonely in spite of everything."
That gives some idea of the book's tone, not so much campy as flat, allusive and detached. The same tone takes us through an uneventful summer teen-age romance. The effect is that of a Roy Lichtenstein comic-book panel, bright-colored dots and all. It is a willed naivete with an elusive monstrosity underneath.
Vickie fixes herself baloney sandwiches and drinks Cokes. She plays with a white kitten. She makes friends with her neighbor, Sylvia, a sculptor whose tolerant complexity places her as a time-traveler out of the 1970s whom Vickie, with her '50s vision, can only half see. She acquires a shy neighborhood boyfriend, Eric, who eventually kisses her.
Under these bland encounters, other figures move in and out; apparently bland but with a smell of brutal disruption.
There is Cousin It, who has political ambitions and who invades the picture-book house to use it for a neighborhood rally. There is Esther, a family friend who acts as a harsh and unduly powerful fairy godmother. There is Esther's son, Eugene, who assaults her.
It is as if the real lives of the editors and publishers of a teen-age magazine, with their circulation and advertising battles, deals, lay-offs and takeovers, had invaded the magazine's own pastel contents.
"Cousin It" succeeds only sometimes in fusing its deliberately bland surface with the dark things underneath. Vickie can be comical and touching, but her flatness flattens us for a good part of the book.
Still, there are some sharp moments. The best is Vickie's imaginary appearance in the Letters column of "Seventeen." She reads a series of exchanges between Lena, struggling with insecurity and a weight problem, and Mrs. Budd, the health and beauty editor. Lena gets good advice, puts it to use and eventually wins a full university scholarship plus a visit to New York for a personal style make-over.
Vickie tries to break in, timidly at first. She sends news of her own health diet of baloney and Coke, and the fact that she wears pixie bangs and that her boyfriend is going to kiss her.
This makes no impression, so she goes for broke. "Dear Mrs. Budd," she writes, "I have just received word that I am going to be the first astronaut! I am! My secretarial school will be paying my way. What is a good astronaut hairdo?"
It is as if Snoopy appeared at our front door, starved, kicked and looking for a home.
Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "Random Stories" by James Laughlin (Moyer Bell).