To have and have more
It isn’t often that we can pinpoint a specific sentence in which a promising novel goes wrong, but James Howard Kunstler’s “Maggie Darling” affords us just such an opportunity about halfway through the book. He is giving us dystopian social commentary as background to his main story, about how the title character, a cooking, gardening and home-decorating maven who resembles Martha Stewart, tries to find new love and uphold her faith in the old, cozy virtues after she has caught her husband in flagrante with a much younger woman and thrown the bum out. Among the unwholesome news items that batter the vulnerable Maggie like drops of cold, hard rain is one about a German “ultraconglomerate” that “had acquired Argentina in a default action a few months earlier.”
Acquired Argentina? Not bloody likely for a country willing to fight for its sovereignty over mere specks, the Falklands. Kunstler can be a deft and amusing satirist; moreover, he has a second career, in such nonfiction books as “The Geography of Nowhere,” as an urban critic. He has argued with some justification that the dismal architecture of America’s car-distorted cities has contributed to people’s bad behavior, the kind of behavior he catalogs throughout “Maggie Darling,” from drug abuse to freeway sniping to robberies of posh restaurants by a rap group that claims it has to “represent” the thug underclass, though it doesn’t need the money. Until that sentence, Kunstler exaggerates for effect but clings to a certain plausibility. With it, he crosses the line into rant. The gleaming teeth of his machinery no longer engage the real world.
Kunstler doesn’t satirize Maggie, except in the lightest and most affectionate way. We expect him to -- she seems such a fat target -- but for that very reason it’s refreshing that he holds his fire. Despite her pretensions, her control-freakery, the impossibly burnished image she creates in her books and TV shows and maintains with the off-camera help of a staff of caterers and gardeners, Maggie is a genuine person. She works hard and cares deeply. “It depressed her to hear how inadequate others felt. It made her feel like a freak, as though paying attention to details and having standards were pathological symptoms.” She deserves all the good things she shares with others. What she doesn’t deserve is her stockbroker husband, Kenneth, who compounds his infidelity with the even less forgivable sin of incompetence, losing all his millions.
So Maggie must make do with her own, lesser millions. Though over 45, she is still attractive, and she can cook like a dream. Finding a new man would seem to be no problem. In short order, she falls into bed with British rock star Frederick Swann, who whisks her off to a movie set in Venice; with Reggie Chang, her photographer, who has adored her for years; and with her elderly but dashing book editor, Harold Hamish, who takes her fly-fishing in Vermont. All these adventures are accompanied by lovely surroundings and mouth-watering food. But Maggie is too old, she realizes, to be a jet-setting groupie. She can’t return Reggie’s love. Harold, for all his charm, is a scoundrel.
Besides, as Maggie keeps noticing, “the country is going to hell” and the rot spreads ever closer to her well-regulated life. Her son, Hooper, gets involved with the rap group, Chill Az Def. Hooper’s girlfriend doesn’t even know how to set a table. Maggie’s best friend, visiting from Los Angeles, starts stealing from her. The novel moves from the heights (a Christmas party for 200 guests at Maggie’s Long Island mansion) to the depths (a crack house in a Hartford, Conn., neighborhood where Mark Twain once lived but where today’s police are afraid to leave their fortified station). The soundtrack degenerates from “Dowling’s stately sixteenth-century galliards” to hip-hop and gunfire.
But why is the country going to hell? A satirist would tell us, but a ranter can dispense with diagnosis. Kunstler’s view seems to be that civilization is declining because Americans simply don’t care anymore. They choose to be miserable and depraved rather than choosing to be Maggie Darling. The idea that the rich, by waging successful class warfare against the poor and the middle class, might bear some of the blame never occurs to Kunstler. Indeed, the cavalry that rides to Maggie’s rescue is a privatized SWAT team hired by a self-made multibillionaire friend who lived on “celery sticks and rice crackers” before she introduced him to gourmet meals. His credo: “A new day is at hand. We won’t all get there, but some of us will. Those of us who would be saved have to save ourselves.” For the rest, tough luck.